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!


  1. Tried to comment before, trying again.

  2. Ok, looks like you fixed the problem. I'll go back to listening to "L'Arlesienne."