Danger Man, The Prisoner, And The Myth Of TV’s Golden Age
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/16/14
There is a subtly pernicious myth that goes around these days that today’s television- especially cable television- shows are part of what is considered tv’s real Golden Age, as opposed to the claims of the 1950s, with its live teleplays and often seminal and emergent forms of television- many of which, like westerns and anthologies, have bitten the dust. We are supposed to overlook the utterly unoriginal sitcoms and faux reality shows and contest shows, the mind-numbing cop and medical serials that abandoned the stand alone episode format for bad serial storytelling that makes the usual dull daytime soap operas and telenovelas seem inventive, as well as ignore said dying soap operas, and other daytime fare, such as horrid talk shows and judge shows, the corporatization of PBS, the dilution and Lowest Common Denominator pandering of once promising educational cable channels like The History Channel- which now makes money off garbage collection shows, and the utter vacuity of most of the ‘original’ programming offered by Netflix and other non-cable entities, all because of a Golden Age, supposedly started at the turn of the century by premium cable shows like The Sopranos (the ‘best tv show ever’), buoyed by superb fare like Mad Men (yet another cable soap opera created by people who don’t understand that form), The Wire, Breaking Bad, and the latest so-called greatest show out there- The Walking Dead, an abominably predictable fourth rate knock off of a lesser George Romero film.
In a word, this is sheer nonsense, because even if we were to discount the 98% of programming that is NOT some of the so-called crown jewels of cable television, even those jewels are laughable to be claimed as Golden, in comparison to earlier television gems, due to bad writing, ADD editing and pacing, unrealistic plots and a comic book level psychological take on ‘reality.’
A friend of mine summed up how bad these shows really are in a Facebook post that took on the granddaddy of all premium cable ‘masterpieces’:
Watching the pilot of ‘The Sopranos’ after much cajoling.
Less than ten minutes in, and Tony- a MOB BOSS- has had his nephew pull his car into a parking lot to confront directly a man who owes him money. The nephew gets out of the car and attacks the man, with literally dozens of witnesses, the guy runs away, Tony HIMSELF gets behind the wheel of the car and chases the guy around the front lawn of this very crowded business complex, running him over and then punching him in the face several times as he screams, ‘Where’s my fucking money!?’
And I’m sure the show will come up with some cheap contrivance for why he’s not in jail from episode 1, but fuck it, I’m ten minutes in and already questioning the ‘amazingness’ of a show that can’t even build a plausible sense of reality in its own universe, let alone avoid clichés and bullshit. Fuck.
I responded by stating The Sopranos was basically a trite, unrealistic Goodfellas knockoff, and, as great a film as that was, even Goodfellas was very lacking in any real sense of Mafia realism.
Now, to be up front, I never had premium cable tv, and I ditched my basic cable tv when the switch over from analog to digital took place, and I could get television with good old rabbit ears, in my area (previously, tv signals were too weak, sans basic cable). But, my places of employment all had cable subscriptions and I would watch some of these shows on lunch hours or breaks. I saw 10-12 full Sopranos episodes, plus 15-20 minute segments of 15-20 other episodes, and my friend’s assessment of the show was, if anything, generous. I’ve also seen 7-8 full episodes of The Walking Dead, with a handful of other parts found online, or sent to me by fans of my website, Cosmoetica, and found it ludicrously bad. As for The Wire and Breaking Bad? I’ve only been sent 5-10 minute clips of supposedly ‘great’ or classic scenes from these shows and been stupefied at how mediocre, at best, they were. Breaking Bad’s premise is, laughingly, a nerd’s revenge fantasy writ large. And with Mad Men, I watched and reviewed the first five seasons on Netflix, and while a good soap opera the first three seasons, the last two were not as good, and seasons six and seven supposedly don’t rate as good as the early seasons, according to even hardcore fans.
This all seems to be part of a trend that takes to bashing older television at the expense of this newer junk. Now, I’m the last person to buy into myths of any sort, and I don’t believe the past is always better, even if sometimes it is- just compare today’s prose fiction and poetry to the pre-MFA writing mills era. There was bad in the pre-1980s era of television, just as there was good, and the same holds true for the post-1980s era. The problem is that the later era saw the explosion of television networks with Fox, netlets, cable, and then the Internet and services like Hulu and Netflix, to the point that shows that were canceled in the 1960s, with audience numbers and shares that would rank them in the Bottom 10 then, wd be considered MONSTER hits now, with their stars, known by just 10 million of the now 330 million Americans, adorning mainstream magazines, as if they were as well known as the film stars of Hollywood’s studio era. But, the fact of the matter is that, like many media, where a golden age occurs a decade or two after its start, the same held true for television. What is on now is detritus, and with hundreds of national, global, and even local channels, and the micro-fracturing of audiences, shows with ratings that would have led them to cancellation thirty years ago (see the abysmal Duck Dynasty- the reigning crap king cable television ‘hit’) are now called a phenomenon, even though literally 95% of the public has never watched a single thirty seconds of it- the very inverse of the Bottom Ten of 1970 being monster hits that I just mentioned. This is so, even though they more clearly constitute the famed ‘vast wasteland’ that former FCC Chairman Newt Minow decried television was in his infamous1961 speech, even as television was, in that day and age, just entering its true Golden Age of the 1960s and 1970s.
That was the era that gave us the whole spy television genre (which spawned the main subject of this essay, Danger Man), surreal science fiction (such as The Twilight Zone, The Outer Limits, Star Trek, Doctor Who, and The Prisoner), the start of great network news journalism, including the magazine format pioneered by 60 Minutes, great sitcoms (from high concept greats like Gilligan's Island and Get Smart- a spoof on the spy genre, to masterpieces like The Odd Couple and the Norman Lear social sitcoms) to the full fledged emergence of PBS and the pinnacle of the miniseries format, among others.
Yet, to supposed bastions of culture, like the New York Times, which ran a laughably bad article, by Neil Genzlinger, some months ago it was not.
Some choice claims the critic made:
The problem with the ready availability of this old stuff — don’t even get me started on Internet streaming — is that it forces us into a wistful but abstract longing for what was. And the reality is: All this retro TV is too much of a good thing, or, more correctly, too much of a thing that wasn’t really as good as memory makes it seem. It’s fine to pay respect to the shows of yore, to acknowledge and admire them for delineating and expanding the form and so on. But to actually watch 50-year-old shows all day? I’d rather rip out my eyeballs.
Sure, it’s fun to indulge occasionally — once a week, say. Maybe you’ll get lucky and stumble on a 1966 episode of “Bewitched” called “Man’s Best Friend,” where a young actor named Richard Dreyfuss, still a teenager, made one of his first appearances. Or perhaps you’ll hit upon one of the two “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” episodes from the 1950s directed by the unknown Robert Altman.
But if you’re watching this fare all day, every day, you need help, because “venerable” doesn’t necessarily mean “still watchable.” Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound in the television of the distant and even not-so-distant past. Too much of this will turn your brain to mush as surely as too much of today’s reality TV will.
Now, as mentioned, undoubtedly there was bad television 50 years ago, and, in fact, most television was bad then. The difference is there was undeniably great tv then, too, and there is not today, yet critics are not only oblivious to this, but, as noted, actively champion bad television as great television. Moreover, there were attempts to be great, whereas today’s television shows all try to be hip, slick, dark, as if that will make the soap operatic Mad Men a deeper and better drama than, say, the first five seasons of The Waltons- the Richard Thomas years. Or that it will make Breaking Bad a better take on criminality than the original Hawaii Five-O. In a trend that started in the 1980s, with the serialization (and almost always concomitant soap operatization) of dramas, out of their decades old stand alone episode format, modern writers have simply not been trained to write quality drama, as the serialization of tv dramas has almost always led to The 15th Minute Phenomenon- a term referring to the habit of old quarter hour movie serials jamming all the relevant action of the episode into a thrill packed final minute that meant the first 14 minutes were mere filler. In turn, this has led to shows trying to round out most of the rest of their shows with 15th minutes, which has led to the utter distortion of drama AWAY from reality, even as champions of the new, like Genzlinger, utterly miss this trend.
Note his claim: Sluggish pacing, wooden acting, wince-inducing jokes and obvious plot twists abound in the television of the distant and even not-so-distant past.
Yet, in reality, to watch these old shows is to watch how people, then and now, ACTUALLY do act, sans a need to thrill and electrify….from the first ten seconds, or, to quote other like advertising schemes, that unwittingly advertise their products’ flaws, it’ll blow you away, and you’ll need to hold on to your seat, and listen to just eight little words the lead characters says, amongst other über-meta-hyperbolisms. Of course, things don’t really unfold like an ADD person perceives them, even in the 21st Century. Two decades ago, people were warned about what was called the MTV pace of music videos, and that has- as predicted- infected film, tv, radio, and even video games, as well as the desire to test and tweet and fart one’s existence all over cyberspace. Perhaps all this pacing has led to ADD and some of the claimed autistic problems of today’s youth? As for wooden acting? Yes, some old Westerns (the worst of the dramatic lot) had wooden acting, but look at old The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents episodes, or the great live classics, and the combination of great writing, acting, directing, and the natural pace plus dramatic concision, is astounding, compared to the truly degenerate forms of said skills today. One is lucky if one gets 2 out of those 5 qualities today. 3 is rare, while 4 or 5 are simply not attained, for those skills are all worse now, especially when we have so many shows today that employ ‘actors’ who, decades ago, would be amateur dinner theater actors. And today’s sitcoms are rife with bad comic actors. There are no Carroll O’Connors nor Jack Klugmans on sitcoms, nor is James Gandolfini in a league with Richard Thomas nor Patrick McGoohan. And, sorry, but Tim Allen is not and has never been at Jackie Gleason’s level, nor had his range. As for wince inducing jokes? That is the only type that abounds in today’s canned comedies- most of which are run to death (see should’ve been canceled 15 years ago The Simpsons). There is nothing on with the wit and sophistication of a Maxwell Smart retort, nor the Absurdist depths of a typical Gilligan’s Island plot. And, obvious plot twists? This is from a daft critic, who like many others, thought the ridiculously bad television show, Lost, was a masterpiece? Get real, Neil.
Then he lists some supposedly old shows that are bad, yet he mixes up obviously bad shows with solid to great ones (time frame is of no value, only quality, then or now), and shows from the 1950s with those from this century, as if they are somehow hermetically sealed from each other and today’s crap:
‘I LOVE LUCY’ (premiere: 1951) Yeah, I know; it’s at or near the top of a lot of Best TV Series of All Time lists, and rightly so. In its time, it was defining. But today the broad humor draws only the occasional chuckle. The show is like your high school girlfriend: Just because you loved Lucy once doesn’t mean you still do.
An always overrated show, and, contrary to claims, it didn’t invent the sitcom format, it just was the most popular of its time. But, have there been 5 comedies since 1990 equal or better? Seinfeld was The Abbott And Costello Show Redux, and Friends was generic and a mess, in many ways. Next:
‘THE HONEYMOONERS’ (1955) Same problem, only louder. Couples defined by screaming seem more sad than funny today.
This was a great show with far more depth than I Love Lucy, and for a critic to state the second sentence about this show says all one needs to know about a critic’s being utterly clueless. No one will be watching, much less writing about, The Big Bang Theory (what?, you say, reading this) in 2039, much less 2539. However, I’m confident Gleason and his characters will be analyzed as pioneers and greats in the medium in that century.
THE MANY LOVES OF DOBIE GILLIS’ (1959) Considering that it gave us one of the most memorable characters in television’s first half-century, the beatnik Maynard G. Krebs (Bob Denver), this series is remarkably drab. Teenagers perhaps found that it spoke to them. If those same people, with a lifetime of perspective now in their heads, were to watch it today, the memory of that would make them flush with embarrassment. At their age, that would constitute a health risk.
A bad show, and this has nothing to do with its era of production and airing.
‘GILLIGAN’S ISLAND’ (1964) Considering the cultural impact it had, this show wasn’t around for long, but if you were a child when it was on, it looms large. Such characters! Such a predicament! Preserve that innocence by not watching it again, because most of the episodes were actually kind of lame, and some dismaying stereotypes floated through the island from time to time.
This is the finest example of pop cultural Absurdism ever on American television, and, in many ways, far purer an example of such than the many British tv shows cited as such (see Monty Python’s Flying Circus, or Canadian and American equivalents like SCTV and Saturday Night Live). Samuel Beckett would have loved this show, and, as for stereotypes, that’s always been a problem- just look at any The Sopranos episode to see how this hasn’t changed.
‘GREEN ACRES’ (1965) Speaking of stereotypes, there was this empty-headed series. Along with “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Gomer Pyle” and a few others, it made sure “rural” and “stupid” would be wrongly linked for years to come.
A mediocre show, then and now, regardless of its being rural and 1960s.
‘WELCOME BACK, KOTTER’ (1975) Love the John Sebastian song; hate the hair and the sight of John Travolta. Even if Mr. Travolta hadn’t mangled Idina Menzel’s name at the Oscars, I don’t think I could take hearing the phrase “up your nose with a rubber hose” again.
Much like Good Times, on CBS, this ABC show was a terrific comedy in Year One, as well as a deft comic critique on 1970s urban poverty, and then it was sabotaged by a stereotyped breakout star character (John Travolta’s Vinny Barbarino and Jimmie Walker’s J.J. Evans on Good Times) and actor defections that led it to a shorter and worse run than expected.
‘DALLAS’ (1978) What’s dismaying isn’t so much that this series was ever on, it’s that it ran for 13 years and then was revived in 2012.
A mediocre soap that got popular. But, it was never a particularly good show, even by soap opera standards (much less the lesser night time soap standards).
‘BOY MEETS WORLD’ (1993) This was and still is a wonderful show. I just don’t want to see it on TV again, because its mere presence might remind me of the sequel that just started, “Girl Meets World,” which doesn’t come close to clearing the bar the original set.
Seriously? This The Wonder Years wannabe garbage is held up as a classic by whom? And this critic is actually paid for such critique? And yet this critic still finds the worst possible and personally subjective reason to dismiss it?
‘SEX AND THE CITY’ (1998) It’s perhaps not quite “vintage” yet, but this series already has the feel of a show whose original fans, when they’re older and wiser, might upon revisiting it say: “Gosh, I really didn’t know anything back then, did I? And some of those clothing choices didn’t age well.”
The words good and classic have NEVER been used in regards to this show: STRAWMAN!
So, let me return to the initial premise of this essay, that the claims of a modern 21st Century Golden Age for television is bunkum, just as the claims for a Golden Age of television existing in the ‘live television’ era of the 1940s and 50s was. The real Golden Age of television actually was, as stated, the ridiculously and wrongly chided and neglected 1960s and 70s.
And one of the most influential tv series of its day, and all time, was the 1960 debut of a black and white spy drama called Danger Man (only the last 2, of 86, episodes were filmed in color), which introduced Patrick McGoohan as television’s first gadget happy superspy- a full two years before Sean Connery debuted as James Bond, in the film Dr. No. That first season consisted of 39 half hour long episodes (yes, 30 minute dramas were not unusual in that day) which were a hit in the U.K. and Europe, but did not catch on in the United States until The Bond Phenomenon took off, and the show was resurrected in 1965, in an hour long format that made McGoohan the highest paid television actor in the world. The show was renamed Secret Agent, in America, and that show’s theme song became the biggest hit of Johnny Rivers’ career, even though, in truth, it paled to the two theme songs for Danger Man, especially the intriguing heavy jazz score for that first season, which included this brief monologue:
Every government has its secret service branch. America, CIA; France, Deuxième Bureau; England, MI5. NATO also has its own. A messy job? Well that’s when they usually call on me or someone like me. Oh yes, my name is Drake, John Drake.
That first theme song, simply The Danger Man Theme, ranks with the theme songs of Mission: Impossible and Hawaii Five-O as the best and catchiest in that genre. And, yes, that last line? Correct, the James Bond folks stole their character’s signature line, in toto, from Danger Man’s lead character.
Just as its successor series, The Prisoner (and, as shown in the linked essay, that show’s #6 was, indeed, Danger Man’s John Drake- a fact confirmed by this series), had, Danger Man had a number of myths and misstatements about it that continue to this day.
However, I deflated the most pervasive myth that Drake was NOT #6, over adecade ago, in my essay on that series:
Who is 6?
More specifically- is 6 John Drake (of Danger Man)? PM has always
insisted NO! 6 is never named by anyone, even when he re-encounters a former
fiancé. Within the context of the show this is highly odd- even his fiancé?
Surely, someone must slip up? Yet George Markstein, the principle writer for the
show, has always said YES. Outside the series’ reality it is apparent that PM
originally intended 6 to be Drake, but gradually went about obscuring this fact
when fans started expecting a James Bondian villain behind the Village. Yet,
some fans have claimed that in the show’s opening sequence the ID card that 6
turns in is stamped with computerese that spells John Drake, & there is,
indeed, the aforementioned alleged ‘slip’ of 2 (or actor Leo McKern?) in Once
Upon A Time where he calls 6 Drake by name (or not?). In the ‘I’m not a
rat’ tete-a-tete does 2 say ‘Report to my study in the morning, Drake.’ or
‘Report to my study at the morning break.’?
Let there be no more confusion. My wife, Jessica, & I own the 10 DVD box set of TP, called The Complete Prisoner. & while on videotape it may still be arguable as to what 2 actually says to 6, on DVD it is clear: 2 calls 6 by name, he says, ‘Report to my study in the morning, Drake.’ It occurs about 18:55 minutes into Once Upon A Time. The evidence? 1) 2 says ‘Drake’ with a D, not ‘break’ with a B! I heard it, Jess heard it, & while playing the disk to a visiting Jason Sanford & his wife, they heard the D sound clearly. 2) Vocalize the D & B sounds in a mirror. You will see that your lips are parted when you utter the D sound (even followed by the R sound) while your lips are together & pursed to form the B sound (even followed by the R sound). It’s a clear distinction, & at 18.55 into the episode 2’s lips are clearly apart. A lipreader can confirm. The D sound is uttered. Jess spotted this right away. It is about 99% certain that you hear the D sound spoken, but 100% that 2’s lips form a D, not a B. 3) Right before 2 utters ‘Drake’ or ‘break’ he is supposed to have uttered either ‘in’ if he’s summoning ‘Drake’, or ‘at’ if he’s ordering 6 to meet him at a ‘break’. There is no doubt that 2 utters ‘in’ not ‘at’- both soundwise & lipwise the difference is even starker than in ‘Drake/break’. Listen & watch the DVD- it is 100% certain that ‘in’ is uttered. 4) Since 2 definitely utters ‘in’ not ‘at’ he cannot be ordering 6 to ‘Report to my study in the morning break.’ for it does not make sense grammatically nor logically. People do things AT or ON a break- not IN. But, even if 1 accepts that Anglo phraseology differs from American, in that Brits go IN breaks, not ON, the other 3 points still rule it out, as well that 2 clearly states IN. 5) The reverse, however, is grammatically & logically fine: ‘Report to my study in the morning, Drake.’ People often ask or tell people things, & append the addressee’s name afterward. Why would 2 ask 6 to ‘Report to my study at the morning, Drake.’? It’s illogical. 6) The situation, at this point in the episode, is that 2 is playacting to convince a drugged 6 that he is different authority figures from 6’s past. Here, 2 is pretending he is the Schoolmaster of 6’s Elementary or High School. In formal schools, & even rigid public schools (in the US or UK) it is customary to address young males by their family names (whether or not preceded by a ‘Mr.’ or ‘Master’)- especially when being disciplined- as the situation is aiming for. Since 6 is going back to a time long before 6 was a spy, there is a no reason for 2 (as 6’s Schoolmaster) to address him as anything but his last name- if 2 DID call 6 ‘6’ it might snap 6 back to reality, lapse him out of believing he’s an errant child, & ruin 2’s hopes for getting information from 6. 2, therefore, must call 6 by his real name- as a disciplining Schoolmaster would! Think: 2 is pretending he is someone from the past, before 6 was 6, or a spy- he was just another kid with a familial name to be addressed.
These 6 points leave NO DOUBT. 6 is Drake, as in John Drake. He looks like Drake, talks like Drake, has Drake’s temperament & beliefs, was in the same line of work as Drake, & his captors know & call him ‘Drake’- albeit only when it’s necessary to attempt to secure information, etc. In short, if it walks, talks, & quacks like a Drake- it is a Drake! While this may shatter the belief systems of some fans, it shouldn’t. Ask yourself- is Joseph K. any less an Everyman because we know his name is Joseph? Is Ishmael any less an everyman? Is Travis Bickle? Merely because we now know 6 is John Drake (or JD) lessens his everyman status not in the least. Others have claimed 6- regardless of being JD or not- is a misogynist &/or misanthrope. As usual, they trot out a set of arguments pro & con- but I won’t address that here as that seems yet another case of minutiae run rampant.
Yet, others have claimed that 6 is not JD, but, rather PM himself! These folk see the whole show as PM’s rejection of his persona as tv star. Others insist 6 must never be named, lest he could not be an everyman. We now know his identity & that his ‘necessary anonymity’ is not really necessary. While 6’s identity is 1 of the most hotly debated questions TP has inspired, there are others. The most obvious corollary to Who is 6? is Is 6 #1? & if 1 is not 6, then who or what is 1?
As for the myths regarding Danger Man; foremost among them is the misperception that, during the first season, when Drake is employed by a NATO agency, and not M9, as in the rest of the series, he is said to be American, and not English. But, this is clearly false, as several times in the first season he merely tells a dupe that he is American- he also says he’s various other nationalities, and while he often uses the most blatant stereotypical American accents, they are clearly put ons, for McGoohan’s real English accent (he was raised in Great Britain, albeit an American by birth) comes through in virtually every episode of that first season, if not all the time.
Also, there are clear links between Season 1 Drake and the later Drake, just as there are links between the early and late Drakes and the Drake of The Prisoner (known as #6). In Season 1, Drake is more idealistic and clashes with some of his superiors. In the later seasons, as an M9 agent, Drake’s bosses are a wily lot, and his truculence increases, to the point that the personality of #6 is an easy extrapolation of Drake (putting aside the evidence proffered above) from what we’ve seen, admixed with his imprisonment which, ironically, turns out to be in his own head- a nice and logical extension of Drake’s increased paranoia in Danger Man. Some folks also claim that #6 cannot be Drake because Drake smokes plentifully (this is 1960s television, when cigarets were still allowed to air tv commercials) and #6 does not, but, having rewatched The Prisoner right after Danger Man, I am hard pressed to recall ANY smoking by anyone (perhaps a few extras in the background?) in the later show.
The obvious reason that #6 is never called Drake, save for the one (possibly deliberate, to foster such a debate) moment in the penultimate episode of The Prisoner is multifold. 1) this would have required paying royalties to Danger Man creator Ralph Smart, 2) McGoohan took over The Prisoner’s creative direction from co-creator George Markstein, who wanted a more realistic take on the show and character, so moving him away from an imprisoned Drake, with no mentioning of the name, was a classic dickwaving act by McGoohan, and 3) it adds to the suspense of the diegetic drama by having this non-diegetic question hang over the show for 16 and a half episodes until the reveal which, due to a lack of DVDs and VCRs, back in its original run, meant that only the most keen-eared and eagle-eyed and astute observe would have even gotten that Leo McKern’s #2 calls #6 Drake (see the above proof of this). To further confuse audiences, Danger Man’s last episode aired only 20 days before The Prisoner’s last episode, suggesting that Drake and #6 might be veritable twins, because how could the same man be in Japan, in Danger Man, and also in The Village for possibly over a year, if the diegetic chronology of the later show is to be believed? Of course, this was only because the earlier show’s last episode went unaired for almost 2 full years and was in the can before the latter show’s first episode was even filmed. Interestingly, the last two episodes of Danger Man were filmed in color, and a handful of recurring actors on the earlier show reappeared on The Prisoner- one in the very same role, and that was a role in the color episodes which aired concurrently with the all color later show, again suggesting a natural, if subliminal, bridge from one to the other- a fact reinforced by the use of a Danger Man script as an episode of The Prisoner.
From the show’s Wikipedia page:
Moreover, in the surreal Prisoner episode "The Girl Who Was Death", Number Six meets "Potter", John Drake's Danger Man contact. Christopher Benjamin portrayed the character in both series. As has been previously stated, "The Girl Who Was Death" was an adaptation of an unused Danger Man script. As well as guest-starring in this show, Paul Eddington played another spy and No.6's former colleague, Cobb, in the opening episode of the latter show.
But, let us get to the heart of my posit re: Danger Man, which was owned by the same company, Lew Grade’s ITC Entertainment, that made The Prisoner, as well as The Saint, Thunderbirds, Space: 1999, and The Muppet Show, among others. Just as I claim The Prisoner as the greatest television series ever (or, at least, that I’ve ever seen), I claim Danger Man as the best of the 1960s English language spy caper shows- a lot that had many good entries: The Avengers, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, Mission: Impossible, and Hawaii Five-O, among others.
In the first season, the half hour episodes, Drake seems to be based out of Washington, D.C., and the most remarkable thing I noticed is how quickly moving the action was, yet there was still time, especially in the first 20 or so episodes, for one or two 2-3 minute expository scenes that actually developed character, without seeming forced. Compare that to the plodding drama of most current non-comic fiction shows today, yet who are afflicted with ADD editing that schisms against the dragging drama, and what Danger Man did in these episodes is all the more remarkable. Full characters, a three act story arc, and most of the shows have endings that satisfy, even as they end sans the usual summary scene wherein the lead protagonist(s) pat himself (themselves) on the back, or laugh to cue an audience. No, most of these episodes end at, or immediately after, a final dramatic act, and one often has to fill in the blanks, thus making the viewer a co-creator of the drama, to draw them in. I’d contend that this very factor, even over half a century ago, is what made the first season’s short dramas such a hit in Europe, but a lackluster ratings draw in America: U.S. audiences, then and now, simply are lazy and unappreciative of such techniques. As mentioned, some fans have contended that there is confusion over Drake’s ancestry (some to the point of contending that not only is John Drake NOT The Prisoner’s #6, but that the Season 1 Drake is NOT even the Drake of the later years. This is wrong, as mentioned, because Drake gives a number of mentions of his ancestry that conflict because HE IS ON ASSIGNMENT, and he has to be circumspect. Yet, the show’s own page on Wikipedia perpetuates this nonsense, stating:
In episode 9, "The Sanctuary", Drake declares he is an Irish-American.
Yes, but, again, this is an asides while covering his identity.
Interestingly, the show’s first and pilot episode, View From The Villa, was shot in Portmeirion, because of its Italiante architecture, and this would be the location where the non-set shots of The Prisoner were filmed.
Another aspect of the show is that McGoohan, even as a newby to television, insisted that his character adhere to his more rigid Roman Catholic ideals regarding a lack of sexual situations, as well as a minimal use of gunplay by his character- two aspects which led to his turning down the roles of James Bond and Simon Templar, in The Saint, as he was the first choice for both roles, over Sean Connery and Roger Moore (who, of course, later replaced Connery as Bond). This aspect works in The Prisoner, where he is greatly outnumbered and a subject to Inquisitors, but in Danger Man, as a spy of that era, it does lead to some silly situations that become bigger problems merely because Drake doesn’t wield a sidearm, as well as the fact that, naturally, he routinely overpowers multiple armed men, and often KO’s them with one punch or maneuver. Season 1, which had a much smaller budget than the later seasons did, also suffers a bit from the use of clearly fake sets with matte painted backgrounds, and rear projections, especially when driving vehicles. In the later years, the bad sets were lessened and real location shooting increased, while the rear projection saw little diminution.
After a nearly 2½ year break, the series returned with a second season, a new theme song, and a doubling of its length, to an hour (50-51 minutes cutting commercials, from the 25 minute commercial-free cut of the first season). Again, claims and implications were made that this Drake was not the first Drake, or that he had his background changed. Again, from the Wikipedia page:
Beginning with the second series, which aired several years after the first, the episode's length was increased to 48–49 minutes and Drake underwent retconning and became a British agent (though he identifies himself as Irish in "The Battle of the Cameras") working for a secret British government agency called M9 (analogous to Secret Intelligence Service), though his Mid-Atlantic English accent persists for the first few episodes in production. Other than the largely nominal change of employer and nationality, Drake's mandate remains the same: "to undertake missions involving national and global security". In keeping with the episodic format of such series in the 1960s, there are no ongoing story arcs and there is no reference made to Drake's NATO adventures in the later M9 episodes.
Again, as in Season 1, Drake claims to be many people and have many backgrounds, even while seemingly ‘himself,’ and using his ‘supposed’ real name- after all, many a real spy was known for years as an alias, and their real name was something else. John Drake may be as fake and appended a moniker as #6- a point that, literally, in scouring the Internet for writings on the two McGoohan series mentioned, I have not seen noted ANYWERE! He could very well be George Adams, from Dorset, New South Wales, County Mayo, Chicago, Buffalo, or Dallas. That’s the very point, and reality, of life as a spy- then or now. There is NO telling, to an outsider, what is real or not, and this is the premise that is literally turned on (or in) its head in The Prisoner, as Drake finds himself in the position of both the outsider and the ultimate insider!
These hour long episodes flesh out Drake’s characterization greatly, resulting in many episodes (especially in the first 25 or so of the 47 hour long episodes) that are deeper and more affecting than some very good full length feature films of twice the length. And, unlike the Bond films, or The Avengers, Danger Man was solidly and realistically set in the Cold War’s intrigues- John Drake did not battle Goldfinger level villains nor SPECTRE, nor even a fictive Soviet KGB stand-in, like SMERSH. His opponents were all psychologically and historically real. Drake also has a willfulness and disobeys his superiors far more often than Bond, or other fictive secret agents of the era. Like Bond, he does have gadgets, but they are very real, of the era, not science fiction, are reused, and he has no Q to turn to. He also is undercover in all but a handful of the episodes, throughout the series, as a would be mercenary, a diplomat, a man-servant, a disc jockey, an ex-con, a reporter, doctor, or, in one episode, where he utters the great line that he was undercover as ‘a simple-minded millionaire.’ He also wears suits 98% of the time. Yet, despite his repertoire of skills, he often errs, is caught, and, in the series’ weakest moments, as a bow to the conventions of the form, he always escapes and almost always wins, despite betrayals and con artists abounding. The few times he does not are realistic, and often based on psychological episodes, wherein he does not lose, as much as he stalemates. He also rarely kills, and the deaths of his enemies are usually of their own doing, although he does shoot some people, and, in one of the last episodes, throws a thug to his death in the sea. The other Drake personality trait that emerges in the later episodes is his repulsion toward his superiors, in how they lie, make him an accessory to crimes and deaths, and often outright betray others with their deceptions. These men are the M9 superiors whose cover is a travel agency, World Travel, seen in a dozen or so episodes (usually with a scene of Drake entering their London cover HQ). Drake also often plays an employee for said travel agency, and answers to men such as Gorton (Raymond Adamson) and Hobbs (Peter Madden). In season one, his recurring boss was Hardy (Richard Wattis) who seemed more one dimensional, albeit likable. This tension with his superiors at M9, and Drake’s sympathies often lying with the people he battles, or has to bring in, serves two purposes. First, in diegesis, it adds emotional drama that often is lacking in the more mechanical spy games, and it also helps to cover over plot holes that sometimes crop up. In this sense, it is a literary device adapted to television drama. The second purpose served is that it, de facto, gives the very raison d’être for #6’s internal conflict being played out on a grand scale in The Prisoner. Drake, like #6, says on more than one occasion that the people he works for are no different than the people he works against. The inner/the outer, the us/the them equations hold. In The Prisoner, it is explicit, and allows for the survey of a mind. In Danger Man, it is implicit, and shows the construction (or mid-construction) of the suspicious mind that is to be in the later show.
And there was always a reason John Drake’s suspicions were aroused. Herein a summary of some of the more notable episodes in the series, as well as other points to be made in concert with them:
View From The Villa is show #1, and establishes the fast pace of the first season’s half hour format, and Drake’s employment at NATO.
Josetta is the third episode where Drake has the ‘simpleminded millionaire’ quote and it has an excellent end, wherein a blind woman’s tormentor is caught. A bit of psychological realism rare for the era.
The show also employs Drake narrations of actions as a device establish motives and locales.
Other episodes feature slavery rings (in a very naïve way), silly and outdated anti-drug propaganda, some unfortunate era-specific stereotyping, such as using Oriental actors in minor roles, while having the major Oriental roles filled by white actors in bad makeup.
The Girl In Pink Pyjamas (#6) is an excellent episode whose mind control features and stabs at who’s who prefigure The Prisoner’s themes.
Drake’s almost constant use of fake accents in Season 1 is good in some episodes and comically bad in others, and the persistent use of English accents by so-called ‘natives’ in African or South American locales (often set in fictive banana republics), stands out as a negative, although the use of real foreign languages, sans subtitles, is a nice bit of realism in contrast.
The 12th episode, The Prisoner, finds Drake needing to find a body double for an accused spy, but has no bearing on the later series.
The Island (#16) is one of the better episodes which finds Drake and two other people in a Gilligan’s Island situation with two men who are noted hitmen.
Episode 20 is Vacation, yet the supposedly American Drake goes on holiday, which is European, and confuses further his origins to some fans.
The Contessa (#29) is an utterly silly anti-drug tale about a Contessa making money off her dead drug dealer husband’s business, and the moralizing is pretty dated.
The very next episode, The Leak, set in the Middle East, about a supposed nuclear plant leak, is on eof the better first season offerings.
Episode 32, The Actor, about a Hong Kong radio station, passing on secrets, is one of the best, and its plot was recycled for a lesser, but still good episode near series end.
One of the best features established in the first season is that not everything was explained to death- queries were left in viewers’ minds, about individual episode actions, as well as Drake and who he was, and why he was that way. Although next to nothing is given about his personal life (hence making him a great character template for use in The Prisoner, as early as the 5th or 6th episode, it’s clear that this show is only ostensibly an action series, for that action is all engendered as a way to detail the internal and facets of this character named Drake.
The Battle Of The Cameras, episode 40, is a terrific second season opener, and the longer time adds slower but more developed character pacing, and an even more character, than action, driven plot. Compared to American shows, at the time, and even the better spy shows, the realism and depth of the revamped show made it the best, even just three episodes into its second season.
No Marks For Servility (#44) is the best of the Drake as undercover butler episodes, and shows the inner workings of a sociopath.
The next episode, Yesterday’s Enemies, shows the duplicity of M9, and sets up the growing tension between Drake and his superiors, and is a key episode on the path to his resignation before the start of The Prisoner.
The Mirror’s New (#48) is a great episode that mixes espionage with serial murder.
The next episode, Colony Three, is often, and correctly, cited as the inspiration for The Prisoner, as he infiltrates a Soviet town made to be an English town, to train long term spies. It ends with a scene that homages the trainbound fight scene in the Bond film, From Russia, With Love.
#50, It’s Up To The Lady, is about a possible defector, lured back to Britain under promise of immunity, only to be betrayed, and Drake raging at his bosses that he was lied to. Clearly, another key episode in the inner realms of Drake’s psyche.
The next episode, Whatever Happened To George Foster?, is another keen exploration of a sociopath- this time with real power to stymie Drake.
The Ubiquitous Mr. Lovegrove (#59) is all in the dream of Drake, injured in a car crash, but features Desmond Llewelyn (Bond’s Q) in a key role that establishes many dream scenarios later used in The Prisoner; specifically Drake’s propensity for highly involved dreams loaded with symbolism, doubles, and repetition.
Parallel Lines Sometimes Meet (#67) is an excellent episode where Drake works with a female Soviet agent to defeat a common enemy.
The Outcast (#70) is an affecting tale about a remorseful killer whom Drake suckers into his confidence, and is a key episode in Drake’s growing disillusionment with his ethics and life.
The very next tale, Judgement Day, contains some of the best and worst moments of the series. It follows Drake’s assignment to get what turns out to be a hiding Nazi posing as a Spanish doctor (with an English accent, no less!). Israeli terrorists-cum-Nazi Hunters capture the pair, along with the pilot of the plane they sabotage, and stage a mock trial of the Nazi (a clear Dr. Josef Mengele stand in). The parallels between the terrorists and Nazis are glaringly obvious, as Drake points out, but, once the Twilight Zone like conceit is accepted, the writing is brilliant, and, of course, ends up with the terrorists coldly killing the man they claim to not want to be like, yet sending a helicopter back to pick up Drake and the injured pilot.
Episode 72, To Our Best Friend, sees a couple Drake is friendly with (interestingly, he has many friends from missions conducted before the series began, yet makes not a single one in filmed episodes), yet turns out to have the spouses on opposite sides of the spy wars. It is affecting, and another episode where Drake’s inner conflicts are front and center, even in reaction to others.
The Paper Chase (#83) sees the arrival of the actor, Peter Swanwick- who would play The Supervisor in The Prisoner, in another role, but Drake dressed in black, as he is often in the later show. It has great acting, but ends rather sillily.
The final two episodes, Koroshi and Shinda Shima, are the two last season color episodes that were fused into a feature film, and follow Drake in Japan, battling a cult that has an underground HQ, and tries to manipulate people in a Japanese village through mind control and fear, until, in the final episode, wherein Drake seems a bit deranged, the villagers rebel, storm the caverns, and kill everyone with guns. To say this is a precursor to The Prisoner and, especially, its last two episodes, is so obvious, and so sets up Drake to have a mental breakdown, and re-imagine many of the themes used in this series, his disillusionment with M9, and his part in a series ending mass murder (despite his vow to eschew violence and killing at all costs), that even if the penultimate Prisoner episode did NOT have Drake named by #2, there is simply NO WAY another character could have been so logically fit to endure the personal breakdown #6 clearly has, with his past as Danger Man re-imagined as himself torturing himself in a Colony Three like environment run by cultists who live in a cave that he must slaughter for the benefit of others! Add to that Koroshi is also the episode that sees the appearance of Potter, played by Christopher Benjamin, who reappears in The Prisoner’s penultimate episode, The Girl Who Was Death (if Once Upon A Time and Fall Out are considered a two part episode) and parallels his appearance as a harbinger in Koroshi, and the psychological connection from the former to the latter series is plain and psychologically consonant, if not just psychologically predictable.
To view Danger Man is to see the slow motion mindly mechanics of how The Prisoner of The Prisoner made himself The Prisoner, for the events that end Danger Man are clearly replayed in both manifest and symbolic terms from the later series’ circular start to its circular end- a circle that may have begun in Danger Man’s first episode, whose architecture may have impressed itself deep in the protagonist’s mind.
But, aside from its import to the later, greater series that followed out of it, Danger Man is simply an outstanding action show, as well as deceptively unique character study, which, in its lack of everyday personal identifying information on its lead character, all the while detailing the ways and wherefores of his shown experience, actually reminds me most of American naturalist and science writer Loren Eiseley’s great autobiography, All The Strange Hours. And that’s a good thing to be held up to.
It also blows away any contemporary action drama of the last 30 years- be it The X Files, 24, Alias, the CSI and Law & Order franchises, and so forth. In summary, it was the best of a genre that dominated television in the first half of its true Golden Age, despite latterday mythologizing, and this quality can be readily seen and appreciated, not just by rose colored viewers who saw it the first time, but even by younger viewers whose weaning off the ADD pace of today’s irreality is long overdue. Danger Man is that good.
I watched the whole series on a slim pack DVD collection called Secret Agent, AKA Danger Man: The Complete Collection, which has no real extras, save for the Secret Agent version of the show opening on all nine disks, as a stand alone feature. The shows all have their original British Danger Man openings.
In sum, if one is bored with the pace and lack of depth of modern day tv dramas, this is a great time to live, for streaming services and DVDs and Blu-Rays allow great shows from the past, including tv’s real Golden Age, to be held up and seen as the great entertainment, and, occasionally, art that they were. Danger Man may not be all that The Prisoner was, but it towers above all but a select few television dramas ever aired. It’s just that obvious, and just that good.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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