Much has been written about the future technology depicted in Star Trek and its sequels. Another TV series (Danger Man) and its follow-on (The Prisoner) are also notable for their fascinating portrayal of advanced technology.
This post will focus on the technology from Danger Man, a.k.a. Secret Agent. Later, I will write a longer essay on the technology and socio-political context of The Prisoner.
Danger Man was produced in the UK during the early 1960s. It’s about the global adventures of a Cold War era British secret agent, John Drake, who is played by Patrick McGoohan. Though Danger Man is not set in the future, Drake frequently uses technology that we assume is withheld from the public for cost and/or national security reasons.
The Prisoner was filmed in the fairytale coastal town of Portmeirion, Wales in the late 1960s. It’s about a secret agent (again played by Patrick McGoohan) who resigns only to be kidnapped and imprisoned in “The Village.” McGoohan’s character is known thereafter as “Number Six.” Unlike Danger Man, The Prisoner is clearly science fiction, often featuring bizarre mind control technology. Though McGoohan denied that Number Six was John Drake that was probably for legal reasons; McGoohan himself resigned from Danger Man to produce The Prisoner.
I’m a fan of the two series for several reasons. The producers were unafraid to present the struggle for individual liberty as a battle between good and evil. However, the characters were often complex, and the dialogue was generally intelligent. Though most episodes contained violence, it was usually in the form of fistfights; John Drake and Number Six relied mainly on their wits and almost never on deadly weapons. Danger Man dramatizes Cold War espionage; The Prisoner shows how the mass media and even democratic institutions could be manipulated to take away our freedoms.
The technology in Danger Man consisted mainly of advanced spy tools. The gadgets performed familiar functions such as eavesdropping and tracking—but their performance and small size exceeded what was possible in the 1960s and in some cases even today.
Danger Man gadgets included a battery-powered shaver with built-in tape recorder; a self-adhesive, thimble-size telephone bug requiring no direct connections; a cigarette lighter with concealed camera; and a cigarette lighter that doubled as a two-way radio. There was also a thimble-size location beacon and a larger compatible electronic compass. Gadgets and microfilm were often hidden in shoes, pencils, briefcases, and canes. Drake almost always operated alone but sometimes rigged up noise- and smoke-making devices to create the illusion of a SWAT team at just the right moment.
The smallness of the eavesdropping, tracking, and two-way radio devices would not seem impressive were it not for their extraordinary range and reliability. Today there are cell phones not much bigger than John Drake’s cigarette lighter that can perform all of these tasks plus take pictures and even short videos. However, cell phones require extensive infrastructure support.
Somehow, Drake is able to eavesdrop on conversations and track individuals using concealed devices with little room for batteries and presumably no Global Positioning System satellites, no mobile phone networks, and no external antennas. All of this was envisioned at a time when simple integrated circuits were just coming to market.
Danger Man correctly predicted the further enhancement of devices for recording and communicating. Understandably, it failed to anticipate digital electronics, which has made audio tape and photographic film essentially obsolete.
The ideals and optimism of Danger Man are reflected not only in its story lines and its hero’s personal integrity, but the assumption that free and open societies are more likely to gain and hold technological leadership. The series is as enjoyable today as it was in the 1960s—perhaps more so. It challenges the modern entertainment industry view that sophistication and moral goodness are mutually exclusive.
But arguably the best thing about Danger Man is that it set high standards for its sequel, The Prisoner.