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The Prisoner
Episode Studies by Clayton Barr

The Prisoner: Once Upon a Time The Prisoner
"Once Upon a Time"
TV episode
Written and Directed by Patrick McGoohan
Original air date: January 25, 1968


A former Number 2 returns to take the ultimate risk in a final attempt to break Number 6.


Read the complete story summary at Wikipedia


Notes from the Prisoner chronology


This episode takes place immediately before "Fall Out", leading into that final episode of the TV series.


Didja Know?


The title of this episode is derived from the traditional opening line of most English-translation fairy tales, "Once Upon a Time..."


There is a dot on the letter "i" in the title card of this episode. Normally, the Village font omits the dot.


The Number 2 in this episode is the same one who previously appeared in "The Chimes of Big Ben". He also appears in the following episode, "Fall Out", and in the 4-issue Prisoner mini-series Shattered Visage published by DC Comics in 1989.


This episode was produced early in the series production and then was placed later in the season for broadcast when McGoohan decided to make it the first part of a two-part finale of the series. This is why actor Leo McKern as Number 2 has a different hair style and beard in the final part, "Fall Out"; when he was brought back to shoot the later episode, he had the different look for a play in which he was then starring.


Because this episode was filmed early on, Number 6 is portrayed with the more angry demeanor about his confinement in the Village displayed in the early episodes, not the more calmly rebellious one he adopts after "Many Happy Returns". For example he is seen pacing angrily in his own apartment while eating breakfast and he accosts another Village resident who doesn't want anything to with him. We might retroactively assume that the events of the novel The Prisoner's Dilemma, which takes place just before this episode, are the reason why he has recently become angry again. 


Didja Notice?


When Number 2 enters his office, he finds Rover ensconced in the traditional bubble chair of the position, in an apparent threat by Number 1 that he must break Number 6 this time or face the consequences.


The baby photo of Number 6 seen in the progress report perused by Number 2 at 6:43 on the Blu-ray is one of the ones seen in "Arrival".


The scenes from Number 6's life in the Village viewed by Number 2 on the large screen are all from previous episodes of the series.


The Supervisor is seen back in his usual position in the Control Room. Apparently his termination from the position by another Number 2 in "Hammer Into Anvil" did not last after that Number 2 was reduced to a crying, pathetic bureaucrat begging for forgiveness by Number 6.


As Number 2 and the Supervisor prepare to bring in Number 6 for Degree Absolute, the Supervisor orders "double night time." Possibly this means that the other residents of the Village will be sedated to sleep through both night and day for the next week as Number 2 concentrates on breaking Number 6 with Degree Absolute, as David Stimpson speculates in his Prisoner blog.


Before bringing in Number 6 for Degree Absolute, Number 2 and the Supervisor observe him sleeping in his bed from the large screen in the Control Room. Number 2 tells the Supervisor to check profundity and the Supervisor begins counting up to six while otherwise just standing there watching Number 6 toss and turn in bed on the screen, before announcing, "First waveband clear." Then Number 2 tells him to repeat and increase. The Supervisor repeats the counting up to six, with a slightly more intense edge to his voice, ending with, "Still clear." Then Number 2 asks for third waveband, "Slow...and hold on five." The Supervisor counts slowly up to five and begins repeating "five" over-and-over, his voice becoming more-and-more strained and his face becoming tense and slightly sweaty, while Number 6 tosses fretfully. Finally, Number 2 shouts, "DIMINISH!" and the Supervisor begins lowering the intensity of his repeated "five" until Number 2 says, "Safe enough," and the Supervisor stops. The only other people in the Control Room with them are the two men on the see-saw apparatus and they don't appear to be doing anything except staring into their scopes. So, what was happening? Does the Supervisor have some kind of psi talent allowing him to put a target individual into a hypnotically receptive state? After this scene, it is suggested that Number 6 is in a hypnotically receptive state, as Number 2 takes his mind back to a childhood frame of mind. The word "profundity" means a state of being profound, or of being in a deep place or abyss.


As Number 2 leaves the Control Room to begin his week-long isolation of Degree Absolute with Number 6, he tells the Supervisor, "It's all yours," implying that the Supervisor is in charge of the Village during that time.


When he enters Number 6's apartment, Number 2 begins singing a variety of nursery rhymes as part of the procedure to take Number 6's mind back to a childhood state. He sings "Humpty Dumpty", "Jack and Jill", and "The Grand Old Duke of York".


At 12:53 on the Blu-ray, as Number 2 turns away from the window, the reflection of the cameraman or another crewmember can be seen in the glass.


When Number 2 leads Number 6 into the underground chamber called the embryo room, why is there a completed tick-tack-toe game on the chalkboard? Is it leftover from the last time Degree Absolute was used on a prisoner?


The small bicycles seen in the embryo room are model RSW16, made by Raleigh at the time. These are the same model seen ridden in the Village (excepting the occasional penny-farthing), often with a canopy over the seat.


At 14:52 on the Blu-ray, a Tinkertoy-type construction is seen on a pedestal in the background. It looks quite similar to the one on the desk of the Labour Exchange Manager in "Arrival". Is it the same one? If it's different, is there some connection between the two?


As they are about to begin the Degree Absolute, Number 2 quotes, "All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players. They have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse's arms." This is a quote from Shakespeare's play As You Like It. Near the end of the episode, both Number 6 and Number 2 share another quote from this same speech: "Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything."


What is the purpose of the slitted eyewear worn by Number 2 and the Butler in the embryo room? Possibly it is meant to protect them from hypnotic lighting in the room used to bring Number 6 into a state of coercion? Notice that for most of the time in the embryo room, a spotlight is kept on Number 6 at all times; later, as he begins to turn the psychological tables, the spotlight starts to shine on Number 2 instead and, by this time, Number 2 is no longer wearing the glasses. But, then why does Number 2 stop wearing them halfway through while the Butler still does? Similar eyewear is occasionally seen worn by residents of the old folks home and some younger residents as well, in earlier episodes. I speculated in "Arrival" that they might be indications of ocular damage that occurred during experiments performed on those residents. Perhaps they are both.


Number 2's chalk handwriting on the board changes from shot to shot.


The song sung by Number 2 as he and Number 6 ride the seesaw is from the nursery rhyme "See Saw Margery Daw".


As Number 2 and Number 6 begin repeating the above seesaw lyrics to each other and repetitively saying "Jacky" and "master", Number 2 switches it to "Mother" and "Father", which seems to upset Number 6 a bit, and he begins to say "brother". Is this an indication that Number 6 has (or had) a brother?


When Number 2 is trying to get Number 6 to go beyond his repetition of "1, 2, 3, 4, 5" to say "6", he, at one point uses the phrase "six of one, half dozen of the other," to which Number 6 responds, "Pop goes the weasel". This may be a reference to the music of "Pop! Goes the Weasel" that has been played in a few past episodes, most prominently in "Arrival". (Number 6's reference shortly after to "half a pound of tupenny rice, half a pound of treacle, that’s the way the money goes" are also lines from one of the versions of this song.)


As Number 2 treats Number 6 to a nice dinner and wine, their table has an ad placard for Ferreira Port, a brand of Portuguese wine produced since 1751.


At the dinner table, Number 6 tells Number 2 he was very good at mathematics.


Artistic renditions of two antique steam locomotives are hanging in the cell area of the Degree Absolute embryo room.


The small motor vehicle Number 6 rides around the embryo room in is a Bolens Rider Mower. These are the same vehicles used by groundskeepers and maintenance workers in the Village in a few past episodes. Bolens has since been acquired by MTD Products.


At 31:09 on the Blu-ray, a wicker chest in the background has the initials M.P.T. stenciled on it. I have no idea what that might stand for.


While telling Number 6 he must conform, Number 2 also states he must not be a lone wolf. In a couple episodes of Danger Man/Secret Agent, John Drake's code name is Lone Wolf.


At 34:30 on the Blu-ray, the two bicycles in the embryo room have been moved a bit farther away from the table in order for the actors to complete the scene of Number 2 and the Butler dragging Number 6 to the cell.


Number 6's stated reasons here for resigning, peace of mind and principles, are essentially the same statement he made in "The Chimes of Big Ben".


Number 6 admits to having killed "in the war". To which war does this refer? The UK was involved in a number of wars to varying degrees throughout the lifetime of Number 6. After Number 2 simulates their bomber being shot down over enemy territory, he impersonates the warden of a P.O.W. camp and interrogates Number 6 in German. This would imply a past as an RAF pilot in WWII. But, having been born in 1928 (according to "Arrival"), Number 6 would have been a bit young to have fought in that war, unless he lied about his age to get into the military (which was not unknown to happen). In the novel Miss Freedom, Number 6 is said to have been a helicopter pilot in Indochina "ten years ago" (around 1957-58), suggesting he may have been part of British forces in the Second Indochina War.


As Number 2 is demonstrating to Number 6 that the "solid, finest steel doors" keep them in the embryo room until the time is up, he pounds on one of the double doors and, amusingly, we can see the other door wobbling in its place while he does so!


Number 2 reveals to Number 6 that the cell in the embryo room is mobile. This becomes important in the following episode, "Fall Out".


The supposed final minute of the clock leading to Number 2's death actually lasts almost 2 minutes of screen time!


The music that plays as the metal cover falls over the front of the cell holding Number 2's body and as Number 6 is led away by the Supervisor is from the English lullaby "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".


The end credits show John Maxim as Number 86, but he did not appear in the episode. He must have been in a scene that ended up on the cutting room floor. A female Number 86 appeared as a psychological researcher in "A Change of Mind".

Unanswered Questions

Why do Number 2 and the Butler wear the slitted eyewear for part of the time in the embryo room? If it's meant to protect them from the process somehow, why do they later stop wearing them? And why does the Butler wear them longer than Number 2?

Who or what is controlling the spotlight that shines on Number 6 during the process? When Number 6 begins to turn the tables, why does the spotlight start to shine on Number 2 instead? If it was a person controlling it, they would continue shining it on Number 6, one would think. Is it controlled be a computer? Is it controlled by Number 1?

Why does the Butler switch his allegiance to Number 6 when it becomes clear he has gained the upper hand in the battle of wills against Number 2? Is he somehow programmed to give his loyalty to whoever is in charge? That seems like a Village kind of thing to do, programming/conditioning people to obey authority.

Why do the rocking horse and swing stay in motion even when no one is riding them?

Memorable Dialog

Degree Absolute.wav
you must risk either one of us.wav
no other way.wav
Humpty Dumpty.wav
let's find out what's in that noddle of yours.wav
not a rat.wav
you must conform.wav
the only way to beat me.wav
the embryo room.wav
he thinks you're the boss now.wav
a fool, not a rat.wav
you are number nothing.wav

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