Ranked: 17 of 1
17: Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling
The Prisoner pulls the old body-swap plotline but fails to dust it off and spruce it up. Patrick McGoohan was away filming Ice Station Zebra, so instead Nigel Stock is recruited as a portly, bumbling and less than commanding Six. Stock’s lack of presence and dynamism isn’t the only problem here. The action fails to engage, with another return to London (following Many Happy Returns, it gives the impression that it isn’t all that hard for Six to leave the Village after all) and a weary back-projected jaunt to Switzerland. If you have no recollection of Clifford Evans’ Two, that’s in keeping with the lack of impression this makes generally. Positives? The code-breaking scene is good. And, er, that’s about it. Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling is like no other Prisoner episode in that it’s really rather boring.
Two: Imagine the power we could have if the spy we returned had the mind of our choosing. We could break the security of any nation.
16: Many Happy Returns
Is it a coincidence that the two episodes at the bottom of my list both take place outside the Village? Possibly not, but, since one of my top two does also, it’s clearly how you do it, not what you do. Six is let out for his birthday, a terribly sick joke, and, while it’s interesting to see him haring about London, the plot itself does very little of consequence. He meets a woman in his old house, which is numbered One. She offers to bake him a birthday cake, and then, when she reveals herself as Two at the conclusion, gives him said cake. The swine! He tells his old bosses about the Village, who send him off to locate it, and he only goes and gets deposited slap-bang back in the middle of the place. Also problematic is that the “Six escapes” plot, and sting in the tale, isn’t that far from the earlier The Chimes of Big Ben. That one, at least, has a fair portion of an intriguing episode before Six sails away, however.
Colonel: He’s an old friend. Who never gives up.
15: Living in Harmony
Six wakes up in the Old West, or Wales as it used to be known. This sounds like it should be far out, man, with wild ideas supporting its wild setting, but its actually a highly traditional tale, for the most part failing to pay off its better ideas (the scene where an awakened Six finds cardboard cut-outs of his featured dream cast is one such). Six as the sheriff reluctantly restoring order to the town is a bit too on-the-nose, really, but in its favour there’s a great supporting turn from Alexis Kanner as the psycho Kid, and Valerie French is also very good, one of McGoohan’s most memorable leading ladies.
The Judge: You’ve already taken a job? With who?
Six: With whom.
14: The Schizoid Man
Before the old body swap plotline came the old doppelganger one. McGoohan has fun inhabiting the dual roles of 12 and 6, but there’s never any mystery here (since we know what is going on from the start). Also, and I know this is The Prisoner we’re talking about, the scheme itself is incredibly daft. It’s hardly surprising Six gets wise to what is going on quite quickly. Anton Rodgers is only a so-so Two too (fortunately, the more middling Twos tend to show up in weaker episodes).
Two: You have a unique physical advantage.
Six: Physical advantage of GROWING A MOUSTACHE OVERNIGHT?
The one with the human chess match. Not nearly as offbeat as that suggests, Checkmate finds Six mounting a fairly standard escape attempt with some fellow inmates. The final twist is effective, and the guardian/prisoner test is astutely played. There are also strong performances. Peter Wyngarde has enormous presence as Two and some estimable balsa wood-chopping action, so it’s a shame he doesn’t really get to butt heads or lock wills with Six. Rosalie Crutchley is convincingly overwrought as the brainwashed obsessive White Queen. In the end, though, this one doesn’t quite come together.
Two: They’ll be back tomorrow, on the chessboard, as pawns.
12: The Chimes of Big Ben
Leo McKern’s first appearance as Two, appealingly full of bonhomie, buoys The Chimes of Big Ben considerably. To be relished is Six getting involved in Village life, entering the Arts and Crafts Competition – the other entries are devoted to the glorification of Two – and taking swipes at art criticism. The escape sequence is less engaging, however, although The Ipcress File-esque reveal is a good one – the clue is in the title – and Six is allowed a small victory in defeat.
Two: He can make the act of putting on a dressing gown appear as a gesture of defiance.
11: A Change of Mind
Six is labelled unmutual and undergoes a lobotomy. Except that he doesn’t really. It’s another mind-altering plot! The are many things to like about A Change of Mind; Thomas Heathcote’s believably genuine case of conversion, Six’s disruption of the Social Group, his Village-wide rejection, the switcheroo he pulls on 86 (and all the tea drinking generally). He even gets savaged with a brolly! On the minus side, Six again realises it’s all a ruse too quickly (shades of The Schizoid Man), and, while endings are often one of The Prisoner’s strong points, this turns on a fairly unconvincing speech as Six successfully deposes Two through an accusation of his unmutuality.
Forty-Two: You’re trying to undermine my rehabilitation. Disrupt my social progress!
Six: Strange talk for a poet!
10: It’s Your Funeral
Two Twos and an assassination plotline. It’s Your Funeral experienced a troubled production history, but the result is a mostly engrossing episode with fine performances from Derren Nesbitt (magnificent prop acting!) and Andre Van Gygseghem (resigned to his lot) as the incoming and outgoing Twos respectively. True, the watchmaker element is on the twee side, the Activity Prognosis scene is baffling filler, and the motive for topping the former Two is murky to say the least. Fortunately, this all leads to a highly satisfying climax in which Nesbitt gives a marvellously twitchy acceptance speech.
Announcement: There’ll be speeches, thrills and excitement.
9: The General
One in which Six comes out (relatively) on top, thanks to a handy Star Trek-esque “baffle the computer with humanity” routine. Six doesn’t launch an escape bid or get experimented upon either! I quite like the conclusion, obvious as it is, and the conceit of Speed Learn is displayed with the visual aplomb. Colin Gordon (as Two) and (especially) John Castle (as 12) lend strong support. The “message of the week” (rote learning leads to a society of “knowledgeable cabbages”) might be considered a little overstated, but it effectively underscores McGoohan’s abiding suspicion of systems of rule.
Six: The only subject I’m interested in is, um, getting away from this place.
A highly effective scene-setter. We are introduced to the Village, its idiosyncrasies (strange brainwashing rooms, face-hugging Rovers, inhabitants who pause motionless on Two’s command), and themes (the desire to find out why Six resigned, his perpetual struggle with authority, the need to trust the potentially untrustworthy and the consequent thwarting of his plans for escape through betrayal, the chess game motif). Stylishly directed by Don Chaffey and anchored by a driven McGoohan, this is first class.
Two: A lot of people are curious about what lies behind your resignation. They want to know why you suddenly left.
7: Once Upon a Time
Leo McKern returns in the most literal battle of wills between a Two and Six. Intense, theatrical and claustrophobic, Once Upon a Time is an exhausting experience and it’s no wonder it caused McKern a nervous collapse. McKern and McGoohan give tour-de-force performances, as Two initiates Degree Absolute. He takes Six on an eccentric journey through the Seven Ages of Man, combined with a liberal dollop of nursery rhyme weirdness. Does Six actually admit why he resigned here? Perhaps not, but his explanation remains a plausible one.
Two: He thinks you’re the boss, now.
Six: I am.
Two: I’m Number Two. I’m the boss.
Six: Number One is the boss.
6: Hammer Into Anvil
Perhaps the most purely satisfying episode in terms of Six showing his mettle. One might argue Six “winning” isn’t really the point of the show, but it still makes for a pleasant change. He devises a rock-solid scheme to undermine and topple Two after the latter causes the death of poor 73. Employing misdirection and supreme cunning, Six encourages Two (a magnificent Patrick Cargill, essaying the journey from over-confidence to abject disintegration with precision timing) to believe everyone has turned against him. Beautifully plotted, and with some wonderful visual touches (the fight between Basil Hoskins’ 14 and Six to the strains of L’Arlessienne). There’s even a kosho match thrown in!
Two: (to the innocent bandmaster) You’re lying, aren’t you? There’s something going on. You’re all lying! It’s a plot!
5: Dance of the Dead
Mary Morris essays a top drawer Two in one of the series’ most unsettling episodes. Six is invited to the Village Carnival costume ball, put on trial, sentenced to death, and pursued by an angry mob apparently ready to tear him limb from limb. There’s also more quality lobotomisation on display (Six’s friend Dutton, grotesquely outfitted in a jester costume). Two is intent on winning Six over, and in response, Six issues his most defiant retort (“You’ll never win!”) With the mocking laugh of Two and a symbolic telex machine that refuses to die, Dance of the Dead presents one of the series’ bleakest conclusions.
Two: If you insist on living a dream, you may be taken for mad.
4: Free For All
McGoohan lets loose the ponderances bouncing around his noggin. Out pour his conflicted feelings on democracy, and its illusory nature, into this satire of the idea of making a difference. Six is persuaded to stand in the Village elections, but his path is undercut at every stage. Eventually he wins, through espousing ineffectual sound bites and decrying his opposition, only to discover he wields no real power at all. McGoohan both writes and directs (Don Chaffey departed after disagreements) and handles the electioneering with flair and visual wit.
Six: I am in command! Obey me and be free!
3: A. B. & C.
In which Six attends a dreamy party. The first (broadcast) mind-altering-to-get-Six-to-talk episode, and the best. This is how to have Six gradually realise he’s being drugged/manipulated. The dream scenarios are skillfully etched out, the third particularly so, with great aural accompaniment from Albert Elms. Anthony Skene’s script is superbly conceived and splendidly directed by Pat Jackson (Six opens doors from a courtyard in daylight and passes into another courtyard at night). The twist is supremely satisfying also, as Two – in one of Colin Gordon’s two stints as Two – is unmasked within the dream as Six’s co-conspirator. The tripping with reality peaks at the point where Six, within a dream, is observed walking to the doors of the dream control room; the real Two expects him, for a moment, to enter the real control room.
Six: We mustn’t disappoint them, the people who are watching.
2: The Girl Who Was Death
My top two episodes are two of The Prisoner’s most atypical instalments, but it’s probably a mistake to see the series as duty bound to conform to a set routine (unless you’re George Markstein). Even this one, the most bat-shit crazy in terms of ignoring not just the rules but the entire premise of the series, manages to insert a very loose justification for playing fast and loose (Six is reading a bedtime story to Village moppets, and Two hopes he might learn some juicy truths through eavesdropping). Six embarks on a madcap mission to prevent a nutty professor from destroying London with a rocket disguised as a lighthouse, dodging numerous attempts by the titular girl (Sonia, the professor’s daughter; they are revealed as Two and 17 at the end) to deaden him. These include a calamitous cricket match, a poisonous pint and a too toasty Turkish bath. Verbal and visual gags abound, the most extreme of which include a record that talks back and Sonia revolving the road (and Six) with her finger. Enormous fun, and very funny.
Six: Thank you very much.
Record: What was that?
1: Fall Out
The final episode, and the series’ psychedelic breakdown. Six massacres guards to the strains of All You Need Is Love, and discovers it was himself all along. Kenneth Griffith, Alexis Kanner and Leo McKern return to find McGoohan wrestling with and summarising his themes of rebellion and ego. Six is rewarded for his continued resistance, offered the chance to lead the Village, but discovers he is a prisoner unto himself. The episode is a sprawling mess, a result of McGoohan feverishly throwing everything into the mix and seeing what sticks, but it is also quite brilliant. As director, the star carries the proceedings along with a giddy energy; this is enormously cynical, downbeat material (Six ends up right back where he started, at door Number One, which opens of its own accord, just as in the Village) but it is rendered with verve and momentum. Indeed, the flight to London is charged with an irresistible euphoria (accompanied by the incredibly catchy Number 6 Throned). Script editor George Markstein dismissed Fall Out as an absurd pantomime, and it is, but in the best possible sense.
Supervisor: We thought you would feel happier as yourself.