The Prisoner: Sets 1 & 2

The Prisoner: Sets 1 & 2 (1967)
A&E Home Video
Cast: Patrick McGoohan, Angelo Muscat
Extras: ’Your Village’ Interactive Map, Alternate Footage, Photo Gallery, Trivia Game, Trailers

Following the success of his previous television series, "Secret Agent, " Patrick McGoohan decided to try something very different. The result was "The Prisoner," a 17 episode series that first aired on British television in 1967. The very unusual nature of the show led to poor ratings and, after the initial run, it wasn’t seen again until 1974. Since then, "The Prisoner" has achieved something of a cult status although it is still seen only very rarely on broadcast television. Fortunately for fans, A&E Home Video has stepped in and is now issuing this landmark series on DVD.

The first thing to understand about this extraordinary series is that it raises far more questions than it answers. In fact, the viewer never even learns the name of Patrick McGoohan’s character and comes to know him only as Number 6. The opening titles show the lead character driving a very sporty Lotus through the streets of London, eventually arriving at a nondescript government office building. In a heated exchange that the viewer cannot hear, he tenders his resignation and storms out of the building. Next, a robotic arm is seen winding its way through a maze of filing cabinets and depositing a card stamped "Resigned" into the mystery man’s file.

On his way back home, the man is followed by an unmarked van and, while packing his bags for a hasty retreat, sleeping gas is injected through the keyhole of his flat. When he awakens he finds himself in a place called simply "The Village." What ensues is a cat and mouse game between Number 6 and his captors as he tries to learn where he is and what they want from him.

For the new DVD release, A&E Home Video has decided not to present the episodes in the order in which they originally aired. Instead, heeding the advice of fans, the episodes are now placed in a roughly chronological order in which the occurrence of events and identity of characters in the show are used to determine where each episode should fall. After the entire series has been released viewers will obviously be free to watch the episodes in whichever order they prefer.

Episode Guide
Set 1
Set 1 opens with the episode that was aired first, "Arrival." Showing the opening montage discussed above we are introduced to the character of Number 6 and witness his first days in The Village. After waking, he explores what appears to be a quaint little resort town until he is summoned to a meeting with Number 2 — a high official in The Village.

During this meeting Number 2 reveals that Number 6 has been taken to The Village so his superiors can ascertain the reasons behind his resignation and what secrets he may be hiding. While this sounds all well and good, Number 6 is unconvinced that this is not all just an elaborate enemy scheme designed to get him to talk. And therein lies the crux of the entire series — the prisoner never knows who is telling the truth or who can be trusted.

It is in this episode that we also come to learn more of The Village and its inhabitants. Nobody has a name, just a number, and everyone follows the rules with no questions asked — or answered. There is no way to leave The Village or get a message out and any attempt to escape is thwarted by Rover, a giant orb that engulfs the escapee and returns him to face punishment.

Free for All
"Free for All" is a bizarre episode in which Number 2 invites Number 6 to run for political office and hints that if he wins he will learn the identity of Number 1. Accepting the challenge, Number 6 decides to run for Number 2’s position. During a council meeting, Number 6 unwittingly breaks a rule and is subjected to a brutal "Truth Test" that turns him into a perfect political candidate who promises much but says very little of substance. Recovering from these events, Number 6 attempts to escape by speedboat but is nabbed by Rover and taken back to The Village where his campaign for office continues unabated.

Dance of the Dead
In this episode Number 6 is subjected to some questionable medical treatments. Later, he finds a dead body washed ashore and attempts to get a message out to the world by sending it back out to sea with a note attached. During all of this, The Village is preparing for a costume ball. At the ball, Number 6 finds himself subjected to a trial after breaking yet another rule.

Alternate Version of "The Chimes of Big Ben"
While the alternate version of this episode is presented here on Set 1, the original version appears on Set 2. Both are very similar with the alternate version offering different titles and music and one additional scene. For what it’s worth, the video and audio on the alternate version hasn’t been remastered. "The Chimes of Big Ben" deals mostly with Number 6’s attempts to figure out where The Village is located so he can better plan his escape. Nadia, a mysterious new arrival to The Village, just might know the answer.

Set 2
This episode features a live chess match in The Village in which Number 6 plays the Queen’s pawn. During the game he learns that there are repercussions for having individual thoughts and believes that he may have uncovered a way to determine who is a prisoner and who a warder. Using this knowledge he plans to assemble a team and attempt an escape.

The Chimes of Big Ben
See the discussion above.

A, B, and C
In this episode Number 2 secretly uses a strange drug treatment on Number 6 to tap into his dreams in an attempt to learn the identities of three important figures from his past, A, B, and C. Number 6 eventually figures out what is happening but will he be able to resist the drugs and keep his secrets safe?

The General
Here The Village inhabitants are subjected to a new process called "Speedlearn" in which subliminal messages are used to teach years of knowledge in only a few seconds. Number 6 is understandably suspicious and attempts to discern who, or what, is behind this new procedure.

"The Prisoner" is presented in its original <$PS,full frame> format with an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. With the exception of the alternate version of "The Chimes of Big Ben," these episodes all look remarkably good. Actually, watching that alternate episode is a good way to see just how much restoration work went into preparing these for DVD release as it provides a good before and after look at the same scenes. Colors are nicely saturated and black levels are surprisingly deep for an older television production. The only real mark against the transfer is that some significant edge enhancement has been used in an attempt to sharpen up the picture. But, all in all, "The Prisoner" on DVD looks quite good.

In evaluating the audio it’s again important to remember that this is a 1967 television series we’re talking about. If you’re not expecting big things in the audio department then you won’t be disappointed. The mono mix does a reasonably good job although the shrill soundtrack and sound effects have a tendency to overwhelm the dialogue at times. Again, take a peek at the two versions of "The Chimes of Big Ben" to hear what the unremastered audio mix sounds like.

Unfortunately, two episodes on Set 2, "The Chimes of Big Ben" and "The General" seem to have defective sound. While dialogue sounds mostly normal, music and ambient effects warble throughout both episodes to the point of great distraction. The effect is the same as if you were to sing and then cover and uncover your mouth with your hand over and over again in rapid succession. Volume and pitch go up and down constantly and it’s enough to drive you batty once you’ve locked on to it. Rumor has it that A&E is aware of this problem and will be replacing the faulty discs. Until that time you may want to pass on purchasing Set 2 or at the very least hold onto your receipts.

As for extras, Set 1 includes the alternate "The Chimes of Big Ben," a nice map of The Village, production photos, trailers, and an entertaining trivia game. Set 1 also features some rare alternate footage. First up is the intro and outro of the series presented without sound or textual titles. Next are alternate versions of the robotic arm sequence from the opening titles in which the card placed in the file has the word "Resigned" appearing in different languages.

Set 2 includes the map, production photos, trailers, and a different trivia game. In both sets the production photos are numbered oddly. For the most part they are labeled in order but on occasion a still frame will pop up with an out of sequence number on it. I don’t know if this is some Prisoner in-joke or just a mix-up in the frame labeling.

Now how do I sum this all up? To start, "The Prisoner" is a very entertaining series that certainly stretched the boundaries of what a television show could attempt to achieve. Part of its success must be attributed to the fact that it had a very finite run that was planned in advance (actually Patrick McGoohan only wanted to film seven episodes but his investors didn’t feel that they would get an adequate return with such a short series). While the show never really answered any of the questions it raised, it also didn’t keep going for years afterward beating the same ideas to death. What we are left with is a very succinct show that is more like a classic Saturday morning movie serial than a traditional television program.

In addition, much of the charm of "The Prisoner" is due to the very 1960s vibe it exhibits. From the mod look of the costumes to the contemporary soundtrack, "The Prisoner" is very much a product of its times.

Fans of the series will certainly be pleased with these new DVDs while those with any interest in intelligent, thought-provoking television — with a dash of 60s style and wit — should really give "The Prisoner" a look. The remastered video and audio have really made these episodes shine on DVD (with the obvious exception of the two with faulty soundtracks). I had never seen the show before watching these DVDs so I have no basis for comparison but I can’t imagine that they’ve ever looked better. The series is quite entertaining and the ambiguity of it all certainly lends it to repeat viewings.

While I’m now a fan of the show and am generally pleased with these DVDs, the staggered release schedule is somewhat bothersome. As was the case with A&E Home Video’s Monty Python DVDs you might be better served to wait until the entire series has been released in one complete box set rather than picking up the individual sets as they come out. And again, you’re probably better off waiting until the audio issues with Set 2 have been resolved before purchasing those episodes.

Those minor quibbles aside, "The Prisoner" on DVD is great television beautifully presented – which even has the distinction of having been turned into an "Iron Maiden" song. A&E Home Video seems to have cornered the market for classic British television on DVD and "The Prisoner" compares very nicely to their DVD releases of "The Avengers" and "Monty Python’s Flying Circus."