A&E // 1967 // 884 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // August 9th, 2006
"He told them nothing. He told them a blessed fairytale. That one wouldn't drop his guard with his own grandmother." -- Number 2 (Kenneth Griffith), "The Girl Who Was Death"
Number 6 hits 40 in this 10 disc set, now boxed at ½ its original size by A&E in its 3rd release of the classic 1967 television series. Those are the numbers. And it's not free, man.
A man resigns from his society, but will not say why. He is kidnapped, but he does not know by whom. He lives in a village, but no one will tell him where. He knows he will escape, but he cannot say when.
It all means something, but I cannot say what.
When I began this updated review of Patrick McGoohan's cryptic and intense television classic The Prisoner, I went searching through my files for the texts of my earlier reviews. I knew that my coverage of the first two A&E boxed sets, from back in 2001, were still in the Verdict database. But I also reviewed Sets 3 and 4 for another site, now reduced to merely an archive. But my reviews were not in that archive (although other early work of mine was still there). They had vanished. Conspiracy?
And so, in the spirit of A&E's repackaged "40th Anniversary" edition of The Prisoner, which has been updated to include nothing more than an expanded booklet (with information that any fan of the show already knows) and slim cases (which now take up only half the space on your shelf), I reconstruct -- repackage, if you will -- our case file on The Prisoner, picking up the threads from five years ago.
These fragments have been reconstituted by our crack intelligence team, with new briefing material. Since I have already discussed the episodes included in the first two sets A&E released, I will continue where I left off.
File 1: The Episodes
* "The Schizoid Man:" Number 2 (Anton Rogers) concocts a plan to undermine 6's identity. Number 6 is conditioned to become "Number 12," an agent placed in the Village to impersonate the real 6. When the two Number 6s meet (both played by McGoohan, of course, showing remarkable acting chemistry with himself), they engage in a battle of wills over who is the true prisoner. The theme of this episode clearly explores the question of self-identity. Descartes set the ground for modern self-identity by positing that our sense of self could be fixed only by internal criteria (the notorious cogito). But to a large extent, our sense of self is confirmed by external details: both the presence of others to fix our position in the world, and our own "mirror image" (our awareness of ourselves as embodied subjects, often made present through mirrors). Number 6 may hide his secrets deep within his subjective mind, but his self-identity as a lone individual is only possible in conjunction with his place as part of a world of other bodies. This balancing act between our subjective and objective selves is a common theme throughout the series.
* "Many Happy Returns:" Number 6 wakes up one morning to find the Village completely deserted. Leaving an IOU at the local shop for a camera (6 never forgets to pay his debts), he takes some pictures, builds a raft, and sails for England. This is the halfway point of the series, an elaborate practical joke directed by McGoohan (under the name Joseph Serf). The lone individual finds himself cut off and discovers that one way or another, he must return to the company of others. Only in the gesture of another, the gift offered in friendship (even ironically, as "The Prisoner" is never without irony), can the individual find a place in the world.
* "It's Your Funeral:" Having been given a twisted birthday gift in "Many Happy Returns," Number 6 finds that he must return the favor. His gift: a warning to Number 2 (Andre Van Gyseghem) that his supercilious successor (Darren Nesbit) is planning a permanent retirement party, courtesy of some plastic explosives and a disgruntled watchmaker. This is one of the more straightforward suspense tales of the series, but it contains some intriguing double-crosses and an ironic problem for 6, having to rescue his hated adversary for the sake of the Village itself.
* "A Change of Mind:" What good is a confession without contrition? When Number 6 is brought before the Committee, a legal body in the Village that prosecutes citizens for anti-social behavior, he is ordered to confess. Disharmony cannot be permitted, and even Number 2 (John Sharp) cannot intervene. Public desire for conformity even exceeds a single authority. One citizen announces, "We all have a social obligation to stand together." The consequences of 6's rebellious ways: he must stand alone. His phone is cut off, restaurants refuse service, and his fellow citizens keep their distance. Isn't this what he has always wanted, though? Ironically, the "unmutual" Number 6 quickly discovers that the individual does need the group: once isolated, he becomes frustrated. Unfortunately, a promising start to this episode is itself frustrated when "A Change of Mind" begins to recycle the usual "Number 2 has a cheap scam to trick Number 6" routine: 6 is drugged and sent through fake "rehabilitation" therapy (they pretend to give him a sort of ultrasonic lobotomy), but he figures it out pretty quickly and dupes the Committee into declaring 2 Unmutual. Yawn. In spite of McGoohan himself directing this episode, this episode boasts a fascinating first half, and a formulaic second half. Perhaps this is a case of a good idea that just needed another script draft to fill out an episode. Still, even a weak episode of The Prisoner is always worth a look.
* "Hammer Into Anvil:" One of my personal favorites, this episode focuses on the psychological breakdown of Number 2 (Patrick Cargill). When 6 swears revenge on 2 for the suicide of an unstable interrogation victim, the self-righteous tyrant declares, in the words of Goethe, "You must be hammer or anvil." Of course, 2 brands himself the hammer, sworn to crack the anvil. But every bully is really afraid deep inside, and 6 begins a mind game to prove that the calm and stable anvil will ultimately break the wildly swinging hammer. Less philosophical and more psychological in tone, this battle of wits, as 6 convinces 2 that he is a double agent, forcing 2 deeper into paranoid spiral that ultimately destroys him, is riveting to watch. The episode wisely focuses on 2's perspective here: we have seen enough of 6 that we know what sort of game he is playing. The real suspense is in how far 2 will go in his obsessive quest to unmask an opponent who really does not have anything to hide. There is no real social criticism here, but the episode is successful in its attempt to generate psychological terror.
* "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling:" For the first time in the course of the series, we do not begin with the opening credit sequence. Instead, this episode plays more like a leftover from Danger Man, Patrick McGoohan's hit series before The Prisoner. In a British government minister's office, intelligence officers examine photographs. The sixth photo (get it?) is of a middle-aged man named Seltzman. Who is he, and where has he gone? After a shortened opening sequence (no voice-over dialogue this time), a witty Number 2 (Clifford Evans, acting almost like some wily vicar) calls in a fellow agent, dubbed the Colonel (Nigel Stock), to participate in a mind transference with Number 6. Now in the Colonel's body, 6 is released from the Village in order to track down the missing Seltzman, a scientist who has gone rogue.
The rest plays much like an episode of Danger Man: 6 (played for the rest of episode by Stock; McGoohan is only seen in recycled footage in the opening and a brief new scene at the end) investigates (with the help of a fiancé we've never heard of before) Seltzman's disappearance, does a little traveling to exotic locations (this time Austria), and allows Seltzman to outmaneuver all sides (while getting his original body back, of course) in order to keep the scientist's mind-transference technology from falling into anybody's hands. Very John Drake. But where is McGoohan? The answer is simple: this Danger Man retread was written around McGoohan's brief departure from the set to film Ice Station Zebra. Not that a good episode of Danger Man is a bad thing (and this would have been a good episode of that series). It just doesn't have the usual depth we have come to associate with The Prisoner.
Even the best series has its weak spots, and while McGoohan originally intended to minimize the show's weaknesses by limiting the number of episodes (first to seven, then offering thirteen, and eventually agreeing to seventeen), it must be admitted that a few of the show's episodes are not up to par with the others. Still, watered-down brilliance is still better than the vast majority of crap that hits the airwaves. An episode like "Do Not Forsake Me" is evidence that the series was starting to tread water a little (focusing less on social critique and philosophical skepticism and more on straight-up adventure).
* "Living in Harmony:" Proof that The Prisoner is more than a spy series, this episode (originally cut from the American run, because CBS thought it was too peacenik -- hadn't they been watching the rest of the show?) somewhat parodies Clint Eastwood's "Man With No Name" movies. The opening "resignation sequence" is reinterpreted: a sheriff resigns and rides off into the sunset, only to be captured by cowboys and dragged to a small western town. Our hero (never called 6, of course) is forced to work for the "Judge" (David Bauer) and clean up the town. But our hero refuses to use guns, and has a tough opponent in the Kid (Alexis Kanner, playing the role silent -- keep an eye out for him again in "Fall Out"), a violent psychopath who has eyes for our hero's new girlfriend (Valerie French). Unfortunately, played as a western, this episode tends to drag: we know this is a Village plot and we twiddle our thumbs waiting for the typical "hero must reluctantly strap on his guns and shoot the bad guy in a duel" scene so we can move things along. And the episode's coda, in which the Kid (really citizen Number 8) really does turn out to be a psycho, and 6 really must rescue the girl from the villain, is rather silly. This episode also suffers from the weakest remastering in the set: it tends to show more scratches and softness than the others, though part of this may be due to the different filming conditions (a softer color palette, mostly earth tones, as opposed to the brighter coloring of the Village, although this does not explain the scratches on the film elements).
* "The Girl Who Was Death:" The Prisoner is often not given enough credit for its sense of humor. We finally learn the truth about the relationship between Number 6 and Danger Man's John Drake: Drake is a fiction, a cover story, invented by Number 6! In this broad send-up of 60s spy movies (which were already campy enough by the time this aired), Number 6 (as an invulnerable and heroic secret agent) battles a supervillain and his libidinous, murderous daughter (Justine Lord). This is the superspy as Freudian nightmare, sexual desire transformed into castrating threat. (Is it any wonder James Bond just loves 'em and leaves 'em?) It is also very, very silly, with a mad scientist dressed as Napoleon, a deadly cricket match, and a string of ridiculous death traps.
This episode is really a breather, a chance for The Prisoner to put all its spy trappings finally to rest before diving into the unconscious mind of Number 6, where the real terrain of the Village resides.
* "Once Upon a Time/ Fall Out:" Much has been said already about the two-part finale to the series, from its riveting battle of wills between Number 2 (Leo McKern, who by the end looks like he could bite off McGoohan's head for real) and Number 6 -- to the cryptic and wild collapse of the narrative. So I will, for once, say nothing more. Deal with it.
File 2: The Supplements
Taken as a whole, the new "40th Anniversary Set," packaged in slim cases that take up half the space of the previous megaset, has a decent array of extras. Of course, there can never be enough extras for a show of this type, especially since Patrick McGoohan steadfastly refuses to talk about the show. (At least, not since he had to go into hiding when fans exploded over "Fall Out.") Still, a reprint of some published interview might have been a nice inclusion (I won't pretend A&E might have gotten him for a commentary track). I have noted in the earlier reviews the fact that these discs include trivia questions, a poorly designed interactive map, episode trailers, and production photos.
Toward the middle of the collection, we are treated to a solid 25-minute interview with production manager Bernie Williams. Much of the interview seems to dwell on the idiosyncratic McGoohan, whose secrecy about the show, even to the rest of the cast and crew, has become legendary. Williams does provide a wealth of entertaining stories though, including the origins of Rover and near disasters on the sets of "Many Happy Returns" and "Once Upon a Time." The same disc also includes a promotional gallery with production paintings, shots from an ITC promotional brochure, and a 1966 Christmas card given to the crew. Enjoy them, because it will be a while before you see any more substantive supplemental material in this set.
Disc 10 to be exact, where the series finale, "Fall Out," is backed by most of the set's extras. The big one is the 1990 "Prisoner Video Companion," an overview of the series that used to be available primarily on the fan circuit. As a general rundown of trivia and behind-the-scenes info, this 48-minute documentary is a solid, if cheaply made effort, though it is padded out with clips from the series. It even offers a few theories as to what it all means. For that, at least, it is worth a look.
The final disc also includes a gallery of promotional and production material, two series trailers, some home movie footage of the show's location shoot at the resort of Portmeirion (with commentary by Bernie Williams), and the usual extras found on all the other discs.
File 3: Assessments
The Prisoner is one of the very few television series that ascends, with apologies to Walter Pater, to the condition of music. While television has had its share of critically acclaimed shows -- enough to counter its long-standing reputation as a "vast wasteland" -- as an art form, television has been limited by its reliance on serial structure, on the narrative line. The notion of the "television series," that is, a repeatable pattern, with linear storytelling (beginning, middle, end), often reliant on familiar devices of genre. This is tied closely to television's need for commercial acceptance. There is little room to experiment here, as you have networks, advertisers, ratings analysts, and so on to please. Thus, unlike cinema, television has had very few opportunities to stretch beyond just solid storytelling and strong acting, which are usually the main criteria for a good show.
The Prisoner shatters both of those conventions within a few episodes. The performances are often stylized, punctuated with wild close-ups and crazy expressions. Our empathy for the characters is short-circuited by the fact that we cannot identify with anyone: we know nothing about who they are, where they come from, or what they want. Yet, enough clues (even contradictory ones) are planted to maintain our interest and allow us to invent histories and motivations. The central enigmas of the show (who is Number 6; what is the Village all about) vary from episode to episode, so the overall arc of the show is, well, less of an arc than a network of interpretations. Unlike a conventional mystery, in which multiple interpretations are narrowed down as the narrative progresses (that is, we eliminate suspects), The Prisoner introduces new suspects, motives, even mysteries themselves, as it progresses. But its limited run (only 17 episodes) keeps it from losing too much momentum by the time it reaches its climax. (Compare this to, say, Twin Peaks, where the necessities of network television forced the creators to stretch out their mysteries and fill space with meandering subplots that shifted the show from soap opera parody to actual soap opera.)
And about that climax: standard narrative structure is acknowledged in The Prisoner, that is, it is not simply free-form or abstract. There is a beginning of sorts ("Arrival") and an end of sorts ("Fall Out"), but neither one can be said to easily box in the show as a linear narrative. The plots of individual episodes, even when apparently conventional (spy tales like "A, B, and C" or social satires like "The General"), always operate on several levels at once -- and often the actual plots are the least important of these levels. Take, for example, "The Schizoid Man." The doppelganger plot turns up plenty of times in science fiction, and here the reasons (yet another scheme by the Village hierarchy to break our hero) are unsurprising. But like a Philip K. Dick novel, the surface plot is really an excuse to explore philosophical and psychological questions. The philosophical questions about identity come up throughout the series already, tying what happens in "The Schizoid Man" to, say, the body-switching in "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," raising the value of that episode in the larger framework of the series. The psychological questions -- the nature of our individuality -- are core to The Prisoner's dreamscape approach to human identity. Who am I, really? Am I a free man? Do I choose to act out of free will? By the time Number 6 reaches the deepest levels of his psyche (or does he? Is there still some depth to humanity that cannot be quantified by psychology?) in "Once Upon a Time," we see that his insistence that he is not a number but a free man is problematic at best. We are all shaped, calculated -- indexed, briefed, and debriefed, if you will -- and yet we still insist on some mysterious imaginary number known as "free will." And it is this tension that shapes our entire human social order.
Do you see how easy this is? I could go on for hours -- and mostly I am just throwing out ideas off the top of my head. The Prisoner does that to you. If you want information, you will start producing it yourself, engaging with the show as if it is an interrogator that has shot you full of sodium pentothal. What pours out of your brain may not always fit together neatly, but it will you will not be able to stop giving away all the secrets in the world. No hook or crook necessary.
And now I will impose on all this an act of free will. I will shut myself up and bring this review to some conclusion.
Six of one -- half dozen of another. If you already bought A&E's previous releases of The Prisoner (either the five separate sets or the megaset), you already have all of this stuff. The only additional features in this anniversary set (apart from the slim cases) are an expanded booklet with some brief analysis and trivia for each episode (helpful if you don't already have a full-length book or two on the series) and a fold-out map of the Village. In other words, all the DVDs are exactly the same as before.
As of this writing, plans are moving forward for a remake of the series, starring Christopher Eccleston (Doctor Who). Whatever the result, there will still only be one The Prisoner. Its precarious balance of social satire, surrealistic critique of human individuality, witty visual and narrative invention, and sheer courage in resisting even its fans' efforts to pin it down -- all this can likely never be duplicated.
As Patrick McGoohan remarked, "Freedom is a myth." This court also acknowledges that "humanity is not humanized without force," as the president announces in "Fall Out." Therefore, the court stands in recess while we sort all this out. In the meantime, you are free to judge yourself.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Golden Gavel 2006 Nominee
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 884 Minutes
Release Year: 1967
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Alternate Version of "The Chimes of Big Ben"
* The Prisoner Video Companion
* Interview with Production Manager Bernie Williams
* Behind the Scenes Footage with Commentary
* Deleted Footage from Foreign Release
* Promotional Gallery
* Trivia Game
* Interactive Village Map
* Production Stills Gallery
* Broadcast and Promotional Trailers
* IMDb: The Prisoner
* IMDb: The Prisoner Video Companion
* Six of One: The Prisoner Appreciation Society
* DVD Verdict: The Prisoner Set 1
* DVD Verdict: The Prisoner Set 2