Friday, June 28, 2013

The Cities of That Remote Land Are Not Touched by Modern Civilisation (The Blue Veil)

airdate:  2 October 1960
NATO opening:  yes
NATO openings so far:  2
NATO-less openings so far:  2
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

By contrast with the past three episodes, we begin not with a murder but with Drake arriving in a desert location by helicopter, accompanied by Drake’s own voiceover explaining his mission: investigating the slave trade carried on by “Tuaregs” in “Arabia.”  Inasmuch as the Tuaregs are native to northern Africa, whereas Arabia is a subcontinent of Asia, this episode really takes place in a kind of orientalist neverland, with most of the major tropes reliably checked off.  (The “blue veil” of the title is another Tuareg reference [and not a nod to the Jane Wyman movie], but is never mentioned in the actual episode; it may have a double meaning in Drake’s disguise, especially since in Tuareg culture it is traditionally men, rather than women, who are so veiled.)

Drake’s chief adversaries are the local ruler or “moukta” (an older Westernised spelling of “mukhtar” or “muhtar,” meaning an elected village chieftain, which does not seem to describe this wealthy and sinister feudal lord – played by Ferdinand Mayne, who will spend much of his later career playing vampires), and an English slaver “gone native,” with the decidedly inappropriate name of Spooner (a deliciously reptilian performance by Laurence Naismith), who is referred to as “the Fat Man” in an amalgamated homage to Sidney Greenstreet’s character in Casablanca and moniker in The Maltese Falcon. (Spooner refers to Muslim polygamy with the quintessentially English phrase “custom of the country” – I’m thinking of the jurisprudential meaning, not the Jacobean play, though I suppose the latter might be more apt here.  Of course having six wives is not actually the Muslim custom, but artistic license is compassionate and merciful.)  Drake’s (initially grudging) allies are a stranded showgirl whom Spooner is trying to acquire for the moukta’s harem, and a street urchin (with a venomous snake down his shirt) who pledges his service to Drake in exchange for sparing his life.  (Spooner tells the showgirl that women require a protector, and unfortunately nothing in the episode suggests otherwise; she merely trades up in protectors.)

But in this episode the plot is really just a showcase for McGoohan’s delightfully hammy tour de force performance as Drake’s undercover persona, a scruffy “desert rat” (whose antics bear more than a passing resemblance to those of the previous episode’s chuckleheaded millionaire; there’s a goofy smile that McGoohan rarely gives Drake except when Drake is playing a role).  McGoohan’s every move, gesture, and twitch in this episode are riveting to watch.  If the prologue feels rushed, that’s because its job is to get itself over with as quickly as possible in order to get the desert-rat act onstage.  (And ditto, mutatis mutandis, for the ending.)

Smart co-wrote this one with Don Ingalls, best known in sf circles for the Star Trek episodes “The Alternative Factor” and “A Private Little War,” and less happily for, well, this.  (Incidentally, the lighting in this episode is especially effective, for which credit is presumably due either to director Charles Frend or to cinematographer Brendan Stafford.)

This time around Drake is working for the U.N., and is explicitly identified as being American; and once again, as previously, American and/or western intervention is a force for good in a benighted third-world country.  The salutary cynicism of The Prisoner is not yet with us.  All the same, the emphasis put on Drake’s being an “unbeliever” in this episode seems to go beyond merely making the point that he’s not a Muslim; it seems to suggest, positively, that he sees through illusions where others do not, and negatively, that he has not fully committed himself to any particular allegiance – both traits that point forward.

Be seeing you!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Foreigners Coming Here and Interfering In Our Politics (Josetta)

airdate:  25 September 1960
NATO opening:  no
NATO openings so far:  1
NATO-less openings so far:  2
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

We begin with a blast of sound and a flurry of colourful floats – a carnival, or indeed Carnaval, atmosphere.  Then we shift to a woman at a piano, playing the Fantaisie Impromptu – not the opening allegro agitato, but the succeeding moderato cantabile, as though to emphasise the contrast between the frenzy without and the calm within (a boundary that will shortly be broken).  We realise she is blind when she reaches forward to touch her braille sheet music.  A man arrives; she invites him to let himself in (the doors aren’t even locked against what lies without).  As they chat pleasantly, he takes a gun from his jacket, a gun she cannot see ....

Our episode is set in the city of San Pablo, in an unnamed country in Latin America.  (Though we’re not told so explicitly, it seems likely that San Pablo is the country’s capital.  Most Latin America countries have a San Pablo, but in no case as the capital – so unlike last time there is no obvious candidate for the unnamed country.)  Drake is here quite explicitly as a representative of the U.S., speaking of “my government” and “our embassy” in connection with it – no talk of NATO this time.  (Yet he pronounces “lieutenant” the British way – a mistake on the actor’s part, probably, but it contributes nicely to the ongoing vagueness of Drake’s identity.)  And he has come to San Pablo to identify an assassin, in order to prove that the assassination was not a U.S. plot.

So, a forward-looking subject matter, since the succeeding decade would be an especially fertile period for CIA assassination plots in Latin America – though the 1954 Guatemala coup (inter alia) would have been a relatively fresh memory, even if the extent of U.S. involvement was not as widely understood at the time as it would be later on.  Of course the notion of the U.S. trying to prevent a right-wing military coup, and to avenge a slain left-wing politician of whom Drake admits his government disapproved, is a little hard to swallow, even in 1960.  At least the regime that Drake is helping to prop up is not portrayed in too rosy a light; though the police chief (appropriately named Segur, as in seguridad) is Drake’s ally and thus presumably a good guy, he tells Drake matter-of-factly that he will arrange to have a pliable judge hear his case.

All the same, in this episode we see little of the moral ambiguity that pervaded “Time to Kill.”  Here Drake is the good guy, and America is the good guy too; both are framed for crimes of which they are innocent, and both are vindicated.  

Nevertheless,  since my aim in this project is to read Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner, it’s worth pointing out that although Drake evidently believes that the U.S. is devoid of complicity in the killing of Ingres’s brother, we have no proof that he is right; that Cortez committed the act hardly settles the question of whom he was ultimately working for (“Who is Number One?”), and so we can just as easily view Drake’s mission as one of covering up a U.S. plot rather than disproving one.  Cortez himself might well not know the identity of his ultimate masters, and so might be perfectly sincere in telling Drake he wants Americans to butt out of his country’s affairs, even as he has been their useful idiot all along.  If the killing has led to more anti-American agitation than had been anticipated, the real fear of Drake’s superiors might be the potential success of the agitators, rather than (as they claim) the army coup the agitation might provoke.  Drake can thus be seen as a useful idiot in his own right, a cleanup man sent to defuse a left-wing threat while being led to believe he is defusing a right-wing threat.  (Imagine if Drake were to find this out later.  One can almost picture him striding angrily down a hallway and into a government office, to resign ….)

Apart from the political aspects, the episode’s main plot concerns an attempt to spook the suspected assassin into giving himself away by convincing him that the sole earwitness to his crime is also an eyewitness – a tricky job, since the witness in question, Josetta Ingres, is the blind woman with whom we opened.  (So, another pairing with a woman, though again no romance – other than the slight hint of it in the way Drake kisses Ingres’s hand at the end, though that can be read just as easily as congratulations on a job well done.)

The idea that a blind person’s recognising a voice (and scent) is less reliable evidence than a sighted person’s recognising a face is of course absurd; but it’s not the show’s absurdity (the episode makes a point of showing, more than once, that Ingres’s hearing is more discriminating than that of a sighted person), but rather a plausibly realistic absurdity of the legal system. 

Ingres feigns sightedness by having Drake watch her from a distance and relay instructions to a speaker in her ear.  I worry that in reality, especially with so little opportunity to practice, this would work about as well as Leonard Read’s flyswatter game, which Rose Wilder Lane describes as follows:

Leonard ... has devised a parlor game, in his effort to get the definition [of liberty] into another head .... The game requires two persons, one fly-swatter and a fly.  One person holds the swatter, but can move only as the other person tells him to move; the object of both is to swat the fly.  This cannot be done, of course.  (The Lady and the Tycoon, p. 31)

But it works well in the story – and (probably inadvertently) doubles as a metaphor for the American style of imperialism: not direct conquest, but the illusion of autonomy, with vigorous direction behind the scenes.  Thus the real Drake personifies the private face of American foreign policy, just as Drake’s amusing impersonation of a wealthy, feckless, clueless gambler personifies its public face.

Be seeing you!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

We Girls Always Like To Be Taken Seriously (Time to Kill)

airdate:  18 September 1960
NATO opening:  yes
NATO openings so far:  1
NATO-less openings so far:  1
Vacation spoiled: no
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

[As always:  SPOILERS BELOW.]

Never trust a woman. – The Prisoner, “Dance of the Dead”

You, me, handcuffs: must it always end this way? – Another show entirely

A professor at a party reaches for the mango chutney and falls dead, a bullet through his heart. 

Another Clemens script – this time in collaboration with Ian Stuart Black, who was also the show’s associate producer, and who would go on to pen several more episodes in the first series.  (He’s perhaps better known today as the writer of the Doctor Who episodes “The Savages,” “The War Machines,” and “The Macra Terror.”)  Showrunner Ralph Smart directs this time.  Effective location shooting (Wales again, standing in for Hungary), and fancy props like a helicopter, are indicative of the show’s relatively large budget by 1960 British standards.  These early episodes feature voiceover narration by the protagonist, a device that rarely works well, and doesn’t work well here – but everything else does.

The dead chutney fancier is Dr. Barkoff, a defector from an unnamed but evidently Soviet-bloc country; the killer is Hans Vogeler, an agent of a rogue intelligence service in that country; and Drake is assigned to track Vogeler down.  His task is complicated by a Swedish schoolteacher, Lisa Orin, who keeps interfering, either by chance or – as Drake quickly comes to suspect – by design.

As in most of these early episodes, then, Drake is paired with a woman.  In the previous episode, Gina Scarlotti turned out to be involved in the case despite being introduced in such a way as to avoid initially raising the audience’s suspicions; in the present episode, by contrast, Lisa Orin’s introduction is precisely calculated to heighten the audience’s suspicions (and Drake’s), but she turns out to be a genuinely innocent bystander. (Owing to McGoohan’s own insistence, these pairings are not romantic – though Drake did seem to be showing a more than professional interest last time in Scarlotti.)  The women unfortunately tend to fall into the cower-in-the-corner-while-the-hero-and-villain-fight category (though this time Orin has the excuse of not being entirely sure that Drake is the hero); but both Scarlotti and Orin are at least portrayed as strong, intelligent women capable of challenging Drake’s certainty.

The title “Time to Kill” is triply ambiguous; the primary meaning is that this is a time when killing should be done (a thesis whose truth is debated between Drake and Orin), but Orin’s unexpected return to the hunting lodge in the final scene also distracts Vogeler long enough to give Drake “time to kill” him.  The third meaning would be that Drake has time to kill in the sense of time to waste, though this seems not to apply.

The episode features two now-familiar genre tropes:  an assassin assembling a gun out of apparently unrelated bits of stuff; and two fugitives unwillingly handcuffed together, forced to cooperate and then coming to respect each other.  I don’t know how familiar the gun trope would have been in 1960; the best known examples come from later sources like The Man With the Golden Gun and Day of the Jackal, and this page doesn’t cite anything earlier (though it doesn’t cite this episode either, so it’s evidently incomplete).  The handcuff trope, by contrast, has pre-1960 antecedents

Upon arriving in Vogeler’s nation of origin (never named, but the country is described as bordering Austria, the signs appear – despite Vogeler’s German name – to be in Hungarian, the name of Vogelers employers sounds like “A.V.O.” (the acronym of Hungarys actual secret police), and references to “the revolution” of “some years” ago might indicate the Hungarian Uprising of 1956), Drake is told by a state official (Edward Hardwicke, probably best known as the 2nd Dr. Watson to Jeremy Brett’s Sherlock Holmes):  “You understand the conditions governing your tour of our country?  You must keep to the prescribed routes, stay only at state-registered hotels, you must obey all security signs, stop at all checkpoints, carry your papers at all times, and be prepared to submit to military and police inspections.  I wish you a pleasant visit to our country.”  (He might as well invite Drake to be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, and numbered.)  Ironically, this occurs immediately after Drake has heard Lisa Orin opining that the country they are visiting is as democratic as any other.  Read one way, this could be a satire on left-wing naïveté about Communist countries; it’s surely no coincidence that Orin is depicted as hailing from neutral Sweden, rather than from a NATO member like Norway or Denmark or Iceland. Read another way – through the lens of The Prisoner’s insistence on the essential identity of oppression in both East and West – it could be taken instead, against the grain of Orin’s intention, as inviting reflection on the ways in which similar if subtler authoritarianism already pervades western societies.  (And the portrayal of the Hungarian intelligence service as operating on its own, ignoring its government’s current policy of détente with the west, naturally suggests the question whether western intelligence services ever do likewise – a potential nod in the direction of The Prisoner.)

This episode continues the previous episode’s theme of Drake’s annoyance with his superiors – first at the trivial level, as Drake makes fun of their cloak-and-dagger business with passwords (whereupon his agency contact looks at him blankly, without a scintilla of humour), and then more seriously, as Drake refuses to assassinate Vogeler, insisting on trying to bring him in alive.  When told that it “amounts to the same thing” since Vogeler will doubtless be executed after capture, Drake replies:  “That’s not my business.”  Drake thus demonstrates enough moral independence to resist the agency’s demand that he act as their assassin, but evidently not quite enough to admit to himself that one can hardly disclaim all responsibility for a death if one turns a prisoner over to those one knows will kill him.  (Drake’s moral discomfort with his job may already be indicated during the opening credits, by the less than enthusiastic way that he refers to the kind of “messy job” that gets assigned to “someone like me.”)

The ethics of Drake’s profession are further explored in the clash between Drake and Orin.  They exchange credos: speaking of her pupils, Orin says, “I teach them that men are good, that violence is wicked; and I also teach them not to distrust their fellows” – to which Drake responds, “There are some men who thrive on hate, Miss Orin; they make a profession out of war.  They aren’t many, but they’re dangerous, and they have to be stopped.”  Yet doesn’t Drake too “make a profession out of war”?  His reasons for killing Vogeler are the same as Vogeler’s reasons for killing Barkoff – preemptive defense.  (Barkoff’s research presumably has military applications.)  Don’t Drake and Vogeler both fall, at least broadly, into the “someone like me” category? 

No clear winner emerges from the ethical debate.  On the one hand, Orin’s pacifist stance is apparently “disproven” by the eventual necessity of killing Vogeler (though ironically, Orin’s own intervention is what makes impossible Drake’s original plan of capturing Vogeler instead); and her idealistic assessment of the Hungarian government is clearly intended to be undercut by the sight of border guards in the background searching Drake’s car while she talks blithely about international understanding.  But on the other hand, the guards were quite right to be suspicious of Drake’s car and should in fact have searched it still more carefully; Orin’s opposition to assassination parallels Drake’s own qualms; and Drake’s attitude of automatic distrust – a paranoia later to be counseled by the “extra” lyrics of “Secret Agent Man” (advising distrust of women in particular), and subsequently reinforced by the endless deceptions and betrayals in The Prisoner – is apparently “disproven” by Orin’s turning out to be just who she says she is.  Thus neither hawks nor doves receive unambiguous confirmation in this Cold War tale.

The fact that Orin is a woman no doubt contributes to Drake’s misperception of her intentions.  As I’ve noted elsewhere:
[I]n a patriarchal culture, women are constructed as enigmatic and deceptive, while men are plain-dealing, reliable comrades for other men .... In a culture where men subordinate and objectify women, it’s no surprise that men have trouble perceiving women’s subjectivity ....
But in addition, Drake’s own profession, with its associated habits of mistrust, surely makes it harder for him to trust anybody.  And of course, given that profession, those habits are vital to his survival; yet they are also portrayed as deforming his capacity for ordinary human interaction.  “I said that I was a schoolteacher, but I’m not. What exactly are you, Miss Orin?”

Alongside the ambiguity as to whether Drake should kill Vogeler is the ambiguity as to whether he does kill him.  Vogeler accidentally shoots himself by striking the trigger as both men are wrestling for the gun; Orin tells Drake that Vogeler’s responsibility is Vogeler’s rather than Drake’s, but that surely stretches the truth.

The ambiguity as to Drake’s own identity persists as well.  When asked “Where do you come from – the States?” Drake replies with a grunt that I think is supposed to be “Ireland,” thus apparently contradicting the implication in the previous episode that he hails from New England.  Of course he is undercover when he so grunts, so it may not be intended as accurate.

Only two episodes in, and we’re already in a maze of mirrors ....

Be seeing you!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

I’ve Been Here Before (View From the Villa)

airdate:  11 September 1960
NATO opening:  no
NATO openings so far:  0
NATO-less openings so far:  1
Vacation spoiled: yes
Vacations spoiled so far: 1

[This is my blog about Danger Man / The Prisoner.  If you want my blog about
The Avengers, click here.

As always:  SPOILERS BELOW.]

You’re a secret agent man
who’s after the secret plan
how do you act so they don’t know you’re a spy?

(Oh sorry, wrong theme song.)

The camera pans over attractive flowers and Italianate bric-a-brac while we hear an irregular rhythm in the background – which turns out to be the bad guys beating information out of a captive.  They overdo it, he dies, and an unseen witness gasps and jumps out the window.

The first season of Danger Man – and very nearly the only season, being separated from the second season by over a year – was once so little remembered that A&E’s earlier “complete” dvd sets omitted it entirely; and when it was first included on a later set it was advertised, falsely, as never having been aired in North America.  In fact it not only aired in America (under the title of Danger Man, the only season not to be called Secret Agent here) but was made specifically with the lucrative American market in mind (which is why it was recorded expensively on film rather than cheaply on videotape – which in turn explains why all of its early episodes survive, escaping the mass-erasure fate that devastated the early years of videotaped shows like Doctor Who and The Avengers). 

The focus on the American market likewise explains, perhaps, why John Drake was originally portrayed as an American; in this first episode, when Drake discovers evidence that the murder victim had been having an extramarital affair, another character explains “This is Rome, Mr. Drake, not New England” (and receives the reply “Well, it happens in New England too, you know”), thus apparently establishing New England as Drake’s place of origin.  (At the same time the familiar trope of naïve/innocent American vs. sophisticated/corrupt European is raised and immediately dismissed.)  McGoohan’s accent was somewhat indeterminate – his own background being simultaneously American, Irish, and English – and he could turn his accent a few notches in the direction of any of the three, always managing to sound almost-but-not-quite-right in each of them.

In later seasons he is either English or Irish, and is working for a fictional British intelligence service called M9, a kind of fusion of MI5 and MI6.  In this first season it’s not entirely clear for whom Drake works.  According to the opening narration:
Every government has its secret service branch:  America, its CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5.  A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me, or someone like me. Oh yes: my name is Drake – John Drake.
(Actually it’s MI6, not MI5, that is the equivalent of the CIA and Deuxième Bureau; but at the time the show was made, the existence of MI6 was not publicly acknowledged – and wouldn’t be for another three decades, despite being by that time an open secret.)  This might mean that Drake works for one of these agencies but is being coy about which (though not Deuxième Bureau, surely), or it might mean (more probably) that he is a freelance contractor who works on occasion for each of them.  But some versions of the narration insert the sentence “NATO also has its own” after the list of agencies, setting it apart from the rest in a way that makes it sound as though it’s specifically NATO’s agency that Drake works for.  And the gold whose theft Drake is asked to investigate in this episode is said to have been intended for Italy’s contribution to NATO, so it would make particular sense for Drake to be called in if he is indeed a NATO agent.  The whole ambiguity is nicely captured by the imagery accompanying the narration: a geographically impossible shot of a London building (Castrol/Marathon House) in the foreground (look closely – click the pic to enlarge it  and you’ll see a London bus stop sign as well) and Washington D.C.’s U.S. Capitol building in the background.  It looks the way McGoohan’s accent sounds.  Whose side are you on? – That would be telling.

The title Danger Man is ambiguous; does it mean a man who faces danger or a man who is dangerous?  The (later) theme song emphasises the former meaning, but seeing McGoohan stalking around in his odd angular manner irresistibly suggests the latter.  The title of this episode, “View from the Villa” (penned by Danger Man showrunner Ralph Smart and future Avengers writer Brian Clemens), is ambiguous too: at first it seems to mean the view that the aforementioned unseen witness had of the murder, but it later turns out to mean the particular vantage point from which a certain painting was made, enabling Drake to identify a certain location.

And what a location!  For the painting of a village that’s the crucial clue in the story turns out actually to be of the Village, as in this episode it’s Portmeirion, the Welsh seaside resort and future filming site of The Prisoner, that’s doubling as the Italian village to which Drake is led by the painting.  Indeed it was during the filming of this episode that McGoohan first got to know Portmeirion, thus laying the ground for his later decision to set his magnum opus there. For a blog devoted to the project of reading Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner, the fact that it begins in Portmeirion is serendipitous.  The Villa(ge) is indeed everywhere!

(One especially inaccurate online summary, confusing diegetic and extradiegetic locations, tells us that “Agent Drake is sent to the small seaside resort of Portmeirion in North Wales to investigate the murder and to try and recover the money.”  In any case, he’s not “sent” anywhere.)

In another parallel, “View from the Villa” begins with McGoohan having to interrupt his vacation to investigate the case; in the opening sequence of The Prisoner, McGoohan’s character, having just resigned, is packing tropical vacation brochures into his suitcase when he is abducted.  (The theme of official duties interfering with Drake’s holiday plans will continue throughout Danger Man.)  And I suppose Drake’s initial reliance on an apparently helpful source of information who is actually trying to mislead him is another Prisoner parallel, albeit a tenuous one.

There’s not much explicit socio-political commentary in the episode, though, apart from some acid comments about bankers at the start.  The episode is set in Italy, which at the time was experiencing an economic upswing, and had joined the common market three years earlier, so the episode’s embezzlement plot could be seen as a commentary on the corruption that accompanies boom times; but the episode’s center of gravity is Drake’s interaction with two women (the witness’s dressmaker, and the murder victim’s wife), and his search for a third (the missing witness).  (Although this blog is not for the spoiler-averse, I’ll leave for the viewer the discovery of how these three women are connected, since nothing I have to say hangs on it.) 

We do see a bit of possible hypocrisy on Drake’s part:  he expresses his resentment at being called in to solve a mere murder case; yet when told there’s something more important than murder at stake, he turns moralistic, demanding to know how anything could be more important than murder.  This establishes Drake as a somewhat prickly character to get along with.

Above all, McGoohan effortlessly dominates the screen with his elusive combination of smoothness and awkwardness, like a graceful commanding spirit attempting to operate an unfamiliar body, coming across as a blend of James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, and Lt. Columbo – and making the episode a delight to watch.

Be seeing you!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Perhaps He’s Just Decided to Retire

My name is Drake. John Drake. – Danger Man, 1960 (two years before the first Bond movie)

They’ve given you a number and taken away your name. –  Secret Agent theme song, 1964-1966

I am not a number, I am a free man.  – The Prisoner, 1967

The 1960s British tv series Danger Man (or Secret Agent, as it was called on this side of the pond) is best known, in North America at least, for two features in a sense external to it: its theme song “Secret Agent Man” (which was included only in the North American version of the show) and its having given rise to the later and more famous series The Prisoner.

This comparative neglect is unfortunate, because Danger Man is a brilliant show. As I’ve written elsewhere:
[Patrick] McGoohan is the epitome of cool – though not quite in the suave James Bond manner, as a rough-edged sense of not quite fitting into the world is frequently visible through the usually unflappable exterior. Even McGoohan’s not-quite-either-British-or-American accent contributes to his character’s presentation as an alienated individualist. ...
While Danger Man obviously drew inspiration from the Bond books (and certainly resembles them more than it does the movies), McGoohan disapproved of Ian Fleming’s womanising assassin, and reportedly turned down a chance to play Bond for that reason; in any case, he had written into his Danger Man contract that his character would have no romances and would rely on his intellect rather than on fists or gun, using violence only as a last resort.
Danger Man was also more grounded in realism than the Bond films or other spy-fi shows such as The Avengers.  McGoohan’s character John Drake used gadgets, but the gadgets looked like things that would work and that a real agent might actually use; and his antagonists usually had less grandiose goals than conquering the world.

Danger Man intro, 1960-1962:

(In some episodes the line “NATO also has its own” occurs after the list of secret service agencies, but I couldn’t find that version online.)

Danger Man intro (British version), 1964-1966, plus some dialogue I’ll talk about below:

Secret Agent intro (American version), 1964-1966 (better known to some as the Teen Titans theme):

Fuller Secret Agent theme song, with additional lyrics never included in the tv series (and which, given McGoohan’s ban on love scenes, wouldn’t have applied very well anyway):

The purpose of this blog is to blog my way though all the episodes of Danger Man – both those I’ve seen and those I haven’t. 

But one can’t talk about Danger Man without talking about The Prisoner, McGoohan’s follow-up show in which the governors of the Village – a mysterious, sinisterly pleasant totalitarian internment camp which may be run either by the protagonists Cold War opponents or by his own former employers – attempt, week after week, to brainwash or break the spirit of a fiercely individualistic protagonist known only as Number Six in order to learn why he has “resigned” (from what, exactly, is never made clear, but evidently some position in top-secret government service), while he likewise attempts, week after week, and equally unsuccessfully, to escape.

The Prisoner intro, 1967-1968 (shorter version of longer version):

The Prisoner intro, 1967-1968 (longer version of shorter version):

(I remember back in my high school days setting up my clunky tape recorder next to the tv to record that theme music – incidentally written (or by some accounts co-written, with McGoohan himself) by Ron Grainer, who also (co-)wrote the Doctor Who theme.)

Fans have long debated whether or not the protagonists of the two shows are the same person.  In favour of the theory is Six’s similarity to Drake – not just in appearance (they’re played by the same actor, after all) but in personality and character – and their both apparently being secret agents at odds with their employers.  Against the theory is show creator McGoohan’s repeated insistence that the two are distinct, and his sometimes (though not consistently) referring to Six as a government scientist rather than a secret agent.  In favour of the theory again is the testimony of insiders that McGoohan privately admitted to them that Six is Drake, but could not acknowledge the connection publicly because he did not control the rights to the character from Danger Man, as well as the fact that at least one actor from Danger Man showed up in The Prisoner playing a character with the same name.  Against, again, is Six’s evident allegorical status, seemingly representing something broader than just Drake, as well as the contrast between the realism of the earlier show and the surrealism of the later.

I find it useful to read Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner – not because I am taking a stand on whether Drake and Six are the same person (I’m not sure what would even constitute a fact of the matter on that question) but because, regardless of whether Six is Drake, The Prisoner is clearly shaped by meditation on the themes of Danger Man.  The “Secret Agent Man” lyric “they’ve given you a number, and taken away your name” is the most obvious instance of prefiguring, but there are others.  In one of the clips embedded above, when discussing an agent who’s gone missing, Drake says pointedly, “perhaps he’s just decided to retire” – to which his superior replies blankly “retire?” as though the option were unthinkable.  During the filming of Danger Man McGoohan himself said that as the series progressed he was playing Drake as thinking about “giving up his job” – though the explanation given then was Drake’s increasing longing for “home, marriage and family.”  (Quoted in Roger Langley, Patrick McGoohan: Danger Man or Prisoner?, p. 94.)

There are further parallels between the shows.  The original Danger Man intro begins with McGoohan exiting a building in order to get into a sportscar; in the intro to The Prisoner we see him exiting a sportscar in order to go into a building – twice.  The later Danger Man intro alternates between regular and negative photos of McGoohan – thus anticipating the self-confrontation between white-garbed and dark-garbed McGoohans in The Prisoner (as per the photo at the top of this page) – as well as a similar confrontation later in the series.

To be governed is to be watched, inspected, spied upon, directed, law-driven, numbered, regulated, enrolled, indoctrinated, preached at, controlled, checked, estimated, valued, censured, commanded, by creatures who have neither the right nor the wisdom nor the virtue to do so. To be governed is to be at every operation, at every transaction noted, registered, counted, taxed, stamped, measured, numbered, assessed, licensed, authorized, admonished, prevented, forbidden, reformed, corrected, punished. It is, under pretext of public utility, and in the name of the general interest, to be placed under contribution, drilled, fleeced, exploited, monopolized, extorted from, squeezed, hoaxed, robbed; then, at the slightest resistance, the first word of complaint, to be repressed, fined, vilified, harassed, hunted down, abused, clubbed, disarmed, bound, choked, imprisoned, judged, condemned, shot, deported, sacrificed, sold, betrayed; and to crown all, mocked, ridiculed, derided, outraged, dishonored. That is government; that is its justice; that is its morality. – Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, General Idea of the Revolution, 1851

I came here to say that I do not recognize anyone’s right to one minute of my life. Nor to any part of my energy. Nor to any achievement of mine. No matter who makes the claim, how large their number or how great their need. – Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, 1943

But we’re a bunch of raw materials that don’t mean to ... be made into any product! ... don’t mean to end up being bought by some clients of the University, be they the government, be they industry, be they organized labor, be they anyone! We’re human beings! – Mario Savio, Sproul Hall Steps, 1964

I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered. My life is my own. The Prisoner, 1967

What political message The Prisoner propounds is a matter of debate, with both left-wing and right-wing viewers claiming the show as their own. Is McGoohan attacking socialism? or the consumerist culture of capitalism? or both? Libertarians, particularly those of a Randian bent, have long been fond of the show – both for its strong individualist message, and because Number Six is the most faithful cinematic-and/or-televisual rendering yet of a Randian hero (certainly more so than in any of the films actually based on her books); yet the series has its Marxist fans as well, for whom the series indeed “attacks the welfare state” – not “on behalf of laissez-faire capitalism,” however, but rather to show how “people can be seduced into surrendering their freedom for material comforts and ignoring the despotism they have been suckered into and the dehumanization they have suffered.”

There’s some ambiguity as to whether McGoohan even intended the show to be pro-individualist.  On the one hand, there’s some pretty strong evidence for the affirmative; McGoohan called The Prisoner “a protest against regimentation and the loss of individuality” (quoted in Rupert Booth, Not a Number, p. 232), and added:
Somebody needs to yell a warning.  I hope I’m giving some kind of warning.  My village is not 1984 but 1968.  More than anything else I believe passionately in the freedom of the individual.  I want to yell back:  “That’s our right.  The loss of one’s own individuality is a nightmare. (In Booth, p. 220.)
Yet he also can be found warning that the “inherent danger” of a “liberal, democratic society” is that “with an excess of freedom in all directions we will eventually destroy ourselves” (in Langley, p. 118), and insisting – in very un-Randian fashion – that “it’s essential for every man to do the equivalent of getting down on his knees and conceding that there is something bigger than he is, within whose shadow he lives.”  (In Langley, p. 156.)  McGoohan has even suggested that, far from celebrating individual freedom, The Prisoner is a warning against the danger of encouraging excessive self-assertion:
The series was conceived to make it appear that our hero was striving to be ‘completely free’, ‘utterly himself’.  Too much of that and society would be overrun by rampant extremists and there would be anarchy.  The intention was satirical. Be as free as possible within our situation, but the war is with Number One. ... To continue the allegory, Number One tries to run the Village his way if we let him.  We have to challenge the so-and-so.  When Hitler was an infant someone for sure crooned over him ‘What a lovely baby!’  But he grew up to let Number One take over the show.  Naughty boy.  (Quoted in Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald, The Prisoner: A Televisionary Masterpiece, p. 6.)
Yet this is the same McGoohan who repeated, in interview after interview, that The Prisoner “is all about freedom. ... The greatest fight before any one of us today is to be a true individual, to fight for what you believe in and stick to that. ... More than anything I believe in the freedom of the individual.”  (In Langley, pp. 149,  154.)

There’s no necessary contradiction here, of course; one can perfectly well believe that our freedom is threatened both by external authoritarian constraints and by the internal temptations of narcissism.  But it’s a bit difficult to read The Prisoner as a whole as an extended parable about excessive individualism.

McGoohan’s own pronouncements on political topics have been scrutinised for clues to the interpretation of his magnum opus.  Some of these seem to position him as a social conservative; for example, he attacked the “permissive society,” suggested that the director of Midnight Cowboy should be punished for “publicising fornication,” and – with breathtaking indifference to the freedom of half the human race – called contraception “the most dangerous thing on earth.”  (In Langley, pp. 180-182.)  To this we can add his generally puritanical attitudes and his weird treatment of actresses on the set (often refusing to kiss them, dance with them, or even meet their eyes, despite whatever the script called for), and he begins to sound a bit like John the Savage in Brave New World yelling “strumpet! strumpet!”

Yet McGoohan also favoured equal rights for gays (Booth, p. 108), was reportedly jailed in South Africa for criticizing apartheid (Langley, pp. 191-92), and offered his own Catholic Church as an example of the “establishment” and “bureaucracy” against which Six is fighting, noting that it has “so many laws ... confining” the individual that “it is almost impossible to do anything which is not some form of sin.”  (quoted in Booth, p 156)  In addition, McGoohan expressed sympathy for the New Left, noting:  “I thought there was a period in the 60’s when the youth were going to rebel and I thought it would have been good.  But unfortunately they weren’t organised and I think that’s sad.”  (In Langley, p. 154.)  Plus McGoohan held JFK as a “personal hero” (Langley, p. 98) and was hostile to Reagan (Matthew White & Jaffer Ali, Official Prisoner Companion, p. 181), a pair of attitudes generally associated presumptively with the left.  (I personally find Kennedy and Reagan virtually indistinguishable, but your kilometerage may vary.)

I think ferreting out and deciphering McGoohan’s personal stance on various political issues is in any case not terribly useful in interpreting The Prisoner.  The series sets out some very abstract ideas, and translating those into concrete political positions is tricky; McGoohan certainly holds no unique authority as to how to do that.  Thus while my own reading of the show is an anarchist one, that doesn’t mean that I (need to) interpret McGoohan himself as an anarchist; what interests me is “the objective tendency of the problematic.”

Certainly the show’s concerns outstrip any left/right division as conventionally conceived.   
In one episode, Number Two responds to Six’s inquiry as to which side (viz., in the Cold War) is behind his internment, with the reply:
It doesn’t matter which side runs the Village. ... Both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created? An international community. A perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realise that they’re looking into a mirror, they’ll see that this is the pattern for the future.
The Prisoner offers a critique of power that takes into account a wide variety of forms that such power can take; identifying the villain solely as “the government” or “corporations” or “consumerist society” will inevitably be one-sided.

One left-wing commentator, while seeing the show as a critique of “market hegemony” (may I prescribe an antidote to this concept?), nevertheless finds a fundamentally conservative core to The Prisoner:
The action of The Prisoner is situated entirely within a landscape of privilege. Number Six and all his fellow prisoners are imprisoned because of the knowledge and beliefs they hold. They are knowledge-work professionals of the Cold War era: spies, scientists, and politicians. This class marker of knowledge work (to borrow a phrase from Peter Drucker) restricts the action to a single upper stratum of post-war society. In The Village, even the housekeeping maids are fellow prisoners – presumably former intelligence workers who have been drugged or tortured into submission. Look again at Number Six’s rallying cry: “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!!” This is not the cry of a slave, or a victim of torture or invasion. It is the entitled complaint of someone imprisoned solely by bureaucracy. A white-collar prisoner. As the show limits its discourse of imprisonment in this way, it is predictably indifferent to any discourse about class, much less race. It goes without saying that the intelligence workers in this planned community of the 1960s are all European. This omission of commentary on class or race, combined with the ideological emphasis on the individual and the total absence of the value of advocacy, place the political discourse of The Prisoner firmly within social territory held by the conservative “right.”
While this critique is fair enough as far as it goes, just try telling lower-income people applying for welfare or trying to start a co-op that only the privileged are imprisoned by bureaucracy. And remember that Six’s “rallying cry” is an adaptation of a quotation from Proudhon, not exactly a stranger to the class war.  To borrow a distinction from Michael Polanyi, we need to attend from the white-collar status of the Village’s inmates, not just attend to it; the characteristics of the signifier need not be the characteristics of the signified.

The standard sociological definition of surveillance coincides with the standard organization theory definition of management. – Kirstie Ball (paraphrased)

The state is a relationship between human beings, a way by which people relate to one another; and one destroys it by entering into other relationships, by behaving differently to one another. – Gustav Landauer, “Weak Statesmen, Weaker People,” Der Sozialist, 1910

You cooperate, tell us what we want to know, and this could be a very nice place. You may even be given a position of authority. – Number Two

Foucault describes the transition from a predominant reliance on terror-inspiring shock-and-awe methods of social control (not that these have been entirely abandoned, of course) in favour of new forms of power, like the surveillance and micromanagement of the disciplinary state, or the therapeutic solicitude of what Foucault calls “bio-power” – Orwell and Huxley respectively, perhaps.  While the panoptic monitoring in the village suggests Orwellian discipline, the fact that Six’s captors are not only reluctant to kill him or seriously injure him, but most of the time strive to make him comfortable and inveigle him into the Village’s mindless pastimes, rather invokes Huxleyite bio-power.

It’s tempting to think of systems of oppression as being like the Death Star: just take out the central command point and the whole thing blows up.  In real life, though, systems of oppression are sustained by an interlocking network of mutually reinforcing psychological, cultural, economic, and political factors.

One upshot of this is that every system of oppression is ultimately sustained by popular acquiescence – as was pointed out two centuries ago by Hume, and another two centuries earlier by La Boétie:

Nothing appears more surprising to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few; and the implicit submission, with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find, that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore, on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular. The soldan of Egypt, or the emperor of Rome, might drive his harmless subjects, like brute beasts, against their sentiments and inclination: But he must, at least, have led his mamalukes, or prætorian bands, like men, by their opinion.   (David Hume, First Principles of Government.)
Liberty is the only joy upon which men do not seem to insist; for surely if they really wanted it they would receive it. ...
Poor, wretched, and stupid peoples, nations determined on your own misfortune and blind to your own good! You let yourselves be deprived before your own eyes of the best part of your revenues; your fields are plundered, your homes robbed, your family heirlooms taken away. You live in such a way that you cannot claim a single thing as your own; and it would seem that you consider yourselves lucky to be loaned your property, your families, and your very lives. All this havoc, this misfortune, this ruin, descends upon you not from alien foes, but from the one enemy whom you yourselves render as powerful as he is, for whom you go bravely to war, for whose greatness you do not refuse to offer your own bodies unto death. He who thus domineers over you has only two eyes, only two hands, only one body, no more than is possessed by the least man among the infinite numbers dwelling in your cities; he has indeed nothing more than the power that you confer upon him to destroy you. Where has he acquired enough eyes to spy upon you, if you do not provide them yourselves? How can he have so many arms to beat you with, if he does not borrow them from you? The feet that trample down your cities, where does he get them if they are not your own? How does he have any power over you except through you? How would he dare assail you if he had no cooperation from you? What could he do to you if you yourselves did not connive with the thief who plunders you, if you were not accomplices of the murderer who kills you, if you were not traitors to yourselves? You sow your crops in order that he may ravage them, you install and furnish your homes to give him goods to pillage; you rear your daughters that he may gratify his lust; you bring up your children in order that he may confer upon them the greatest privilege he knows – to be led into his battles, to be delivered to butchery, to be made the servants of his greed and the instruments of his vengeance; you yield your bodies unto hard labor in order that he may indulge in his delights and wallow in his filthy pleasures; you weaken yourselves in order to make him the stronger and the mightier to hold you in check. From all these indignities, such as the very beasts of the field would not endure, you can deliver yourselves if you try, not by taking action, but merely by willing to be free. Resolve to serve no more, and you are at once freed. I do not ask that you place hands upon the tyrant to topple him over, but simply that you support him no longer; then you will behold him, like a great Colossus whose pedestal has been pulled away, fall of his own weight and break into pieces.  (
Étienne de la Boétie, Discourse of Voluntary Servitude.)

Which brings us to the finale to The Prisoner.  Which we have to talk about, because just as I read Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner, I also read The Prisoner through the lens of its final episode – making that episode my lens for Danger Man too.  So if you haven’t seen the final episode of The Prisoner, consider this a big SPOILER ALERT stamped over this entire blog.  If you’re spoiler-averse, stop reading now.

Throughout the series, Number Six has been trying to identify Number One, the presumed top authority in the Village, but has never met anybody ranked higher than Number Two.  In the surrealistic final episode, he is offered the chance to become the ruler of the Village (thus seeking to co-opt him into the power structure – like Satan tempting Jesus with the kingdoms of the earth; or Plato dragging the philosophers in the Republic back into the Cave to be philosopher-kings; or the villains of Atlas Shrugged torturing Galt to make him agree to be their dictator; or contemporary pundits urging radical protestors to seek redress through conventional electoral politics), whereupon he at long last confronts and unmasks Number One – only to discover his own face behind the mask.  (There’s a curious parallel here with 2001: A Space Odyssey – incidentally filmed at the same time as The Prisoner, and even on the same lot – which likewise moved from a comparatively realistic beginning to a surrealistic ending, with the protagonist confronting himself.)  Then, upon apparently escaping from the Village and returning to the home he was kidnapped from in the first episode, Six enters his apartment only to have the door whir shut automatically behind him the way doors do in the Village.  And the series ends.  The moral, apparently, is that the whole world is a prison, and that we are in some way responsible for our own imprisonment.

One natural reading of this moral would be in terms of original sin – and it’s a tempting reading, given McGoohan’s semi-Catholicism and his public statements as to Number One’s representing the dark side of each person’s own nature.  Indeed, I think it’s a valid reading – but only of one strand of meaning, and not the particular strand I’m most interested in. 

Philip Sandifer, of the always fascinating TARDIS Eruditorum, finds it “bewildering” that the finale is “treated as though its focus is the scene in which Number Six pulls off the mask of Number One and discovers his own face behind the mask.”  Sandifer agues that the “point of the final episode” is “not that Number Six was Number One all along,” and “certainly not, as some people oddly insist, that the famous opening credits of The Prisoner have been giving the ending away all along” (this refers to the fact that the door to Number Six’s London home has a numeral one on it, as well as to the fact that the exchange “Who is Number One?”—“You are Number Six” can be heard as “You are, Number Six”); rather, the point is “precisely to avoid any sort of sensible explanation of what is going on.” 

But contra Sandifer, the ending makes perfect sense, albeit symbolically rather than realistically.  Just bear in mind the La Boétie—Hume thesis that all systems of domination depend on popular acquiescence, and it becomes only to be expected a) that those who “resign,” who fail to do their part in maintaining that acquiescence, are the ultimate danger to the system; b) that every effort will be expended in attempts to convert such people (the aforementioned focus on conversion rather than killing symbolising power’s dependence on acquiescence); c) that the face behind the power structure that oppresses us will turn out to be our own (i.e., the power we need to combat is not (just) some central ruler that can be overthrown, but rather a pattern of activity maintained in existence by the complicity of all of us); and d) that so long as we continue to sustain that power structure, the prison will be everywhere.  (Offering a somewhat similar Randian reading, Chris Tame takes the final revelation to symbolise “the ‘sanction of the victim’ upon which the despotism of State and Society ultimately rests,” meaning that it is “within ‘Number 1’, one’s self, that the decision is made as to whether one is a ‘prisoner’ of Society or not.”)

Along with such names as Orwell and Huxley, that of Kafka, author of so many tales of individuals caught in a bewildering and absurd authoritarian labyrinth, is frequently mentioned as a point of affinity with The Prisoner.  (McGoohan claimed that he’d never read Kafka; but as Orson Welles’ protégé and admirer, he’d surely at least seen Welles’ film of The Trial.)  What’s worth noting, though, is that as Kafka’s work progresses we see a shift from a vision of authority as a terrifying presence (evidently influenced by his father, as in e.g. “The Judgment” and Metamorphosis) to a vision of authority as an absence, an indefinite deferral – as in The Trial, The Castle, and above all “The Great Wall of China,” where Kafka writes:
Our land is so huge, that no fairy tale can adequately deal with its size. Heaven hardly covers it all. And Peking is only a point, the imperial palace only a tiny dot. It’s true that, by contrast, throughout all the different levels of the world the emperor, as emperor, is great. But the living emperor, a human being like us, lies on a peaceful bed, just as we do. It is, no doubt, of ample proportions, but it could be merely narrow and short. Like us, he sometime stretches out his limbs and, if he is very tired, yawns with his delicately delineated mouth. But how are we to know about that thousands of miles to the south, where we almost border on the Tibetan highlands? Besides, any report which might come, even if it reached us, would get there much too late and would be long out of date. ... If one wanted to conclude from such phenomena that we basically have no emperor at all, one would not be far from the truth.
And the emperor is indeed not merely naked but nonexistent, since no external power actually controls society.  (For my own further development of this idea, see here and here.)

Of the ending, McGoohan said on some occasions that he had “envisaged it from the beginning,” having the “idea for the final episode first of all,” and on other occasions that he hadn’t figured out the ending until writing the final script.  McGoohan’s own producers on The Prisoner offer conflicting evidence as well, one reporting that McGoohan had confessed to him at the last minute that he had gotten “too confused with the project” to “find an ending,” while another insists that the ending had essentially been established in “conversations right at the beginning of the series.”  (In Booth, pp. 156, 208-9.) But reading The Prisoner through the lens of its final episode does not depend on determining how early that finale was envisioned; we can read The Prisoner through the lens of its final episode for the same reason that we can read Danger Man through the lens of The Prisoner – because the finale of The Prisoner is itself a reading of The Prisoner as a whole, just as The Prisoner is (inter alia) a reading of Danger Man.

So those are (some of) the themes I’ll be focusing on as I blog my way through these two series.  Be seeing you!