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In 1966, at the height of his international popularity as star of the television series Danger Man (Secret Agent in the U.S.), Patrick McGoohan surprised fans by resigning after filming only two episodes of the fourth season. McGoohan had grown tired of portraying super spy John Drake, but already had a new espionage series in mind, one that would mix in elements of science fiction and allegory. Based on an idea by Danger Man story editor George Markstein, 1 the new series The Prisoner would ultimately last only 17 episodes, run over budget and behind schedule, destroy the friendship between Markstein and McGoohan, cause an actor to suffer a nervous breakdown and feature a baffling final episode that prompted the star to flee England to evade the hostile public reaction.
In spite of these and other problems the show that emerged became a classic, a thoughtful, probing parable of man's quest for individual freedom unlike anything seen on television before or since. It has inspired generations of science fiction writers and spawned a devoted cult following that has endured for over 40 years, with fans eagerly debating the meaning of episodes, arguing over interpretations of symbols and pondering the show's central mysteries. With AMC debuting a new miniseries based on the show in November, A & E Home Entertainment has reissued the original series on Blu-Ray.
The basic premise for the series is established in the premiere episode Arrival and recapped during the opening credits of subsequent episodes: A secret agent (McGoohan) angrily resigns from his position. 2 Returning home, he is packing to leave when he is rendered unconscious by gas. He awakens in a duplicate of his home located in what looks like an idyllic seaside resort. His fellow residents, all of whom appear to accept their situation placidly, refer to the locale only as The Village, and call each other by numbers rather than names; the secret agent is referred to as Number Six. The agent soon finds he cannot establish the location of The Village, discover what government runs it, communicate with the outside world or, most importantly, escape. Electronic surveillance is everywhere and the borders are guarded by balloon-like security devices called Rovers. Overseeing The Village is Number Two, who interrogates Number Six to discover one crucial piece of information: Why did he resign? Number Six refuses to answer, vowing to fight for his freedom and individuality against the soulless oppression of The Village.
The majority of the show's episodes fall into one or more of three basic categories: (1) New attempts by Number Two (portrayed by a different actor each episode) to break Number Six (A, B and C; The Schizoid Man); (2) escape attempts (The Chimes of Big Ben; Many Happy Returns); or (3) stories of life in The Village (Free For All; The General). There can be no doubt that the show reflects McGoohan's vision: as Executive Producer, he supervised all aspects of its creation, from writing to editing to music. (Legend has it that after two unsuccessful attempts at a theme for the Main Titles, McGoohan whistled a tune for composer Ron Grainer and instructed him to write a piece incorporating it.) McGoohan wrote three episodes, including the controversial finale (Fall Out), and directed five, sometimes using the pseudonyms "Paddy Fitz" or "Joseph Serf."
Although McGoohan's close supervision guaranteed a unified vision, the temperamental star's ever-tightening control did spark friction with some members of the production staff, including story editor Markstein, who ultimately quit. When the show took a break following production of the first thirteen episodes, McGoohan went off to appear in the film Ice Station Zebra; his extended absence led the staff to concoct Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling, a story in which Number Six's mind is transferred to another man's body, permitting them to shoot most of the episode without their star. When he returned to the series McGoohan became increasingly dissatisfied and convinced that the show's premise could not be sustained over the original projected 26 episodes. 3 He hastily wrote the bizarre, surreal Fall Out, wrapping up the series at the 17th episode and infuriating viewers who tuned in expecting a tidy and conventional resolution.
The show's enduring appeal can be attributed to Number Six's defiant stance against an oppressive authority. It's hardly surprising that teens and college students -- young people struggling to define their role within the greater social order -- have always been particularly drawn to the show. This classic theme lends itself well to the psychological/social/political allegories McGoohan wanted to tell. The Twilight Zone and Star Trek at times blended science fiction and allegory but the overall tone of The Prisoner is less didactic; it's less about spoon-feeding its audience a moral lesson than it is about exploring concepts of freedom and identity. The writers -- including producer David Tomblin, Vincent Tilsley, Terence Feely and McGoohan himself -- do a generally good job of blending the show's philosophical side with engaging espionage/sci-fi adventures. There are a handful of misfires -- e.g., the muddled and pretentious Dance of the Dead, the clunky "western" Living in Harmony -- but the majority of episodes hold up after 40 years as superb, thoughtful entertainment that invite analysis and discussion. Among this reviewer's favorites: The Chimes of Big Ben, featuring one of Number Six's first escape attempts, leading to a painful lesson about the perils of trust in The Village; Free For All, a look at elections, Village- style, as Number Six campaigns for the office of Number Two and must face some hard questions about democracy (Who really holds the power? Does the populace truly want freedom?); and Hammer Into Anvil, in which Number Six plays cat-and-mouse with a sadistic new Number Two.
As the star, Patrick McGoohan faced some unique challenges: he not only was the sole regular cast member (not counting the diminutive Angelo Muscat, mute butler to the various Number Twos), he had to maintain audience sympathy and interest in a hero who, insofar as he did not escape, failed every week. 4 McGoohan understood that the appeal of Number Six was in his personal integrity and perseverance. Every time he refuses to answer the question "Why did you resign?", resists the will of the Village's masters or declines to give up and become a passive model citizen, Number Six scores a small victory. McGoohan perfectly embodies Number Six's stubborn, rebellious spirit and shapes him into one of television's most unforgettable protagonists. He refused to allow the character to have a love interest but does reveal warmth through compassion toward some of his fellow residents. McGoohan also shows himself to be adept at revealing lighter sides of the character when called for, via a quick, sarcastic wit or a mischievous glint in his eye when thwarting some new evil scheme.
Lending strong support were the talented character actors who filled the role of Number Six's nemesis, Number Two, including Guy Doleman, Eric Portman, Mary Morris and Peter Wyngarde. Most memorable of all was the great Australian-born actor Leo McKern (Rumpole of the Bailey, Ryan's Daughter, etc.). McKern's shrewd and cunning Number Two made such a strong impression in his first episode, The Chimes of Big Ben, that McGoohan brought him back for an unprecedented second outing, Once Upon a Time. Scenes in that episode between McGoohan and McKern were so intense that the latter suffered a nervous collapse, but he was still willing to return for the series finale Fall Out.
Also contributing to the success of the series is its visual style, particularly the production and costume design. Recalling the location from an episode of Danger Man, McGoohan and producer David Tomblin decided that scenes representing The Village would be filmed in Wales at Portmeirion, a resort built by architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis from 1925 to 1939, with further additions from 1954 to 1972. Williams-Ellis' goal was to incorporate a variety of styles and maintain harmony with the surrounding environment. The heterogeneous architecture is perfect for evoking a sense that The Village doesn't quite belong to any specific place or even time; it feels oddly detached and self-contained. The costumes and set decoration further this sense of dislocation, particularly in the way elements of the past and future are mixed: On the one hand, a 19th Century penny farthing bicycle is a recurrent symbol, Villagers wear old-fashioned straw hats and quaint brass band concerts are held in the Village square. On the other, Village telephones are cordless (years before such technology became commonplace) and electronic surveillance equipment feeds a constant flow of images to a futuristic control room. Other idiosyncratic touches in the costuming include short capes and striped naval-style shirts (although no one, of course, ever goes sailing); many Village residents also carry multi-colored umbrellas. 5 All of these elements advance the strange sense of The Village exists outside of but parallel to our everyday world.
Without question the most memorable prop designed for the series is the one that happened by accident: the Rover. When the original Rover prop constructed for the show arrived on set, it resembled nothing so much as a large pastry topped with a blue police light. Aware that the sight of their hero fleeing from an oversized cupcake was unlikely to inspire awe and terror, McGoohan and the staff scrambled for a hasty replacement, and hit upon the notion of white weather balloons. Accompanied by a strange, roaring sound effect, the simple illusion worked. Their utter blankness, the lack of anything resembling controls or a system of locomotion, make the Rovers seems like the products of some impossible future technology, or a weird alien life form. Symbols of the inscrutable control the Village's masters wield over the citizenry, the Rovers became unlikely cultural icons: many who see The Prisoner when young recall it as "the show with the big scary white balloons." Those young viewers who rediscover the series will find, of course, much more than scary balloons. The Prisoner's investigation of the individual's relation to society is prophetic of the world we live in today, and more relevant than ever.
A & E Home Entertainment's new 5-disc Blu-ray set of The Prisoner: The Complete Series is sure to please the show's many fans. The 17 episodes are spread over the first 4 discs; the 5th is a standard-def DVD of bonus materials. The new HD transfers are excellent, far surpassing previous home video incarnations of the series. Color and detail are outstanding; the lush grounds of Portmeirion and vivid hues of the Villagers' costumes pop as never before. All episodes come with a choice of either the original mono soundtrack or a new 5.1 remix; both are quite satisfactory.
Bonus materials are extensive. There are audio commentaries for seven episodes by writers or crewmembers, and trailers and image galleries for all episodes. The fourth disc also includes a restored alternate cut of the pilot, Arrival, a brief restoration demo, generic trailers and textless Main & End Title sequences.
The centerpiece of the bonus disc is a thorough 94-minute documentary on the history of the series, Don't Knock Yourself Out, featuring interviews with numerous cast and crew members. Conspicuously absent is McGoohan, who was always reluctant to discuss the show and preferred that it stand on its own. Also included is a featurette with music editor Eric Mival, You Make Sure It Fits! and a short piece with Peter Wyngarde discussing his experience with the show, The Pink Prisoner. Also included is an alternate cut of The Chimes of Big Ben, commercial bumpers, more image galleries, all three title themes composed for the show, foreign "file cabinet" footage and a brief promo for the AMC remake with James Caviezal and Sir Ian McKellen. There are also scripts, call sheets, press materials and other documents stored on the disc as PDF files and accessible via DVD-ROM. Unfortunately, in spite of A & E's friendly printed assurance that "Disc Five is a standard-definition DVD and will play in all standard DVD and Blu-ray players" this reviewer was unable to get the bonus content to play on his Panasonic BD30. The menu would display, but all attempts to view materials caused playback to stop altogether. The disc did play fine in both my PC's DVD drive and a Pioneer DVD player.
In spite of the technical difficulties with the bonus disc, The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-Ray set is highly recommended.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Stories vary slightly on Markstein's inspiration. One versions claims he had heard of a rest home for retired spies, built so they would not let still-sensitive information slip as senility encroached. In other accounts, Markstein based The Village on a World War II-era island prison that resembled a resort.
2. Fans of the series enjoy debating whether Number Six was really John Drake from Danger Man. Early production documents sometimes referred to the lead character as "Drake" and there are hints in the show that suggest Number Six might be Drake, but publicly McGoohan always insisted that the two were different characters.
3. In later years, McGoohan would opine that they should have only done seven episodes.
4. Isaac Asimov once wrote an essay for TV Guide jokingly suggesting that the popularity of the show lay in that instead of a lone hero triumphing, it democratically "points the way to comfortable attainment of failure for everybody."
5. The Villagers typically wear bright colors that reflect their sunny dispositions; by contrast, Number Six, the rebel, almost always wears a dark suit.
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