Read Judge Mike Pinsky's review of this second compilation of episodes of the jocund British television series.
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 1 (published December 11th, 2000), and The Prisoner: The Complete Series (Blu-Ray) (published November 11th, 2009) are also available.
Judges: "We're not quite sure what it means."
A&E continues their presentation of one of the most significant television series to date. Exploring our own complex relationships to one another—individual and society, freedom and conformity, reason and emotion—The Prisoner turns Cold War politics into art.
Facts of the Case
Question: when you live in a culture of surveillance, where everyone is an object for public scrutiny, how do you maintain your private identity? Premise: a spy (Patrick McGoohan) quits his job, resigns for unspoken reasons. He is kidnapped and taken to the Village, where his new keepers try time and again to expose the secrets in his head. But how can you know what is in another subject's mind?
Once again, we begin with a dream: an overhead shot of the enigmatic Village irises down to reveal the howling, ghostly form of Rover floating through the streets. People freeze, as if time has stopped. Number 6 (Patrick McGoohan), uncomfortably settled in the Village after these last several months, watches as an ordinary looking man with an ordinary looking cane (George Coulouris) saunters past the hovering sphere without a second glance. 6 follows, finding himself on a giant human chessboard. He quickly finds himself the Queen's Pawn. But he has no plans to play the game by its rules…
Some episodes of The Prisoner stress the show's spy-story roots, focusing on the conflict between the watchers (the invisible masters of the Village, and their puppet, the new Number 2 that opposes Number 6 each episode). Some episodes use the Village as a backdrop for larger questions: identity, political resistance, and so on. If you have not read my review of The Prisoner Set One, go do so now. Are we all up to speed? Good.
This second set (released at the same time as the first one—my delay in reviewing it is due to my attempts to correct a technical flaw, discussed below) covers four more episodes. Most episodes of The Prisoner stand alone, and often contradict one another. No particular order is established in the series (apart from the first and last episodes), although in this particular set, a glaring error in episode order is apparent, as I note below.
"Checkmate:" If any single metaphor best exemplifies life in the Village, it is a chess game. Number 6 is placed in the role of the pawn, but he refuses to accept his obligations to the social order. In fact, the masters of the Village often seem to expect his resistance: "I don't believe what they tell me. Are you surprised?" 6 believes he has come up with a foolproof plan for sorting out the warders from the prisoners: prisoners are wary and paranoid, their spirits nearly broken; warders are confident and comfortable. When 6 recruits the game's Rook (Ronald Radd) for his escape plan, he soon finds himself rooked by his own cleverness. The question at the heart of this episode deals with how individuals behave under a disciplinary mechanism like the Village—or any social order. As Michel Foucault (the great social philosopher of discipline and power) points out, discipline and resistance are tied together in a web of power. Any disciplinary mechanism (government, military, et cetera) operates on its own, and both prisoners and warders are subject to the same law. No wonder Number 2 (Peter Wyngarde in this episode) is always both independently-minded and fearful of the unseen Village masters. No wonder Number 6's logic of domination trips him up and leaves him always trapped in the same old Village. We are all prisoners of the system—and in our own attempts to assert out individuality, we are all warders dominating each other.
"The Chimes of Big Ben:" With the regularity of clockwork, a new Number 2 (Leo McKern, whose perfect performance hits all the right notes of both humor and menace) challenges our hero. This Number 2 is obsessed with predictability, as he constantly observes and updates 6's file. But he lets 6 know that escape from the Village is ultimately futile: in the Cold War world, all sides are becoming the same anyway. In their efforts to maintain discipline in the face of the enemy and chaos, all society is becoming like the Village. Understanding that real escape from society is an illusion, 6 directs his resistance directly at the Village, promising that one day he will "escape, come back, wipe this place off the face of the Earth. Obliterate it—and you with it." His latest plan: team up with a beautiful Soviet agent (Nadia Gray), build a boat right under the noses of his warders (by disguising the pieces as abstract art), and slip back to England. But predictably, nothing about this latest ruse is predictable.
"A, B, & C:" In a departure from form (as if this series ever follows a formula anyway), we follow a jittery Number 2 (Colin Gordon) in his efforts to break Number 6 before his masters make him disappear. Nervously watching the red phone which could ring at any minute (and lurks ominously in the foreground throughout the episode), 2 uses drugs and a dream scanner to force 6 into confrontations with three mysterious subjects (named, of course, A, B, and C), each of whom might have been 6's contact for a potential defection. But when 6 quickly figures out the scheme and turns the tables, Number 2's own fate hangs in the balance. This particular episode plays up the universal nature of surveillance in the Village: even Number 2 is caught between his public duty and private fears. Ultimately, we never see the real masters of the Village. True surveillance is always invisible, maintaining its power to objectify by never allowing itself to be exposed and objectified in turn. As Number 6, always striving to expose power where he finds it, remarks: "I want to know who I'm selling out to. We all must know!"
"The General:" At the elementary school where my wife is guidance counselor, the students recently finished a round of standardized tests (FCAT). You know, the "fill in the bubble with a number 2 pencil" type. The purpose of the tests is ostensibly to determine whether students fulfill a minimum standard (hence the name), and in the state of Florida, school funding is dependent on the outcome of these tests. Therefore, the tendency among many school systems in the state is to teach to the test. In other words, focus teaching kids the information needed to do well at the test, sometimes at the expense of other useful information the kids might need to learn.
Teach facts. Don't teach comprehension. And then, one day, the kids grow up and get to college. I teach college "exit courses:" classes designed to reinforce critical thinking skills one more time before students graduate. For much of college, they have been forced to memorize information as part of their major. After all, most majors require so much basic information these days that there is often little time to process it. Don't think—just memorize and repeat what the teacher tells you. Then they come to me. My job is to teach them how to think again. And if they fail my class, they do not graduate.
"The General" asks a tough question: what constitutes a real education? Learning facts or learning to think? At the beginning of each episode of The Prisoner, the new Number 2 (in this case, Colin Gordon again—one of only two instances in the series where an actor repeats the role of Number 2) announces, "We want information." Why? Does this information merely consist of facts (the superficial reason why 6 resigned)? Or is it an attempt to understand the mind of the private subject designated Number 6? Not just what he thinks, but why?
The plot of "The General" is deceptively simple (as with many episodes of this series): a new "speed learning" program has gained popularity in the Village. With the help of the Professor (Peter Howell) and the mysterious "General," citizens can learn the facts of European history in only minutes. Once again, Number 6 finds himself caught in the middle. Is speed learning a boon to humanity, or is it a form of slavery, where a select few dictate what knowledge is important, taking away "the freedom to learn, the freedom to make mistakes?"
As I noted with the first boxed set, A&E has taken pains to restore The Prisoner to its best state since its original television run. The colors are bright, and the transfer is free of defects. The soundtrack, while mono, is clean and well-mixed (check my rebuttal for a discussion of the set's notorious audio defects—now corrected by A&E). The Prisoner, being a British television series, was produced on a limited budget, which often encouraged the producers to improvise (hence a weather balloon becomes the Village "watch dog" Rover, for instance). The show aims for a more surreal hodgepodge of visual elements, rather than strict realism. Strange lighting effects and color schemes (as well as Albert Elms' carnival-like incidental score) add to the phantasmagoria. Ultimately, this works to the show's advantage, allowing it to operate on many levels: as spy show, as political allegory, as psychological dream-text. The Prisoner holds up quite well to repeated viewings (you will spot new clues every time), making it the ideal television series for DVD.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There is ample evidence in "The General" and "A, B, & C" that A&E has actually placed these episodes in the wrong order. Number 2 is clearly more confident in "The General," and introduces himself as "the new Number 2" in the opening sequence. Having been humiliated by 6 at the end of this episode, he is much more fearful in "A, B, & C," and introduced himself in the opening with the statement "I am Number 2," suggesting that he is no longer "new." Thus, this is one instance where episode order is apparent in the series, and A&E has missed some clear evidence (which is rather odd, since one of the trivia questions on the second disc points out one of these clues). It is a minor detail, since A&E does at least put these two episodes on a disc together.
Once again, A&E blows a great opportunity to provide supplemental material for this complex show. The "interactive" map has the same design problems as on the first set (you cannot control the map's scrolling feature, causing the center to always scroll off the edge of your screen), the photo gallery shows mostly stills from the episodes and too few behind-the-scenes shots, and the episode trailers suffer from washed-out color and a hiss on the soundtrack. The trivia questions are fun, but they are over with too quickly.
One of the reasons why this review has come so late (and not immediately on the heels of the Set One review) is due to my attempts to track down a solution to a major quality control problem with The Prisoner Set Two. This set was originally released with defective audio tracks for two of the episodes, due to flaws in A&E's master copies. On "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "The General," audible flanging can be heard on the audio, often obscuring the dialogue (especially on "Chimes"). A&E has replaced their audio masters, and the problem has now been corrected. If you purchased Set Two recently and have been experiencing audio problems, click on the link to the right for information on how to exchange your discs directly with A&E. Do not return your discs to the retailer: it is possible that the rest of that retailer's copies are flawed. Kudos to A&E for working to correct this problem (although I wish they would advertise the matter on their website, rather than expecting fans to hunt for it themselves).
Once again, I recommend The Prisoner as the quintessential television series for DVD. Fans of the series will no doubt already have this set. Newcomers will find the series more rewarding with each viewing. Hopefully, A&E will see fit to provide better supplements for the remainder of the series.
Since Number 6 "will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered," this court will suspend his sentence, with the stipulation that we may reconvene at any time to reconsider the charges. A&E is fined for failing to maintain a high standard, but the court may waive this penalty if A&E performs community service for the Village in the form of higher caliber boxed sets in the future.
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