The Prisoner: episode 5 – The Schizoid Man – discursion


The Schizoid Man was the fifth episode of The Prisoner to be broadcast, and the seventh to go into production. It was filmed almost entirely at Elstree, with the minimal ‘exterior’ scenes being shot on the MGM lot at Borehamwood, rather that at Portmeirion. The episode was written by Terence Feely, who was invited by George Markstein to submit a script, and so impressed Patrick McGoohan that he invited Feely to join him and David Tomblin in partnership in Everyman Films.
Apparently, Feely was inspired to write this episode by his discovery that he had a physical doppelganger in Germany.
I’ll admit immediately that I’m biassed about this episode: The Schizoid Man is one of my favourite Prisoner episodes for its cunning and intricate plot, and the degree of intelligence with which it approaches the somewhat hackneyed story of the double agent who is identical to the hero.
It’s a storyline that seems to have dropped out of favour these days, but which was once a staple of thriller series – by a coincidence of scheduling, in 1975 or 1976, it appeared on The Six-Million Dollar Man, The Bionic Woman and The Gemini Man (if you don’t remember this one, you haven’t missed much) within a period of seven days.
I suspect that one reason for the fascination with such episodes was the thrill and disorientation that the audience experienced seeing the hero (or heroine) playing against themselves on screen together. The fact that this can be achieved so much more easily has made the trick that less interesting than the days when it could only be achieved with spit and baling wire.
The three afore-mentioned series all used the bog-standard double agent plot: the other side intend to infiltrate the hero’s organisation by using an agent who is the hero’s duplicate. The hero is kidnapped, the double introduced, he/she gains access to classified information/starts acting to destroy the hero’s reputation, the real hero escapes and confronts his/her duplicate in a short climactic scene (that uses as little as possible of the budget on split-screen technology), quickly demonstrating why they are so much superior in every way to their inferior double: run closing credits and forget.
Not so The Schizoid Man. For one thing, the Village’s objective is not physical or external, but rather psychological. For another, McGoohan appears on screen as Number Six and Number Twelve for over one-third of the running time of the episode, constantly battling against himself for one single thing: ownership of his own identity.
Because the purpose is to shake the Prisoner’s innate sense of self, and to do this the impersonation is constructed to take place on several levels simultaneously, starting with the ingenious twist of turning Number Six into his own impersonator.
From his perspective, Number Six goes to sleep one night, and wakes in the morning as Number Twelve, aka Curtis. Number Twelve is, apparently, an old friend and colleague of Number Two, a former Village resident that everyone recognises and responds to, a top Agent for the Village’s side, left-handed, and has tastes in food and cigarettes that are completely alien to Number Six. The kicker is that Number Twelve wears a moustache, a genuine moustache, that cannot have grown overnight!
Having been turned into an impersonation of Number Twelve, Number Six is then called upon to formally impersonate himself. His response that this is a rather obvious farce is brushed aside in Number Two’s blithe assumption that this is simply his friend getting into the part. He’s physically turned (back) into Number Six and taken to his cottage, his territory.
But any assumption that this will be easy is rocked by the sheer perfection of Number Twelve, in action, thought and deed. An attempt to gain the advantage by demonstrating his possession of his territory comes to grief when nothing is where Number Six keeps it, and nothing tastes as it should.
This is rapidly followed by a series of short, sharp shocks that demonstrate that Number Twelve is a far better Number Six than Number Six himself is!
And these prompt him into the test that ought to be decisive. It’s the moment when Number Six stops buying into Number Two’s game, stops letting him and Number Twelve dictate the play. It’s Number Six’s great psychological play, when he demonstrates his superiority, beats off the Village’s insidious attack, confirms his identity beyond all doubt (especially his own). And it blows up in his face.
Caught in the enormity of the moment, the audience is steered past the plot’s only significant hole. It’s a bit of necessary smoke and mirrors, a wholly to be expected but, when it comes, still devastating betrayal, as Alison gives the nod to Number Twelve, undermining the credibility of everyone engaged in the surface plot.
How close does Number Six come to actual doubt? The montage of scenes that end the third act do suggest that he has taken a heavy blow, that an actual crack has been made, which is there for exploitation. These moments emphasise the skill, the sophistication of the techniques the Village are using, the comprehensiveness of their attack in ‘bending’ reality around the Prisoner to a point where his capitulation seems inevitable.
But once again, a tiny piece of luck, an inadvertent moment, unforeseeable and, when it happens, not understood for what it represents, just as it did in The Chimes of Big Ben, goes in Number Six’s favour. Alison’s accident with the soda bottle in the opening scene, the fortuitous blood-bruise under his nail, whose change in position from the base of the nail to halfway up, inserts a tiny crack in the Village’s manipulation of reality. The photo is objective evidence of the state of things ‘yesterday’, and as such proves that ‘yesterday’ was oh so long ago.
Once Number Six absorbs that, the way is open for him to recover the memories of the conditioning that has turned himself into an inferior version of himself, which enables him, crudely but effectively, to reverse these and, crudely but equally effectively, overcome Curtis and extract from him the real password.
There’s even a fleeting chance of escape. With the real Number Twelve dead, Number Six’s game as an impersonator enters another phase, as he moves ever onwards on an inwards turning spiral by impersonating the impersonator who was impersonating the self he had been wrenched from in order to impersonate (head aching, yet?). But, in an ironic reversal of the B phase of A, B and C, the Prisoner is unable to make the impersonation stick: he is caught out by the simplest lack of knowledge in his head.
Reading the original shooting script for this episode, in The Prisoner – the Original Scripts, Volume 1, is fascinating for its revelations about the substantial differences between the episode as originally envisaged and as finally shot. The changes are not in themselves significant: the most important is that the montage of brainwashing scenes Number Six recalls after he understands the significance of the bruise was originally planned to be twice as long and detailed, and to be placed between his drugging in his own cottage and waking as Number Twelve: not only is the detail excessive and dragging, too much knowledge too soon would distance the viewer from Number Six’s experience of dislocation.
Two other lengthy sequences – an extended version of Numbers Six and Twelve competing with each other, including a mini-moke race round the Village, and an extended journey with additional obstacles to Number Six’s cottage after Number Six has recovered his self – were cut because they would have required extensive location footage and The Schizoid Man is an episode that never set foot in Portmeirion.
In each case, the sequences are unnecessarily long and detailed and would have served to dilute the impact of the story by, firstly, slowing down its development and, secondly, dragging it away from the true level of the battle. It’s a psychological attack, in concept and execution: chase-sequences would have been a severe mistake.
No, where the story does leave itself open to being undermined is in two areas of weakness. What disturbs me about this episode is that Twelve-as-Six leaves himself open to challenge by his insistence that he IS Number Six. Not ‘your Number Six’, as Six-as-Twelve carefully states, refusing in every moment to accept his reduction to a mere Number. Twelve-as-Six not only asserts his status as Number Six, as a cog within the Village’s system, several times over. Hell’s bells, he even wears a Number Six badge! Contrast that with the real Number Six who, the moment he picks up Number Twelve’s jacket, rips off the badge, exactly as he did with his own in Arrival.
The badge wearing can be justified, externally, by the need to distinguish Six from Twelve when McGoohan is playing both, though the neat trick of having Twelve wear a reversed colour jacket (again blurring the psychological between Hero = White and Villain = Black) is surely enough.
But the bigger issue is Alison herself. She’s absolutely essential to the story. Her rapport with Number Six is genuine, not just because Number Two says so: their last two encounters, when Number Six is again pretending to be his impersonator, make that subtly but abundantly plain, but this only intensifies the question that jeopardises the entire story: how and why does Number Six trust her in the first place?
We know he’s paranoid. The situation demands he trust only himself, and Nadia in The Chimes of Big Ben has only reinforced this, so under what circumstances did the Prisoner ever even begin to trust Number Twenty-Four in the first place, let alone come to use her first name?
Jane Merrow, who enjoyed working with McGoohan, having appeared in three episodes of Danger Man, treads a very fine line in playing Alison. She’s at her most natural in the opening scene: Alison is serious and intent when concentrating upon the zenner cards, but the moment the test is over, she’s up and bouncing around, excitable and eager. It’s a very schoolgirlish performance (Merrow was 26 when The Schizoid Man was filmed), puppyish rather than kittenish. Though Merrow was very attractive, there’s absolutely nothing sexual about her performance (McGoohan wouldn’t have countenanced it for a second: indeed, Feely’s initial and extremely clumsy idea that Alison would identify the real Number Six by kissing both, was right out of the window and good riddance).
After that, Alison is very different, sober and serious throughout, on a faint but still discernible edge (though her shock at seeing two identical Number Six’s is too extreme to be put on). She’s playing her part in the plot now, and that edge is not her fear of getting her part wrong, as it first seems, but instead her pain at betraying Number Six. The utter seriousness of her final words, assuring ‘Number Twelve’ that if she had a second chance, she would not betray Number Six again, switches our perceptions again.
At the end, it’s plain that Number Six kept company with Alison because he simply liked her, from an avuncular viewpoint. She was nice to have around, she amused him, and they did have a genuine rapport. It’s a pity that some way could not have been found to establish that ahead of time, rather than us have to take it on trust, when the great theme of this series is that trust is impossible.
One final point: this is the only episode in which Rover’s name is ever used. McGoohan has confirmed that the Weather Balloon security system was entitled Rover, but in extreme isolation, and the context of it’s use here, for many years I took it that Number Six was making a private, sarcastic joke: not Rover but ‘Rover’.

The Prisoner: episode 5 – The Schizoid Man – synopsis

Thunder crashes. The credit sequence runs.
After an establishing shot of the sign outside Number Six’s cottage, we go inside to find him stood behind the breakfast bar in the kitchen. An untidy heap of renner cards – square cards showing red symbols on a cream background – are on the bar top and Number Six has the remaining cards in front of him, face down.
Unusually, he is not alone. A young woman with long dark hair, dressed in a red and white hooped Village top and slacks is sat on a buffet, looking away from him with an intent expression on her face. She is Number Twenty-Four although, again unusually, he addresses her as Alison.
He turns over the remaining cards, each time saying “Now”. They are, respectively, circle, star, square, cross and three wavy lines. Though she can’t see any of the cards, Alison correctly identifies each one.
The test over, she becomes more bubbly, thanking Number Six for practising with her, and for believing in her when so many others wouldn’t. She also asks if she can take another picture for the forthcoming Village Festival. Number Six jokes about whether there’s any event in which she hasn’t entered.
It’s clear the two are simpatico. Alison has got 17 out of 25 on this run and 73 out of 100 on the last four.
She is carrying a heavy Polaroid camera as she manoeuvres for position to take a photo. Accidentally, she knocks a heavy soda siphon onto Number Six’s hand,raising a blood-bruise at the base of the nail on his left forefinger. Nevertheless, he poses for a picture, holding a spread of cards: it is badly arranged, with the cards covering half his face.
That night, the new Number Two, a young, fresh-faced, collegiate type, enters the Control Room and orders up surveillance on Number Six. He is sleeping fitfully. Number Two wants a deeper sleep, and orders up the Pulsator. The light above Number Six’s bed starts flashing and beeping in time. It descends towards him until he falls into a deeper. Hypnotic sleep.
Two doctor’s in white coats enter his bedroom, lift him onto a stretcher and carry him away. Almost as an afterthought, they collect his watch and calendar, the last of which is set to tomorrow’s date, February 10. Elsewhere, his arm is prepared using an electrical device and he is given an injection. He is seen sat up in bed, looking somewhat bemused. The Doctors, holding a metal pole, advance on him, softly intoning, ‘Left hand, Number Twelve, left hand’. If he pushes the pole away with his right hand, he gets an electric shock. If he uses his left hand, which is protected by a rubber glove, he does not.
The sequence ends with the calendar being placed on a bedside table. It still reads  February 10.
Number Six wakes up, ostensibly the day after his session with Alison. His hair has been re-styled and is now black, and he has a full-grown moustache. He is unaware of any of this until he rubs his face to refresh himself and feels the moustache. He pulls at it but it is real. His changed appearance, and his presence in a completely different cottage, older in style, more fussy and full with objects, comes as a total shock.
Number Six is startled when the phone rings. It is Number Two, asking if he’d slept alright after the flight and inviting him to breakfast. Number Two speaks to him as Number Twelve. Number Six checks his wardrobe, which has all-new Village clothes. To the piped blazer is pinned the Penny Farthing badge, with a number 12 on it. Number Six unpins and crumples it.
He leaves to walk to the Green Dome. Outside his door, an Asian man in a turban greets him as Number Twelve. He automatically responds with ‘Be Seeing You’, doing the thumb-and-forefinger gesture with his left hand. It shocks him. When another Villager en route greets him as Number Twelve, he asks her why she’s using that number: she replies that it is what he was called the last time she saw him.
Number Two greets him as an old friend. He’s delighted to see him back, comments on what resistance there was to having him reassigned here. Number Six is suspicious but clearly has no idea what this is about. He’s offered breakfast, a la carte or table d’hôte. He decides to choose for himself, but turns his nose up at bacon and egg, bacon and kidney and kippers, but falls wolfishly on the American breakfast, flapjacks (these are not the health bars now widely available, but rolled up pancakes). The breakfast that has been prepared for him turns out to be the same: Number Two asks if “Number Twelve” thought he’d forgotten that they’d nick-named him Flapjack Charlie.
This is too much for Number Six, who demands to know what this is all about. Number Two immediately turns serious: his friend has been brought her to crack the Village’s prize pupil, Number Six, who cannot be subjected to normal methods as he’s wanted intact. Number Six has a very highly developed sense of self, which is where they will attack him. Besides being a superb field agent, Number Twelve bears a startling resemblance to Number Six: colour and restyle his hair, shave off his moustache, they would look alike.
Number Two jokes apologetically about Number Twelve’s moustache, and how Susan hated it when he previously had to shave it off, refused to kiss him for a month until it was regrown.
Of course, Number Six has seen all through this and, angrily bit icily, he states that the Village will never be able to convince him that he’s not ‘your Number Six’. Number Two looks puzzled, but then laughingly approves of his getting into character immediately. However, he warns “Number Twelve” to be careful, Number Six is right-handed where “Number Twelve” is left-handed.
In order to be sure he can identify “Number Twelve” afterwards, Number Two gives him the password Gemini.
Unable to make an impression, Number Six is led away to be ‘turned into’ himself. He’s then taken to his own cottage to confront the returning “Number Six”. Immediately, he notes several minor differences. Number Two warns him not to try that on: Number Six has a very strong sense of territory. Six-as-Twelve is left alone.
When Twelve-as-Six enters the cottage, Six-as-Twelve is truly shocked at the resemblance. Twelve-as-Six is absolutely identical, except that he wears a white blazer with black piping, and a Number Six badge. He’s identical in speech and character, immediately seeing through what is planned, being sardonically dismissive,  and treating Six-as-Twelve with amused contempt.
Rattled, Six-as-Twelve tries to regain the initiative by acting as host and offering drinks, not nothing is where it should be and Twelve-as-Six locates and pours for him. The same thing goes for cigars: Six-as-Twelve can only smoke Black Russian cigarettes: Number Six’s cigars choke him.
Steadily growing more amused, Twelve-as-Six invites a series of comparisons in Number Six’s skills, in the Recreation Room, a place he, but not Six-as-Twelve, is familiar with. Twelve-as-Six keeps his opponent off-balance by constantly harping on Six-as-Twelve’s instinctive use of the incorrect left hand. At shooting, fencing and boxing, Twelve-as-Six is clearly a better Number Six than Six-as-Twelve.
The last, impromptu bout was ended prematurely by Rover, who escorts the pair to the Green Dome. Inside, Twelve-as-Six is seized,interrogated and tortured as an imposter, whilst Number Two is supportive of and apologetic to Six-as-Twelve, who is keeping his disturbance well-hidden. When Twelve-as-Six refuses to break, Six-as-Twelve decides to break the deadlock off his own bat. Number Two is nervous but allows him to go ahead.
Six-as-Twelve phones Alison and asks her to come over immediately with the cards. She is very reluctant, but agrees to do so. When she arrives, she is stunned to see the doubles. Six-as-Twelve assures her that she can resolve the little problem. Each man will do a run of five cards,which will prove who is authentic. Number Two looks very dubious about this.
Six-as-Twelve starts. Alison gets the first card right but, to his increasing panic, none of the rest. With Twelve-as-Six, she gets all five correct. She also identifies Twelve-as-Six as the real Number Six.
She produces the photo of yesterday, with Number Six holding the cards. Six-as-Twelve snatches it, looks at it, crumples it up and shoves it in a pocket. Alison then identifies a simpler way to tell the real Number Six: he has a mole on the inside of his left wrist. Twelve-as-Six has it, Six-as-Twelve hasn’t. With a humiliating smile, Twelve-as-Six escorts Alison out.
Number Two explodes at Six-as-Twelve for trying that very costly experiment: Number Six and the girl have a genuine rapport. He castigates the Doctors for overlooking the mole. It’s been a colossal setback, and they will have to work hard to overcome it.
Six-as-Twelve goes back to Number Twelve’s cottage, but he is restless and cannot sleep. The massive reversals of the day have shaken him. Number Two and Twelve-as-Six observe him, reckoning that it is only a matter of time.
Six-as-Twelve starts tapping on his knee with the fingers of his left hand. Suddenly conscious of what he’s doing, he notices his forefinger. There is a blood-bruise under the nail, about halfway up. He hunts out Alison’s photo, examines it with a magnifying glass. It shows the newly created bruise at the base of the nail. It also shows the calendar saying February 10. But the bruise is proof that those events didn’t happen yesterday.
With the evidence that about a month must have passed, Number Six’s memory starts to feed him with images of the varying stages of brainwashing he’s undergone to set up this complex situation. He finds evidence that his cigars have been doctored. He’s still inconvenienced by having to use his left hand, but after using it to hold a shorting-out lamp, and grounding himself, the resultant shock destroys the last vestige of the conditioning.
Number Six breaks curfew to go to his own cottage. His absence is soon noticed and an alert raised. En route, he encounters two guards, who demand the password. Knowing Gemini is false, he gives it anyway and knocks both out. His cottage door is blocked by Rover but he creates a decoy by sending a mini-moke away and gets in.
Number Twelve appears to be asleep but instead is alert, and has a dangerous nerve-gas pistol. Number Six distracts him by pretending to be confused, and coming undone at the seams: when Number Twelve moves to call Number Two, Number Six jumps him.
This time it is no contest: Number Six is clearly superior. He breaks Number Twelve, forcing him to confirm that his name is Curtis and that the real password is The Schizoid Man. The noise of hunting outside distracts Number Six, and Number Twelve breaks free and runs outside. Number Six pursues him. They are confronted by Rover. Number Six gives the true password first. When Number Twelve breaks and tries to run, Rover pursues and kills him.
Number Six sees a chance. He goes inside and dons the white jacket with the Number Six badge before phoning Number Two. Giving his name as Curtis, he reports to a horrified Number Two that Number Six is dead.
Number Two is still agitated in the morning. “Number Twelve” has been summoned back to report on his failure. Number Six disputes this, claiming that he did his job of breaking Number Six, and couldn’t know he’d go berserk. It was Number Two’s plan and his responsibility. Number Two looks surprised: it wasn’t his plan and Curtis knows it. Number Six bluffs it out. Number Two tries to smooth things over.
Before he leaves, the General wants “Number Twelve” to talk to Alison, to see  if she has any insights. This worries Number Six, but he can’t refuse. After he leaves, Number Two evidently considers the possibility that Number Six is impersonating Curtis but shakes the idea off.
At Alison’s Number Six tries to be brash and distant. He’s deliberately curt, dismissive of the very idea of rapports. Alison insists they exist, and she and Number Six had one. As she does, she takes out a cigarette behind his back: Number Six withdraws his lighter, turn and holds it up for her. The two freeze for a moment, before Number Six makes a hasty escape.
At Number Twelve’s cottage, he changes into the man’s suit. In his wallet he finds a photo of an attractive blonde, on which is written, “From your loving wife, Susan”.
On the drive to the helicopter, Number Two asks “Number Twelve” if he’s had a chance to think about the proposition put to him on his arrival. Number Six tries to escape by claiming not to have any time, and no thoughts. Number Two admonishes him for acting this way: they’ve been in scrapes together before and not fallen out. Number Six’s agitation is new: only a month ago, Susan was speaking of how unflappable Curtis was.
Alison is waiting beside the helicopter. She approaches Number Six and explains that she wanted to apologise for the way she betrayed Number Six yesterday and wishes she had a second chance. He tries to deflect it as being her job, and that there are no second chances. Utterly seriously, she says that thee are second chances for the lucky few, and she wants him to know that she would never betray Number Six a second time.
Number Six has to be blindfolded for the short flight to the launching pad. As he submits to this, Number Two asks him to give his regards to Susan when he next sees her. Number Six agrees.
The helicopter takes off, flies for a short time, and descends. When it lands, several men grab Number Six and drag him from the cockpit. They strip off his blindfold, leaving him looking into the face of Number Two. “Susan,” he explains, with a rueful smile, “died a year ago, Number Six.”