Leave it to the British to invent the cult television show. The Prisoner is the very definition of such sensations that have come to represent so much of TV-DVD collecting. Running seventeen episodes, it was a show I first found on PBS on Saturday nights while waiting for Saturday Night Live, and then once I entered High School was steered to it by friends as the local library had all the episodes on tape in the old, puffy clam-shell boxes. Later, a friend left me all his tapes to hold on to as he moved around the country, reclaiming them a year or two later. Then came the DVD box set, and now the Blu-ray edition. My review of The Prisoner after the jump.
Patrick McGoohan stars as Number 6, a secret agent (and this appears to make the show a semi-sequel to his previous series Danger Man) who resigns, and then is drugged and taken to the village, an isolated island where he is one of a number. Every episode he is pursued by a new number 2, whose job it is to crack him, and get him to reveal why he left the agency. #6 is also unsure who has him, as it could be the Russians (etc.) or it could be his own government. There are a number of people on the island, and #6 has no idea who to trust, and a number of episodes force him into situations where he must rely on his gut to tell him who might be friend or foe. He also has plans to escape but a giant white ball called a rover wants to stop him, and even if he gets off the island, there’s no guarantee he won’t come right back.
When The Prisoner is at its best, it’s when McGoohan is playing complicated mind-games with whomever he is dealing with. Like a great game of poker, both sides are cautious about how much to reveal, and then when something is revealed, it’s hard to know how much of that is done for effect, or if it’s something true. And that’s where the show succeeds on a level that can be dizzying. You’re forced to think of what’s being revealed as objectively true or “true.”
What must have been hard for the staff is maintaining the push/pull of this narrative, as the further the show goes along the morecrazy and outside the box it gets. One episode plays as an homage to the serial thriller format more in tune with something like The Wild, Wild West, and there’s an actual cowboy episode. These are interesting to put the character in different contexts, but they also suggest a writing staff exasperating a concept. Much like the later Twin Peaks, the narrative hook proves to be difficult to maintain. Thankfully they end the series after those seventeen episodes, and it appears no one has looked back, which for the best. When the show is on, it’s on, and for the most part every episode offers a solid viewing. But it’s also fun to come back to for the mental chess games the show can play.
A&E’s Blu-ray edition capitalizes on the new version with Ian McKellan, but as a fan the release of this set is great in that the 1080p transfers give a new perspective on the series. Much like the Star Trek remasters, the show was shot on film, so the upgrade manages to give the show a new texture, and reveal a depth of field and color scheme that makes the show feel somewhat brand new. This is the main reason to upgrade, as all the supplements are recycled from the previous box set, and the bonus disc is standard def.
All episodes are presented in full frame (1.33:1) and in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround or original as-broadcast mono, and all episodes come with their own trailers. Disc one offers the first five episodes and commentary on The Arrival (with production manager Bernie Williams and film librarian Tony Sloman), The Chimes Of Big Ben (with writer Vincent Tilsley), and The Shizoid Man (with director Pat Jackson). The disc also comes with an image gallery (20 min.). Disc two offers five episodes with commentary on The General (with director Peter Graham Scott), and Dance Of The Dead (with Bernie Williams, Tony Sloman and editor John Smith), along with another still gallery (12 min.). Disc three offers the next five episodes and commentary on Change Of Mind (with writer Roger Parkes), and an image gallery (18 min.). Disc four closes out the last two episodes and has a commentary on Fallout (with editor Noreen Ackland and Eric Ackland), and a still gallery (12 min.). For the record these commentary tracks are less stodgy then you’d think and get into some of the fun being had on the set (someone took an acid trip). Disc five offers two generic trailers, and the newly restored original edit of The Arrival which doesn’t offer that much new, but is of some interest for the modest changes for fans, and a piece showcasing the restoration (4 min.). The textless title sequence (11 min.) is also included
Disc five kicks off with the feature length behind the scenes piece, “Don’t Knock Yourself Out” (95 min.), which goes behind the scenes. Alas, McGoohan was not got before he passed away, and so you have odd assortment of the living talking about the show, including the commentaries. “Make Sure It Fits” (9 min.) gives music editor Eric Mival a chance to speak while “The Pink Prisoner” (9 min.) gets one time #2 Peter Wyngarde to talk about the show. The “Exposure Strip” gallery (11 min.) allows for camera tests and set up footage, there’s the ad bumper (15 sec), three versions of the theme with the title sequence (presented textless, 9 min.) There’s mute footage of the Filing Cabinet (from the series’ opening 2 min.) for the different languages the show played in, “Rover” Footage (if you ever wanted to know about the giant white balloon of death, 25 sec.) and “McGoohan Montage From Arrival” (stills of the life of the MC, 1 min.). There’s also the alternate edit of “The Chimes of Big Ben,” which does not look half as good as The Arrival does (colors bleed). A promo image gallery (2 min.), press conference gallery (3 min.), a production design gallery (1 min.) and a promo for the new AMC miniseries.