"The General" is an episode of the television series The Prisoner (1967 series). It was the tenth episode to be produced, and the sixth to be broadcast. The central themes of this episode are rote learning and indoctrination.
Number 6 — along with the rest of the Village population — is subjected to a new mind-altering education technology called "Speed Learn" which can instill a three-year university level course in history over a television screen in just three minutes. It was invented and is "taught" by an avuncular individual known as "The Professor" who is nevertheless seen trying to escape from the Village along the beach at the episode outset. Number Six finds a tape recorder on the beach which he hides in the sand. He witnesses the professor being recaptured, who then proceeds with the education program which instills a detailed, but fairly sterile, set of data on "European history since Napoleon" into all Village residents' minds. Speed Learn is also apparently supported by someone known as "The General". Number 2 tries to find the tape recorder, which he thinks Number Six has, but fails; he then quizzes Number Six on the lecture, and Six answers correctly. After Number Two leaves, Number Six goes back to the beach to find the tape recorder, only to find that Number Twelve has it. Number Twelve agrees to help Number Six. On the tape the professor states that speed learn is an abomination and slavery, and that The General must be destroyed.
Number Six discusses art with the Professor's wife, sketching her in a general's uniform. He searches her house, finding busts she has carved of him and Number Two, and smashes a lifelike effigy representing the sleeping Professor.
Number Six fears that Speed Learn could eventually be used for mind control. Number Twelve assists him by giving him a set of passes and a pen that will play a message about the professor's confession. Before the next lesson is to be broadcast, Number Six infiltrates the projection room and installs his own message. He is detected and thwarted in this attempt, and the real message is broadcast.
Number Six is interrogated and refuses to reveal the complicity of Number Twelve. Number Two claims that the General will know who his accomplice was. "The General" is revealed to be a sophisticated, experimental mainframe computer which has purportedly been programmed to be able to answer any question put to it. As Number Two is about to ask who assisted Number Six, Number Six says that there is a question that the General cannot answer. Number Two arrogantly accepts the challenge; when Number Six feeds his brief question into the General, the computer begins to smoke out of sheer consternation. Fearing the worst, the Professor tries to shut down the computer, and as it begins to overload, Number Twelve tries to save him. But The General self-destructs, killing both men in the process. A distraught Number Two asks Number Six what the question was. The General, and Number Two's plans, were destroyed by a simple epistemological trick:
- 'The General' is first mentioned by Number 2 in the episode "The Schizoid Man". That episode also featured another Villager with the Number 12, in this case Number 6's doppelgänger. While the Number 12 in "The General" clearly states to Number 2 he has been in the Village "quite a long time", this could potentially gives rise to questions of episode order and continuity. However the assignment of numbers appears somewhat arbitrary throughout the series; for instance Number Eight is assigned to three different characters.
- Neither the Professor or his wife are assigned a number.
- One of the busts that Number Six pulls the dust sheet off in the Professor's house is that of the Number Two played by Leo McKern in the prior episode The Chimes of Big Ben. The bust was originally created for the art exhibition in that episode.
- The twist ending is similar to the The Twilight Zone episode "The Old Man in the Cave" (1963).
- Entering the Village broadcast studios required a token to be inserted into a Thing money box. This was a toy bank from which a "Thing" hand emerged to snatch coins which were placed in a slot at the front. This item was reportedly included at the request of Patrick McGoohan.
Chris Gregory believes the episode to be "memorable" and highly melodramatic". He describes the ending as "[fitting in] well with the subtext of the series", but also say "the revelation that ‘The General is a powerful computer is a stock science fiction device." Alain Carrazé and Hélène Oswald compare the ending of the episode to the story of David and Goliath. The fact that the Prisoner defeats the General with a single word is like David killing Goliath with a sling. They describe the music used during scene involving the Prisoner, Number 2 and the Professor's wife as "one of the strangest musical themes in the series".
- (1989) The Prisoner. London: W H Allen, 91, 94. ISBN 1-85227-338-0.
- (1997) Be Seeing You... Decoding The Prisoner. Lutton, Bedfordshire: John Libbey Media, 95. ISBN 1-860205-21-6.
- The Prisoner: The Original Scripts, foreword by Lewis Greifer, Reynolds & Hearn. ISBN 978-1-903111-76-5. OCLC 61145235. – script of episode