The Prisoner: Checkmate
The Prisoner is a 1967 British television series, starring Patrick McGoohan as “Number 6,” a top-level government agent who resigns his post. As a result, he’s kidnapped and imprisoned in “The Village”, where his captors hope to interrogate him for “information.” The series documents Number 6′s repeated escape attempts and the progressively more extreme methods employed by his captors to break his will.
One pastime in The Village is chess on a giant board with the citizens acting as pieces. However, the pieces aren’t allowed to make moves on their own, rather, two players in high seats wielding megaphones call out moves of which the pieces must dutifully execute.
During the game, Number 6 resists making the move he’s given. After discussing a potential escape with the woman representing the queen (Number 8 – Rosalie Crutchley), a stout man playing the rook (Ronald Radd) performs the ultimate rebellious act: making a move of his own and without orders. He’s carted away to the hospital by ambulance.
Number 2 (Peter Wyngarde) invites Number 6 to observe Rook’s hospital “rehabilitation.” He’s been confined until dehydrated and desperate for water. He’s then placed in a room containing several water coolers. An electric shock is administered whenever he reaches for a drink on his own volition. Only when a voice over a speaker says that it’s okay is the shock withheld and the patient allowed to have some water. Number 2 tells Number 6, “In this society, one must learn to conform.”
Later, both outside, Number 6 confronts the nervous Rook with the potential of escape. They begin working together, and steal a video camera.
Number 8 is also taken in for rehabilitation. She’s hypnotized and told she’s in love with Number 6. She’s also given a locket containing a transistor – a monitoring device of the woman’s vital signs. The idea to is to keep track of Number 6 through Number 8′s proximity to him.
The Rook and Number 6 meet at the beach, where Rook is doing something technical with the camera they stole earlier. He says he needs a transistor to complete his modifications.
Number 6 finds Number 8. Number 8 naively shows Number 6 the locket, thinking he had given it to her. When Number 6 realizes the locket is electronic and contains a transistor, he takes the locket and gives it to Rook.
That evening, Number 6 uses the modified camera to send a may day call. He gets a response from a ship. Rook is dispatched to sea in a life-raft, along with the camera as an electronic beacon that will attract the rescue ship.
Number 6 and several other prisoners that desire escape arrive at Number 2′s. Inside Number 2′s office, the beacon is being monitored. The signal abruptly stops. Sensing that something has gone wrong, Number 6 runs out to the beach to find the raft ashore, but abandoned. Rook is nowhere to be found. In the distance is the rescue boat.
A desperate Number 6 paddles out on the raft to the boat. Once on board, he is welcomed by the crew. Unfortunately, Number 2 appears on a monitor, informing Number 6 that the ship belonged to The Village all along. But that’s not all. Rook appears on the screen. He thought the escape was a trap all along, and deliberately botched the futile escape attempt. The other prisoners hoping for escape are captured and undergoing hospital “rehabilitation.”
In a final fit of frustration, Number 6 tries to commandeer the boat for himself, beating up the crew. But The Village has one last move: Rover appears from beneath the water. The butler returns a pawn to the the chessboard.
One strength the prisoners have is sheer numbers. They could conceivably band together and revolt against The Village. But by instilling paranoia, mistrust, and doubt through hospital rehabilitations, peer pressure, and planting of spies, no prisoner can fully trust another. Therefore, any collaborative escape effort is highly unlikely and revolt dissipated.
The episode’s title “Checkmate” is quite appealing: it refers to the literal board game of chess, the way Number 2 eventually beats Number 6 at the end of the episode, and Number 8 monitoring Number 6 (“checking” up on him) while believing she’s in love with him (his “mate”).
In the past, there have been human behavior experiments that demonstrate the suppression of individuality to peer pressure.
1. Expert Peer Pressure: The Milgram Experiment
A person receives orders from a superior to administer an electric shock to a prisoner. It was found that many people were willing to do this if they were assured that the superior would be responsible for the harm inflicted on the prisoner. Supposedly abdicated of any responsibility, many of the participants were surprisingly willing to administer lethal doses of electric shocks, demonstrating that the excuse of “just following orders” can sometimes override one’s moral responsibility.
2. Normative Influence: The Asch Conformity Experiment
Individuals may suppress a known, obvious truth to avoid voicing a different opinion from a group (Normative Influence). Subjects were told to match two lines of the same length. The answer is obvious, however other people in the room (all planted) were told to say a blatantly incorrect answer was the right one. The majority of individuals voicing a wrong answer often leads the test subject to say a falsehood is true, even though they very well know it’s wrong. This shows how the pressure to conform can sometimes override one’s public version of the truth.
3. Response to Captivity: The Stanford Prison Experiment
A group of “normal” people were given the chance to play prisoner and captor. The individuals took to the experiment all too well, with the captors exhibiting “sadistic” behavior and some of the captives traumatized. The experiment had to be called off early as it was proving too traumatic to the participants. This shows how when a large group of people play specific roles, the roles begin to define their personalities.
These experiments demonstrate that society is much more complex than a collection of individuals. Society influences our personal behavior to a large degree without our awareness. Because individual behavior is so malleable at the behest of a group, there is the paranoid thought that the “powers that be” (government, organized religion, military, corporations) could employ peer pressure of the above nature to subconsciously influence a population. Of course, ethics would be ignored in the name of power.
In The Prisoner, The Village applies these tactics to make Number 6 conform, after which it is hoped he’ll confess his secret information. Eventually, one central conflict is Number 6′s determination to rebel against this conformist desire of The Village. The show becomes more than just a prisoner attempting to escape his captors – it comments on the nature of society itself, and how any individual must accept a conflict between the desires of society and our own free will.
Next Episode: Chimes Of Big Ben
Previous Episode: Dance Of The Dead
The Prisoner Online: Checkmate
iTunes Store Link: CheckMate – The Prisoner (Classic)