Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Prisoner - Set 1 (1967)

Where am I?
In the Village.
What do you want?
We want information.
Whose side are you on?
That would be telling. We want information... information... information.
You won't get it.
By hook or by crook, we will.
Who are you?
The new Number 2.
Who is Number 1?
You are Number 6.
I am not a number, I am a free man.

The first set of The Prisoner released by A&E covers the episodes "Arrival", "Free For All", "Dance Of The Dead" and a workprint version of the episode "The Chimes Of Big Ben". I've been terribly negligent about diving into this series, which is something I particularly regret after getting this small taste of it.

The original run order of The Prisoner is up to debate, so A&E released the episodes in the order that apparently is most accepted by fans (which itself is worthy of debate), though it hardly matters since besides the first and last episodes of the show, each can be watched standalone.

For those unfamiliar with the concept (which has been parodied and lampooned endlessly, notably on The Simpsons), The Prisoner concerns an unnamed secret agent (Patrick McGoohan) who, after resigning, finds himself gassed while packing his things and awakens in an idyllic (though fascistic) setting where the inhabitants are referred only by numbers. Number 6 (as he is now called) spends the series fighting against the constantly changing "Number 2" who are after the secret of why he quit his post, while he also attempts to find a way off the island and avoid "rover", the giant balloon guard which patrols the village.

An obvious precursor to surreal series such as Lost and Twin Peaks, The Prisoner holds up amazingly well because of the (surprisingly) high production values, as well as the high caliber of writing and acting on display. McGoohan had a great deal of influence on the creative direction of the show (and, in fact, wrote several episodes under pseudonyms) which pays off well in longevity, while the central theme of a single man fighting for freedom and individuality in a setting stressing assimilation can't help but still appeal.

There is still much camp humor on display as well. "Rover" is both ridiculous in design, but surprisingly threatening in practice as we get a close-up of the victims face pressing against it's skin when caught. The futuristic technology is strictly out of the late 60s/early 70s sci-fi mold with stark, monochromatic coloring and rounded edges.

Here are the four episodes available on these discs:

1) "Arrival" - The first episode features Number 6 waking up disoriented in The Village and meeting its inhabitants. After getting a tour by Number 2 (Guy Doleman), he attempts to escape and is attacked by "rover", which lands him in the hospital. While hospitalized, 6 discovers that a former acquaintance named Cobb is also in the hospital. After some questioning, Number 6 discovers Cobb has jumped to his death. At Cobb's funeral, 6 runs into Cobb's lover who reveals that Cobb and herself were going to make an escape attempt. She gives him an electropass to get past Rover and into a helicopter. After taking off, 6 soon discovers that Number 2 (now George Baker) was in control all along, and forces him to land. The episode ends with Number 6 back in the village, and with the audience discovering that Cobb is still alive and was an acquaintance of Number 2 all along.

This episode provides a fine introduction to the main characters of the series, as well as the constant double-crossing and surrealism that would become its trademark.

2) "The Chimes Of Big Ben" (Workprint) - A workprint version of an episode sometimes aired second in sequence when the series is shown in reruns. The film and audio quality of this episode is quite poor, though a remastered proper version is available on the second set of the series.

The new Number 2 (Leo McKern, who is magnificent) introduces Number 6 to a new arrival, who is almost killed after an escape attempt. Number 6 suspects she is a Village spy, but volunteers to become more involved with life in The Village if it will prevent her being tortured for information. This involves taking part in an art competition in the Village (in a wonderful touch, all the pieces besides Number 6's are different representations of Number 2), which Number 6 wins and purchases a tapestry with his winnings. The tapestry is used as a sail for his piece, actually a boat which is to be used to escape the island. The ending is fantastically disheartening as Number 6 believes he has escaped to London before discovering that his old office is actually just a recreation which exits back to The Village.

3) "Free For All" - My favorite episode of the four, where Number 6 runs for the position of Number 2 (in this episode played by Eric Portman. Promised an opportunity to meet Number 1 if he prevails, Number 6 ends up winning the election but is drugged and beaten after reaching the control room. The episode ends with 6's female foreign assistant taking the post of Number 2, revealing herself to speak perfect English.

This episode was written by McGoohan and is filled with some hilarious political satire, as well as another desperate climax with Number 6 frantically yelling over the loudspeakers that the villagers are free to go, before he finds himself back where he started with a new Number 2.

4) "Dance Of The Dead" - Number 6 discovers a radio on the body of a dead man he finds floating in the sea. Attempting to use the body as a way to send a message back to civilization, 6 is discovered and is put on trial during a yearly carnival where the inhabitants of the village dress in elaborate costumes. Found guilty, Number 6 is sentenced to death.

Likely my least favorite of the four episodes, but still has a wonderful conclusion with the entire village running after 6 in an attempt to tear him apart.

There are 17 issues in the full series of The Prisoner, though McGoohan originally envisioned the series as being considerably shorter. There has been much talk in recent years of bringing back the series, possibly envisioned as a Dr. Who-like relaunch. I can only hope that if such a re-imagining does take place that they can maintain the quality of the episodes in the original series as shown in this collection. Their work is certainly cut out for them.

The episodes are shown in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratios, and the episodes (outside of "The Chimes Of Big Ben") look magnificent. Certainly better than those PBS airings I remember from my childhood. A&E have included some very minor supplements for the discs, including trailers for each episode, photo galleries and a few trivia questions. Such an involved series with such devoted fans could certainly use a bit more supplementary material.

An absolute wonder that remains fresh and thought-provoking, The Prisoner deserves its reputation as some of the best serialized television ever aired.

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