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The Prisoner Reviewed

Vol. 1 – Vol. 8 A & E Home Video from SCARLET STREET, 2001 Fans of THE X-FILES will find that paranoid series’ spiritual stepfather in THE PRISONER, Patrick McGoohan’s 1967 fantasy series about a secret agent who, upon resigning his job, is kidnapped and taken to a seaside resort town called The Village. The happy Villagers, dressed in colorful garb, are known only by numbers; the ex-spy’s is Number Six. Over the course of a 17-episode run, the hero, played by McGoohan, faces relentless attempts to find out why he resigned his job: Was he selling out? Could it really just have been a matter of principle? Those efforts include various mind games and technological trickery, all usually spearheaded by the Village leader, No. 2 (played by a different actor in most episodes, showing that puppet leaders may change but the totalitarian song remains the same). McGoohan, who devised the series format with George Markstein, was clearly worried about the encroachment of technology on society. The Village, on the surface a collection of quaint 19th century Italianate buildings, is a kind of Disneyland of terror. Beneath the old world charm, No. 6 discovers a wealth of technological marvels, including spy cameras and mind-altering laser beams, making THE PRISONER, a Kafkaesque parable about the dehumanization of man. PRISONER 

But the series is also big on other timeless themes, from identity and trust to elections and education. In “The Schizoid Man,” for instance, No. 2 recruits a double of No. 6 to make him doubt his sanity. “Free for All” is a marvelous satire of the entire election process. “A Change of Mind” satirizes self-help groups and the idea of community outreach, showing that both can be used as the tools of oppressors. In that episode, No. 6 is declared “unmutual” – a menace to society (“Public Enemy No. 6” as he puts it) because of his individualistic ways. In the end, he turns the tables on his captors by using both the suspicion inherent in the Village and the cattle-like attitude of the happy, easily-led Villagers. The series was controversial, as well. Episode 14, “Living In Harmony,” was actually banned by CBS during the series’ original run, paradoxically because it was too violent and too pacifist. The story finds the Prisoner in the American west playing a cowboy who refuses to wear a gun. In “The General,” No. 6 opposes a brainwashing system called “Speedlearn” which endows its users with the knowledge required for a university-level degree in only 10 minutes. You might know the facts and figures, argues No. 6, but can you think original thoughts? Can you reason? Or are you just one of many, a row of “educated cabbages”? (Education reform advocates, are you listening?)

Such ideas are first showcased in “Arrival,” the episode which introduces the hero, an unbending moralist who “will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered” whose “life is my own.” Through odd camera angles and quick cuts, director Don Chaffey (JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS), puts the viewer in the hero’s disoriented shoes, where no one – even one-time friends – can be trusted. As the Prisoner, McGoohan is quirky and intelligent, moving like a caged animal. There is talk of a PRISONER movie, but it would be probably a mistake: no one but McGoohan can play this unbending, principled superhero so well. The DVD release of the series – previously issued in less-than-pristine-quality videos and laserdiscs versions by MPI a decade ago – is cause for celebration. Cynical and thought-provoking in a way unusual for much of ‘60s TV, THE PRISONER, at its best, is top-notch television. The transfer quality on the first eight volumes (featuring the initial 14 episodes) is terrific, even better than the limited edition Columbia House videos of two years ago. That said, the extras included in the sets are generally poor. All the DVDs feature the same interactive map of the Village; each also include coming attractions trailers, and some odd foreign film clips. Volume 1 offers the 16-millimeter “alternative version” of “The Chimes of Big Ben,” an escape attempt installment co-starring Leo McKern (RUMPOLE OF THE BAILEY), which was discovered about a decade ago in Canada. Of subpar quality, it has different editing and music, and an extra scene.

What could have been included? For starters, there is a superb British multi-part documentary about the show by Stephen Ricks featuring interviews with cast, crew, and other principals. There is also a Canadian television interview with McGoohan himself in which the actor talks extensively about the creation of the series. What DVD viewers will have to settle for, however, is a 25-minute interview with production manager Bernard Williams, included on Vol. 5. Williams is presented in a decidedly no-frills manner: facing an anonymous questioner, he discusses everything from actors and writers to budgets and locations. But the conversation is not for the uninitiated, since it presupposes you know something about THE PRISONER’s history. For instance, there are numerous references to SECRET AGENT (McGoohan’s previous series) and Lew Grade (the head of ITC, the program’s production company) which are sure to leave many confused. There are also flat-out omissions and falsehoods: Williams makes no mention of script editor George Markstein, who co-created the series with McGoohan; and it was Markstein who co-wrote the first script, “Arrival,” not McGoohan as Williams asserts. While there is fascinating stuff in Williams’ talk – the development of the white balloons that menace the Villagers, for instance, shows how luck plays a role in creation – it is shallow stuff compared to what could have been offered. That’s too bad, because THE PRISONER, thought-provoking and entertaining at the same time, deserves better. – Tom Soter



The latest proof of the adage “old TV series never die, they just get recycled as big-screen, multi-million-dollar remakes” is The Prisoner. Although nothing has been signed, oddsmakers are betting that Mel Gibson will be starring in a 1997 film version of the show that defines the word cult. A 17-episode replacement series for The Jackie Gleason Show in 1968, actor-creator Patrick McGoohan’s bizarre British fantasy series followed the adventures of a former secret agent imprisoned in a seaside village in which everyone has a number not a name. A combination of sixties psychedelia, Franz Kafka, and James Bond, the show is about the individual’s right to be individual, and its many fans include Gibson, who sought out the reclusive 67-year-old McGoohan to play a key role in Braveheart. The Prisoner “was an allegorical conundrum,” says McGoohan, who was paid a seven-figure salary to write the script. “In going for the big screen, one cannot afford the indulgence of allegorical conundrum. It will have a beginning, middle, and end.”