'Prisoner' actor Patrick McGoohan dies in LA
By ANDREW DALTON – 16 minutes ago
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Patrick McGoohan, an Emmy-winning actor who created and starred in the cult classic television show "The Prisoner," has died. He was 80.
McGoohan died Tuesday in Los Angeles after a short illness, his son-in-law, film producer Cleve Landsberg, said Wednesday.
McGoohan won two Emmys for his work on the Peter Falk detective drama "Columbo," and more recently appeared as King Edward Longshanks in the 1995 Mel Gibson film "Braveheart."
But he was best known as the title character Number Six in "The Prisoner," a surreal 1960s British series in which a former spy is held captive in a small village and constantly tries to escape.
Patrick McGoohan was not a scientist, but the two TV series he starred in (Secret Agent and The Prisoner) said quite a bit about the role of technology in modern society. More important, McGoohan's work celebrated individual freedom--an idea crucial to scientific and technological progress.
Upstream Theater in St. Louis recently presented Starry Messenger, a play about Galileo’s achievements, failures, and conflict with the Church.
Galileo’s life is an obvious choice for dramatization--perhaps too obvious. The clash between science and religion is a popular theme, but most treatments are simplistic and predictable. I’ll come back to this in a moment.
Starry Messenger does an admirable job describing Galileo’s philosophy and science. The two-person dramatization not only explains Galileo’s greatest discoveries, it provides insights concerning his temperament and creative spirit. The setting—Galileo is reunited with his daughter in our own time—provides the opportunity for both Galileo and the audience to assess the impact of his life and work.
The play manages to get across key concepts, such as the laws of the pendulum and phases of the moon, using just a few simple props. It also does justice to the Church, acknowledging that it allowed natural philosophers to discuss the heliocentric theory as long as they did not profess belief in it. Galileo could not stop himself from crossing that line.
There was an intellectual tension within the church that is missing from most accounts of Galileo’s (17th century) life. Judaism and Christianity were slowly evolving. Maimonides (12th century) proposed that religion must not contradict truths discovered through human inquiry. Aquinas (13th century) applied Maimonides’ thinking, analyzing arguments for and against each and every belief. But it was one thing to give reasons for accepted beliefs—and quite another to reject those beliefs based on facts and reason.
We should fight religious dogma that stands in the way of scientific progress. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that religion is the only source of mind-numbing dogma. Government, the Education Establishment, and even the Science Establishment also have their myths and dogmas.
An examination of the lives of other great scientists and inventors will make that abundantly clear. Creative and innovative individuals always meet resistance. Stories about how they overcame the obstacles make great drama.
But there is more to the story. Scientific discoveries are almost always accompanied by new puzzles. Yes. it would be nice to see a series of plays about great scientists and inventors. Not just about how they proved their opponents were wrong—but how they prompted nature to reveal her secrets, and how in the end we were confronted with even greater mysteries.
Back in April I wrote about the role of technology in the popular 1960s TV series Secret Agent. I promised a future post about Patrick McGoohan’s follow on series, The Prisoner.
Most fans believe The Prisoner is an allegorical story about technologically advanced democracies. Specifically, it is about the struggle to maintain one’s individuality in the face of the increasingly sophisticated tactics used by the media, education system, and government to enforce conformity.
With the winners of the U.S. elections talking about bigger government, community service plans, the Fairness Doctrine, a civilian national security force, and “unity over division,” this seems like a good time to discuss The Prisoner.
The Prisoner was an extraordinary TV series—many critics consider it a masterpiece—about a British secret agent who resigns and is promptly drugged and kidnapped. He awakens in “The Village,” an isolated location from which there appears to be no escape. Most of the inhabitants are either brainwashed or submissive. McGoohan plays an iron-willed individualist, known only as Number Six, who is intent on escaping. His captors use various mind control techniques—most of them futuristic—to get him to reveal why he resigned. The Prisoner consists of 17 one-hour episodes filmed in 1967 in the fairyland town of Portmeiron on the coast of Wales.
In other words, The Prisoner is more about the future of society than the future of technology. Though the technology is often intriguing it is in most cases just a MacGuffin—a story element for moving the plot along. For example, sometimes a pulsating light is used in attempts to control Number Six’s mind, but we never learn whether it emits invisible rays or the light itself is the active ingredient.
Certain technologies appear throughout the series. There are cordless phones—though these did not become commercially available until the 1980s. In fact, the FCC did not issue the Carterphone decision (allowing consumers to attach third party equipment to phone lines) until 1968—the year after the series was filmed. Most locations in The Village, indoors as well as outdoors, are monitored by full-color, full-motion video cameras. This would have been technically feasible but extraordinarily complex and expensive at the time. And then there is Rover, a beach ball-like creature (or device?) launched from the sea floor to capture anyone trying to escape.
Advanced technology is particularly evident in specific episodes. In Episode Three (“A, B & C”), the village authorities use a combination of drugs and electronics to manipulate and observe Number Six’s dreams. In Episode Five (“The Schizoid Man”), a combination of plastic surgery and electro shock therapy is used in an attempt to convince Number Six that he is someone else. Episode Six, “The General,” uses an advanced form of hypnosis to impart voluminous knowledge of historical facts to TV viewers.
Episode Thirteen (“Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling”) is very much a sci-fi episode. A machine invented by a Professor Seltzman is used to transfer one person’s mind to the body of another. Episode Fourteen (“Living in Harmony”) uses a combination of drugs and virtual reality technology to make Number Six think he has somehow been transported to a town in the Wild West.
Other details—often subtle—suggest The Prisoner takes place in the future. For example, The Village contains highly eclectic architecture and residents wear distinctive yet strangely uniform clothing. Signage and ID badges are aesthetically pleasing with, however, a strong hint of totalitarianism.
The main message of The Prisoner appears to be that as human society evolves it will become increasingly difficult to be an individualist. The threat comes not from the police, but from ever more sophisticated and covert forms of brainwashing.
Cubans are using cameraphones, memory sticks, and the Internet to share information, criticize the government, and let people both at home and abroad know about small but significant acts of resistance. For example, a video has been circulating showing students at a "prestigious computer science university" confronting Ricardo Alarcón, president of the National Assembly.
Digital technology poses a conundrum for the thugs who rule countries such as Cuba, Iran, and China. They know that their countries will fall hopelessly behind if they prohibit digital technology--and that will fuel opposition and unrest. They also know that digital technology empowers people--which also fuels opposition and unrest. So they try to walk the fine line of permitting limited access.
Digital technology is having a profound impact on geopolitical events. It allows people to record and archive content on an unprecedented scale: emails, text messages, podcasts, pictures, and videos. It also enables people to circumvent censorship and spread the truth.
Digital technology is being used not only to write history, but to make history.