TV on Blu-ray Review: The Prisoner -- The Complete Series (1967)

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The Prisoner (Classic)

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The Prisoner

As the old storytelling adage goes, “there are no original plots; Shakespeare did them all,” and he even double-dipped in the salsa bowl of published work, whether his own or others. Likewise, those of us who take in a lot of pop culture in its various incarnations from music to literature to art to film can sense overlap and homage fairly quickly from one work to the next.

Whether it’s simply reading the book before you see the movie (or vice versa), listening to a cover song before the original, checking out the foreign film before taking in the American remake or actually linking one inspiration to the next, it makes evaluating whatever it is you’re witnessing all the richer.

Although I’d seen previews of the AMC miniseries remake of the British cult classic television series The Prisoner before I reviewed the original show created by Patrick McGoohan and George Markstein, I knew that in this particular case, I didn’t want to view them in reverse order.

Ironically, complicating the experience even further was that the arrival of this gorgeous five disc high definition Blu-ray collection for review* coincided with analyzing the final half of England’s contemporary award-winning, science fiction tinged, existential series Life on Mars.

While moving back and forth between material—especially television series—to break them up so as not to become apathetic to it or view the installments with monotony, I began realizing how much Mars and so many other present-day allegorical paranoid pieces about perception, conformity, etc. have been influenced by this particular Prisoner.

To explain, the spellbindingly addictive Mars is challenging enough to try and maneuver through all of the intricate layers of psychology, which include asking us to constantly take serious inventory regarding just how reliable the narrator played by John Simm is in particular. Of course, this goes right along with witnessing the impossible of extrasensory perception, illusions and messages that filter in every week via Simm’s detective who is either the victim of time travel, madness or a coma.

Yet, the narrative structure of Life on Mars tricks you into thinking it’s a science fiction take on a police procedural with a linear through-line. Using Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland instead of an old Hollywood script girl to keep the plot in check, Mars managed to test our patience to a limit all the while maintaining a strict adherence to providing viewers with a beginning, middle and end that is mostly presented in that order, with a bit of string theory like bending of alternate universes and overlapping time here and there.

However, contrary to Mars, this highly experimental series does not involve the blending of time periods. Still it does allude to Wonderland and Oz along with Brave New World, 1984, and the entire oeuvre of Franz Kafka (especially The Trial) and likewise it takes great pleasure in testing the boundaries of not only the at-times seemingly acid-trip influenced stream-of-consciousness style in its writing and overall presentation but also in demanding its audience to just journey along well into the Rabbit Hole to what today we would consider David Lynch Twin Peaks plus Inland Empire territory.

While from a satisfying storytelling perspective, I prefer Mars overall, there is absolutely no denying the wholly unique, genre-breaking and risk-taking odyssey of this vintage ITC offering. And despite the fact that it reminded me of several possible post-Prisoner titles that may have found inspiration or creative guidance in this series including everything from Pleasantville to Twin Peaks, Lost, Alias, Dollhouse, Fringe, The Truman Show, The Village, Stepford Wives, Groundhog Day, The Matrix, Eagle Eye, Enemy of the State, Minority Report and others, because I saw it at the same time as Mars, that’s the work that stands out the most.

Moreover, it's especially fitting to view them as near creative blood relatives as both challenging and intellectually invigorating series offered viewers a weekly chance to try and provide their own answers with an overall run of under twenty episodes which is far less than a traditional American television season of roughly twenty-four episodes.

Yet if you found Mars to be a graduate course, this one should earn you a doctorate since you realize you're going against the grain of The Prisoner’s very basic and straightforward set-up that presents itself as quite easy to follow before the rug is removed and you're back down that damn Rabbit Hole again.

Fitting to the ‘60s Cold War era, the opening credit sequence that is repeated at the start of each and every episode brings you up to speed, which is necessary as the exact order of this series varies depending upon whom you ask since ITC broadcast it one way, CBS another, and sometimes episodes constructed earlier were shown later.

Essentially playing a successor to his previous series Danger Man (known in the USA as Secret Agent), co-creator, star, and The Prisoner's driving force Patrick McGoohan portrays a nameless government spy who wordlessly resigns his position only to find himself abducted thereafter and held in a mysterious and surrealistic Orwellian meets a nightmarishly perverse theme park style community known only as The Village.

Stripped of his identity and renamed along with all of the inhabitants with a mere number, McGoohan’s Number Six puts his background to good use by refusing to cooperate with his captors whose identity he doesn’t particularly know regarding national affiliation. His situation isn't helped at all by the fact that the lead interrogator and Six’s nemesis Number Two continually changes identity from one episode to the next with zero explanation to keep audiences off-balance and as intimidated and bewildered as our hero.

He spends his time trying to plan his escape from both the The Village and its evil goons who use dangerous experiments including mind-control, dream altering, and an attempted personality takeover to ruthlessly yet fruitlessly try to uncover the reason he resigned from his top secret post in London. Yet Six’s refusal to divulge any information is matched by the show’s unwillingness to do the same for its similarly captive audience.

In The Prisoner's entire production, seventeen episodes were created that drastically change from one to the next in every way imaginable from theme to tone to characters who we assume will return later but quickly ascertain that they will always disappear inevitably back to their numerical homes. Six isn't as compliant as the other "sheep" since his ultimate goal aside from leaving The Village is to uncover the identity of this series’ version of The Wizard of Oz in the form of "Who Is Number One?" and therefore find out if he’s in British or Russian custody.

Throughout the series, The Prisoner is filled with several thought-provoking paranoid setups presented in a mind-bending way that similarly fits in with its ‘60s era. However, looking back on the set, I do agree with McGoohan’s original intention that a succinct helping of just seven taut episodes might have been more effective in telling the tale in terms of just how much the audience can and will desire to piece together such far-reaching strands and similarly to avoid the lulls in episodes that feel redundant.

Although its impact on our pop culture on screens both big and small cannot be diminished, the series itself is also far more satisfying depending on your familiarity with its influences, which mostly appear to be taken directly from the printed word, whether in fiction like 1984, Brave New World, The Trial, The Stranger, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, The Iliad, The Odyssey, or from nonfiction as co-creator George Markstein is heavily rumored to have been inspired by World War II history. Or more precisely, he was drawn in by one hidden part of World War II history that is echoed in the very nature of The Prisoner. In his own research, Markstein uncovered that during World War II some prisoners that possessed dangerous levels of information (scientists, strategists etc.) were detained in a picturesque resort style locale as though it were a forced retirement community to ensure that their secrets wouldn’t be spilled.

The other source theory for the program fixates much heavier on the retirement community idea for cooperative spies that McGoohan is also rumored to have begun thinking about after someone referenced his Danger Man character and asked the actor where both he as a performer and his character the spy would go when they’ve completed their respective missions.

Moving from one predictable espionage program to one of the most unpredictable ones ever filmed, McGoohan adamantly denied that there was a character link between the two despite some plot and filming overlap yet it’s interesting to view The Prisoner with these possible origins in mind.

In some of its greatest episodes, including the standout "The Chimes of Big Ben," which has one of the greatest set-ups and pay-off twists ever recorded on television, you get the sense that The Prisoner has echoed endlessly in both science fiction and nontraditional narrative pieces that were produced after its conclusion.

Needless to say, the riveting concept of the impossible situation for its hero is the ultimate grabber of being captured somewhere and not knowing who is holding Six prisoner and how to escape. Yet when The Prisoner begins to move from structurally daring into stream-of-consciousness style nonsense at times, our patience grows thin, which is apparent during a bulk of the fascinating but infuriating two part conclusion. In most series, the finale is the the we can't stop talking about whether we loved the conclusion, hated it or we're simply baffled by it (i.e. The Sopranos).

But aside from a great ending, the final episode Fall Out was at times so ridiculous, that I wondered if it was a McGoohan joke on the audience all along regarding how much he could get away with via his artistic license and the fact that he’d been forced to make the series continue for ten episodes longer than he’d intended before instructed to whip together a conclusion in a mere few weeks. And in fact, ending the series with any sort of concrete resolution was against his purpose from the very beginning.

Yet, whatever the intentions and meaning of the series or ending was-- aside from a few obvious uses of subtext that still hold true today-- the entire puzzle has never been solved despite endless theories as the show continues to grow in its cult popularity especially considering recent attention with the Blu-ray, AMC remake, and rumors that Christopher Nolan wants to bring it to Hollywood.

Prompting fans to create their own episode order in terms of the way they feel the story is best told-- similar to its previous releases and books that have been written about the series, this set offers an entire fifth disc (a DVD rather than a Blu-ray) that provides a new feature length documentary and analysis of the show from the remaining key-players, scholars and others.

Gorgeously restored to its original full frame aspect ratio in either a great 5.1 soundtrack or its classic mono recording, it’s an ideal fit for the science fiction fan or cult show devotee in your life via in its nice compact shelf-saving design. While a few of the extras do feel like meaningless padding, overall the fifth disc makes a cool resource for further study (minus some of the previously issued extras) that will fascinate both die-hard fans and newcomers.

Regardless of how you feel about its quality overall, the one thing that's safe to say is that you'll be increasingly driven to figure out just what the real story is with Number Six, even if in the end, we’re not exactly sure that even McGooghan knew, despite Markstein providing his own well documented conclusion. While the show hasn't aged because of its strict adherence to keeping us off balance, it is indeed a bit tough to take in an era with set structures even when they do involve a certain degree of final ambiguity as was evidenced at the end of Life on Mars.

Still overall, you must respect the amount of originality and courage the producers had in their conviction to avoid standard practice and try to color outside the lines of what consists of television storytelling in the grand, bold tradition of British television. For in their own unique way, they created a revolution of putting audacity, allegory and audience above commerce and cookie cutter conclusions.

However even if you prefer the shows it influenced (which you could call Number Six instead of the original Number One), there’s no denying that like the famous sign-off of “be seeing you,” we will continue to see the show’s effects on television to come as we’ve never really managed to escape this particular Village and new fans join The Prisoner with each successive home entertainment release.

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* FTC Disclosure: Review Copy received.