I Am (Not) A Number: Decoding The Prisoner by Alex Cox

I Am (Not) A Number: Decoding The Prisoner by Alex Cox

The timeless, seminal and iconic television series The Prisoner is ‘pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed and numbered’ by Alex Cox in this fascinating examination of the intensely discussed cult classic. Cox originally watched all the episodes of The Prisoner on their first broadcast at the ripe old age of thirteen. In I Am (Not) a Number, he aims to provide answers to many of the questions which have engrossed and confounded viewers over the last 50 years, including:

– Who is Number 6?

– Who runs The Village?

– Who – or what – is Number 1?

According to Cox, the key to understanding The Prisoner is to view the series in the order in which the episodes were made — and not in the re-arranged sequence of the UK or US television broadcasts. In this book he provides an innovative ‘explanation’ for what is perhaps the best, most original, and certainly the most perplexing TV series of all time. Whether you agree with Cox’s assertions or not, his analysis makes for fascinating reading.

The premise for The Prisoner is fiendishly simple: After resigning from his job, our protagonist is rendered unconscious and kidnapped from his London pad to awaken in the Village (filmed at the delightful location of Portmeirion in Wales). All of the denizens have numbers instead of names and he is designated No.6. The de facto head of the Village No.2, whose identity changes at the apparent whim of higher authorities, has a mission to discover why No.6 resigned. However No.6 makes it his mission to escape and his determination to remain human and individual in this bizarre environment is at odds with his captors’ aim to continue his incarceration and interrogation. What is to be his fate and is there a chance to learn who the mysterious No. 1 might be?

Cox approaches his exploration of this enigmatic series from many angles which all provide food (in penny farthing logo tins, of course) for thought on a number of levels. There is a detailed analysis of the individual episodes in the context of the scripts, their production and broadcast, which discusses what we learn from each, while also taking into account a commentary that encompasses many issues from the time, questioning the “opposition”, the “cold war”, as well as politics, gender, roles in society and even democracy.

This analysis is preceded by an essay which provides an overview of the series. It is a useful introduction combined with an interpretation of the whole both visually and narratively. This is also enhanced by reflections on the era in which The Prisoner was made as well as its social and political contexts which take in a broad range of issues from the Cold War and McCarthyism to recreational drugs, government instigated drugs, democratic issues, voting rights, propaganda, interference, restricted broadcasting and (shockingly prescient) false media. All in a screen context where the characters who reside in the Village are not aware of contemporary life outside its confines. Cox’s research is exemplary, using the screenplays to identify differences to the broadcast episodes as well as indicating which ones were actually written by its creator and star Patrick McGoohan using a pseudonym. In many ways the integrity of this book lies with Cox’s premise that analysis of The Prisoner is approached from the perspective of the order in which the episodes were made. The only exception lies with the sixth recorded episode, Once Upon a Time, which is deemed, correctly, to not fall into the broader context for a number of reasons. It does make more sense in terms of continuity if watched before the glorious finale Fall Out but also in the wider way in which it is more definitive of Patrick McGoohan’s interpretation of meaning and purpose for both the character and the series; not just in his role as the lead protagonist but also as the executive producer and writer. Many episodes he wrote were attributed to a pseudonym but the last two are credited to him as writer/director and therefore deemed essential to the analysis. To many, of course, the final two episodes (if viewed in that perspective) are the very definition of the series’ oddness and ambiguity. The argument that Cox gives places this in the wider analytical context and is vital for those revisiting the series, understanding its shockingly relevant contemporary issues and  subtexts, many of which seem perfectly relevant over a half a century after its first showing.

The Prisoner remains as profound an experience now as when it was made and broadcast 50 years ago. Cox’s exploration of the series is as relevant to contemporary media analysis as for those who saw it originally or during its cult re-emergence of the early 1990s. Cox’s enthusiasm for the subject is joyous and we strongly advise revisiting The Prisoner, which is available on both DVD and Blu-ray, and perhaps viewing it in the order Cox suggests, to get another perspective on a truly original and enigmatic TV series.