Our reviews of The Prisoner (published July 16th, 2004), The Prisoner (2009) (published March 23rd, 2010), The Prisoner: Complete Series Megaset (40th Anniversary Edition) (published August 9th, 2006), The Prisoner Set 2 (published March 24th, 2001), and The Prisoner: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray) (published November 11th, 2009) are also available.
"Humor is the very essence of a democratic society."—Number 2
Very few television series transcend the limitations of the medium to become art. The Prisoner is one of those series, standing the test of time (and becoming only more relevant over the years) as perhaps the best television show ever. A fusion of espionage story, '60s surrealism, Kafkaesque allegory, and sheer personal drive on the part of its iconoclastic star: this is what televisions were made for.
Facts of the Case
It begins like a dream: a Lotus car (is the name meant to remind us of dreaming?) drives silently as the air is punctuated by thunder. The car enters a garage. Footsteps, then a door is thrown open. An angry man (Patrick McGoohan), an agent of the government, resigns in a fury. Who is he? Why does he resign? Where will he go? He storms off to his flat to pack a bag, unaware he is stalked by a mysterious figure dressed as an undertaker. The flat fills with gas, and the man collapses.
He awakens in a room much like his own—perhaps it was only a dream—and then opens the blinds to reveal a strange and lovely village. A village where he finds himself trapped, perhaps forever…
Quite a bit has already been said and written about The Prisoner, a landmark in the history of television. Patrick McGoohan's idiosyncratic followup to his highly popular spy show Danger Man, The Prisoner still continues to defy easy categorization. Imagine if Sean Connery, coming off of his stint as James Bond and able to write his own ticket, chose to suddenly start adapting Franz Kafka to the screen.
There is something peculiarly Kafkaesque about The Prisoner: the world is a complex blend of realistic detail and dreamlike symbolism. Filmed in the Welsh resort of Portmeirion, the series seems to exist in a decidedly material world of cobblestone walks and sandy beaches. But the newspress just rolls out newspapers without mechanical parts, an eerie, howling balloon (named Rover) prowls the coast looking for escapees, and all names have become numbers. Not quite a realistic spy show, not quite an allegory, The Prisoner falls between the cracks (much like Kafka) into the hypnogogic world of the surreal.
As for those numbers: our hero, our Prisoner, is number 6. His adversary each episode is number 2—a different number 2 each time. Only 6 remains the same, stubbornly maintaining his individual identity no matter what the forces of this society (known only as "Our Village" on its maps) attempt in order to break his will and make him conform. In each episode, 6 and the Village battle for control—the individual against the group—and sometimes one side wins, and sometimes the other. But no one ever triumphs for long: each episode ends with the image of the Prisoner, defiant as ever, charging at the bars that hold him back. The battle goes on…
Well, the battle actually went on for only 17 episodes. McGoohan, the mastermind behind the project (although credit must be given as well to script editor and former spy George Markstein, who came up with the initial concept, and producer David Tomblin) would have preferred fewer, but ITC (the British network which financed the show) insisted that enough shows be produced for overseas distribution. McGoohan, who maintained hands-on involvement in nearly every aspect of the production, demanded the show steer away from traditional television clichés and toward the avant-garde. The result is difficult to describe: many people are put off by the non-linearity of the series, the obvious symbolic tinge that nearly everything takes on (like trying to read "literature" in school), and the fact that the series makes the audience work to make sense of it. Of course, all of this makes The Prisoner the perfect television series for DVD. Its replay value is enormous, as fans return to it over the years to puzzle out its many mysteries.
A&E has packaged four episodes of this unique show in each boxed set. Although some casual fans are confused by the chosen running order for the discs, let me clarify something up front: the running order A&E has chosen is more or less the original order in which the episodes intended to be run (with a little research help from Six of One, the Prisoner Appreciation Society). Nearly all television runs of the series actually showed the episodes in different orders. Although curiously, since episodes frequently contradict others and tend to stand alone (except for "Arrival," the first story, and "Once Upon a Time/Fall Out," the two-part finale), the series can really be watched in any order. A&E does clarify the running order issue on the disc packaging.
Let us examine each episode in Set One:
"Arrival:" If you think the first episode (or the last episode for that matter—wait until you see it!) will help make the rest of the series fall into place, then you are living in a dream. But at least we are introduced to all the pieces on the chessboard: the rebellious 6 (who claims he resigned as a "matter of principle"), the butler (Angelo Muscat) who silently floats through every episode, the terrifying web of surveillance that permeates the Village, and the plots of the latest number 2 (Guy Doleman and George Baker—even the leader of the Village must answer to a higher authority). The plot is as straightforward as it is ever going to get: 6 is giving the guided tour, tested (he tries to put a round peg in a square hole, and the hole irises to fit), 2 makes a half-assed attempt to scam 6 into revealing his secrets to a crying housemaid, and 6 tries the first of many failed escape attempts. And of course, 6 conspires with a new friend (Virginia Maskell) who betrays him. Overall, the episode is a fine and solid introduction to the rules of the game, where nothing is ever as it seems. As the Admiral tells us, "We're all pawns, my dear."
"Chimes of Big Ben (Alternate Version):" Placed on this disc probably as a way for A&E to acknowledge the more well-known running order ("Chimes" is usually shown second when the series runs on television), this particular version is actually the result of a test edit done before the series aired (thus it contains different music cues and a few altered scenes). The print is in very poor condition: the color is almost completely washed out, the sound is weak and tinny, and there are numerous scratches. No restoration seems to have been done at all on this episode, perhaps because it is not "official." Because the version on Set Two is the finished and aired one, I will defer commenting specifically on the episode until the next review. For now I will simply remark that "Chimes" features a wonderful performance by Leo McKern as 2.
"Free for All:" My personal favorite episode of the series, written by McGoohan himself under a pseudonym. 6 is invited to participate in the upcoming election for the position of 2 (now played with world-weary resignation by Eric Portman). "Are you going to run?" 2 asks. "Like blazes," responds our hero. "The first chance I get." This brilliant satire of electoral politics has never been timelier than right now, as we slog through this election quagmire in an effort to sort out "who are the prisoners and who, the warders." The difficult question at the heart of this episode is what sort of identity a political leader must have. Is he an individual, or does he act as the voice of the group? What is the responsibility of our leaders to themselves and to others? 6 struggles with reconciling his own personal agenda (escape and freedom) with the desires of the group (freedom for all? But how can one have freedom within a group?). This is the core of any democracy: that a balance must exist between group cohesion and individual dissent (without either one there would be no democracy). This complex tension between the individual and society, that each needs the other to exist, is the central theme at the heart of The Prisoner. As 6 is warned in one scene, "The community must live—and so must you."
"Dance of the Dead:" Mikhail Bakhtin (whose distinction between authority's "monologic" language and the fluid "dialogic" discourse of interconnected individuals is also very evident in The Prisoner, but more on that another time) has observed that the medieval carnival marks a sort of revolutionary space: authority is subverted and mocked, only to be reinforced by the restoration of "normal" time when the carnival is over. In "Dance of the Dead," three plots intertwine like waltzing couples, only to crash headlong at the annual Village Carnival. A fellow prisoner named Dutton, a former colleague of 6, is tortured and broken in stages. 6 schemes to use a corpse found washed up on the beach to contact the outside world. A new "observer" (Norma West) assigned to 6 must reconcile her obedience to the group with her growing empathy toward the man she is meant to betray. The new number 2 (Mary Morris) dresses as Peter Pan: is the Village a Never-Neverland, or is this a mockery of childhood innocence that has long been cast away? "If you insist on living in a dream," she tells 6, "you may be taken for mad." And 6 wears his own tuxedo: does he not wear a costume, or is he disguised as himself, as we all are in public?
And how does the series look and sound? In 1967, Patrick McGoohan and company managed to convince ITC to shell out a lot of money to produce The Prisoner, but working in television still has its technical limitations. As a result, The Prisoner will never look as polished as a theatrical film. That having been said, A&E's release of the series to DVD looks quite nice. Colors are nice and sharp. The film elements are in good shape, with few scratches, and the sound is fairly clean (well, Set Two has a serious sound problem, but I will discuss that in the next review). I have four (yes, four) copies of the series on VHS, taped off television networks around the country (where the show is usually edited to fit in a comfortable hour slot with commercials), so I can attest that this DVD release is the best and most complete the series has yet seen.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The weak point of the package is in the area of supplements. The Prisoner is a series that screams for excellent supplemental material. Although McGoohan is reluctant to discuss the show at great length these days, 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). Perhaps some promotional materials for the Portmeirion resort? How about some real behind-the-scenes footage?
Here is what we do get: trailers for each episode, opening and closing sequences without the title text, some alternate footage from the opening sequence meant for foreign release, some production stills (mostly shots from the episodes themselves, but a few behind-the-scenes pictures—no captions though), a couple of fairly tough trivia games, and an interactive map of the Village. This last feature is somewhat of a disappointment: you use your remote to scroll through the onscreen map, which does not fit completely on the screen. The scroll never stops until it hits the map edge, which makes the entire center section of the map impossible to view—and the center is where most of the important buildings (including 6's bungalow) are! I detect a bit of sloppiness in how A&E put this entire package together—the awkward map feature, the incorrect web address on the outer sleeve, the dismissive treatment of the alternate "Chimes," the sound problems on Set Two—after the marvelous job A&E did on the Monty Python sets, why are there so many mistakes here?
The Prisoner stands the test of time as one of the most artistically relevant television productions ever made. Like the best novels and films, it is worthy of repeated scrutiny, as its critical exploration of the ongoing struggle between the individual and society speaks to each new generation. There is little traditional action here, but if you fancy an odyssey into a surreal world where every detail takes on significance to the point of paranoia—if you want to exercise your brain—then you cannot miss with The Prisoner.
This court has no jurisdiction to release the Prisoner, since his prison is of his own making. His freedom is his own responsibility. But the court does caution A&E to tread carefully with future boxed set releases, or they will be declared Unmutual.
A&E gives the incorrect URL for their official site on the disc packaging: the correct one is http://www.aande.com/tv/shows/prisoner/
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