The Prisoner: An All-Star Appreciation

The reboot of Patrick McGoohan’s celebrated psy-fi series closed shop last night on AMC. But will it live on as long as its original copy? I pondered The Prisoner‘s lasting legacy for Wired.

Patrick McGoohan’s stunning spy-fi series The Prisoner only lasted 17 episodes before sadly disappearing in 1969. But its revolutionary mix of geopolitics, sci-fi and psychedelia has influenced not just television, but also music, comics, film and more.

It even made a deep impression on the most influential band of all time.

“Before Magical Mystery Tour, the Beatles were going to do another full movie like Help, and it was all going to be based on The Prisoner,” Dhani Harrison, son of Beatles guitarist George Harrison, told in October, before his own Prisoner-inspired band thenewno2 kicked off its inaugural North American tour. “They were going to be in a movie written and directed by Patrick McGoohan in the same vein as The Prisoner, because they thought it was one of the best series ever. They were so into his psychedelic weirdness.”

Unfortunately, the Beatles project ultimately fell through. But not before McGoohan inspired the Fab Four to do something that they never did again. “What came of it was the [Prisoner] episode ‘Fall Out’ featuring ‘All You Need Is Love,’” Harrison said. It was the only time a Beatles song was licensed to a TV show.

The aborted Beatles collaboration was just one strand of The Prisoner’s sonic reach. Shortly after it appeared, the classic series encouraged Roy Harper’s 18-minute epic “McGoohan’s Blues.” The show has also been mashed quite brilliantly with The Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years From Home,” which Mick Jagger reportedly wrote while in prison.

Meanwhile, the new six-episode The Prisoner miniseries, which airs Sunday through Tuesday on AMC, samples the Beach Boys’ 1966 single “I Know There’s an Answer” for its finale. That Pet Sounds song’s cryptic lyrics — “I know so many people who think they can do it alone; They isolate their heads and stay in their safety zones” — mind-meld perfectly with The Prisoner‘s analysis of power and paranoia.

McGoohan’s show has deeply influenced contemporary music as well. Artists as different as XTC, Luke Vibert, The Clash, Supergrass and more have borrowed its themes and iconography to make their musical cases. Legendary metal band Iron Maiden even obtained McGoohan’s permission to sample the show for its The Number of the Beast anthem “The Prisoner,” a healthy bit of fandom that was continued when it recorded the banger “Back in the Village” for Powerslave.

The ’60s TV series made an impression on other metalheads as well.

“I loved The Prisoner when I was a kid,” said Corey Taylor, vocalist for shock-rock group Slipknot, whose members, like the human experiments trapped in McGoohan’s spy-fi series, are known not by their names but their numbers. “Patrick McGoohan was a badass. He was like Richard Burton without the messy delivery.”

The late, great McGoohan, who died in January, possessed a singular delivery, shot through with impassioned enunciation that puts most of today’s actors to shame. His character, Number Six, offered many opportunities for McGoohan to show it off; in fact, each episode began with his legendary battle cry shouted at the top of his powerful lungs: “I am not a number, I am a free man!”

The new Number Six, Jim Caviezel, is a much more understated thespian in AMC’s Prisoner reboot. And while he initially learned of McGoohan’s gravitational pull from another all-star fan, Mel Gibson, Caviezel’s Prisoner co-star Sir Ian McKellen is well-versed in the series’ multitalented creator.

“He was a charismatic actor,” McKellen told me. “With Patrick, it was all on his face.”

McGoohan was also a determined idealist, who abhorred the creep of mass-marketing and surveillance technology so resolutely dissected in The Prisoner. His popular spy series Danger Man found him early success, yet he would turn down the plum role of James Bond after Ian Fleming’s franchise caught fire in the early ’60s. McGoohan disliked Bond’s misogyny, and openly mocked the theatrics and violence of popular espionage, preferring instead to survive by his wits and creativity during Danger Man‘s run, which in the mid-’60s made him one of Britain’s highest-paid actors.

Rather than wear out his secret agent welcome, McGoohan went metafictional, resigning from the show to go on holiday, in the form of a show about a secret agent who resigns to go on holiday, but is instead imprisoned in a panopticon disguised as a resort. That narrative innovation helped set the standard for the hyper-real television of today, and set about influencing the next generation of filmmakers, writers and thinkers.

“McGoohan was one of the great heroes of my childhood and adolescence, as well as a continuing influence, via The Prisoner, on all of my thinking,” brainiac comics writer Grant Morrison told in March. “The Prisoner was probably the first example I ever encountered of the ergodic storytelling method I’ve aspired to perfect ever since.”

Ergodic storytelling’s narrative and visual hypertexting, which has revolutionized new media, is what helped The Prisoner stand out from the sci-fi of its time, which included Star Trek. It commanded a devotion to study the show not as passive entertainment, but as nontrivial programming to be decoded.

From its subversive mind-wiping to the knotted allegory of “Fall Out,” where Number One is perhaps unmasked as yet another cerebral phantom, The Prisoner presaged recent sci-fi standouts as different as The Matrix and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Those films arguably would not be the same without The Prisoner‘s influence. According to AMC’s timeline of the show’s pop-culture impact, neither would David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks, J.J. Abrams’ Alias and Lost, the remake of Battlestar Galactica and many more. The same goes for comics: All-stars like Alan Moore, Jack Kirby and others have joined Morrison in inserting The Prisoner‘s spirit into their respective works like Watchmen, The Fantastic Four and The Invisibles.

Yet for all its brains, McGoohan’s Prisoner also had plenty of humor, which is amazing considering the social and political tumult of its time — the height of the confused, conflicted Cold War.

“What I liked about the original was its style,” McKellen said. “It was witty, it had its tongue in its cheek. There was a lot of black comedy in it. And that curious location” — Portmeirion, Wales — “fitted with the oddity of the stories.”

The 2009 remake, rebooted during a more self-referential age, has no comparative style or humor to speak of. Which perhaps says more about our self-importance than it does about our true terrors. Given the technological and sociopolitical strides of the four decades since McGoohan’s series ended, you’d think we’d be in a much better mood. But you’d be wrong, and McGoohan knew it before most: After pointing the guilty finger back at his viewers in the controversial finale “Fall Out,” he was summarily hounded out of England and became a relative hermit in California, venturing out only sporadically to appear on television and in film (including David Cronenberg’s brilliant Scanners). McGoohan raged against the machine the entire way.

This insurmountable rebellion against commodification is what helped both McGoohan and his visionary series make cultural history. And while rebellion and dissent has been since commodified itself, the actor’s impassioned protestations still find sympathetic creative minds.

“I only knew him from the TV screen, where Number Six can never die,” Morrison said. “His influence lives on as long as light spreads.”

This article appeared at WIRED

Must-See Cult TV, From Danger Man To The Middleman

R.I.P. Patrick McGoohan, Television Visionary