A&E // 1960 // 3420 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Chief Counsel Rob Lineberger (Retired) // February 21st, 2007
"Oh yes -- my name is Drake, John Drake."
Even if you've never seen the show, odds are you can sing along with Johnny
Rivers's impossibly catchy theme song:
Secret agent man,
secret agent man
They've given you a number
and taken away your name
With the 18-disc megaset coming out on Feb. 27, the question before this court is whether or not Secret Agent has a legacy more enduring than a catchy theme song?
In 1960, two years before Dr. No would storm the silver screen, Danger Man aired. In these half-hour episodes, NATO agent John Drake (Patrick McGoohan, The Prisoner) used his cunning and the occassional gadget to troubleshoot thorny problems across the globe.
After a hiatus and the intervening Bond mania, John Drake returned in Secret Agent as an MI9 Agent under the direct control of Her Majesty's government. With the shift in allegiance came a shift in format: hour-long episodes with slightly more plot, more action, and more gadgets. John Drake would carry the torch in this manner from 1964-1966, continuing his role as a global problem solver.
In 1968, John Drake returned once more to the small screen, for the first time in color, for the short-lived "fourth season" of Secret Agent. After the season opener and the show's only two-part episode, "Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima," Patrick McGoohan stepped down from the role in order to pursue a new series. The two-part opener thus became John Drake's swan song...or could The Prisoner actually be our man John Drake?
A&E has pulled their various releases together into one 18-volume brick of thinpaks featuring the entire run of the series in broadcast order:
Volume 1: View From the Villa * Time to Kill * Josetta * The Blue Veil * The Lovers * Girl in Pink Pyjamas * Position of Trust * The Lonely Chair
Volume 2: The Sanctuary * An Affair of State * The Key * The Sisters * The Prisoner * The Traitor * Colonel Rodruigez * The Island
Volume 3: Find and Return * The Girl Who Liked G.I.s * Name, Date and Place * Vacation * The Conspirators * The Honeymooners * The Gallows Tree * The Relaxed Informer
Volume 4: The Brothers * The Journey Ends Half-Way * Bury The Dead * Sabotage * The Contessa * The Leak * The Trap * The Actor
Volume 5: Hired Assassin * The Deputy Coyannis Story * Find and Destroy * * Under The Lake * The Nurse * Dead Man Walks * Deadline
Volume 6: Battle Of The Cameras * A Room in the Basement * Fair Exchange
Volume 7: Fish On The Hook * No Marks For Servility * Yesterday's Enemies
Volume 8: The Professionals * A Date With Doris * The Mirror's New * Colony Three
Volume 9: It's Up to the Lady * Whatever Happened to George Foster? * The Galloping Major * The Colonel's Daughter
Volume 10: That's Two of Us Sorry * Such Men Are Dangerous * A Man to Be Trusted * The Affair at Castlevara
Volume 11: Don't Nail Him Yet * The Ubiquitous Mr Lovegrove * Have a Glass of Wine * You're Not in Any Trouble, Are You?
Volume 12: Sting in the Tail * The Black Book * English Lady Takes Lodgers * Loyalty Always Pays
Volume 13: Are You Going to Be More Permanent? * Parallel Lines Sometimes Meet * A Very Dangerous Game * The Mercenaries
Volume 14: The Outcast * Judgement Day * To Our Best Friend * Say It With Flowers
Volume 15: The Man on The Beach * The Man Who Wouldn't Talk * Someone Is Liable To Get Hurt * Dangerous Secret
Volume 16: I Can Only Offer You Sherry * The Hunting Party * Two Birds With One Bullet
Volume 17: I'm Afraid You Have The Wrong Number * The Man With The Foot * The Paper Chase
Volume 18: The Not-So-Jolly Roger * Koroshi * Shinda Shima
The Patrick McGoohan vehicle The Prisoner is a trippy mind game with shadowy questions and few answers. It would take the seventh spot in TV Guide's list of the 25 top cult TV shows (sharing the list with its contemporary spy series, The Avengers.) Yet McGoohan's roots couldn't be more different. Secret Agent (aka Danger Man) is almost ascetic in its pursuit of realism and clarity.
In reviewing Danger Man: The Complete First Season I noted "There are subtle refinements made along the way, but in general, the last episode is much the same as the first." Though it may be an oversimplification to suggest that this quote applies to the eight-year span of the series -- from the black and white, half-hour "View From the Villa" to the full-color, two-hour snoozer "Koroshi" and "Shinda Shima" -- the observation is appropriate. From his first mission to his last, John Drake is remarkably consistent, as are his attitudes and the dangers of his environment.
This consistency can be draining if you watch the boxed set in marathon sittings, as I did for this review. Plots, characters, and themes tend to run together. Yet the show has surprisingly little overlap in terms of clever twists and the nature of the problems John faces from week to week. There are inescapable parallels, of course, such as the seemingly unending "security leaks" in MI9 (and how many "thought dead, but apparently alive" men can there be?). The final season is definitely not as fresh as the first, though standout episodes like "The Paper Chase" keep quality high throughout the run. On the whole, the writing is creative enough to keep John Drake constant and everything else fluid.
McGoohan makes the most of the show's episodic nature. He was Britian's highest-paid actor by the end of his run as John Drake. McGoohan was no doubt served by the wild variability in locales and situations presented by ther show. One week he poses as a boorish American businessman, the next he's off to Morocco or the Carribbean in a completely different role. His various guises give McGoohan infinite chances to play with characterization. Yet the "real" character is always there, and part of the fun is catching a glimpse of the man behind the curtain. Drake's eyes would sparkle with new information or glint coldly when prey was in sight. But Drake's secretive, fleeting smiles to himself were our best evidence of the self-rewarding nature of his exploits.
McGoohan is aided by great lighting that turned rudimentary sets into brooding cesspools of mystique and danger. There's more than a hint of film noir's trademark chirascuo in Secret Agent. Yet even bright outdoor scenes have intensity. The show is simply fun to look at, even if it lacked the high style of The Avengers. Or perhaps because it lacked high style; Secret Agent holds up well today, unlike the stainless steel labyrinths that other spy shows of the era loved so dearly.
As his missions wear on, you emerge with a gestalt of John Drake as an uncompromising, upstanding man who favors a careful persona and even more careful preparation as his weapons in a confrontation. If those fail, Drake always had his wits and his fists in reserve. He never beds the girl, rarely carries a gun, and hates to rely on anyone or anything but himself to get through a mission alive.
Though such noble traits might seem quaint, they are anything but. In fact, Secret Agent gets things right that many shows today fail to by focusing on realism and strength of character. At first blush, James Bond's skill with a firearm seems preferable to John Drake's playacting, and Bond's weakness for women seems more natural than Drake's stoicism. Yet if you peer deeper into the show's themes, Drake's approach makes more and more sense. We never see Bond's guns or gadgets fail, but they eventually will. Drake neatly avoids such failures by not relying on guns in the first place. Live by the sword, die by the sword; John Drake lives by his own cunning.
Drake's coolness towards the many desirable women who make passes at him is equally telling. Drake is never off guard, never at rest. To dally is to let his guard down, reveal himself, if only for a moment. In this, John Drake is a more trustworthy, believable agent than any who came after.
Lest I wax too poetic on the merits of John Drake, we must keep in mind that much of his restraint is due to McGoohan's prudish (chivalrous?) mores. His disdain for James Bond's womanizing makes Roger Moore's discomfort with violence seem half-assed by comparison. Is it any wonder that Patrick Macnee and John Steed's flirtatious innuendo became more memorable? Would unclenching enough for a kiss or two have broken John Drake?
Perhaps it would. Perhaps the complete lack of sexual contact is indicative of a larger restraint, an inhumanity that makes Drake an effective Agent. This is certainly part of Drake's legacy. We see it even today in characters like CSI's Gil Grissom. William Petersen's Gil inhabits the capitol city of vice itself, yet stoicism, logic, and meticulous preparation get him through a nasty job; there's more than one echo of John Drake in that.
A&E's new megaset seems to have been pulled from the same transfers as the previous releases. As such, the set has the same strengths and flaws. Though grain is kept in check and contrast is strong, there are of blemishes and dirt in the prints. The series looks good, but not pristine by any stretch. Audio is actually a problem in several episodes, with noticable distorion and poor clarity. For the most part, the audio is unassuming and sufficient, but those rough spots are annoying.
Speaking of audio, I had to look up "Secret Agent Man" because the song is such a winner. Just for fun, let's hear what Johnny Rivers had to say:
"We were touring Europe and met the producers of that show in England. They were gettin' ready to bring it to the States and asked Lou if we would consider trying to come up with a theme. We thought it'd be great to have a theme on a TV series. P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri came up with it. It wasn't a complete song. They just had one verse and the chorus. We wound up cutting it for the show and Imperial started getting calls saying, 'You ought to put that thing out as a single.' We had to go back and re-record it and they wrote some more verses."
That little gem took me 45 seconds to find with Google. How difficult would it have been for A&E to come up with some frills for this megaset? Aside from a sparse handful of extras from previous sets -- a photo gallery and McGoohan bio -- the set is bare bones.
The theme song is definitely catchy. McGoohan's later role in The Prisoner is arguably more memorable. But Secret Agent John Drake has left his mark on both the spy genre and television as a whole. This boxed set brings nothing new to the table, but if you don't have the previous Danger Man and Secret Agent sets, this is one hefty box that will class up your DVD shelf.
On multiple counts of espionage, this court finds John Drake guilty as charged.
Review content copyright © 2007 Rob Lineberger; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 3420 Minutes
Release Year: 1960
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Patrick McGoohan Biography and Filmography
* Photo Gallery
* U.S. Opening Featuring Theme Song by Johnny Rivers
* Johnny Rivers Site
* DVD Verdict review of Danger Man