Are we self-determining individuals or "cabbages" content in our ordered rows of conformity? Are we free or merely prisoners of a police state we continue to elect into power? Can we put our trust in our essential institutions: schools, hospitals, science, psychology, government? Can we put our trust in ourselves? These are heady questions to consume with a TV dinner, but they are the bread and butter of The Prisoner, the brilliant and enigmatic 1967-1968 televisionary masterpiece conceived by George Markstein and developed by actor Patrick McGoohan.
Markstein came up with the original concept, inspired by an actual WWII prison camp: when a secret agent (McGoohan) resigns, he is taken against his will to a pretty but sinsister retirement resort for people who know too much, a place called "The Village." Each week, the agent—now dubbed "Number Six"—must fight against his captors to retain his individuality and sanity. Through the agency of the middle manager "Number Two" (a position with a high rate of turnover), Number Six's keepers want to know, "Why did you resign?" Number Six wants to know, "Who is Number One?" This battle of wills roils through seventeen episodes until an ambiguous, nightmare-styled conclusion that identifies Number One. A strong central conflict also defined the making of the series, with McGoohan and Markstein ever at loggerheads. The buck most definitely stopped with executive producer McGoohan, who lined up the show's backing, directed five of the seventeen episodes (twice under the pseudonym "Joseph Serf"), and wrote three of them (one under the pseudonym "Paddy Fitz").
McGoohan was a well-paid British TV star when he resigned as lead of the hugely popular Danger Man (resold in America as Secret Agent) and convinced Lew Grade, the powerful head of ITC Entertainment, that the new concept of The Prisoner was worth his while. Grade could not have anticipated how strange The Prisoner would turn out to be, and how turbulent the production. Audiences were similarly taken by surprise: the mainstream spy-craze pleasures of the James Bond-esque Danger Man turned into a surreal, Orwellian allegory of modern civilization. Though The Prisoner was coy at best on the subject of whether or not "Number Six" was Danger Man's John Drake (and McGoohan publicly denied it), audiences couldn't be blamed for interpreting The Prisoner as a bizarre continuation of their favorite show.
Much of The Prisoner's character comes from the location setting of Portmeirion, a hotel resort in North Wales that stood in for "The Village" (in small portions, the resort was also ingeniously recreated for studio shoots). Portmeirion's quaint, just-so surfaces were a perfect caricature of superficial civilization, hiding an underbelly of fear and power-madness. The Villagers are cowed into smiling docility by a deadly guard known as Rover (an omnipresent bubble convincingly played by a weather balloon), but the "unmutual" Number Six refuses to be broken, even as he is subjected to beatings, psychological warfare, and invasive experimental treatments, including psychedelic drug trips. At times, Number Six plays along as a strategy (running for the office of Number Two in "Free for All") or goes on the offensive (breaking Number Two in "Hammer Into Anvil"). Other than Number Six and "the new Number Two" of the week, the only regular character is Number Two's Butler (the diminutive, poker-faced Angelo Muscat). Peter Swanwick is a semi-regular presence as The Supervisor in charge of monitoring the Villagers.
With its themes of constant surveillance, cold war, and severely curtailed civil liberties, The Prisoner was not only of its time (in line with the countercultural movements of the '60s) but ahead of it. The episode "Checkmate" makes overt the series' subtext: that, as a man who has chosen to reject authority, Number Six is a pawn, whose brains and brawn can at best cause a weekly stalemate. If nothing else, this was a subversive idea for a television series: a hero who often lost and whose victories were phyrric. Nevertheless, his adamant struggle to retain his individuality and never conform is clearly heroic, and he crushes the spirit of a series of Number Twos, each convinced he or she will be the one finally to break Number Six. The most memorable of the Number Twos is Leo McKern (Help!), who faces off with McGoohan in "The Chimes of Big Ben," "Once Upon a Time" and the series finale "Fall Out." "Once Upon a Time," in particular, demonstrates that McKern was the best actor to go toe-to-toe with McGoohan: the show's psychodramatic duel to the death gave McKern a nervous breakdown, but the episode is as astonishing a piece of performance as it is an avant-garde theatrical triumph.
Nearly every episode in The Prisoner's short run is a bona fide classic (the conspicuous failure "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling," a logy episode designed to accomodate McGoohan's absence as she shot Ice Station Zebra, is the exception that proves the rule), though McGoohan claimed he only ever intended to make a core seven episodes and the rest are effectively padding. But "padding" like "Living in Harmony" (a head-trip Western variation on the series' concept) and "The Girl Who Was Death" (a campy Danger Man callback framed as a Village bedtime story) remains provocative at best and entertaining at least. The bare essentials are "Arrival," the devastating political satire "Free for All," "Checkmate" (which asked who are the prisoners and who are the warders?), "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out."
The series was always enormously creative (get aload of McGoohan's invention of "Kosho," a martial arts competition on trampolines across a dunk tank), but the wild finale took the cake. It dealt with Number Six's introduction to Number One, preceded by bizarre ceremonies in a subterranean chamber. After playing "The Kid" in "Living in Harmony," Alexis Kanner returned to be the personification of ('60s) youth revolt that must be suppressed by the powers that be. Many have dismissed "Fall Out" as desperate, incomprehensible gibberish that failed to provide closure; indeed, on its initial airing, the finale sent the series' viewers into an angry frenzy (McGoohan was even reportedly accosted on the street). In fact, "Fall Out" has it all, including answers: it simply heightens the allegory beyond the comfort level of most viewers. It asks uncomfortable questions about what would constitute "winning" in the universe of the show: Number Six spends most of the episode sitting smugly on a throne—is this the man we came to respect? When all hell breaks loose at the show's end, another of the series' patented seeming victories turns out to be patently quite the opposite. There is no escape from The Village: you're living in it.
I can't attest to whether or not the latest DVD reissue of The Prisoner is worth a DVD upgrade, but I can tell you that the show's Blu-ray debut as The Prisoner: The Complete Series is literally awesome. I have watched the series on broadcast TV, VHS and DVD, but the Blu-ray presents an astonishing level of detail and dimensionality from its 1960s source material. A&E has used the highly-rated Network transfers used for the series' recent UK re-release, and they are excellent in all respects: color, contrast, black level and sharpness. Audio comes in impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes that likewise offer terrific clarity, alongside the original mono tracks for purists.
Disc One delivers the episodes "Arrival," "The Chimes of Big Ben," "A, B & C," "Free For All," and "The Schizoid Man." Bonus features include audio commentary on "Arrival" by production manager Bernie Williams and film librarian Tony Sloman, audio commentary on "The Chimes of Big Ben" by writer Vincent Tilsley, and audio commentary on "The Schizoid Man" by director Pat Jackson, as well as an "Episodic Image Gallery with Music Suite" (19:24, HD) and Trailers for "Arrival" (1:03, SD), "The Chimes of Big Ben" (1:02, HD), "A. B. and C." (1:02, HD), "Free for All" (1:03, HD) and "The Schizoid Man" (1:02, HD).
Disc Two houses "The General," "Many Happy Returns," "Dance of the Dead," "Checkmate," and "Hammer Into Anvil," along with audio commentary on "The General" by director Peter Graham Scott and audio commentary on "Dance of the Dead" by production manager Bernie Williams, film librarian Tony Sloman, and editor John S. Smith. Also on hand are an "Episodic Image Gallery with Music Suite" (12:21, HD) and Trailers for "The General" (1:03, HD), "Many Happy Returns" (1:04, HD), "Dance of the Dead" (1:03, HD), "Checkmate" (1:02, HD) and "Hammer Into Anvil" (1:03).
Disc Three serves up "It's Your Funeral," "A Change of Mind," "Do Not Forsake Me, Oh My Darling,"
"Living in Harmony," and "The Girl Who Was Death," along with audio commentary on "A Change of Mind" by director Roger Parkes. There's another "Episodic Image Gallery with Music Suite" (17:59, HD) as well as Trailers for "It's Your Funeral" (1:02, HD), "A Change of Mind" (1:04, HD), "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling" (1:03, HD), "Living in Harmony" (1:03, HD) and "The Girl Who Was Death" (1:04, HD).
Disc Four delivers "Once Upon a Time" and "Fall Out" along with audio commentary on "Fall Out" by music editor Eric Mival and editor Noreen Ackland. You'll also find an "Episodic Image Gallery with Music Suite" (12:12, HD); Trailers for "Once Upon a Time" (1:02, HD) and "Fall Out" (1:03, HD), plus two Generic Trailers (0:54 and 1:30, HD). The "Arrival" original edit (50:38) is offered in its final version and in a music-only version. There's also a split screen demonstrating the "Arrival" original edit restoration (3:59, HD). Lastly, the disc offers a cool little feature for die-hards: "Textless Title Sequences" (10:35, HD).
Disc Five is a standard definition DVD containing the lion's share of the extras, including hours of material new to these shores. One wishes this two were a Blu-ray containing more content, but it's still an impressive array. The centerpiece is Don't Knock Yourself Out (94:55), a feature-length documentary on the making of the series.Along with rare footage and clips from episodes, the doc features new interviews with director Peter Graham Scott, writer Roger Parkes, writer Vincent Tilsley, production manager Bernie Williams, Peter Wyngarde (Number Two in "Checkmate"), Anton Rodgers (Number Two in "The Schizoid Man"), George Baker (the New Number Two in "Arrival"), Derren Nesbitt (Number Two in "It's Your Funeral"), Peter Bowles (A in "A, B & C"), Katherine Kath (Engadine in "A, B & C"), Sheila Allen (Number 14 in "A, B & C"), Jane Merrow (Alison in "The Schizoid Man"), Earl Cameron (Supervisor in "The Schizoid Man"), Wanda Ventham (Computer Attendant in "It's Your Funeral"), Annette Andre (Watchmaker's Daughter in "It's Your Funeral"), Mark Eden (Number 100 on "It's Your Funeral"), Christopher Benjamin (Potter in "The Girl Who Was Death"), voice over artist Fenella Fielding, voice over artist Robert Rietti, editor John S. Smith, editor Eric Boyd Perkins, editor Noreen Ackland, assistant editor and story writer Ian Rakoff, Mival, second unit cameraman Bob Monks, film librarian Tony Sloman, Portmeirion Limited chief executive Robin Llewellyn, Michael Grade, Leo McKern (vintage), Alexis Kanner (vintage), producer Lew Grade (archive), script editor George Markstein (vintage), director Don Chaffey (vintage), writer Lewis Greifer (vintage), and producer David Tomblin & art director Jack Shampan (vintage).
"You Make Sure It Fits!" (9:16) is a dedicated Mival interview, while "The Pink Prisoner" (9:21) is a cheeky 2007 interview with Wyngarde, written and directed by Wyngarde. The bonus disc also includes a great collection of rare Prisoner video ephemera: "Exposure Strip Gallery" (10:30); "Ad Bumpers" (0:17); "Textless Titles with Ron Grainer Theme" (3:07), "Wilfred Josephs Theme" (3:04), and "Robert Farnon Theme" (3:03); "Filing Cabinet Footage" (2:29); "Rover Footage" (0:26), "McGoohan Montage from 'Arrival'" (0:50), "'The Chimes Of Big Ben' original edit" (50:47), "Promotional Image Gallery" (2:17), "1967 Press Conference Gallery" (2:33); "Production Designs Gallery" (0:51) and a Promo for AMC's The Prisoner miniseries (:32). The disc's DVD-ROM functionality adds PDF Documents including different versions of the scripts for every episode, "Tally Ho" scans, press releases, production notes, and magazine cover art.
As of yet, I've found no sign of Easter Eggs, which means a few of the extras found on the UK Network discs haven't found their way over to the US A&E release. Whether this is due to rights issues, mastering issues (in terms of disc space), or forethought to a later doule-dip release is unclear. But the "missing" UK bonus features are "Behind the Scenes Footage" (45:42), "Lava Lamp Footage" (7:43), "Television's Greatest Hits Interview" (2:47) and "Audio Interview with Patrick McGoohan" (47:47).
I can't recommend this set highly enough. Everyone should see this series, and ideally in the best presentation possible: on hi-def Blu-ray.
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
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Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer