"Once Upon a Time" is the title of the 16th episode of the British science fiction-allegorical series, The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan as Number Six. It originally aired in the UK on ITV on 25 January 1968 and was first broadcast in the United States on CBS on 14 September 1968.
This episode was filmed sixth in the series' production run.
The Number Two from the very early episode "The Chimes of Big Ben" (Leo McKern) returns to undertake a technique he calls "Degree Absolute" in a final attempt to break Number Six.
As he sleeps, Number Six is put into a trance state with one of the "pulsator lamps", and when he wakes up, his mind has regressed back to childhood. With The Butler (Angelo Muscat), he and Number Two descend to the "Embryo Room" located deep underneath The Green Dome. The doors are locked from the outside, a timer is set, and from this point on the three of them cannot leave the room for a week.
Number Two, apparently using a technique of regressive therapy, directs a series of psychodramas in the Embryo Room, a running theme being Shakespeare's Seven Ages of Man, to discover why Number Six resigned. They go through the different stages of Number Six's life, with Number Two playing the roles of various authority figures (parent, teacher, coach, employer, judge, officer) while Number Six plays the corresponding subordinate roles (son, student, athlete, employee, defendant, soldier). Throughout the tests, Number Two repeatedly asks "Why did you resign?" every time he detects a weakness. During these sessions, Number Two discovers that his charge has developed a mental block that prevents him from speaking the number "Six". Slowly, Number Two also starts developing a fondness for the prisoner. "I'm beginning to like him," he says after yet another failed attempt to break Number Six.
As the week runs out, Number Six gains strength. A final attempt at interrogation (with Number Two in the role of a jailer and Number Six as a prisoner of war) ends with Number Six appearing to snap, begging Number Two to kill him, stating that his resignation was "A matter of conscience ... too many people knew too much ... I know too much ... I know too much about you!" (a statement Number Two rejects), and finally calling his tormentor a "fool" and "an idiot". Then, suddenly, Number Six speaks the word "six", and counts down to zero, by which time he's his normal self again.
It is left ambiguous as to whether Number Six had been play-acting the entire time, or whether the brainwashing had simply unraveled at some point. As a shell-shocked Number Two lies on a table, Number Six states that Degree Absolute, while a recognized technique in psychiatry, carries risks, particularly if the "doctor" conducting the session "has his own problems". This intrigues Number Two, who joyfully explains the entire ruse to Number Six, giving him a tour of the Embryo Room, culminating with the timer - which shows that there are only a few minutes remaining before the end of the session.
Panicking, Number Two pleads with Number Six to tell him why he resigned, and ultimately finds himself crawling in supplication to the prisoner. This ends in a "kitchen" designed as a large cage, Number Two explaining that it is stocked with provisions. Number Two pours a glass of wine for each of them and desperately drinks his. Suddenly, Number Six closes the door to the cage, locking Number Two inside. The Butler, who has evidently switched allegiances, takes the key. Number Two paces back and forth like a caged animal; a voice (never explained, possibly Number Six, possibly Number Two himself, perhaps even Number One) taunts "Die!" over and over as the timer runs down. Number Two collapses, apparently dead, as a somewhat regretful Number Six turns to leave. The door slides open and the Supervisor (Peter Swanwick) enters the chamber.
- Supervisor: "What do you desire?"
- Number Six: "Number One."
- Supervisor: "I'll take you."
Additional guest cast
- Supervisor: Peter Swanwick
- Umbrella man: John Cazabon
- Number Eighty-Six: John Maxim
Behind the scenes
- "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. However, the purported original script has been published, containing that ending.
- 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 demeanor 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 characterization to this state were curtailed by the sudden cancellation. However, the recently published collection of all the series' original scripts indicates there was no re-purposing of this episode.
- John Maxim's brief was left on the cutting room floor.
- 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 called "Degree Absolute"
- According to "Don't Knock Yourself Out": 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).
- In the penultimate episode of season 2 of Babylon 5, "Comes the Inquisitor" (1995), there is an extended sequence that is an homage to this episode. It is shot and written and directed to deliberately evoke the same feeling.
- Fairclough, Robert (ed.). The Prisoner: The Original Scripts. vol. 2. foreword by Roger Parkes. Reynolds & Hearn. ISBN 978-1-903111-81-9. OCLC . - script of episode
- at the Internet Movie Database