Image A Sound A- Extras B
"Arrival," "The Chimes of Big Ben," "A, B, and C," "Free for All," "The Schizoid Man," "The General," "Many Happy Returns," "Dance of the Dead," "Checkmate," "Hammer into Anvil," "It's Your Funeral," "A Change of Mind," "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling," "Living in Harmony," "The Girl Who Was Death," "Once Upon a Time," "Fall Out"
by Walter Chaw The closest television came to true surrealism until the inception of "Twin Peaks", Patrick McGoohan's remarkable, landmark brainchild "The Prisoner" is the headwaters for a dizzying array of modern genre confections. It's audacious in its ironclad refusal to provide the happy ending; in its determination to bugger expectation with every complex set-up and sadistic resolution, the show effectively honours the surrealist manifesto of defeating classification. The fact of it is the function of it--the delight of it being that the series functions as a tonal sequel to Antonioni's Blowup, using the disappearance of that film's photog protag as the launching point for its hero's imprisonment in his Welsh oubliette. Colourfully, quintessentially mod, it even looks the part, after all, acting in 1967 as prescient post-modern (po-Mod?) commentary on the elasticity of this genre model (Bond films in particular, the lead in said franchise McGoohan was offered, er, once upon a time) as allegory for the plastic-fantastic of a progressively absurd world. In its setting of a small town, isolated and beset by what seems a common psychosis, find a connection to Robin Hardy and Anthony Schaffer's claustrophobic The Wicker Man (1973), John Frankenheimer's similar-feeling Seconds (1966), and, yes, Godard's structuralist textbook Alphaville. Of all the ways to approach "The Prisoner", in fact, the most fulsome--if also potentially the most obscure--is that, like Alphaville, it establishes itself as a structuralist (as in Claude Levi-Strauss) exercise while predicting through its execution the post-structuralism/deconstructionism (and eventually surrealism) of, say, a Jacques Derrida.
It all builds to a head in the fourth episode1, "Free For All"--but before we get there, a little table setting. Number 6 (McGoohan) is probably "Danger Man"'s titular John Drake, the moralist man of action who, through the course of three slam-bang seasons, only really killed one person. In "The Prisoner"'s absolutely gorgeous pre-credits montage, we see this secret agent tendering his resignation, getting gassed, and coming to in an exact replica of his flat in a secluded hamlet called simply "The Village." He's promptly, in the pilot, summoned before Number 2 (played by an array of actors--one per episode save a couple of overlaps), who's tasked by the mysterious Number 1 to figure out why it is that Number 6 is leaving the service and, maybe more germane to the question, to whom he might be selling out. The rest of the show's run involves Number 6 trying to figure out how Number 2 is going to mindfuck him this time and, in turn, how he'll affect his escape. That's it. For security, the Village has harnessed the power of a giant white balloon ("the Rover") that, for a young version of me, proffered a nameless dread not for its menace but for the characters' fear of it. It functions as just one aspect of the surreality of the piece, the idea being that if we establish the series as a structuralist exercise in which the only reality is a product of binary oppositions (as in a table is a table because it's not a not-table), then that reality will be tested by moments like this wherein we are confronted with the idea that such a ridiculous object is dangerous because it's not not-dangerous. The futility of identifying a thing by the shadow it casts is the basis of the series, our Number 6 declaring to every Number 2 that he is not a number, but a free man--and, moreover, that the definition of a man must consist of more than what he is not.2 In "Free For All," a reporter covering a Village election Number 6 has entered tries to strike at the existential heart of the question by soliciting his opinion on "life and death," to which Number 6 snaps: "It's none of your business." Rather, matters of life and death are the business of an audience forced to participate in an active assessment of the televisual medium (McLuhan's The Medium is the Massage is published the same year, 1967) as a product near entire of the viewer's knowledge of itself. We know the identity of Number 6 (at least we think we know), because we probably watched either "Danger Man" or its retitled/rescored U.S. incarnation "Secret Agent Man" and recognize McGoohan's character despite everyone involved's steadfast refusal to cop to it. It's part of the performance-piece aspect to it, this notion that "The Prisoner" is a careful construct--an Unforgiven, if you will, in tension against a genre still in its infancy. The series is the "not" in the binary equation that includes the thing we accept as entertainment: if John Drake is a moralist, "The Prisoner" is his manifesto.
Continuing with the reporter in the election episode: it would seem a clumsy, redundant satire of media distortion except that the way it's done--with the parade of mimes essentially imported from Blowup--hints at a more wide-reaching disdain for the entire human process of information dissemination and gathering. What possible use is information, "The Prisoner" asks, when its only conveyance is through these miserably unreliable signs and signifiers feeding our ever-fallible, seldom-reliable faculties? The repeated, obsessive shots of McGoohan's face in extreme close-up in this, the first episode helmed by McGoohan himself (proving, among many things, the man was a first-rate director), reveals the extent to which objective observation has failed him. It's jarring in the most pleasant way when Number 6, the instant he declares himself a candidate for the office of Number 2, looks out into the crowd to see a mob of supporters primed with campaign signs already made. The power of the series lies at least in part in McGoohan (as creator, star, and sometime writer/director) allowing his Number 6 to register confusion, upset, outrage. Existentially disturbing? For Number 6, no doubt. For the audience, there's the tantalizing prospect that everything that's happening is either the fever-dream before dying of a gassed John Drake, or that everything we're seeing is a product of the memory-implant machine introduced in "A, B, and C." Whatever the ultimate solution (and there is one, when all's said and done), the canniness of the show's two-part finale draws every thread introduced in these earlier episodes--including the "Do Not Forsake Me" episode's "High Noon"-referencing title seguing into the next instalment's ("Living in Harmony") western milieu--into a rich, post-modern stew that paves the way for modern iterations of this theme like ABC's "Lost".
The standard "goodbye" in the Village is an eye-level toss of the hand, thumb and index finger curled like a percent circle, followed by "Be seeing you!"--a "salute, sort of," Number 6 says, leaving unspoken that the overriding motif of the Village and this seventeen-hour odyssey is ways of seeing. Mirrors, cameras especially, memories projected onto video screens, impossible points-of-view, unreliable protagonists; seeing isn't believing in "The Prisoner"--nothing is believing in "The Prisoner". But if there's no bedrock, then there's also no binary opposition capable of defining Number 6; the ferocious humanism of the piece suggests that there's no logical way to strike at the heart of who a person is. Science fails, interrogation fails, subterfuge, love, friendship, trust, betrayal, memory... It's not much of a stretch to say that in its ambition, "The Prisoner" seeks to defeat every single non-ecclesiastical definition of the soul. It's deeply spiritual stuff, expressed episode-upon-episode in progressively frustrating scenarios that escalate not because its acts become more odious, but because we--learning machines of a specific type--become conditioned to expect that all hope is lost. We understand almost instantly that Number 6's only victories will be Pyrrhic. That the series never grows stale despite the repetition of themes and seldom-in-doubt resolutions is a testament to the constraint with which the series was brought to life, then brought to death.
Episode 5's "The Schizoid Man" predicts Harlan Ellison's 1980 short story "Shatterday," Clive Barker's "Human Remains," and Soderbergh's exceptional take on Solaris in the wounded hand that holds the key to the puzzle. Number 6 wakes as Number 12, a greasy, moustachioed version of himself brainwashed, we think, to believe he's Number 6 and subsequently presented to the "real" Number 6 as a means through which Number 2 intends to gaslight Number 6 into a confession. Of the many fascinations of "The Prisoner", I like the fact that there's never any clear idea about what Number 6 may be hiding in spite of the constant revelations and the conviction held by the audience that there's most likely nothing to tell. It's Hitchcock's idea of the MacGuffin carried to absurdity: everyone wants the confession, yet nobody knows what the confession will solve and, more, it's likely that nobody's actually convinced the confession will unlock any of the mysteries tangential to the pursuit of it. Jump to episode 7's "Many Happy Returns," arguably the most well-known hour of the series, as Number 6 discovers what appears to be a hastily-deserted Village, escapes to England, and learns, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-like, that the conspiracy is pervasive; the paranoia looming in the world's cinema throughout the 1970s has roots fine and deep here in 1967-8. I love "Dance of the Dead" ("danse macabre," no?), where, under the aegis of Carnival, Number 6 is offered the umbrella of a dead man's identity and, in his choice (and on the arm of a Number 2 dressed as Peter Pan--Number 6 is a lost boy, n'est pas?), is stripped of his identity outside the Village. The toll of Number 6's continued rebellion is clarified as progressive as well, not only in the constant replacement of Number 2s but in the lobotomy and execution of his brief allies at the Village, too.
The idea of an identity shift in this Village recurs in "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling." Conceived and executed largely without input from McGoohan, then off shooting Ice Station Zebra, it's one of the few missteps in the run (albeit a minor one) as Number 6's consciousness is literally transferred into another body. And again in "Living in Harmony," a fairly spectacular critique of the western genre, Number 6 is the mysterious stranger trying to rescue a woman he loves from a corrupt town. Elements of Bad Day at Black Rock crop up here with the resolution, back in the Village, involving one of several suicides occurring over the course of "The Prisoner", hammering home the series-long concern that loss of identity is something intimately felt, if impossible to quantify.3 Number 6 is an unnamed agent (self-reflexivity!) avoiding an endless series of traps set by the wily Sonia (Justine Lord) en route to saving the world from an evil super-genius in the show's antepenultimate episode, "The Girl Who Was Death." An affectionate nod back to the source, as it were, it's "The Prisoner" covering its bases: there's no formula for the calculation of the place and character of the soul. Not one of the attempts to seduce Number 6 into disclosure of his nature--not appealing to his will to power, his sense of honour, his pride, his fear, or his sanity; not love, not country--has succeeded. When a jury of faceless ghouls drowns out his declaration of self in the series finale with screams of "Aye, aye, aye" (or, perhaps, "I, I, I"), it speaks to the absolutely primal, ever-unknowable power of that declaration.
The conclusion is a two-parter (blissfully written and directed by McGoohan) that meticulously lays out the show's thesis (that it's a structuralist construct designed to argue for a post-structuralist cosmology) whilst enforcing its idea of the importance of play. In the first part, "Once Upon a Time," the Number 2 (Leo "Rumpole of the Bailey" McKern) from "The Chimes of Big Ben" resurfaces to challenge Number 6 to a deadly duel of wits comprised of involved play-acting that spans from playing "house" to re-enacting the Britons bombing the Hun into fiery submission. The scenarios lay bare the power struggle at the root of every television drama--and the gender politics to which the series itself had seemed deaf until this point--in a kitchen stage where Number 2 eventually meets his match. The refrain is one of individuality, but, not content to let it lie as some empty yawp of rebellion, McGoohan forces the issue into that of ultimate definitions. We return here to the idea that a binary structuralism is inadequate to pin down what it is that defines an individual. Yet it's only by checking off the many things that aren't the individual that one ever approaches the mystery. With this episode, "The Prisoner" implies that every way we tell stories in this medium is driven by a desire to know the mechanics of the individual through action and word. You can't dance about architecture, but save perhaps the medium itself, there's no choice but to dance about architecture.
At last we arrive at the extended trial sequence that is "Fall Out." Start with McGoohan as the rare filmmaker to ever understand John Lennon as a very specific revolutionary artist--Lennon crafting, with "All You Need is Love," a mass-distributed slogan of a song cobbled together from bits of "La Marseille," Bach ("Two-Part Invention"), Glenn Miller, and "Greensleeves." The lyrics themselves in this song, released the same year as this show, suggest a sharp critical précis of series throughlines, expressing itself as it does via a parade of binary oppositions ("Nothing you can do that can't be done/Nothing you can sing that can't be sung") and ending its opening verse with the "surprise" that there's nothing you can say--but that you "can learn how to play the game." It's even trenchant that the song was commissioned by the BBC to represent Britain in the first-ever global telecast on June 25, 1967: it's a mélange created in high Modernist style specifically for TV. Not much of a reach to make the case that "The Prisoner" is McGoohan's adaptation of this particular tune--at least, it's no accident that it's the one he uses as the definitive anthem of this altar to the self.
Number 6 is allowed in "Fall Out" to wear his own clothes and be referred to with an honorific rather than a number--a courtesy he reciprocates to witness for the defense Number 48 (Alexis Kanner, previously appearing in "Living in Harmony" and "The Girl Who Was Death"). Number 48's testimony to a panel of masked, robed Illuminati (their two-tone masks, black/white, expressing the idea of binary graphically) consists entirely of "Dem Bones," filling in the last gap in this ambitious blueprint of the self: the ecclesiastical and the anatomical. Once McKern's Number 2 is resurrected (the scientific, the biological), it's Number 6's moment to meet Number 1, who is initially revealed to be a gibbering ape and soon after...well, that would be telling. Sufficed to say that "The Prisoner" is a singular artistic/philosophical triumph carried out with unusual thematic cohesion from beginning to this remarkable end, which ties up every loose end without offering up any kind of conventional solution. More can, and should, be said about the series' colour scheme (note the red napkins during dining sequences, or the red speaker boxes carried over from Truffaut's Fahrenheit 451) and flat, declarative signage. It's a text of complexity and delight. It's a wonder that it was made at all.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Network Video brings all seventeen episodes of "The Prisoner" to Blu-ray in North America through A&E; though Network's UK release bundles with it Andrew Pixley's softcover The Prisoner: A Complete Production Guide and features more recognizably iconic artwork, its content otherwise mirrors that of its stateside counterpart. To say "The Prisoner" has never looked better than it does on BD is a gross understatement: until these filmlike 1.33:1, 1080p transfers came along, the series had trouble living up to one's Technicolor memory of it. When the show premiered, there were no TV sets that could honour the nuances of its bright, bold aesthetic, and in the years since, colour, depth, and sharpness were rinsed out of the image by the choice to archive the program on tapes, the dupiness of which advancements in video technology only brought into starker and starker relief. I imagine just the fact that Network went back to the negatives means their standard-def alternative isn't too shabby, either, but because close-ups facilitate an observation of Number 2 and his tormentors in HiDef so detailed as to feel microscopic, it adds a new level of engagement to this show in which everything always is under intense scrutiny. While caveats apply--stock shots and optical effects are various degrees of grungy--they are blessedly small in number. Featuring clever but not excessive use of the surround channels, surprisingly gratifying 5.1 Dolby Digital remixes adorn each episode as the default listening mode. (The original mono audio was also preserved for this presentation and configured for DD 2.0 playback.) Their main benefit is that they broaden the music's dynamic range, although how "All You Need As Love" sounds surely pales in comparison to its recent remaster.
The first disc in this lavishly-supplemented five-disc set additionally sports audio commentaries for "Arrival" (recorded by production manager Bernie Williams and film librarian Tony Sloman), "The Chimes of Big Ben" (writer Vincent Tilsley), and "The Schizoid Man" (director Pat Jackson). (For reference's sake, each disc includes trailers and still galleries for its applicable episodes.) Pausing often during the course of their reverie and marvelling more than once that they were allowed the kind of latitude afforded them for this series, Williams and Sloman don't have a lot to say beyond what's already been said if, like me, you went straight to the doc on Disc Five for your behind-the-scenes fix. (Indeed, most of what's imparted in these yak-tracks is done so with greater efficiency in the documentary.) Tilsley mentions that McGoohan was a scary guy before lapsing into long silences and only occasional spots of useful recollection. Much of it is given over to "it's brilliant" and "they couldn't do it better today"--and then the rest of it is "I wrote this" or "I didn't write this." Finally, Jackson comes loaded with information, though, again, it's stuff generally regurgitated in the doc. Of particular merit, however, is that he goes into detail as to how he became involved with "The Prisoner", telling the tale of how Orson Welles played a key role in his discovery of McGoohan a decade earlier. Of the trio, this is the one worthiest of your time.
Disc 2 contains commentaries by director Peter Graham Scott on "The General" and, joined by editor John S. Smith, Williams and Sloman again on "Dance of the Dead." A gentleman to the last, Scott calls McGoohan "demanding" instead of a terror and probably insane, which is nice. I can't help but think that the series is something of a temple to the process of therapy as undertaken by an artist through his art. The show would be a shade of what it is were McGoohan a placid, quiet, well-adjusted individual and the subtext of Scott's commentary reinforces that. I don't get the impression that he liked him, but I do get the impression he understands how important it is that he not like him for the success of the play. It's all very laconic, alas, and somewhat light on specifics. Repeating a handful of tales, Williams and Sloman continue to be bland, I fear, while Smith recalls that coming to work on this episode was the first time he'd met McGoohan. I did enjoy the discussion of how the viewscreens were accomplished with rear-projection and the footage they'd taken--and how they guarded the show prints with their lives for fear of damaging them. That said, a lot of energy is wasted pointing out that the technology at the Village's disposal is, shall we say, no longer revolutionary; how much better would commentaries performed by critics, scholars, and teachers be?
Disc 3 features a yakker from writer Roger Parkes on "A Change of Mind." Another seemingly charming, soft-spoken man, Parkes reveals that this episode was his first screen credit as an employee of the BBC. As many of his comments lean towards the autobiographical, I was frankly grateful that he's frequently blotted out by the episode's score and effects. Disc 4 appends "Fall Out" with a commentary from music editor Eric Mival and editor Noreen Ackland; the platter itself closes out with the standard gallery and trailers, as well as the original, inferior edit of "Arrival" (in HD) and the title sequence sans text (ditto). Fans of the series could literally ask for nothing more. Well, given that this set was completed before his death, I do wish that McGoohan had laid down his own insights and recollections somewhere here--particularly with regards to the unmasking of #1 in "Fall Out," which is among the single most fucked-up moments in all of 1960s television. Mival and Ackland's contributions are short on useful information, with poor Ms. Ackland sounding quite frail indeed. Recollections mainly revolve around budgetary and scheduling restrictions. The topic of "All You Need is Love" is undermined by Ackland complaining that she didn't like The Beatles and that the original intent was to have six songs blaring from six jukeboxes. In other words, so fucking what? Is "The Prisoner" really about what wasn't done? Irony there somewhere. Mival does offer a quick analysis of what he thinks is going on in the series, for what it's worth, before both confess they had no idea what "Pat was on about."
The supplemental centrepiece resides on the fifth and final disc, in actuality a DVD. Don't Knock Yourself Out, a feature-length (94 mins.) retrospective making-of gathering surviving cast and crew to reminisce about every episode and every aspect of every episode, is, sadly, dry as a soda cracker. It held my interest, don't get me wrong, especially the explanation of the Rover's genesis and its creators' skepticism that an albino weather balloon could be genuinely menacing. Oft-recalled is how McGoohan was cold and aloof towards his female stars (a couple still apparently feel the sting of his prickliness), but, in fairness, his reputation indicates that McGoohan wasn't very nice to anyone. Fascinatingly, a few talking heads speculate that McGoohan was having a nervous breakdown throughout the series, functioning as a Number 2 off the set in having rows with cast members and firing directors on the spot. One co-star recalls McGoohan choking him for real in a fight sequence. I'd usually cry "exaggeration" at stuff like this, except that I'm convinced McGoohan was a bit Method. There's a lot to like about this doc, then, but it's presented in a way so staid and uninspired that you wonder why it isn't riveting.
"You Make Sure It Fits!", the first of two 9-minute featurettes, invites Mival to discuss the sound-editing techniques of the day and the show's use of library cues. The second ("The Pink Prisoner"), meanwhile, finds Number 2 actor Peter Wyngarde writing and directing his own interview. Expounding from the pulpit of Number 2's famous eggshell chair, Wyngarde weighs the pros and cons of a potential big-screen "The Prisoner"--the piece was shot in 2007, before plans for the current TV remake were finalized--and relates his episode, "Checkmate," to an anecdote from the set of The Seventh Seal. (The chess scene, natch.) Fun guy. Capping things off: ad bumpers; silent scrap footage; an "Exposure Strip Gallery" wherein the means by which they checked for colour and exposure levels is printed on "strips"; textless title sequences accompanied by Wilfred Josephs's and Robert Farnon's discarded themes (one suspects they were deemed too swingin' and insufficiently foreboding); the original edit of "The Chimes of Big Ben" (workprint-quality--'60s workprint-quality); and exhaustive/exhausting image galleries covering promotion, a '67 press conference about the show, and production design. Rounding out these extras is a thirty-second spot for AMC's "The Prisoner: Jesus vs. Magneto". Originally published: November 17, 2009.
1. This edition presents the episodes in their UK broadcast order, whereas previous box sets of the show from A&E have adhered to the so-called "Six of One" sequencing devised by The Prisoner Appreciation Society. With the exception of the first and final two episodes, there truly is no definitive order for viewing the series, which was prepared in a haphazard fashion with little regard for continuity. Nevertheless, the recycling of certain actors in roles that may or may not be the same each time out, coupled with Number 6's mercurial attitude about his predicament, help make for what Tim Lucas memorably coined "a veritable Rubik's cube." Indeed, in an article published in issue #142 of VIDEO WATCHDOG, Lucas took his own run at a resequencing that breaks "The Prisoner" into three "acts" and proves to be as ingenious as it is unorthodox. Do seek it out. return
2. Number 2 in the second episode, "The Chimes of Big Ben," strikes at the heart of the mystery when he declares that he doesn't want to destroy Number 6: "I don't want a man of fragments." return
3. Alex Proyas's Dark City deals with this issue directly and in a not-dissimilar way. return