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''The Prisoner'' breaks out on TV

The conspiracy-laden show which laid the groundwork for ”The X-Files” and ”The Truman Show” premiered on June 1, 1968

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A cryptic evil authority. a complex web of deception. And a whole lot of paranoia. (”Who brought me here?” ”Can I trust you?”) The truth was out there, and it was just as elusive 31 years ago as it is today. On June 1, 1968, long before Mulder and Scully saw their first man in black, CBS unveiled perhaps the most innovatively perplexing drama in TV history, The Prisoner. The existential series, which was equal parts Orwell, Kafka, and James Bond, starred the dashing Patrick McGoohan as a secret agent who abruptly resigns from duty, only to be kidnapped and deported to a creepy, idyllic village filled with over-obedient citizens and ominous placards (”A Still Tongue Makes a Happy Life”). Branded Number 6, McGoohan spent week after week attempting to escape, while his unseen captors, led supposedly by a mysterious Number 1, foiled his every move.

Shot in England, the bleakly bizarre Prisoner fascinated — and worried — CBS executives from the beginning. Recalls then VP of programming Michael Dann of a meeting with McGoohan, who also created and produced the series: ”I said, ‘Patrick, I just love the pilot, but [Number 6] loses at the end of every episode. He’s got to win. Let him come back and save a different person each time.’ He looked at me firmly and said, ‘Mr. Dann, you have a great concept for a show. You do yours, and I’ll do mine.’ And he walked out of the room.”

McGoohan did get his way, but not a big audience: The Prisoner suffered disappointing ratings in its 17-episode summer run. Still, one of the first cult TV hits was born: A noisy fan base followed the show in reruns, from CBS to public TV to The Sci-Fi Channel. To this day, devotees light up the Internet with elaborate deconstructions of the show. (Was Number 6 really Number 1, as suggested in the series’ final episode? Or was that an elaborate ruse conjured up by the real Number 1?) ”If I had to put two words to describe what I was aiming at,” McGoohan said in a rare interview in 1995, ”it was an allegorical conundrum.”

McGoohan never created another TV series, choosing to concentrate on performing. His last film role was as a judge in A Time to Kill. In the mid-’90s, McGoohan began developing a yet-to-be-shot Prisoner feature film. The timing now seems right, given that the show’s legacy can be seen in such current multilayered, truth-as-holy-grail projects as The X-Files and The Truman Show. ”Those themes — we’re always being watched, the struggle of the individual against the government, there is no escape but you’ve got to keep fighting — were first introduced to American TV in The Prisoner,” says X-Files producer John Shiban. ”It’s the Gone With the Wind of its genre.”


Time Capsule: June 1, 1968

In bookstores: Arthur Hailey’s disaster novel, Airport, flies to the top of the best-seller list.
At the movies: The Detective, a crime drama starring Frank Sinatra, opens in theaters.
In record stores: ”Mrs. Robinson,” Simon & Garfunkel’s nostalgia-tinged hit, which first popped up on the Graduate soundtrack, reaches No. 1 on the charts.
In other news: Detroit Tigers pitcher Denny McLain notches his eighth victory, on his way to a 31-6 season. He would become the last pitcher to win as many as 30 games in a year.