Danger Man

A lot of people know, or know of, exceptionally weird TV series The Prisoner. “I am not a number. I am a free man!” etc. But before Patrick McGoohan gave the world Number Six, he spent a few years in the lesser known role of secret operative John Drake (who may or may not have been the same character).

Titled Danger Man during the British-only first outing, Drake’s adventures later continued in the United States, as Secret Agent. Lakewood Public Library has most of the show’s run on DVD, and over the past year I have grown rather fond of it.

Streamlined storytelling. Danger Man is, in a lot of ways, elegantly simple. Beyond “John Drake is a Western-powers secret operative,” it scarcely has any kind of premise or continuity. (Drake’s employer, his formal role, and his nationality are all questionable.) Every episode seems to work on its own. Characters are built-up afresh in each story, including Drake to a great extent; his is nearly the only recurring character, and even he goes through little in terms of episode-to-episode character building.

For me, this stripped-down approach is part of the show’s fascination. It comes across as almost an exercise in short-story elegance: a demonstration of how good writing can deliver interest again and again, without employing soap-opera story arcs or world-building. (Possibly this is why I enjoy the initial half-hour episodes most of all, and feel that the longer subsequent episodes are good but stray just a bit from this minimalist charm.)

The show’s approach makes for an interesting contrast with other secret-agent fiction of the 1960s. Danger Man is certainly not James Bond; it feels like a world of real people rather than supervillains and movie stars. But it also dispenses with the personal and bureaucratic introspection of LeCarré’s George Smiley; Drake’s nearly invisible and anonymous employers are a very different presence compared with the detailed workings of LeCarré’s “Circus,” and Drake himself has almost no evident personal or inner life.

Yet somehow, Drake works, and perhaps pulling this off is not entirely different from being an at-large, freelance secret agent: in any given situation, he gives just enough hints of an identity to seem like a real person, but it’s always subtle and it may be that all of it is performance.

Live-action Kirby. Very possibly this is just me, but for what it’s worth, I find a further, lesser but ongoing fascination in how Danger Man looks like a Jack Kirby comic turned into live-action television.

McGoohan himself, as far as I’m concerned, just looks like a Kirby character. He’s certainly the type of chiseled but still human male lead Kirby drew in so many of his best remembered works. Even beyond that, though, his expressions and features just seem of a family with so many of those characters. A face defined by simple, sturdy lines; his eyes and brow in particular, I think.

Photos of Patrick McGoohan

Photos of Patrick McGoohan

In some way, though, the whole show seems to conjure up some connection with Kirby comics. Probably, I have to guess, the era plays a large part in this. Danger Man ran during the 1960s, in parallel to Kirby’s work on The Fantastic Four and other series with which I (and many others) most closely associate him. Obviously, the same fashions, furniture, cars etc. appear in both. There might be a further visual connection, though, in the perspective on that era taken by both Danger Man and Kirby’s works of the same period. Both, I think, tend to capture a working- and middle-class professional’s day to day 1960s, which Camelot-glamor and counterculture flamboyance have tended to eclipse in cultural memory. McGoohan was 11 years younger than Kirby, but they may have shared some measure of cultural identity relative to what else was around them. (Both were New Yorkers who finished out their lives in California, for what that’s worth.)

Meanwhile, yes, I am aware that “King” Kirby created one issue of an abandoned comic book adaptation of McGoohan’s subsequent TV series, The Prisoner. About that…

Danger Man and The Prisoner. Quite a few people have speculated on the idea that Number Six in The Prisoner is John Drake. According to online trivia, McGoohan himself denied this… but others (allegedly including another of The Prisoner‘s creators) have stood by the theory anyway.

I’m hardly in a great position to judge. I have seen a fair bit of Danger Man but by no means the majority, and while I have seen most of The Prisoner this was about 17 years ago.

But for what my opinion is worth, it’s that yes, Number Six is John Drake… to the extent that it’s possible for a character in one, relatively grounded work of fiction (which nonethless featured loose internal continuity) to be “the same character” as one appearing in a sort of surrealist allegory. Can you really speak of continuity across all of that? I suppose that if you want to, you can, to some extent—and that to this extent, Number Six is Drake.

I suppose that Occam’s Razor might be the ultimate basis of my reasoning. Within the shows themselves, I don’t recall any firm reason to say no, despite all of the connections between them these are two distinct characters rather than one. Beyond that, there are one or two specific connections which persuade me that, absent any “real” answer which can never exist, Number Six at least ought to be John Drake.

One is the fact that The Prisoner‘s premise seems to offer a compelling sequel to one of the minor, but memorable recurring tensions in Danger Man. If Drake’s vague employers have any distinct characteristics at all, it’s that they are 1) protean and 2) capable of being utter bastards who are 3) sometimes very displeased with Drake’s adherence to an independent code of honor. It has, again, been many years but this seems a lot like what I recall of the employers who torment Number Six after he turned his back on them.

Next to this, my other motivation for linking the two characters is rather trivial, and yet… when Danger Man came to the United States, it received not only a new title but also a catchy new theme song. You have probably heard “Secret Agent Man” by Johnny Rivers, at least a time or two. Perhaps, therefore, you will recall the line “they’re givin’ you a number, and takin’ away your name.”

Obviously, this predated The Prisoner. There’s no reason to think that it had any significance but a reference to the “007” of James Bond, the popularity of which was a factor in continuing the Danger Man series. But… unlike Bond, “Number Six” actually was stripped of his name in addition to being assigned a number. The fact that this is warned of by music from an earlier show, also about a secret agent played by the same actor, secures my vote for bundling up the two.

Number Six ought to be John Drake, and that’s enough for me.

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