Who is Number 1? My theory

The problem, for me, with most "Prisoner" explanations is that they go for the cute, the obvious, and the clever, and simply overlook anything which doesn't fit. The most famous of these theories is the "#6 is #1" theory, occasioned by a particularly-stressed reading of the credits dialogue: "Who is Number One?" "You are, Number Six!" It is an extraordinarily cute conceit, full of wit and based on bantering wordplay and misperceptions which is at the root of some of the best fiction in the English language.

And yet, it falls short of convincing me -- far short. There are simply too many scenes in the series when #2 is on the telephone to a superior (or at least somebody he is taking great pains to call "Sir," often as though his life depended on it), while we clearly see that #6 is knocked out on an operating table, pacing dourly in his flat, or otherwise occupied with some commonplace activity which precludes his being on the phone at the same time, arranging his own interrogation. Come on, it just does not work!

Nor could the Butler (deftly and silently portrayed by Angelo Muscat) be #1; I'm fairly sure there are at least a couple of sequences in which he is clearly shown to be busy butlering whilst the #2-of-the-week is engaged in that life-or-death phonecall. I know that the final montage, where the butler follows Drake #6 home again to flat #1, is ever-so-tempting for either of these theories, which are so deucedly clever, yet which are so damnably flawed.

Here is my theory, which is mine, and which belongs to me. Ahem!

There was a #1, and as it turns out he was precisely as one might imagine him to have been. He was the head of a secret cadre of agents, allegiance unspecified, who have utilized their collective influence, connections, and power to set up the strange caged paradise called The Village. I will keep you in suspense no longer (as it is my belief that it would accomplish nothing useful), and state his name: Arthur Butterworth. On the day that Drake resigns, one of the Village minions conveys the information to Mr. Butterworth. "Aha," he trumpets, "the day has come at last! Long have I developed these secret interrogation techniques, whereby I could break the resolve of any man, while still leaving his personality whole for the sake of remorse. I shall demonstrate it to the rest of you, and you will see that only he who is the master of these techniques may rightfully claim the rank of #1! Go forth at once, two of you, to Drake's abode. Use the 'Gas of Peace' on him and bring him back here forthwith!"

The Undertaker and his Assistant scurry forth to perform the kidnapping itself. Meanwhile, Mr. Butterworth summons his wife, and tells her, "Come, Lovey, you know the plan. Since it is necessary to disorient him, we must act as swiftly as possible. Bring the moving van!" And the Butterworths climb into the cab of their lorry, following the route of the Undertaker's hearse down the M-1.

The Undertaker having spirited away the limp form of ex-Agent John Drake, Mr. & Mrs. Butterworth waste no time in cleaning out the possessions from Drake's flat, and moving in their own. "Quickly, quickly, we must waste no time," mutters Mr. Butterworth, fussily supervising the moving crew. Finally, the job is accomplished, and the lorry takes off to bring some of Drake's toilet articles to the Village, and the remaining belongings carted off to a storage bin. Meanwhile, Arthur Butterworth preens himself in the sitting-room formerly occupied by Drake, and pours a couple of brandies for himself and his spouse. "Excellent," he chuckles to himself, "all has gone off precisely like clockwork! By this time next week, we shall have all the secrets we could ever wish from Mr. Drake -- or should we by now refer to him as '#6'? -- and I shall have proven my methods, once and for all." Mr. Butterworth sips his brandy; or rather, in his excitement, he drains the glass. "Nothing shall stand between me and total domination of the intelligence community across the entire world! Nothing shall compare with my glory, and the utter enslavement of all mankind to my will shall inexorably follow! Nothing can possibly go wrong -- URRRKKKK!!! ACCCKKKK!!! PLORPPPPHH!!!" And the lifeless form of Mr. Arthur Butterworth (felled by a toxic reaction to brandy not unlike that of the late lamented Beaky Thwaite) falls to the floor.

Meanwhile, back at The Village, there is Chaos (no, not Kaos!) absolute. Now that their fearless leader has gone, taking his foolproof ultimate interrogation plan with him to the next world, what are they going to do? They can't simply return Drake to his flat; Mrs. Butterworth is already in residence (and in shock at the sudden demise of her husband), and there is no time to summon back Drake's possessions. They don't want to simply bump him off (although there are at least a couple of suggestions from the lower ranks to do so), because that would be, well, wasteful; and besides, it wouldn't be sporting.

One of the henchmen speaks up. He is an amiable Australian, portly, with one glass eye, having given its predecessor in the service of, well, some country. With the passage of a decade or so, he might someday come to resemble a shabby and none-too-successful barrister up at the Old Bailey. "I have a suggestion," he says. "We are presently without a leader, without a #1. I propose that each of us in turn try his hand at interrogating Mr. Drake, or should I say #6. Whichever of us succeeds at breaking him, within the limits previously set by our late and lamented master, shall succeed to the position of #1 on a permanent basis."

There are a few gasps, but more than a few nods of approval at this idea, because each of them has his own idea as to what the late Mr. Butterworth's method would have been. After all, he had taken each of them into his confidence, pumped them for ideas, and had been such a good manipulator of his minions that each of them thought that he had supplied the essential mode d'emploi to their master. Each one being certain that his method alone would be the successful one, none begrudged any other to attempt his method first. It would make his own victory all the more clinching.

"And to what number," says another henchman at last, "shall this Official Substitute be privy?"

"Why, #2, of course!" chuckles the agent from the Antipodes. "That way the succession, when it should happen, will be immediate. Of course, we must still hold one another from excesses, as well as attempts of takeover by force, through a sort of a system of checks and balances."

"What if," proposes another henchman, "each successive #2 is beholden only to the person who has been chosen, in turn, to be his or her successor?" There are general assents to this idea, because frankly, none of them trusts any of the others a tuppence-worth.

And so it is that each of the henchmen tries his or her lot to try to persuade #6, the former Secret Agent John Drake, to spill his secrets, beginning with the essential question: "Why did you resign?"

The irony here is that it is bloody obvious to anybody who has ever watched the series "Danger Man" (or "Secret Agent"), or who ever even heard the song "Secret Agent Man," has a pretty good idea of why he resigned: he was sick and tired of putting his life on the line week after week. He was simply burned out. And it's bad enough that most men (particularly of that generation) who burn out absolutely refuse to talk about it with anyone, even with their nearest and dearest; Drake's a Brit, and would rather face all the perils of the world than even admit that he had burned out. Thus, ironically, he winds up putting his life (or at least his sanity) on the line once more, week after week.

That, in sum, is my theory, which is mine, and which belongs to me, ahem! I defy anybody to pick any holes in it based on what was shown and said in the television series. (I'm aware that Patrick McGoohan himself is on record as supporting a psychologically- and politically-based version of the "#6 is #1" theory, but who gives a fig for what he thinks? He's just an actor!)

Once one has graciously let go of the "#6 is #1" theory, and willingly accepted my suggested sequence of events above as by far the most convincing, things begin to fall into place. Each #2 in turn is responsible to his successor, who might even be a sadistic maniac who wants him dead. The Australian henchman was just about the only one really respected by all, so he was merely put into durance vile and summoned back for a second chance toward the end. The other instance of two #2s played by the same actor is easy to explain: they're twins, kind of like the Krays except that one of them is much nastier than the other. And Mrs. Butterworth played out, as closely as she was able to do, the scheme that she imagined her late husband had designed, in which it was important that Drake be allowed to get free and find his way back to his own flat, only to find the Butterworths there in his stead.

This still leaves the final episode to explain away, but at least now one has a chance. It used to be that Prisoner fans, discussing each episode, would come up with theories about how each episode worked as a commentary, i.e., as representational of some social paradigm, in addition to being an adventure pretty much laid out in a literal fashion on the screen. The problem is that, when they would come to episode #17, they would have only the social commentary, but no way of explaining away the literal actions. Thus the question, "who is the guy behind the #1 robe and monkey mask who looks like #6?" would be answered, "Well, you see, it represents the fact that #6 is actually #1 and--." But wait, I just blew that theory to Kingdom Come. Who is the guy behind the monkey mask?

When you have to come up with literal answers, you have to actually do some thinking. There was one guy, referred to only as "Curtis," in the episode "The Schizoid Man," who was either a double for Drake or was surgically altered to become one. Maybe this is another double, or else Curtis didn't really die after all when Rover rolled over him. The whole proceedings of that final episode are just flash and dazzle meant to confuse #6, in a last attempt to make him crack. Not very "cool," but it's consistent, isn't it?

Copyright © 2003 by Matthew B. Tepper

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