Legion has been on the air for just over a month, and in that time, fans have pointed out the show shares some similarities with a lesser known show that aired for just five months between 1967-8: The Prisoner.
From the aesthetic to the psychological drama interwoven through the main story, both series ask a lot of their viewers. Each use their science-fiction base and allegorical narrative tools to tell a different story than the one on the surface. That can be confusing at times, but both shows make trying to figure out what’s going on and what may happen next part of the experience.
While many people may be aware of Legion — the show has become one of FX’s most viewed this year in just the short amount of time it’s been on the air — some may be less aware of The Prisoner. It’s a series worth searching out and watching for fans who like the way Legion handles storytelling and intrigue. If you need something a little more convincing to persuade you though, here are just some of the ways Legion and The Prisoner relate to one another.
The Prisoner follows an unnamed former secret agent, played by Patrick McGoohan, who wakes up in mysterious seaside village after being knocked out by gas in his London apartment. Like Legion’s David Haller, the protagonist in The Prisoner is left confused about his strange situation: They feel hopelessly alone, scared, confused and unsure of what to do next.
This is one of the key similarities between the two shows that many people have pointed out. Both Number Six — as the man soon becomes known — and David Haller are isolated within their worlds, driven by their apprehension about what they’re seeing and who they’re meeting. Haller and Number Six try to figure out what’s real and what’s not, and that becomes the main riddle for viewers to figure out.
Are the people Number Six sees walking around the village real? Is Syd Barrett, Haller’s girlfriend and one of the closest people in his life, real or is she a figment of his imagination? These are among the never-ending questions that create a mystery for audiences to solve and drive the show’s narrative.
One of the major themes in The Prisoner is individuality, with Number Six fighting to preserve his in the face of the villagers’ hive mind. Although the scenario is different in Legion, that focus on individuality is ever-present. Haller is more willing to work with people at the facility he wakes up in, the character is more of an individual than anything else. He doesn’t believe entirely in what he’s told, but relies on his own memories and what he can see or feel. He doesn’t want to be alone necessarily, much like Number Six, but he’s unwilling to give up his identity for the purpose of belonging to the community.
Fans of Legion have noted that both series are also completely surreal, but that sense of surrealism disappears when context is given. The creators of both The Prisoner and Legion ask viewers for trust in the story they’re telling, promising that the narrative’s not confusing or weird just for the sake of it. Mixed in with the stylized look both series have, it’s no surprise that both critics and viewers have compared the two.
“The groovy ’60s style is there, as are the surreal moments, and the surreal moments that are no longer surreal when given context,” one Reddit user wrote. “I wonder if it’s willfully intentional, or more coincidental.”
In his review of the show, the New York Times’ TV critic James Poniewozik said that Legion’s aesthetic reeks of The Prisoner.
“The pilot has a groovy, 1960s-70s retro-futurist look,” Poniewozik wrote. “The colors are kaleidoscopic, the sets Op Art electric. Legion isn’t a period piece — it seems to exist in a time of its own — but it looks a little as if Stanley Kubrick in 1968 were directing The Prisoner with 21st-century visual effects.”
The similar styles are the most obvious aspect shared by the two shows. But their most important commonality is that they ultimately reward their audiences. The reason The Prisoner is still so beloved by its cult following is because of its brilliance in handling those messy, confusing elements. Every aspect of the show is explained and contextualized, no matter how seemingly pointless or abstract. The show never pulls a fast one on the viewer, instead valuing their intelligence and time commitment. From beginning to end, The Prisoner is an incredibly smart, if also incredibly dense, piece of television.
Legion’s only just getting started, but it’s already proving that it’s well-made in the same ways The Prisoner is. Legion showrunner Noah Hawley has said as much, insisting that the show’s eccentricities will pay off for viewers.
In an interview with Uproxx, Hawley said that in order for a show like Legion to succeed, the narrator has to be reliable:
You have to solve the mystery. The narrator has to become reliable. It’s a lot to ask an audience to take a perpetually unsatisfying journey where it’s like you’re never going to know for sure. It’s another thing to say, “We’re going to take a character out of confusion into clarity and an audience out of mystery into clarity.” That’s the goal of it which is to say, there’s a contract and you watch that first hour and you like, “I don’t know. There’s a devil with yellow eyes and there are these other elements that I’m not sure what they mean, but I trust the filmmaker and I know that I’m going to understand it eventually.” You do. It becomes clear by the end of the first year what’s going on.
The same can be said for The Prisoner, which depends entirely on Number Six’s ability to convey the inaccuracies in what he’s seeing and not lead the audience astray. Whether Number Six and David Haller are truly who they make themselves out to be is another point entirely, of course, but for the shows to work, the viewer needs to feel as though they can trust these heroes.
There are quite a few shows that take influence from The Prisoner’s style and storytelling, from Lost to Westworld. Yet The Prisoner — which ran just one season of 17 episodes — remains a show that goes by unheard of in most conversations. In this era of weird, smart TV, it’s important to acknowledge the influence of shows that gave way to the series of today, and The Prisoner remains one of the most influential.
The Prisoner is currently available to stream on AMC and Amazon. Legion airs Wednesday nights at 10 p.m. ET on FX.