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The Prisoner -- The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series
Robert Fairclough
iBooks, 144 pages

The Prisoner -- The Official Companion to the Classic TV Series
The Prisoner
The Prisoner was a 17-episode British television series that first aired at the peak of the 60s counterculture, reflecting that era's artistic experimentation, as well as some of its silliness, in warping various genre conventions into a complex and serious satire. The premise was that a secret agent resigns. He is abducted and whisked away to The Village, a self-contained community of former spies and government officials privy to important classified information who are either participants -- by virtue of coercion or self-interest -- or captives of this subterfuge.

ISFDB Bibliography; Robert Fairclough

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

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The Prisoner was a 17-episode British television series that first aired at the peak of the 60s counterculture, reflecting that era's artistic experimentation, as well as some of its silliness, in warping various genre conventions into a complex and serious satire. The premise was that a secret agent (played by Patrick McGoohan, whose previous television role was as a secret agent in a series also noted for its thoughtfulness) resigns. He is abducted and whisked away to The Village, a self-contained community of former spies and government officials privy to important classified information who are either participants -- by virtue of coercion or self-interest -- or captives of this subterfuge.

No one is addressed by name in The Village, but by a number.1 The head of the Village is Number 2, played by a revolving cast of disparate characters. Who Number 1 may be is one of the program's many perplexing mysteries. The Prisoner is called Number 6, leading to his retort, "I am not a number. I am a free man!"

Which Number 2 merely dismisses with a smirking, seemingly all-knowing, laugh.

His abductors want information, in particular why he resigned. He will not tell them. Their attempts to break his will and make him conform to complacent existence in the Village never succeed. All the while, despite successive failures, the Prisoner seeks to escape and discover who is actually running the Village. The concluding episode provides an enigmatic answer, of sorts, that resulted in a deluge of protesting phone calls from an outraged audience.

This was not your run-of-the-mill television series. Though, at the time, the loner anti-hero had become a staple of the televised grist mill -- The Fugitive and Run for Your Life, for example, featured characters forced by circumstances to live outside of society according to their own code of conduct -- none was as unconventional and intellectually ambitious. The Prisoner took the tropes of various pop culture artifacts -- espionage, western, science fiction and fantasy, and fairy tale genres, as well as elements of then-contemporary film, music, and lifestyle -- and bent them into a unique hodgepodge that aspired to make viewers think, though often it just baffled them.

Periodically rerun on both sides of the Atlantic, and just last year released by A&E Home Entertainment on DVD format, it's now been 35 years since The Prisoner first conducted its bold experiment. That anniversary has occasioned this "official" Prisoner compendium by Robert Fairlcough. While not the first of its kind2, it might be, with one caveat, the best yet. A colorful collection of background details, episode plot summaries, and interpretive analysis, it includes a DVD of the first episode, "The Arrival," and an alternative version of "The Chimes of Big Ben" (Volume 1 from the complete box set), as well as an overview of associated Prisoner parodies, novels3, graphic adaptations, and merchandising. Even long-time fans might find a few new interesting tidbits.4

I've never really understood why someone would want to repeatedly watch, let alone own videos of, old TV shows. The Prisoner, however, is an exception. As with revisiting any classic book or movie, there's always a reference you didn't catch before, or something that prompts you to think about it differently. Fairclough's volume provides some useful study notes towards that end. However, the lack of proper proofreading (something I've unfortunately noticed before from publisher ibooks) detracts from its authority. While originally published by Carlton Books, the ibooks version retains the British style of punctuation and spelling. Why an ostensibly American publisher would do this, I don't know, but that isn't really the problem. What is troublesome are cases in where punctuation is omitted or clearly wrong, words that are hyphenated that shouldn't be, or paragraphs that are cut off and left dangling. While reviewers often receive "uncorrected proofs," what I have would seem to be a final publisher's edition. As any English teacher will tell you, the authority of what you assert is easily undermined by inattention to small details.

And it's the details that are important in considering this subject matter, one of the few televised productions that can live up to the appellation of science fiction, as opposed to the usual kitsch of "sci-fi." The immediate comparison would be to The Twilight Zone, which employed allegory to tackle political and social issues of the 50s and early 60s in a way that otherwise might not have gotten past the censors5. Consequently, in retrospect, some of the episodes that may at the time have been provocative are today a little dated. The Prisoner differs significantly -- besides being a complete story arc as opposed to a dramatic anthology -- in that, while it certainly takes its inspiration from the 60s, it is not rendered passé by it.

Fairclough recounts how McGoohan wasn't sure if he should include The Beatles song, "All You Need is Love," in the soundtrack to the final episode precisely because he thought it might antiquate the show in coming years. Fortunately, he chose to use it, to marvelous effect; unlike the song, which has been relegated to the realms of nostalgia, The Prisoner and its themes about the quest for identity in a conformist culture are still worth considering. So, too, despite the flawed typography, is this book.

Be seeing you.


1 As with much of the extensive symbolism employed in the series, this device had multiple layers of meaning. Obviously, it signifies the elimination of individual identity, a time-honored SF device found in such dystopias as Ayn Rand's Anthem, Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7, and Yevgeny Zamyatin's We. At the same time, it pokes fun at the identity codes of popular spy fiction, in particular the famous "007" of James Bond.

2 Predecessors include The Prisoner Files by John Peel, The Official Prisoner Companion by Matthew White and Jaffer Ali, The Prisoner by Dave Rogers, and The Prisoner -- A Televisionary Masterpiece by Alain Carraze and Helene Oswald.

3 ibooks is also releasing Thomas Disch's first, and arguably the best, of three novelizations originally published by ACE between 1969 and 1970. It's interesting to note that instead of the usual hack job that is typical of this sort of thing, the selection of Disch, then a rising Young Turk of the SF New Wave, was very much in keeping with the high intellectual and artistic aims of the series. Disch wryly interweaves various literary allusions in depicting a Prisoner who, having lost knowledge of his previous incarceration in the Village (i.e., the events that take place in the TV series), is once again imprisoned. As just one example of how Disch develops this material, one of the key settings for the Prisoner's escape effort is a performance of Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, which, like the TV show, is a problematic and confusing inquiry into personal responsibility that verges, sometimes to the point of vertigo, from intense drama to unbelievable farce.

4 One thing missing is any mention of a possible film version. While this might be cause for alarm, given that studios use any old TV premise these days to produce something even more stupid than the original, fans can take heart that McGoohan is purportedly involved as an Executive Producer. Variously rumored to star in the role is Mel Gibson (McGoohan's stated choice) or Russell Crowe. Stay tuned.

5 Fairclough's discussion of censorship, in hindsight from more liberal -- some would say permissive -- times, provides some amusing anecdotes. One example is the episode "Living in Harmony" which CBS refused to televise during its first U.S. run because its pacifist message seemingly criticized the Vietnam War. There were also cuts of scenes deemed too violent. Though, because it was ostensibly an "action" show, almost every episode involved some sort of fisticuffs, whether warranted by the plotline or not. Interestingly, sexual innuendo was almost non-existent, not because of network censors, but McGoohan's apparent prudery. Paradoxically, the creative force of the series who was in real life the non-conformist he played, shared none of the era's interest in the so-called Sexual Revolution. McGoohan cut scenes that even had a suggestion of flirtation, let alone kissing, on the grounds that he wanted to maintain standards of "family entertainment," though it is doubtful if the average family would consider The Prisoner as such. In the 60s, the "average family" watched The Andy Griffith Show. Or Star Trek.

Copyright © 2002 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.


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