The reason The Prisoner is so well-remembered today is because of the mysteries surrounding both the Village and its masters, led by (the ever-changing) 'Number Two'. Throughout the season's run, the show kept viewers guessing: was the place run by the British government, to interrogate both enemy agents and domestic spies who might be changing their allegiance? Was it run by a foreign government, or perhaps an unaffiliated group who worked for whatever nation could pay its fee? Why was Number Two constantly being replaced? Was there a Number One?
Number Six (the series's main character; his name was never used) is shown in the opening credits resigning his (presumably intelligence-related) position in anger. Though he immediately goes back to his flat to pack his things and leave, he is knocked out by gas and kidnapped. He wakes up to find himself in The Village, along with other persons who go by numbers and are also presumably secret agents of some sort. He is repeatedly interrogated about why he resigned, and throughout the series is exposed to various psychological tactics to get him to reveal what he knows. Naturally, he uses every means to attempt an escape, and over time becomes more and more canny about turning the tables on his captors, as well as getting information about the Village. In the final episode, Number Six apparently gets many of the answers he seeks... or does he? The ending is as enigmatic as the rest of the series.
The Prisoner was produced in a sort of colorful, pop-art style, which was quite popular at the time (very similar to The Avengers, or Batman and Green Hornet in the U.S.). Sequences within episodes were sometimes filmed in a recognizably psychedelic style (or at least, the studio's idea of psychedelia), and zany, unpredictable elements would often surface within the storylines. This atmosphere contributed to the cat-and-mouse nature of the plot, in which every move that Number Six made was closely watched by hidden camera, and various elaborate stratagems were undertaken to break him psychologically and get him to reveal his secrets.
The series poses questions about the nature of freedom and the constraints upon the individual by society to conform to a popular ethic or viewpoint, or risk being punished. It also questions the nature of reality and our perceptions of it. Although produced decades ago, The Prisoner anticipates our increasingly monitored society - one in which non-conformists may find themselves spirited away to strange hidden locations where they are constantly interrogated without benefit of legal protection. A product of a volatile period during the Cold War, the show also had a decidedly unique take on the Us Vs. Them mentality. Number Six doesn't know who his captors are or exactly what information they want - or what they might do with it once they have it. There is the possibility that they are his own government.
The final episode was written by series star Patrick McGoohan in a fit of creativity over a weekend (reportedly in the face of quick cancellation); viewers apparently found it so confusing and unsatisfying that they flooded the ITV station with so many telephone calls that they switchboard system was damaged. Similarly, McGoohan himself was so hounded by viewers that he was forced to withdraw from public life for a time. In any case, it remains - like the rest of the series - a mystery which everyone must work out for himself.
[Note: See entry on McGoohan's earlier spy-TV character in Secret Agent.]
Episode List: (title - air date)
"Arrival" - Oct 1, 1967
"The Chimes of Big Ben" - Oct 8, 1967
"A B and C" - Oct 15, 1967
"Free For All" - Oct 22, 1967
"The Schizoid Man" - Oct 29, 1967
"The General" - Nov 5, 1967
"Many Happy Returns" - Nov 12, 1967
"Dance of the Dead" - Nov 26, 1967
"Checkmate" - Dec 3, 1967
"Hammer Into Anvil" - Dec 10, 1967
"It's Your Funeral" - Dec 17, 1967
"A Change of Mind" - Dec 31, 1967
"Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" - Jan 7, 1968
"Living in Harmony" - Jan 14, 1968
"The Girl Who Was Death" - Jan 21, 1968
"Once Upon a Time" - Jan 28, 1968
"Fall Out" - Feb 4, 1968