The Complete Prisoner
MegaSet (A&E DVD/TV series)
Sound: C Extras: B Episodes: A
NOTE: This set has been updated for its recent 35th
Anniversary Edition, which we reviewed as an import from Umbrella
Entertainment. You can read more about
it at this link:
When the 1960s saw the Spy craze blossom, it was usually
treated as comic. Sometimes, the comedy
was subversive, as it was on TV’s The Avengers, while it was incidental
to the action in the early Bond films.
Even the more serious The Ipcress File has its moments of humor,
however brief. One of the most humorless
of all was Secret Agent (aka Danger Man) with Patrick McGoohan as
John Drake. Even more than the debonair
007, gentlemanly John Steed, or repressed Harry Palmer, Drake was considered
possibly the coldest and most efficient of all the spies of the genre’s era.
McGoohan was getting bored with the series, which was
black and white until the final two shows, which were cut together as a feature
film. That did not rekindle his
interest, but the idea of what would happen after an agent had exhaustively been
through so many adventures did. Thus, The
Prisoner was born.
Though the character McGoohan was playing here was never
referred to as Drake, it is not a stretch to assume he was, but that would not
matter one way or another as the show literally took the Genre from the deeply
intelligent and bureaucratic, to the surrealistic, most complex, and most
existential it had ever been. Even the
most brilliant Spy shows, early Mission: Impossible and grossly
underseen The Sandbaggers (reviewed elsewhere on this site) did not
achieve exactly what was accomplished here.
The classic opening, which appears in all 16 of the shows,
has an angry loner spy (McGoohan) driving along in a single-seater Lotus 7
across London. He drives through an
underground garage, then enters a secret corridor to hidden offices. He angrily resigns, pounds his fist on a
table, and leaves. An automated section
of endless file cabinets are accessed robotically, retrieving his picture and
into a typewriter it goes. Capital “Xs”
are typed across it in black ink diagonally.
He arrives home, but is being followed by a Black Hansom Cab-like
vehicle. Suddenly, he is gassed through
his oversized (and outdated) keyhole. He
wakes up, but is in the same room. Was
it a bad dream? He looks out the window
and sees that he and his apartment are no longer in London! He is dubbed Number 6 and is now a resident
of The Village.
This is a “happy” colorful prison island where whomever
kidnapped him and went through the trouble to do so, will try to break him and
try to find out why (else) he resigned.
The intricate duplication of his apartment is absolutely nothing as
compared to what he will face. He is
pitted against Number 2, who is almost always different each show. Where the best in the Spy genre had its share
of complex storylines, then-groundbreaking technology, and the consequences of
the Cold War, McGoohan has something additionally powerful to offer.
Besides being one of the smartest and brilliant TV shows
ever made anywhere, he does something with the Spy that puts the show ahead of
its time even 35 years later. It is in
the way he allows the Science Fiction genre to flood it. Around this time, Science Fiction hit one of
its greatest peaks cinematically. This
began with Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville (1965), which itself was
inspired by Fritz Lang’s last film, The 1,000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse (1960),
both of which offer cities-as-police- state.
Godard makes it pure Science Fiction, while Lang was dealing with the
Nazi legacy and Spying of the WWII period less than two decades after the war.
In 1966, in the work that most informs this series,
director Francois Truffaut and cameraman (and future directing genius) Nicolas
Roeg made a brilliant film of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. In the use of colors, otherworldliness,
camera work (note the use of Zoom lenses in both), peculiar use of media, and
other vital concepts involving liberty and the individual, The Prisoner
picks up where they left off. The fact
that it is shot at the same studio in England at the same time Stanley Kubrick
is shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey just adds to the time and place of how
groundbreaking and cutting edge this show really was.
many books written about the show, along with many episode guides, but in this
particular case, we will cover the shows in the 10 DVD set by giving you a
strong idea about what each are about without ruining them for you. Please note the DVD order is different from
the series order:
Arrival – This is the show to pull the
audience into watching the series, exploiting (possibly spoofing) the TV
convention of the having a character you care about/are interested in being in
a situation they need to get out of each week.
The conclusion of this show also inspired the opening of one of the best
of all James Bond films, 1981’s For Your
The Chimes of Big Ben, Alternate
Version – What’s
nice about this episode is it shows where the series was as they developed it,
but had not polished it into the gem it became.
Much is made about how much of the work was being done as the show went
along and this shows us how much thought and planning was taking place. Sometimes, there are distinct differences of
great value, which make more sense after seeing the rest of the show.
Free for All – This is actually the fourth
show, which goes out of its way to examine choice in a free society by looking
at elections. Though he is trapped, and
being examined, No. 6 is asked to run for election. Naďve assumptions are exposed when the
disturbing truth of what it is to have a democracy without citizens is played
through here. This is a great show, with
McGoohan playing innocent well.
Dance of the Dead – This is actually the eighth
show, in which No. 6 is being manipulated by a rare character without a number,
but who he knew before his abduction. Of
course, this is on behalf of his captors.
He starts to make a route for escape when he makes it to the shoreline
again, then finds a body, which gives him a radio he is not supposed to
have. Can the dead body be a vessel for
his freedom, and can simple machinery be his friend or enemy? There is a red herring about a possibility of
his captors if you know Marxist philosophy enough.
Checkmate – Actual episode nine has a
Chess game literally played out, though the Spy game and this show could always
have that applied to them. Add how and
why everyone and everything in The Village suddenly comes to a physical halt
and this show gets interesting quickly.
Knowing Chess does not hurt, but is not the only knowledge necessary to
appreciating this one.
The Chimes of Big Ben – The final version of
this show is second in original order, in which No. 6 wonders if an art contest
and bargaining for the life of a woman might free him, bringing him back to
London. It makes for interesting
comparisons to the alternate version.
A, B, and C – This third show involves the
scary power of drug induced probing of No. 6 and elaborate electronics used to
get the most out of him in his drugged state.
Of course, the administrators will still need to figure out what their
information means, if anything and quickly before he catches on to them.
The General – This is show six, No. 6
discovers the process of Speedlearn and the inventor who is a professor and is
hunted down. No. 6 learns through this
of The General, who he is instructed to destroy. Though the show dated oddly, it is still
The Schizoid Man – This fifth episode has No. 6
duplicated. After a meeting with a girl
who seems to have a knack for mind reading, No. 6 wakes up as No. 12, with an
even slightly different appearance. If
that were not enough, the people who run The Village ask him to pretend to be
No. 6, who they want to turn into No. 12!
Confused? You have to see this
one to believe it.
Many Happy Returns – This seventh show has The
Village deserted and without any power, leaving No. 6 an easy way to
escape. At sea, things are rough,
especially when a boat dumps him and takes his supplies. However, he gets back to London and tells his
contacts about The Village in hopes of bringing it down, but no one can believe
his amazing story.
It’s Your Funeral – The eleventh show has No. 6
taking advantage of ego, conflict, and in fighting of those who have been
trying to break him since his arrival.
This comes in the form of a younger No. 2 replacing an older one, and
enthusiastically going after No. 6 in what seems an immediately effective way
his predecessors could not pull off.
A Change of Mind – Show twelve has No. 6 being
officially found to be “anti-social”, and is therefore institutionalized for
his “un-mutual” behavior. Next step for
Definitely a key episode.
Hammer into Anvil – Show ten offers a point in
the series where it is undeniable that No. 6 has survived enough battles that
he has more than proven himself a survivor, and now knows that one of the keys
to continuing to survive and escape is breaking any No. 2 that comes after
him. In this case, hypnotism is being used
to get him.
NOTE: At this point, these last shows are in the proper
order of final episodes thirteen through seventeen.
Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling – So
many Spy and Sci-Fi plots have been about a machine that can swap minds between
bodies, including one of the oddest ever to surface on the already eccentric The
Avengers. Here, the story is done
with the smartest twists you are likely to ever see.
Living in Harmony – This bold show and its use of
The Western was so controversial, that original U.S. broadcaster CBS-TV banned,
censored, and refused to broadcast the show.
Even picking up in some ways where Nicholas Ray’s cult classic (how
appropriate) Johnny Guitar (1954) left off, No. 6 finds himself the
Sheriff. Of course, he resigns! Now a quiet stranger, he roams the
countryside. He is attacked and dumped
in an out-of-the-way town called Harmony.
He finds it difficult to get away from this place too, but also has
moments where he is put into conflict and even refuses to draw his gun! It is certainly a highlight of the series.
The Girl Who Was Death – Fantasy of the mind
takes on the surrealism of The Village as No. 6 races to find and stop a
scientist from blowing up London, something being at The Village will help him
do. This is all happening in the confines
of children’s literature, making this a fascinating show all around.
Once Upon a Time – A great title for the
next-to-last show, as Leo McKern returns as the most successful of all the No.
2s to break No. 6 is a battle of wills called “degree absolute”. The conflict behind-the-scenes became quite
real, helping to make this a powerful show on the way to concluding the series.
Fall Out – The series wraps-up with the
all the answers and solutions to what has been going on, but it is amazing how
many people miss all the points made.
What an awesome achievement!
The transfers of the episodes, all 1.33 X 1 full frame,
were originally commissioned by Polygram in their brief tenure as a home video
company. These are late analog PAL
format transfers and at the time were an improvement over the older analog
transfers that first appeared on home video.
Though cleaner, the colors on these DVDs are not as bright, full, and
rich as cinematographer Brendan J. Stafford, B.S.C., originally lit them. They are not horrible, but pale as compared
to the better film prints and stills out there.
The color could even be deemed a bit pale itself. The Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono is average,
showing its age, but is made worse by being a few generations down and no match
for the PCM CD sound on the Polygram LaserDiscs of the same shows. Very similar to A&E’s issue of Space:
1999 (reviewed elsewhere on this site), this is one of their earliest DVD
releases and simply cannot compare to the incredible DVDs they have issued
since The Avengers stunned thee industry with its amazing fidelity. The audio on trailers and The Prisoner
Video Companion is even a touch poorer.
The boxed set also comes with many extras, including
trivia questions, photo galleries & trailers for each episode and an
interactive map of The Village on every DVD, as well as some other great
additions. Disc One offers “Foreign
File Cabinet”, which shows the variations in different languages form the
opening scene when No. 6 resigns, plus the intro and outro for the show minus
any text over it. Disc Five offers a
newer interview with Production manger Bernie Williams that runs over 20
minutes, as well as some production/promo materials. The final DVD, Disc Ten, offers 8mm and 16mm
behind-the-scenes footage of the shooting of the show with a voice-over by
Williams, more production/promotion materials, and The Prisoner Video
The Video Companion was produced when MPI issued
the show on VHS a long time ago, and the analog videotape quality shows its
age. However, after a slow start, it
kicks in good and more than justifies its presence in this set. It is meant to be scene after watching the
series, preferably a few times, through.
It offers some answers and suppositions about what the series is about,
but some of what is offered is too pat.
In many cases, it is on the right path.
Too bad this was not updated with better-quality footage and even more
ideas about the show, but it is a classic in itself among longtime fans just
This review has also tried to give some basic perspective
on the series without ruining the shows, giving too much detail, going off into
directions better served by a few essays, and inspire our readers to check the
show out. There are many boxed sets of
TV out in the DVD format, but The Prisoner is on a short list of
must-haves that all serious collections should have. Don’t miss out.
- Nicholas Sheffo