A TV show from 50 years ago, ‘The Prisoner,’ foresaw the America of today
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Over the past several years, there has been a “retro TV” renaissance going on here in Chicago. Or, considering the programs, perhaps it’s better to term it a regurgitation. And just when I think the trend will run its course, a new wave crests and sends it flotsam toward the shores of “Gilligan’s Island.”
Like all too many of us, I long ago watched those programs — from “MASH” to “All in the Family” — when they were first run, but I make it a point to avoid them now. Besides, the television show I want to resurface on mainstream television, hasn’t.
Fifty years ago, in the summer of 1968, “The Prisoner” appeared on American television, roughly six months after it aired in England. While I was only 10 that summer, I eagerly awaited the show, as I was a devotee of Patrick McGoohan from his role as John Drake in “Secret Agent.”
For those of you who missed it (due either to the Army, acid trips, “The Andy Griffith Show” or you were not yet born), here is the gist of “The Prisoner.” McGoohan plays an unnamed secret agent who suddenly resigns from the government (and which government was that?), and finds himself abducted and transported to a secret community called, simply, The Village.
With his prior identity gone, he is assigned a number, 6. Over the course of 17 episodes (or 16, as one was banned here in the States as being too anti-American), Number 6 tries to escape from The Village, but for all his attempts, he fails. Romantic devotees will claim that the final episode depicts his escape and return to a life as a free individual. I once believed this too, but it all hinges on the opening and closing of a particular door.
From episode to episode, we watch as Number 6 also tries to learn the purpose behind The Village, which government (or governments?) runs it, as well as the identity of the seemingly omnipresent yet unseen Number One. “The Prisoner” was not only prescient, but provocative and paranoid. And at times, quite funny.
As the hippies and other phonies back then would say, “The Prisoner” was a “mind blower,” and despite my young age, I understood exactly what was going on from episode to episode. (Yes … yes I did.) A decade later, WTTW broadcast “The Prisoner” on Saturday evenings, repeating the given episode late Sunday night. A real treat.
At the time, I was a grimy mill rat in a grimy steel mill on Chicago’s grimy far Southeast Side. I worked with a grimy buddy from high school, who was also a “head” when it came to “The Prisoner.” Amid the sparks, cinders, and hot steel, we would hail each other, in the manner of residents of The Village, by placing a circled right thumb and index finger to our right eyes, as if spying through a peephole, while saying: “Be seeing you.”
“The Prisoner” was nothing less than a foresightful template for our present-day world. In the world of The Village, there was no personal liberty and there was no privacy. Everyone was under constant surveillance and people’s identities had been reduced to numbers. And no one truly trusted anyone else.
All in all, “The Prisoner” posed significant questions about the relationship between the state and the individual, between individuals and a community, and between human beings and technology. As for the last, computers loom in each episode.
Coming back to the present, is our own global village any different, with security cameras at street corners, inside and outside of buildings, on police car dashboards and on officers themselves? And with the knowledge that our phone calls and email, our on-line postings and purchases, and our internet searches and movements, can be, and have been, monitored, need I say more?
From the perspective point of “The Prisoner,” it was all so … inevitable.
Finally, if Mr. Trump were to end an address to the nation with, “Be seeing you,” take it not as a parting wish, but indeed, as a statement of fact.
John Vukmirovich is a Chicago-area writer, researcher and book reviewer.
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