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The Prisoner: The Complete Series(TV) (1968)
Though it ran for a mere 17 episodes, the sci-fi spy drama THE PRISONER is one of television's biggest cult hits. The brainchild of star Patrick McGoohan, the series followed the adventures of No. 6 (McGoohan), a former secret agent who is being held captive in a highly secured village, the location of which remains a mystery throughout the series. This groundbreaking and innovative show reached an unfortunate end as TV bosses got cold feet following low ratings and increasingly strange story lines. But McGoohan himself took control and steered the show to an ending that continues to cause great debate among THE PRISONER's faithful fans. This release includes the entire series of the show, digitally restored.
For more about The Prisoner: The Complete Series and the The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray release, see the The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review published by Jeffrey Kauffman on October 25, 2009 where this Blu-ray release scored 4.5 out of 5.
Directors: Patrick McGoohan, Pat Jackson, Don Chaffey, David Tomblin, Robert Asher, Peter Graham Scott
Writers: Patrick McGoohan, David Tomblin, Anthony Skene, Terence Feely, Vincent Tilsley, Michael Cramoy
Starring: Patrick McGoohan, George Markstein, Peter Swanwick, Fenella Fielding, Christopher Benjamin, Leo McKern
» See full cast & crew
The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray Review
One of the most unique series in the history of television, 'The Prisoner' may not answer all the questions it poses, but it certainly makes for thought-provoking entertainment.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Kauffman, October 25, 2009
It's with tongue only slightly in cheek I suggest that the Dick Cheney household may be awaiting with bated breath the new Blu-ray release of The Prisoner. Why, you may ask? Well, here's a little scenario to mull over: extradition with extreme prejudice by a government with every high tech gizmo imaginable with which to keep track of every jot, tittle and miniscule movement of its captives. And just for good measure, let's throw in a little enhanced interrogation up the yin-yang with captives having absolutely no idea who their captives are or what exactly is going on. Sound familiar? Well this isn't a critique of the Bush-Cheney anti-terrorism policies. Instead, it's a brief précis of the groundbreaking short run late 1960s ITC series (which aired over the summer of 1968 stateside on CBS), The Prisoner, a series whose prescience has grown more impressive in the four odd decades since it first baffled and intrigued viewers unused to a show so blatantly anti-establishment and, frankly, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) anarchistic.
The set up of The Prisoner is rather brilliantly handled in the credits sequence which prefaces each of the 17 episodes. An unnamed operative (presumably a Secret Agent, given star Patrick McGoohan's previous television exposure) quits his governmental post, and scurries home in his vintage motorcar to pack for a long delayed vacation. He's followed by an impeccably dressed gentleman who proceeds to shoot a flume of gas through the keyhole of the agent's apartment. When the agent awakes, he finds himself in the magically sinister world of The Village, a seaside resort inhabited by a population of droids, some of them at least presumably former operatives like himself. These are all for the most part (save for the occasional rabble-rousing guest star or two) happy little campers who may or may not have been brainwashed into their blissful ignorance of their captive state. And just for an added level of menace, The Village is surveilled night and day by a coterie of cameras and listening devices that make our post-9/11 world seem tame by comparison. Lest I forget, for the really stubborn inhabitant intent on achieving his own escape, there's a giant balloon device patrolling the perimeter of The Village which can merrily suffocate those who would deign to leave.
One has to either try to remember, or, depending on your relative youth, at least attempt to imagine, how formulaic television was in the late 1960's. We were still pretty much in the sway of the spy craze, with such shows as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and I Spy still achieving high ratings. (In fact one can point to McGoohan's long running Danger Man, which appeared stateside as Secret Agent, as having helped to start this trend). Even such then iconoclastic hits as Batman soon devolved into rote formulas, leading to their rather early demise after rather amazing early impact and even sociological influence. McGoohan himself no doubt felt part of that cog-in-a-wheelism, something he wasn't shy about complaining about as Secret Agent continued in its multi-year run and seemed to rehash two or three basic storylines over and over. When the show finally ground to a halt, McGoohan approached Secret Agent's ITC (and its head honcho Lew Grade, who was only too aware that McGoohan was arguably his biggest male star of the era) and proposed something radically different. Different indeed may be a major understatement when one approaches a series as daring as The Prisoner.
Though the roots of the story have an actual basis in fact, believe it or not, co-creators McGoohan and George Markstein took what was a sort of resort prison for World War II spies and twisted the whole idea back on itself, placing it well within the context of the late 1960's counter-culture movement. When McGoohan's character, whom The Village has "named" Number 6 (all of the characters sport dehumanizing numbers rather than actual names), insists, ""I will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered! My life is my own," it's as if he's summing up the entire Hippie movement in one cogent argument. Of course the fact is over the course of 17 episodes, Number 6 (who obviously has been numbered, like it or not) finds himself pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed and debriefed, repeatedly. It's hard to rail against The Man when you're not quite sure who The Man is, something The Prisoner plays to sometimes comedic effect with the ultimate mystery of who Number 1 is overshadowed by an ever changing assortment of various Number 2's (including such stalwarts as George Baker and the brilliant Leo McKern).
While ITC to a certain extent, and certainly CBS to a very large if largely ineffective one, attempted to market the show as a spy thriller, it's really much deeper than that, with a potent dose of satire and social critique at times not so subtly slathered on the proceedings. Number 6 attempts over and over to discover what's really going on in The Village, only, of course, to be thwarted at every turn by duplicitous "helpers" or his own impotent rage. The ultimate helplessness of Number 6 may indeed have been what doomed the series for American audiences, at least in its initial run. American television just wasn't quite ready for an anti-hero of this type, at least not for a few more years, until disgust with the government had grown exponentially after Vietnam and especially Watergate. There was still a glimmer of hope in 1967-68, even idealism some might argue, and while The Prisoner now from 40 years on seems like it had its own kind of magical crystal ball predicting an upcoming zeitgeist, at the time of its original airing it was just downright weird to a lot of people.
One thing that The Prisoner can't be faulted for is its courage in resolutely refusing to answer questions. It can occasionally be faulted for certain lapses in logic, one of them at the core of Number 6's imprisonment—if the captors know everything there is to know about our (anti-)hero, why is it they can't fathom the one thing they evidently require, the reason for his resignation? But of course a show this unique can be forgiven for that implied request for a suspension of disbelief on its audience's part. What the audience at the time may not have been able to forgive was the opaque wrap up to the series, a denouement which McGoohan promised would answer all the lingering questions the series had posed, but which instead seemed then, and perhaps even more so now, as an hallucinogenic dream of epic proportions with a sort of Boolean twist that seems on its surface to be super-cool, but which on further inspection really ends up making little sense.
There has been much print devoted to attempting an analysis of both The Prisoner and especially its final episode, but I think ultimately the best answer, albeit a perhaps not completely satisfactory one, is this was McGoohan's chance for artistic freedom after being at least partially squelched by years in the series prison created by a hit of Danger Man's international proportions. If that led to occasional (okay, maybe not so occasional) over the top elements throughout the series, moments like the inexplicable yet equally unforgettable image of The Village elders worshipping the pulsating protector orb in a cave, it also provided television with one of the most iconic, if ultimately enigmatic, series ever to make it to air. It's really a testament to The Prisoner's almost subliminal hypnotic power that audiences have been held captive for it by over 40 years.
The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Video Quality
The Prisoner arrives on Blu-ray in its original television broadcast aspect ratio of 1.33:1 with an AVC encode. Generally this is an excellent looking presentation, especially for a British filmed television production over 40 years old. Colors are bold and beautifully saturated (and very, very, "mod"), and detail is brilliant. Some of the stock footage, principally used in establishing shots of The Village (actually the resort village of Portmeirion in North Wales) exhibits some specks and other debris, but it's not too distracting. There are some episodes where flesh tones seem somewhat blanched when compared to the bulk of the series, something no doubt inherent in the source elements. When the show goes into its "trippy" mode (as in the screenshot here of the patients in the ultraviolet room), the Blu-ray offers a vivid palette and wonderful detail. I did a spot check with the relatively recently released 40th anniversary DVD edition and found the picture quality definitely a noticeable upgrade, especially with regard to color saturation, but that said, it's not so incredible that those of you with the SD-DVD edition will automatically want to splurge for this new version.
The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Audiophiles will no doubt be complaining that we have no lossless audio options on this Blu-ray. However, the repurposed Dolby 5.1 mix is really quite excellent, especially when compared with the original mono tracks also offered here. Fidelity throughout is generally very, very good. The mono tracks suffer from pretty noticeable compression and an overall boxy sound; you'll hear the difference between the two offerings right off the bat if you toggle back and forth between them while the theme music is playing. Dialogue is crisp and at times excellently directional (though there is a tendency to place dialogue front and center). Some ambient effects, like McGoohan traipsing through a gravel path, have some fun use of surround channels. There's no damage, overarching hiss or dropouts to report. Overall an excellent if not mind blowing use of traditional Dolby 5.1, one that should satisfy all but the most persnickety audio lover.
The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
This Blu-ray comes jam packed with some great supplements, though sadly at least one or two from the 40th anniversary DVD edition have gone missing. We're offered some excellent commentaries by production personnel on the episodes The Arrival, The Chimes of Big Ben, The Shizoid Man, The General, Dance of the Dead, Change of Mind and Fallout. Trailers and underscored image galleries for all 17 episodes are also included, spread over the four Blu-ray discs. The fourth BD offers the original edit of The Arrival, from a 35mm original film element, long thought to be lost. This version features a discarded score by Wilfred Josephs. An accompanying featurette documents the restoration of this original edit. Rounding out the fourth BD's extras are generic trailers (i.e., not geared toward specific episodes) and textless title sequences.
But, wait, you also get--a fifth disc, albeit on SD-DVD, has some very worthwhile extras as well. Chief among these are the hour and a half documentary Don't Knock Yourself Out, a great retrospective from a lot of the original production crew (the press release states over 400 were involved in the piece, but I didn't count that many) going into the show's genesis and filming, as well as its subsequent impact. There's all sorts of fascinating archival footage in this piece, including some fun shots of the original conception of the "protector balloon," which was originally conceived of as more of a mechanical contraption (it didn't work, hence the balloon "solution"). The Pink Prisoner offers Peter Wyngarde offering a spoof interview. The more interesting You Make Sure it Fits! presents memories of music editor Eric Mival. In a noticeably diminished picture quality the original edit of The Chimes of Big Ben is presented. For music buffs, three versions of the opening theme are offered, the Ron Grainger opus which ultimately made it to air, as well as the discarded attempts by Wilfrid Josephs and the redoubtable Robert Farnon. It's fascinating to hear what three different composers did with what must have been challenging source material. Interestingly, Farnon's sounds almost like Western music, Elmer Bernstein Magnificent Seven-esque, but strangely quite fitting. Rounding out these SD-DVD extras are a puff piece promo for AMC's new version of The Prisoner, an image gallery, an exposure strips gallery, commercial break bumpers and, via DVD-ROM, a wealth of Prisoner related paperwork archives.
The Prisoner: The Complete Series Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
One of the many satirical signs seen in The Village states "Questions are a burden to others; answers a prison for oneself." McGoohan and his crew probably took that made up adage to heart, as The Prisoner raises more questions than it ever answers, leaving viewers to fend for themselves. Intriguing and infuriating in pretty much equal measure, The Prisoner shows McGoohan breaking free from the strictures of series television, big time. You've never experienced anything quite like it, and it remains one of the most memorable series of all time for good reason. This Blu-ray offers a subtle, if noticeable, picture upgrade, but no lossless audio. The real selling points here are the excellent extras.
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