Before Twin Peaks and The X-Files, Patrick McGoohan's The Prisoner was the definitive cult sci-fi/suspense show, and while its influence may have diminished its impact to some, many of us still find it to be one of, if not the, most enthralling televisions shows in the history of the format. It certainly isn't a series for everyone, and it's been described as 'too weird' or 'impenetrable' before, but if you're willing to invest a little bit of your own interpretive skills and brain power into wrapping your head around the last two of the seventeen episodes that make up the series, you're sure to be justly rewarded.
The story, in a very brief nutshell, revolves around a man referred to only as Number Six, a former 'agent' who resigns only to wake up in a strange village somewhere on the coast where the inhabitants are referred to not by their names but by their numbers. Number Six refuses to conform and as such runs afoul of Number Two, the man in charge of the Village who wants to know why he resigned and wants to get the information out of his head. As such, Number Six wants nothing more than to escape so that he can go back to London, reclaim the identity that was taken from him, and live his life on his own terms but the Village has measures set in place to prevent that from happening and as the series unfolds it becomes obvious that there is a much larger conspiracy at work.
Full of pop art psychedelic imagery and fantastic compositions, The Prisoner was a show filled with completely surprising plot twists as one man fought against a system he couldn't see or understand to regain his identity. Number Six could trust no one while Number Two, played by a revolving door of actors and actresses, would stop at nothing to get the information out of his head. This made him a lone wolf of sorts and while there were a few other characters throughout the series who shared his ambitions and dreams of eventual escape, inevitably they never stuck around or they would end up being a wolf in sheep's clothing.
There were a few key factors that made the show as brilliant as it was. First and foremost was the writing. So far ahead of anything being shown on television at the time and remarkably complex even by today's standards, each script was packed with allegorical and symbolic ideas and dry, witty, and often chilling dialogue. The premises we see play out through the series are completely absurd at times, but the writers make it work and in the context of the show, even the strangest moments in the series seem to fit right in with the surrealist world that was created for the show. There are episodes here that are touching, while others are quite scary. The suspense is thick and completely intense at times and as the series progresses we get to learn enough about Number Six that we're soon right there with him, trying to second guess everyone else and figure out a way to escape.
Equally important to the show is the look that the producers managed to create for The Prisoner. Not only are the sets colorful and unusual, but the locations used have genuine class and character. The seaside town of Portmeirion, in Wales, served as the location for most of what would make up the Village, and this unusual town really brings a lot to the overall tone of the show. The color schemes used for the citizens who populate the are also add an almost comic book feel to the series at times, and the whole thing is very much a product of the sixties pop art that was so popular during the decade in which it was made. Likewise, odd little details like the presence of 'Rover' or the spy-cam statues might sound corny by today's standards but again, as with the more fantastic elements of the stories, these fit in nicely as odd as they may be.
The third key element to what makes The Prisoner so damn good is Patrick McGoohan himself. Not only did he play the lead but he also co-created the series, in addition to handling some of the directorial and scripting duties. This was his baby, and he made the most of it for as long as he could before the network cancelled the series and forced him to rush the ending into production. As Number Six he is fantastic. He's the perfect lead in that he comes across as smooth and intelligent as a good agent should, without being over the top in a James Bond sort of way. His is a complex character, and he handles the role very well portraying anger and frustration just as effectively as pathos and regret.
The series ran for seventeen episodes in total from October 1, 1967 though February 4, 1968 on Channel 13 in the United Kingdom. They are presented in this set across ten discs in the following order (which is the order in which they make the most sense, continuity wise, not the order in which they were first broadcast):
Arrival: In the episode that started it all, we see a man (Patrick McGoohan) resign from his job as a high level British spy. He heads back to his flat in London and packs his bags to take a vacation, but he's knocked out. When he regains a clear head, he finds himself not in his home but in a strange seaside village somewhere on the coast of England. He looks around for a phone but finds out that he cannot call outside the area. He tries to take a cab, but the golfcart-like taxies don't go outside the town borders. He soon realizes that all of the people around him don't have names, but numbers instead - he is Number Six. After a short while he is introduced to the man in charge, Number Two (George Baker). They talk and Six finds out that the reason he's in the village is that he knows too much. It seems someone wants to know why he left his job and is bound and determined to make sure that he doesn't spill the secret information he has tucked away in his head from his years of experience. Number Six wants to escape, but the surveillance cameras set up all over town make it tough, and then there's Rover, a giant weather balloon that smothers anyone who makes it past the borders of the Village.
Free For All:McGoohan wrote and directed this episode in which Number Six finds that he is being considered to replace the current Number Two. It's time for an election and so he takes up the challenge and runs against Number Two but his real motive is to find out what Number Two is up to and, more importantly, to find out who Number One is and why all of this is taking place at all. Number Six deliberately makes promises to the Village that he knows he won't be keeping just to get under Number Two's skin and it works. Number Two decides that Number Six needs to be tested and the results are nothing short of disturbing. It all leads up to a fantastic twist ending wherein a new Number Two is elected but not in the way that anyone expected.
Dance Of The Dead: While taking a leisurely stroll on the beach that surrounds the Village, Number Six comes across the corpse of a man who has been murdered and subsequently washed ashore. He examines the body and discovers a wallet and a radio and he hides the radio in a nearby cave along with the man's corpse. When he returns later, he tries the radio but to no avail so he straps a life jacket onto the dead man and tosses him back into the ocean with a note attached hoping that someone will find it and send help. What Number Six doesn't know is that a former friend named Dutton who is also in the Village has been watching him and is reporting back to Number Two (now a woman, Mary Morris). What Dutton doesn't realize is that he's not as valuable to Number Two as he'd like to believe.
Checkmate: Chess is a popular past time amongst the citizens who make up the population of the Village and when it comes time for the human chess game, Number Six is assigned the position of a queen's pawn. This turns out to be much more than a simple game, however, as when one of the rook's (Ronald Radd) makes an illegal move, he winds up being taken to the hospital. It seems that the organizers of the game don't like it when their chess pieces get out of line, but Number Six clued in to that shortly after his arrival, even if some of his fellow villagers did not. Number Two (now Peter Wyngarde), always up to something, has the queen (Rosalie Crutchley) brainwashed so that she falls for Number Six but it doesn't take Six long to find out that she's got a listening device hidden away in her necklace which lets Number Two hear every word they say to one another. What Number Two doesn't realize, however, is that Six has figured out a way to use the device to aid his latest escape plan which will require him to get the rook on his side.
The Chimes Of Big Ben: Number Six, not content to simply conform and spend the rest of his life in the Village as nothing more than a number, meets Nadia (Nedia Grey). She gives him a little more information about things than he had before and he learns that the Village lies somewhere on the coast of the Baltic Sea. Between the two of them they come up with a grand escape plan that they're sure will work, but they'll need a diversion. To keep the others distracted, Number Six enters an art competition and his entry, a wooden sailboat aptly titled 'Escape,' proves to be a fitting way to keep those who would stop them from leaving busy. Unfortunately, Number Two (now played by Leo McKern) sees all and Number Six soon learns that no one in the Village is to be completely trusted.
A, B, And C: The New Number Two (Colin Gorden) is tired of playing games with Number Six - he wants to know what's in his head and how to get it out and so he uses an experimental drug to tape into his mind. He figures that he'll find out why Number Six resigned in the first place but Number Six is on to things and is able to use his dreams to tell the story his way. From there, over three different nights, we learn how Number Six met A (Peter Bowles), B (Annette Carrell) and C at a party hosted by Madame Engadine (Katherine Kath). Needless to say, Number Two does not get the information that he was looking for, much to his disappointment, while Number Six remains determined to make his way out of the Village.
The General: A mysterious General has hired a brilliant professor to develop a speed learning process by which those in charge can educate the population of the Village quickly and as they see fit. Of course, Number Two (Colin Gorden again) easily figures out how he can use this to his advantage but the professor is not at all impressed by Number Two's plans and so he hopes to be able to destroy his own creation before things get out of hand. Number Six proves to be a handy ally for the professor and the two of them work together to stop Number Two but their plan fails and Number Six is brought in front of the General.
The Schizoid Man: When Number Six wakes up one morning he's surprised to find that while he's still in the Village, he's no longer in his apartment and there have been some rather drastic changes made while he lay resting not only to his surroundings but to his very body and habits! He finds that he is now left-handed and that he isn't Number Six anymore, but Number Twelve. Someone who very closely resembles his old self is the new Number Six, and Number Two (Anton Rodgers this time around) is bound and determined to finally break him and get inside his head. The only thing that the real Number Six has to work with is an unusual bruise on his fingernail. Has he finally snapped or is this all an elaborate scheme put into play by Number Two and his minions?
Many Happy Returns: When Number Six wakes up, he finds that the Village is completely empty, everyone has disappeared. Of course, he sees this as the only chance he'll probably ever get to make a break for it and so he puts together a makeshift raft and sets out across the ocean in hopes of finally regaining his freedom and his identity. Unfortunately for Number Six he runs afoul of some smugglers who swipe the few supplies he was able to bring with him and leave him to die out there in the sea. He blacks out and wakes up washed up on the shore, but he manages to pull himself together and make his way back to London. The first thing he does there is head straight to his old flat but someone else, a Mrs. Butterworth (Georgina Cookson), now lives there. She seems nice enough but Number Six's birthday is coming up soon and the surprise she has in store for him won't be to his liking at all.
It's Your Funeral: Number Two (Andre Van Gysegham) has carefully arranged a plot to assassinate a man that he no longer has any use for. Number Six finds out about the plot and he intends to expose it but Number Two manages to make him look untrustworthy after he comes to him with the details not realizing that he's behind it all. Soon, a new Number Two (Derren Nesbitt) arrives in the Village and Number Six figures out that he's been had. What Number Six doesn't realize is that the man he thought was going to be knocked off is not the intended target at all.
A Change of Mind: Once again, Number Six is set up when two local toughs start a fight with him and he's forced to defend himself against them. He's brought in front of a committee made up of a few different residents and they all agree that he is without a doubt 'unmutual.' They sentence him to undergo some social conditioning procedures but those in charge pull yet another trick on him by making him think that he's had the treatment when really he hasn't, as they want to make sure that the information in his head stays intact. When Number Six clues in to this, he tries to talk the Doctor (George Pravda) into helping him with his plan to get back at Number Two (this time played by John Sharp).
Hammer Into Anvil: Number Two (Patrick Cargill) drives a young woman to the point of suicide and Number Six swears that he will avenge her death. Number Two, however, tells Number Six that if he pushes too far that he will 'hammer' him if he has to. In order to mess with Number Two's head, Number Six comes up with a clever plan in which he tries to convince Number Two that he is in actuality Agent D6 and that he still reports to X04. Not sure what to think of this, Number Two once again tries to break Number Six to get the information he wants so badly.
Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling: In this particularly complex episode, a scientist named Professor Seltzman (Hugo Schuster) disappears. The people who run the Village want him back and so they transfer Number Six's brain into the body of another man and send him out to get him back. Number Six wakes up in London in his old flat and finds that no one he encounters will believe that he is who he is thanks to the fact that he looks different so he sets out to find Seltzman solo. He traces him to Austria and when he does, and he finds out why he left, he tries to convince him to help him get things back to normal.
Living In Harmony: In another exceptionally bizarre episode, Number Six winds up in an old western town where he finds his way into becoming the town sheriff where his first order of business is to help out a lady at a saloon named Cathy (Valerie French). He opts not to carry a pistol as most cowboys would, until some of the inhabitants start killing each other off and he's forced to pick up arms against them. A criminal named The Kid (Alexis Kanner) finally causes enough trouble that Number Six has to have a showdown with him, resulting in Number Six being hauled into court where the Judge (David Bauer) just might be the clue that ties things back to the Village.
The Girl Who Was Death: An army man named Colonel Hawke-Englishe is understood to have been killed by a scientist named Schnipps (Kenneth Griffith) who has, quite simply, lost his mind. Schnipps' daughter, Sonia (Justine Lord), believes herself to be the incarnation of death itself, will not let anyone get near her father and has rigged their hideout to ensure that anyone who gets in too close will be killed. Number Six is put back into his former position as an agent and has to track down Schnipps before he can launch a rocket into the middle of London which is capable of laying waste to the entire city.
Once Upon A Time: Number Two (Leo McKern this time around) has finally realized that he's not going to easily break Number Six and that if he really wants the information out of his head that badly that he's going to have to resort to more drastic measures. In essence, the kid gloves are off. He brings Number Six in for a round of Degree Absolute which is a contest designed to leave one winner and in which the loser forfeits his life. Number Six knows that if he beats Number Two at the contest, he'll finally learn who Number One is and hopefully be able to set things back to normal and get one with his life.
Fall Out (Spoilers): The final episode of the series picks up directly where Once Upon A Time left off, and The Controller (Peter Swanwick) is bringing Number Six to meet Number One. He's given back his clothes that were taken from him when he was put in the Village, and he's brought to a huge room where he faces a committee of masked men and women held over by a man dressed as a judge. The judge tells Number Six and the committee that Number Six has passed the tests and is no longer a number but is instead 'sir' which is how he is to be addressed from here on out. Number Forty Eight is brought in front of the court and found guilty of starting a rebellion, and Number Two is later brought in and is resurrected only to be imprisoned with Number Forty Eight. Number Six is given his belongings back and invited to give a speech to the committee who only drown him out by chanting "I" at a deafening volume. He's let in to the basement and then up the stairs where Number One resides, and when Number Six takes off Number One's mask he finds a second mask ,the face of a monkey. When he pulls that off, he sees his own face. Number Six chases Number One but he escapes, leaving him alone in the control room of a massive rocket which he fires up only to cause a panic in the committee chamber room. The rocket launches, Number Six frees Number Two and Number Forty Eight, but they're not going to make it out easily and there's a whole lot more to figure out before Number Six can set things right.
The show has endured as a favorite, years later, and debate still continues as to the merits and meaning of the completely surreal ending that McGoohan concocted for the show. McGoohan himself has spoken as to what he was going for with the series but everyone who sees the show seems to take something different away from it. That in itself is high praise indeed, that a show can continue to inspire so long after it has ceased production. The fandom that has grown up around the series continues to flourish, and the show not only inspired a song of the same name by Iron Maiden, but it also found it's way into an episode of The Simpsons entitled The Computer Wore Menace Shoes in which McGoohan jovially pokes fun at his most famous creation. A three issue comic book series was published by DC Comics (subtitled The Prisoner: Shattered Visage) in the late 80s by Dean Motter and Mark Askwith that continued the adventures of Number Six in a fairly faithful vein, and a few spin off novels were written in the sixties. There were even two Apple II video games made based on the series and even a GURPS world book (remember GURPS?) that would allow you to role play in the Village. Rumors persist as to a feature film version coming sooner or later, but so far nothing has come to light, though a new television series based on McGoohan's original is set to air soon.
The Blu-ray Set
A&E presents The Prisoner in its original 1.33.1 fullframe aspect ratio in some very fine 1080p AVC encoded transfers which, if the Network logo at the beginning of the disc is anything to go off of, appear to be the same used for the recent UK Blu-ray release of the series - and that's not a bad thing at all. Those used to seeing the series by way of the far inferior standard definition releases are in for a real treat as the increase in resolution, clarity and detail is evident from the very start of the first episode. Colors are much improved, more natural and considerably bolder looking while both foreground and background detail is much, much stronger and shows a whole lot more texture. There is some fine grain throughout and you might pick up on the odd speck here and there if you want to look for it but for a television series made decades ago, The Prisoner looks very impressive indeed. Some of the stock footage inserts (used fairly frequently to establish 'The Village') look a bit rougher but even these are in pretty remarkable shape, showing only minor print damage.
Audio options are provided in English only in both Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound and Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono. While it's nice to see the original mono mix preserved, it would have been even nicer to see it done in a lossless format because there are times where you can't help but notice things sound just a little bit canned and maybe just a bit flat. Regardless, both tracks here are fine for what they are. The 5.1 mix spreads things out nicely and presents the score and sound effects with expectedly more punch in spots, while the mono mix presents the series as it originally sounded when broadcast years back, or at least fairly close to it. Optional English subtitles are included, but sadly, they're not very good as they leave a lot of dialogue out and really only cover the core of what's being said rather than providing a literal speech to text translation. Those complains aside, the 5.1 mix is pretty good, you'll notice it during the more action intensive scenes that play out throughout the series and pretty much any time the score kicks in.
Seven of the episodes in this set feature commentaries from those involved in the series. The Arrival (with Bernie Williams and Tony Sloman), The Chimes Of Big Ben (with Vincent Tilsley), The Shizoid Man (with Pat Jackson), The General (with Peter Graham Scott), Dance Of The Dead (with Bernie Williams, Tony Sloman and John Smith), Change Of Mind (with Roger Parkes) and Fallout (with Eric and Noreen Ackland). For fans, these commentaries are a gold mine as the participants discuss everything from dropping acid for kicks to McGoohan's often times difficult demeanor. The participants dissect the scripts with a lot of detail, talk about the show's odd editing, the casting, ideas that were born and then aborted, and much more. There's a lot of good material here and while some participants (Williams and Sloman) have better memories or at least more to say than others (Jackson) each one of these tracks has its merits and they serve as pretty much an audible history of the series from those who made it happen.
From there, move on to the feature length documentary directed by Thomas Cook and Tim Beadows in 2007 entitled Don't Knock Yourself Out, an excellent ninety-five minute piece that is narrated by Neil Pearson and which features pretty much everyone who worked on the series in some capacity. There's a lot of time spent discussing McGoohan's fairly well known difficulties as well as the response to the series when it first aired, though McGoohan himself, since passed though alive when this was being put together, is absent (despite a note from him that starts this piece off in which he states 'If whatever we wanted to say is not already contained within the episodes of the series then I failed in the production of them and any amount of chit-chat now will not make good that omission.'). The piece also elaborates on the series' themes and their continuing importance as well as the series' legacy. It's quite a fascinating piece that culls together some great archival footage and photographs alongside the newly shot footage to present a very comprehensive and interesting piece that compliments the series very nicely indeed.
Two shorter featurettes are also included, starting with the nine minute The Pink Prisoner which allows Peter Wyngarde to answer some questions about his work on the series from someone off camera. Wyngarde makes for an interesting interviewee and as such, you'll want to check this out. The second, Make Sure It Fits, is a nine minute piece that puts Eric Mival in front of the camera to talk about the music he edited for the series and how in The Prisoner the production team made an effort to use music only when the series called for it.
Also on hand is some interesting 'mute' footage - Filing Cabinet Footage (some alternate language versions of that ever important shot from the series' opening), Rover Footage (some random bits with the series' infamous white balloon bouncing around the beach) and McGoohan Montage From Arrival (a great collection of black and white stills of McGoohan in character used to illustrate just how long he's been watched and how much is known about him) - these are all presented without any audio and are quite brief but rather interesting. The Exposure Strip gallery is also presented without any audio, though text explains what we're seeing as this eleven minute slide show lets us take a look at various set ups and camera tests.
Fans will also want to check out the 'newly restored original edit' of The Arrival, which also features an alternate 'music only' audio track that presents this episode without any dialogue, accompanied only by Wilfred Joseph's score. Attentive fans will notice that the opening scene is slightly different and that the episode is edited in a slightly different form than the version we've known previously. Also provided in the set is the alternate version of the The Chimes of Big Ben (taken from a 16mm print and shown here in noticeably rougher quality than the broadcast version). This will be of interest to fans not because the story is all that different but because of how it plays out. The fanatical will enjoy it, the casual maybe not so much but regardless, it's great to see it included in this set even if it is more of a curiosity item than anything else. Obviously the video quality isn't on par with the full 1080p restored transfers that the standard versions of the episodes have received but they're perfectly watchable.
Each episode has its own trailer and its own image gallery with musical accompaniment. Rounding out the set are some cool image galleries, trailers for each episode in the series, menus, chapter selection, a promo for AMC's upcoming 'reimagining' of the series, commercial break bumpers, a collection of interesting title sequences, and in DVD-Rom format a massive archive of production paperwork including scripts, call sheets, press releases and more. All in all, while not all of the extras from previous releases have been carried over (including those from A&E's previous DVD incarnations and the recent UK Blu-ray set, which had a bit more content than this set, despite sharing transfers), what is here is quite extensive and very interesting (even if it is all presented in standard definition), though unfortunately not definitive.
It would have been nice to see A&E issue this set with the fancy book that the UK release had but otherwise, there's nothing to complain about here. The series holds up as well know as it ever has and seeing it presented in high definition really makes you appreciate the artistry behind the insanity of it all. Loaded with some solid extras and afforded a very strong transfer, you can consider this Blu-ray release of The Prisoner highly recommended indeed.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.