Recently, I've been enjoying old episodes of the classic British television series "The Prisoner", starring Patrick McGoohan, who is also largely responsible for developing the premise of the show. It aired from 1968 to 1969. Although it wasn't primarily science fiction, it did have a lot of science fiction elements. And what's interesting about this particular form of science fiction is that it was in the service of a social commentary about the evils of society and the downward trajectory that McGoohan thought society was on.
For those who aren't familiar with The Prisoner, here's a brief explanation of the plot. The story centers on an unnamed man who resigns his clandestine position with the British Government. In the opening credits, we see him angrily slamming his fist on a table in front of some unnamed British official and handing in his resignation letter. He drives back to his home and starts packing a suitcase. But as he's finishing packing, he is drugged and loses consciousness. When he wakes up, he's in an idyllic little town in an apartment that's an exact duplicate of his own home.
The town he finds himself in is simply called "The Village". It's a beautiful, colorful resort-style town with pleasing architecture in a warm and sunny climate. But of course, life in The Village is anything but idyllic for our unnamed protagonist. He soon learns that like everyone else, he will be referred to only by an assigned number -- in his case, he is known only as "Number Six". The Village is run by someone known as "Number Two", who soon informs him that they want to know why he resigned. Number Six refuses to tell him, and he demands to see the person who is truly in charge -- Number One. This sets up the plot for the entire series. Number Two wants Number Six to tell him why he resigned; Number Six wants to escape The Village, or at least get Number Two to introduce him to Number One. A series of labyrinthine mind games and manipulations ensues, which always end in Number Six stubbornly clinging to his individuality and refusing to give up any information. Number Two is always unsuccessful, and is frequently replaced by a different person in the role of Number Two.
|In the future, we will pay for|
things with "credit cards".
From the perspective of someone in the year 2014, it's easy to not even notice that the show is science fiction. There are such marvels as telephones without cords and automatic surveillance cameras. People have things called "credit cards", which they use to pay for goods and services. And there are lots of computers. Even physicians have computers in their offices. In fact, public telephones in The Village have computers attached to them.
|In the future, we will all have|
gigantic cordless telephones
The Prisoner is a dystopian parable about how society seeks to control the individual. But The Prisoner is far more novel than other dystopian works. In most other anti-utopian stories, individuals are forced to conform by being brainwashed and tortured (1984), threatened with violence and kept at the edge of starvation (Animal Farm), genetically engineered (Brave New World), drugged (This Perfect Day, THX-1138), lobotomized (We), or threatened with nuclear war (Colossus). Futuristic technology is usually (though not always) used in the support of clever ways of torturing, brainwashing, and monitoring people.
If The Prisoner had gone the traditional route, it would be totally unmemorable. To be sure, there are plenty of episodes involving attempts to brainwash Number Six, and plenty of threats that they'll use violence if he doesn't conform. But the overwhelming majority of the time, Number Two uses much "softer" ways of manipulating Number Six. Those "soft" methods of mind control are what's really novel about The Prisoner, and why the show has aged relatively well.
The Village is nothing like the Ministry of Love in which Winston Smith finds himself in 1984. The Ministry of Love is a dark, concrete structure with a labyrinthine underground complex in which prisoners are brutally tortured. The Village, on the other hand, is brightly-colored, idyllic, and it contains a charming cafe, well-appointed private residences, a very nice beach, and plenty of luxuries. It is a very happy and comfortable prison, which is probably why the residents of The Village tend to wear clothes that suggest striped prisoners' uniforms, but are brightly colored and very cheerful.
|Prisoners' uniforms are bright|
and cheerful in The Village
The strategy to "break" Number Six is simple. Make his life as pleasant and easy as possible, manipulate the environment so that it's just easier to conform, and most importantly, surround him with happy, satisfied people who've long since given in to Number Two's demands, and have forgotten that they ever compromised their values.
Number Two believes that if Number Six is surrounded by people who have internalized a particular set of values, then it will make him feel like he's insane if he doesn't agree. This is true regardless of how self-contradictory, inconsistent, immoral, or just plain stupid.
In several episodes, Number Two takes steps to make Number Six question his own sanity. The best one is "Schizoid Man", in which Number Six is drugged, he has a mole removed from his wrist, behaviorally reinforced to switch to being left-handed, and is given a mustache. Then he's treated as if he is someone else who has been brought in to impersonate Number Six. Someone else is actually impersonating Number Six, and that person is now more like Number Six than Number Six himself.
The whole point is to make Number Six believe that he's going insane. What's never explained in the show is why this sort of mind game would cause him to reveal his secrets to Number Two. But the strategy is actually pretty clear if you keep the larger context in mind. When you are actively resisting adopting the values of the people around you, it's very important to remain confident in your own beliefs and values. In short, you have to believe that you are more sane than the people around you. If you question your own sanity, then you have no psychological defense against other peoples' values infiltrating your mind. So if Number Six does believe that he's lost his mind, there will be no effective way for him to resist adopting the values and beliefs of everyone around him. Once that's happened, he'll happily comply with Number Two's demands because everyone else in The Village is so compliant. Being kept in isolation will break almost anyone. But being kept in constant contact with crazy people will also be effective.
Another quite clever trick in The Village is to make the residents believe that they're free to do as they wish. Number Two, in several episodes, likes to emphasize that the residents have a "democratically elected" body to govern them. And that's perfectly true. But of course, all of the people who are elected reflect the people who elect them, and they're insane. In fact, for the residents of The Village, their entire world consists of the small island they inhabit. In the first episode, Number Six asks for a map and is given a "local map" that only shows The Village. When he asks for a map showing a larger area, the shopkeeper's response is informative. He doesn't say that they're not allowed to have such maps. Instead, his response is that there's "no demand" for them. The people don't want a map that shows anything outside The Village, so there's no need to make those maps illegal.
Within the confines of The Village, there are very few rules. In fact, rules that we're used to obeying don't apply. Sometimes, people are actively encouraged to break traditional rules, as when we are shown a sign that says "Walk On The Grass". This clearly strikes Number Six as odd, because he's only seen signs that say "Don't Walk On The Grass". So there's a big show of how free the people in The Village are, so long as they don't try to leave.
Number Six never breaks. He never gives one inch to the demands of Number Two, even when there's every reason to believe that it's totally futile for him to keep fighting. Why? What is that makes Number Six so stubbornly persistent and seemingly immune to the subtle psychological tricks that are constantly being played on him?
The reason for Number Six's persistence, in a way, is easy to see -- and it has to do with the premise of the series. Number Six is in The Village because he's resigned an important position (presumably as some kind of spy) with the British government. Number Two sometimes explains their puzzlement with this resignation by citing the fact that Number Six had a stellar career and was very successful and well-respected. We never learn anything about his reason for resignation except that it was "a matter of principle" (Number Two says this in the first episode). So we learn a lot about Number Six's psychology by keeping these simple facts in mind. Presumably, he was indeed very successful. He was surrounded by people who shared a common set of values, and he was amply rewarded for his work. He seems well-off financially, he's healthy and comfortable, and so whoever he was working for had taken good care of him. So what kind of person resigns from such a lofty position of privilege? Considering all the things we don't learn about Number Six, we learn the most important fact about him in the opening credits of the show: he is a very stubbornly independent person who is not about to be lulled into accepting someone else's values merely because he's surrounded by people with those values and is well-rewarded and comfortable. In short, the fact that he resigned his position demonstrates that he's exactly the kind of person who can't be influenced by the psychological mind games of The Village.
And that's the clue to interpreting this odd show. Number Six's life before being taken to The Village is just like his life after being taken to The Village, and his response to both environments is the same. He rejects any attempt to have someone else push their values onto him. And of course, he's not unique in being subjected to these psychological influences in his "real world" job. We all are. Think, for example, about the methods that very manipulative people use -- they could be narcissists, sociopaths, abusive partners, tyrannical bosses, and so on. They isolate their target victims, prevent communication with others, and try to keep them from interacting with people who don't share the "right" set of values. And then, within the confines of this psychological prison, the target is given a lot of freedom and comfort. Manipulative people like to surround themselves with people who can be easily influenced, and this serves two totally distinct purposes. First, it makes the manipulator feel powerful. But second, it helps to ensure that the intended target of their manipulation will doubt their sanity if they start thinking too independently.
For example, I happen to know a very wealthy narcissist who is married to a highly intelligent and well-educated woman. She doesn't need to work, and has an extremely comfortable -- indeed, luxurious -- lifestyle. She can do whatever she likes, whenever she likes, on two conditions. First, she must be home when he gets home from work. Second, he has veto power over who her friends are. At the slightest hint that any of her friends might be trouble, he tells her that she's not to speak to them again; and he's exercised this power several times. The quickest way to be excommunicated from this pair is to question the husband's values or intentions. Interestingly, you are permitted to disagree about a wide range of opinions -- you can hold different political or religious views with no conflict at all. And yet, the wife is simply not allowed any contact with anyone who would deviate from the husband's professed values, or anyone who would question his good will.
Of course, this isn't uncommon at all. Employers, schools, social clubs, cliques, families, or virtually any other group can be its own Village. And there are Villages all around us. The value of The Prisoner is that it tries to reveal these "hidden" Villages by drawing attention to an obvious one.