Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Not a Number, But a Free Man

Patrick McGoohan has died, age 80, after a "short illness." He was receiving work offers right up to the end, not "out to pasture" at all. He was Danger Man, Dr Syn, Edward Longshanks, that judge in "Time to Kill" and the scientist from "Scanners."

He was also Number Six, from "The Prisoner" - the momentous, thought-provoking and controversial cult sci-fi/action TV show that he both produced, wrote for and starred in. When people talk about McGoohan in ages to come they will invariably remember that first, I think. And not without good reason.

While possibly a sideways extension of his role as John Drake in "Danger Man," the Prisoner was something entirely different from the spy shows we'd seen before. It was philosophy disguised as crazed 60's psychedelic science fiction, and a libertarian critique of socialism, all wrapped up with danger, action, thrills and a glaring central question: what does it MEAN to be free?

While the show may have made some strange detours over its run, we never strayed too far from that question. A calvacade of "Number Twos" all marched in, episode after episode, trying to make McGoohan's "Number Six" submit and behave, but they never succeeded in doing anything more than stymieing his attempts to leave, and ultimately just making him more determined to escape.

The end of the show is its most controversial aspect. Those who were expecting an easy answer to the question "who is number one" didn't get it, and even those who were aware that they'd be getting something different may have been put off by the surreal nature of what was seen. But the ending, while it can be criticized for its OTT strangeness, cannot be accused of art-wankery or insane pretension.

It can only be called "open to interpretation," which was, one expects, the ultimate goal. Fans of the show will be discussing what took place for ages to come, perhaps never fully agreeing on everything, but at least understanding that Number Six achieved his goal. He got out alive, and free.

(Or did he?)

It's kind of ironic that McGoohan has passed away, now that a remake of The Prisoner has just wrapped up filming, and will premiere this year. Will it be anywhere as thought-provoking, controversial or flat-out fun as the original?

Only time will tell. But I think, to succeed, the remake will have to take the old idea and make a new show out of it. Trying to totally replicate the original can only fail; we've already been in and out of The Village and learned its big secret - it's time for something new.

On that note, we bid farewell to Patrick McGoohan. He showed us all the need to be free, though not how to get there. That, much like "The Prisoner," is something we have to figure out on our own.

So farewell, dear sir, and thank you. Thank you for the inspiration and the frustration. Thank you for some of the best sci fi television ever (Which you can watch here). And thank you for the most deadly (and creepy) use of a weather balloon ever devised.

Be seeing you.


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