Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Patrick McGoohan (1929-2009)


He played boxers, a gay priest, an evil scientist in Scanners, and an evil king in Braveheart, but Patrick McGoohan was best known for playing No. 6 in The Prisoner, a character who may or may not have been the same character he played in the earlier series Danger Man (a.k.a. Secret Agent, whence the great title song “Secret Agent Man”). Though my friend Christine Caldwell Ames once dismissed The Prisoner as “the libertarian Gilligan’s Island,” since it depicts repeated, failed escape attempts by a resigned secret agent trapped in a surreal island prison called the Village, the show was markedly stranger and more intelligent than almost anything else on television, and its concluding episodes — including a trial conducted by masked officials representing “Nationalism” and other collectivist impulses, a machine gun battle set to the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” rocket launches, and semi-improvised absurdist dialogue — are among the strangest hours I’ve ever seen on television, up there with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

McGoohan was reportedly influenced by the surrealist G.K. Chesterton novel The Man Who Was Thursday, and his Queens/Ireland/England upbringing seems to have left McGoohan with a sense of both absurdism and moral outrage, something any intelligent libertarian can appreciate (and any rational person trapped in an insane situation). It led to episode plots that should, ideally, cause people to rethink some of their most basic political assumptions, as when No. 6 is told that despite his complaints he is in fact free — because the Village is a democracy, you see, and he’s even allowed to run for office. Who needs escape when you have democracy, after all? One big happy family.

Parodied on The Simpsons at surprising length (for a relatively obscure, old show) with McGoohan doing the voiceover, The Prisoner gave us ambiguous catch phrases such as “Be seeing you” (the standard farewell in the Panopticon-like Village) and “I am not a number, I am a free man!” — which became part of the recurring opening sequence. His most memorable speech may well have been inspired by the same anarchist philosopher who inspired the title of this month’s Debate at Lolita Bar (“Is Intellectual Property Theft?”), by the way. No. 6 says “I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered. My life is my own.” In a similar vein, Proudhon wrote (as one of the debate participants reminded me):

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.

Precisely. Would that Proudhon had seen property as an alternative. No one’s perfect.


--Brad said...

McGoohan didn’t die. He escaped.

Todd Seavey said...

Incidentally, it was Prisoner fan Jacob Levy who told me of McGoohan’s passing — and Jacob who helped me out with the organizing of a “Liberty Awareness Week” back when we were at Brown, the climax of which was a screening in my dorm lounge of Prisoner episodes — of which the only viewer besides me turned out to be student Michelle Boardman, a fellow libertarian who now teaches law at George Mason — and, perhaps troublingly to some, was also the chief defender in Senate hearings from the Justice Department of Bush’s (arguably perfectly traditional) use of “signing statements” to explain which laws he’d consider held in abeyance pending their constitutional review.

Is she freedom-loving No. 6? Or authoritarian No. 2? Does 2 = 6? Six of one, half a dozen of the other? One more Mobius strip in the twisty-turny saga of order and anarchy.

And she and Levy have both blogged on the same site as presumed Obama regulatory czar Cass Sunstein,, come to think of it. It all comes back to Levy — so let’s look at _him_ in greater depth in the next couple days.

Todd Seavey said...

Fun facts about McGoohan’s _Scanners_ co-star Jennifer O’Neill: now sixty, O’Neill has been married and divorced nine times (that’s more than Las Vegas-dwelling Sheena Easton’s four!), was in the short-lived TV series _Cover-Up_ made famous by one of its stars (Jon-Erik Hexum) accidentally killing himself with a blanks-firing pistol, coincidentally accidentally shot herself in the abdomen once, and went from getting an abortion to becoming a devout pro-life Christian who wrote the following in her 2004 autobiography:

“I was told a lie from the pit of hell: that my baby was just a blob of tissue. The aftermath of abortion can be equally deadly for both mother and unborn child. A woman who has an abortion is sentenced to bear that for the rest of her life.”

Very David Cronenberg, in a way.

Jacob T. Levy said...

“It all comes back to Levy รข€” so let’s look at _him_ in greater depth in the next couple days. ”

In the context of The Prisoner, that sounds like I’m going to come under intense surveillance.

Mark said...

I can see why The Simpsons would parody it at such length. The smoke monster on Lost (amongst other things) owes a lot to “the rover” that was seen on The Prisoner. That has to be one of the most visually arresting images ever to grace the boob tube. And that opening sequence? I’ve watched it on youtube, and it’s amazing how McGoohan was able to compress all the backstory you needed into less than two minutes of footage, dialogue, and music. I think it’s the earliest example, before The Simpsons, The Sopranos, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer of just how good television can be.

Mark said...

AMC also has some amazing production photos from The Prisoner on their blog:

Omar Badawi said...

I’m finally going to make the effort to track down all the Patrick McGoohan episodes of Colombo. I believe there are four of them. How about talking about that relationship? Peter Falk and McGoohan were good friends.

Omar Badawi said...

Oh man, they’re easily available on the web, all four of them. There are even a few episodes he directed, and produced, but who cares about that. We want to see the actor. Here are the four Columbo episodes in which he appears: S04E03 – By Dawn’s Early Light – Columbo, S05E03 – Identity Crisis – Columbo, S09E03 – Agenda For Murder (352×264), and S12E06 – Ashes to Ashes – Columbo. Ta ta for now.

Moor Larkin said...

Bit late in the day to table a factual correction, but McGoohan never played a gay priest so far as I know. In ‘Serious Charge’ he played a vicar who was *accused* of being gay, by a vituperative young ne’er-do-well from the village to which the vicar had recently been posted. The idea of the play was to show the corrupting ‘consequences’ of the laws that applied to male homosexuality in Britain at that time. It was 1955.

Intellect said...

I love it how libertarians have claimed The Prisoner as their own. They clearly do not understand the twist at the end, nor have they read McGoohan’s explanation of it.

Get this through your head, libertarians: The WHOLE POINT of the Prisoner is that “there is no such thing as freedom.” McGoohan said this. “Freedom is a myth.” The DESIRE for “freedom and liberty and individualism” is, in and of itself, a form of authoritarianism, because it places the Individual — the I, Number 1 — in the place of authority. Thus, Number 6 WAS Number 1. If you think that the “government” is what you need to rebel against, you’re deluded. The government is there because you put it there. The corporations are there because you buy their products. McGoohan explained this. The enemy is YOURSELF. The desire to “rebel” against “the government” — or anything else external — is a child’s fantasy.

The author of this blog entry even went so far as to lie to readers and say that, at the end of the show, McGoohan’s character is subjected to “a trial conducted by masked officials representing ‘Nationalism’ and other collectivist impulses.” HA! If you actually WATCH the episode, you will see that “collectivist impulses” had nothing to do with it. He was being put on “trial” by EVERYONE — including representatives whose plaques said “Anarchists”! But you didn’t mention that, did you.

You also didn’t mention that, at the end, the authoritarian government decided that they LOVE him. They praised his individuality, and asked him to lead by example. But when he tried to speak, he couldn’t say anything more than the word “I” before his words were drowned out by everyone else saying “I.” This is metaphorical: Pure libertarianism results in nonsense. When everyone’s individual “I” is the most important thing to them, then every Individual person IS an authoritarian — the Village “Number 1″ — and NOTHING gets accomplished.

You are, sadly, doing exactly what McGoohan railed against: You take The Prisoner and you “push, file, stamp, index, and number” it by defining it as “libertarian.” Sad.

Todd Seavey said...

The final revelation that individualism can also be a trap is clearly an ironic twist that doesn’t undermine the anti-authoritarian quality of the rest of the show, just as Nietzsche’s final warning that the ultimate form of the will to power is self-overcoming doesn’t mean he was joking when he suggested resisting _external_ forces of closed-mindedness and conformity.

It’s not as if the Mobius strip of 6 becoming 1 at the end means that it was good all along for him to be subjected to surveillance and control, for instance.

Intellect said...

The twist was not intended to be ironic. McGoohan explicitly stated in interviews that rebellion against external authorities (like the government, or corporations) is unproductive and unnecessary. Furthermore, he stated that he believed that there is nothing “evil” about big government or corporations, because we (the Individuals) PUT them in power by voting for them or by purchasing their products. He specifically said that the whole point of the show is that one must rebel against oneself and not against that which is external. Rebelling against something external from yourself will result in permanent psychological imprisonment (which pretty much describes the Libertarian movement, doesn’t it).

Of course it was not “good” for Number Six to be subjected to surveillance and control. That’s the whole point! There was no “government” or other “external force” responsible for that surveillance and control! It was the SELF that created the surveillance and control.

If Libertarians still fail to grasp this — especially after reading and watching all that McGoohan had to say about it — then I’m sorry, but you’re just deluding yourselves.

Todd Seavey said...

Artists aren’t always the best explicators of their own work. Just because Spike Lee says we’re supposed to come away from _Do the Right Thing_ thinking Malcolm X was right and the non-violence of MLK naive doesn’t mean most people won’t interpret it as a movie poised somewhere between them.

And you can shout “deluded” all you want, but that doesn’t mean the Jews put themselves in Nazi concentration camps, that innocents killed in drug raids pulled the triggers themselves, or that people who have never voted for authoritarians or endorsed authoritarianism are self-oppressing when they get thrown in gulags.

You’re not making sense, and it doesn’t much matter whether Patrick McGoohan — a spy series writer and actor, not a political philosopher, after all — didn’t entirely make sense either. If you have a coherent argument to make against libertarianism, by all means make it (I’ll butt out), but McGoohan’s confusion is hardly a strong argument for your philosophical opponents being deluded.

Intellect said...

Ah, I see. The last, desperate attempt to claim The Prisoner as your own. “It’s CREATOR was mistaken.” “The guy who MADE it was WRONG about what it meant.” Too cute.

Throughout the series, Number Six is subjected to terrible domination. We all agree it’s awful. But they never tell you WHO is doing the domination, until the end. Many viewers simply assume it’s the “government,” but as we learn at the end, it isn’t. That’s not an “ironic twist”; it’s the entire freaking point. The government has absolutely nothing to do with The Village. The highest authorities have no idea of its existence. The Village is a psychological trap that exists inside Number Six’s mind, because he has set himself up as “Number One.”

So yes, “control and surveillance” is a bad thing. No one would argue that point. But the great error of the Libertarian movement is the convenient fantasy that there is a bogeyman… a monster under the bed… a big, bad government that is performing “control and surveillance.” There isn’t. You can point out totalitarian regimes from past history, but that doesn’t justify Libertarians’ preposterous leap that ALL governments are totalitarian. That’s the same dipshit logic that says “Some black people commit crimes; thus all black people are criminals.”

There’s no conspiracy; no demon in the closet. It’s very easy to rebel against that which is external, but it is simply childhood paranoia. That’s the point of the show.

The Prisoner is anti-authoritarian, yes. Libertarianism IS authoritarianism — authoritarianism in which “I” equals “1″ — and that is the precise type of authoritarianism which The Prisoner warns us against.