Prisoner, The (1967)

The Prisoner (1967)

Available in a gorgeous Blu-ray set. I watched the series as a boy (catching it at just the right time of life) when it was first broadcast in the US and never thought it possible that I could own the program in an edition this fine. That was a science fiction notion for most of my life and it makes me a bit disoriented to watch the shows again, as if I had just done some time travel. It is odd that old film-based TV is now available in a quality never seen before.

We have many 1960s tropes: the big one-against-many fist fight in every episode, the anonymous minions of the Village, the huge banks of flashing computer lights. More unusual is the illuminati-like secret organization with its stifling utopia, the Secret Agent Man who wants out, the themes of individualism and conformity, and the eerie and inexplicable science fiction paraphernalia. And finally a wry and cynical perspective on it all.

The Village itself is the second star of the show. The early episodes in particular have vistas and unusual angles on Portmeirion that I love to see.

It was while revisiting this show many times over the years that I first became aware of a cultural "beat" phenomenon: how the quality of a series seems to rise and fall with time.

An alternative interpretation of the story is that Number Six is a mental patient and the Village is a resort asylum and everyone really is trying to help him. He doesn't see it that way, of course. This is not my favorite interpretation, but I can't help thinking about it while watching. I see that they used the idea in the recent remake, but didn't watch enough to know where they went with it.

The Blu-rays have a series of stills with incidental music from the shows. I've always loved those little bits. This is the first exactly 24hz frame rate title I have seen.

Brief episode notes:

Arrival. Setting the stage, getting an appreciation of the wheels within wheels and layers of deception.

The Chimes of Big Ben. They toy with Six, letting him think he can escape. Leo McKern plays Two with such relish that he is sort of the archetype of the role, but he does not return until the final two.

A, B, and C. A good one: they put Six into a dream machine three times. He has to figure out what is happening and then frustrate their efforts in both the real and virtual world, all in less than 50 minutes. Impressively triumphant final scene. I note that he crawls through ventilator shafts: this has been a requirement in SF series since the beginning of time.

Free For All. Six plays along with a Village game and, because of the usual mind tampering, forgets himself after a while. Too obviously political satire. Directed by Patrick McGoohan and written by him under one of his pseudonyms.

The Schizoid Man. They try to convince Six that he is a Village agent impersonating the real Six in an attempt to drive the real Six crazy. What could go wrong with that scheme? It's complicated and really well done. Six is confused for a while but eventually finds evidence that leads him back to reality.

The General. This one is packed with so much plot that some of the elements seem to have no purpose. We have:

Many Happy Returns. A fine episode where Six awakes in the deserted Village. No dialogue for the first fifteen minutes. He goes into full survival and adventure mode and we get to see him do the sort of successful escape we've been waiting for. It is so strange to see him back in London, driving the Lotus again.

Dance of the Dead. An odd little story that doesn't amount to much or have a resolution, but I've always liked it. Mary Morris provides some great repartee. In an eerie twilight scene on the beach just before the Carnival ball:

Two: You're becoming hostile again. What were you looking at?
Six: A light.
Two: A star?
Six: A boat.
Two: An insect.
Six: A plane.
Two: A flying fish.
Six: Somebody who belongs to my world.
Two: This is your world. I am your world. If you persist on living a dream you may be taken for mad.
Six: I like my dream.
Two: Then you are mad.

Checkmate. Six thinks he has figured out how to tell the prisoners from the warders. It almost works.

Hammer Into Anvil. Six turns the tables on Two and drives him batty. This Two is a doofus; the tricks would not have worked on any of the others.

It's Your Funeral. Some interesting stuff about contention among Village staff and a hint of their office rituals, but it is spoiled by the plot implausibility that they would need Six's aid in assassinating one of their own, or that he would care who was killing whom. We get a glimpse of previously unseen Twos.

A Change of Mind. This one has some parallels with A Clockwork Orange (1971) (the book; the movie came later). After too much brawling, Six is declared "disharmonious and unmutual", crimes against society. He is given (fake) brain conditioning and is unable to defend himself afterwards. After being attacked by thugs he breaks conditioning and turns the tables again.

Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling. The weakest episode. McGoohan was away making Ice Station Zebra and we have a mind-switching plot where another actor plays Six with amnesia. It could have worked but the execution is slow and they introduce some absurdities. The biggest problem is that Nigel Stock seems unfamiliar with the series and has been given no direction on mimicing McGoohan. He doesn't even dress like him. We discover Six has a fiancée who is never mentioned again. But, again, it is good to see the Lotus tooling around London.

Living in Harmony. The Western episode. It's a good idea but they just jumble together some familiar western plot bits and it goes on too long. I would have showed glimpses of the Village out of the windows and on the horizon, maybe flashes Six catches in the corner of his eye.

The Girl Who Was Death. The comedy episode. It's like a silly episode of The Avengers and can be fun on that level.

Once Upon a Time. First of the two-part ending, written and directed by McGoohan. Leo McKern returns as Two and it is pretty much his episode. He has to risk sanity and life itself to crack Six. The motif of a bare set with miscellaneous props and actors who bellow like lunatics was big in the 1960s, but I never cared for it.

Fall Out. Ok, he decided to go out on a comically surreal note. It might have worked, but the plot is painfully weak, an extended rant on authority, rebellion, individuality and general unfocused grooviness. It's like he had a deadline and just couldn't come up with anything better. Underground installations with bare rock walls are another 1960s motif; I don't know why.

I actually like the last segment, in London. A good ending.