Once Upon a Time (The Prisoner)

"Once Upon a Time" is the penultimate episode of the allegorical British science fiction TV series, The Prisoner. It was written and directed by Patrick McGoohan and sixth to be produced. It was first aired in the UK on ITV (Scottish Television) on Thursday 25 October 1967 (it appeared on ATV Midlands and Grampian the day after) and was first broadcast in the United States on CBS on Saturday 14 September 1968.[1][2]

"Once Upon a Time"
The Prisoner episode
Episode no.Season 1
Episode 16
Directed byPatrick McGoohan
Written byPatrick McGoohan
Production code6
Original air date25 January 1968
Guest appearance(s)

Number Two: Leo McKern

The episode starred Patrick McGoohan as Number Six and re-introduced Leo McKern as Number Two. McKern's Number Two had previously appeared in "The Chimes of Big Ben" and would also appear in the last episode "Fall Out".[3] The main theme of the episode is the use of regressive therapy to break Number Six's will.

Plot summary

The Number Two from the prior episode "The Chimes of Big Ben" (Leo McKern) returns to the Village. He calls his superiors and obtains permission to undertake a dangerous technique called "Degree Absolute" in a final attempt to break Number Six and learn why he resigned from his position as an intelligence agent. Number Six is put into a trance state, causing his mind to regress back to his childhood. He is taken to the "Embryo Room", deep below the Green Dome, filled with various props, as well as a caged room that contains living space and a kitchen. He, Number Two, and the Butler (Angelo Muscat) are subsequently locked into the room via a timer that will unlock the room after one week.

Number Two begins to use regressive therapy following Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, using the various props to enact a series of psychodramas, with Number Two playing the authority figure (e.g., father, headmaster, employer) and Number Six the subject (child, student, employee). Each drama is aimed at trying to make Number Six explain why he resigned. During the first six of these, Number Two finds Number Six has developed an aversion to saying the word "six". Number Two also comes to like and respect Number Six as he learns more about him.

On the final day, Number Two enacts the role of military jailer, harshly interrogating Number Six as a prisoner of war. Number Two's efforts seem to have effect as Number Two starts to blather on reasons for resigning, but he becomes concerned when Number Six says he knew too much, including about Number Two. Number Two becomes agitated, and Number Six continues to call him a fool and an idiot. Suddenly, Number Six starts counting down from "six", and by the time he's reached zero, has regained full control of his mind. Already exhausted from his efforts, Number Two is shocked and collapses. He explains to Number Six that Degree Absolute, a well-known psychiatric technique, has its risks to the one performing the therapy if they have their own psychological problems. Number Six shows his understanding in a brief role reversal (by asking Number Two "Why don't you resign?"), much to Number Two's delighted amusement.

Number Two recovers and joyfully offers Number Six a tour of the Embryo Room. They end at the door timer, finding only five minutes remain before the room unlocks. Number Two becomes scared and pleads with Number Six to tell him why he resigned. Number Six remains quiet as Number Two goes to the kitchen area and pours them both a glass of wine. Number Six suddenly closes the door to the caged area, locking a panicked Number Two inside. The Butler takes the key from Number Two. Number Two paces the caged area while a voice screams "Die, Six, die!", until the timer runs out. Number Two falls over, apparently dead. The door to the Embryo room opens where the Supervisor (Peter Swanwick) waits. He tells Number Six they will need the body and then asks Number Six what he wants. Number Six only replies "Number One", and the Supervisor offers to take him there. He, Number Six, and the Butler depart the room.[1]



  • "Once Upon a Time" was originally reported to be the final episode of the first of two seasons of thirteen episodes, but when ITC and McGoohan renegotiated to make just seventeen episodes, the closing was refilmed and it was held back to become the first half of a two-part series finale.[4] However, the purported original script has been published, containing that ending.[5]
  • Angelo Muscat (the Butler) receives "Guest Star" billing in this episode.
  • According to The Prisoner: The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series by Robert Fairclough, the strain of filming this episode caused McKern to suffer either a nervous breakdown or a heart attack (accounts differ), forcing production to stop for a time.
  • A number of fans who speculate that Number Six is in fact John Drake from McGoohan's earlier series, Danger Man usually reference this episode. They claim that Number Two says "Report to my study in the morning, Drake!" when in fact he really says "Report to my study in the morning break."
  • Number Six's demeanour in this episode is significantly different from previous episodes. Previously, his initial fury and apprehension of the Village transitioned into a suave, obstinate rebelliousness and he carried himself with assurance and certainty in resisting the Village. But in this episode he reverts to the edgy and tense, pacing back and forth in his kitchen without his accustomed coolness. His interactions with the Villagers have become bizarre; for example, he accosts the Umbrella Man who seems eager to avoid him. As "Once Upon a Time" was shot among the first 13 episodes, and held back as a potential end-season cliffhanger, it may be that plans to develop Six's characterisation to this state were curtailed by the sudden cancellation. However, the published collection of all the series' original scripts indicates there was no re-purposing of this episode.
  • John Maxim's brief scene as Number Eighty-Six was cut from the episode. He is however still listed in the credits.
  • Contrary to all other uses of the distinctive font (a slightly modified form of Albertus) for the show's titles and credits as well as throughout the Village's signage, there is a dot on the "i" of the word "Time" in the title card of this episode.
  • A working title of this episode was "Degree Absolute"
  • According to the 2007 "Don't Knock Yourself Out" documentary during production and filming of the episode both actors portraying Number Six and Number Two became totally engrossed in their roles and almost achieved a near-psychotic state (cited by various people, including Leo McKern).
  • The episode is referred to by Number Two in the 1988 comic book sequel Shattered Visage, when asked by Alice Drake whom Six killed.


  1. Pixley, Andrew (2007). The Prisoner: A Complete Production Guide. Network Distributing. p. 143.
  2. "Once Upon a Time". anorakzone.com. Retrieved 24 March 2019.
  3. Davies, Steven Paul (2007). The Prisoner Handbook. Pan. p. 142. ISBN 978-0-230-53028-7.
  4. White, Matthew & Jaffer Ali, The Official Prisoner Companion, Warner Books, 1988.
  5. Fairclough, Robert (editor), The Prisoner: The Original Scripts, Vol. 2, Reynolds & Hearn, 2006.


  • Fairclough, Robert (ed.). The Prisoner: The Original Scripts. vol. 2. foreword by Roger Parkes. Reynolds & Hearn. ISBN 978-1-903111-81-9. OCLC 61145235. – script of episode
Last produced:
"The Chimes of Big Ben"
The Prisoner episodes Next produced:
"The Schizoid Man"
Last transmitted:
"The Girl Who Was Death"
Next transmitted:
"Fall Out"
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