The Prisoner: The Complete Collection Review

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For those following this series on ITV, I've tried to keep all spoilers relating to episodes not yet shown within a clearly marked paragraph below, but it's possible others have slipped through the net, so be warned.

I try to keep an open mind about even the most dubious titles before watching them to review for this site but I was quite prepared to make an exception in the case of The Prisoner. Even in the highly competitive Dumbass Remakes League Table you'd expect a project like this to be pushing for championship place, and it’s hard to imagine that when the thing was first announced there was a single person who thought “Hmm yes, that sounds a good idea. The original was okay, but not great, and it's pretty dated these days. I look forward to seeing this new version.” As such, I was greatly looking forward to penning a withering here, ripping it to shreds in a scathing, sarcastic fashion, LOL-ing superiorly at the sheer idiocy of the entire idea and the undoubted ineptitude with which it was carried out. It was bound to be a load of old rubbish, right? And then I watched the first episode, and to my intense disappointment it wasn’t half bad. Not a patch on the original, of course, but in fairness it didn’t really try to be, and while there were things that didn’t work in it there was quite a lot that did. There was an impression of a reasonably intelligent script, with a focused, underlying, if at that point unclear purpose, had fine production values, decent performances, and, perhaps most importantly, offered quite a very different take of the basic Prisoner set-up with a very different viewpoint. And that was annoying because frankly I wanted it to be awful because... it's a remake of The Prisoner for chrissakes! It should be awful, by definition. So in a somewhat grumpy mood I watched the second one, and at that point began to cheer up, for while it continued to have the same qualities as the first the Things That Didn’t Quite Work were slightly more prominent, and slightly more Not-worky. And the third was similar, but things weren’t working more often, and were actually starting to get quite silly, and so it escalated, on and on, so that by the end of episode six, I was relieved and all was right with the world – it was rubbish after all – but also slightly mystified, because it was rubbish for far better reasons than I expected. If that makes any sense. And if it doesn't, that's okay, because ultimately nothing in this series does either.

It’s worth re-iterating from the start that, no matter how good or bad the final product, there is no justification for this series to exist at all. At the risk of generalising what is actually a wide field, there are only two real reasons a remake should exist, those being either when the original had a good idea carried out in an inept manner, or when a story is so universal or well-known that it doesn’t rely on one performance or one unique attribute to succeed. Neither of these exceptions apply to The Prisoner. In regards to the first, last year I wrote in my review of the original series’s Blu-ray release that with the prevalence of CCTV cameras and the like the themes of the original were as relevant as ever but that’s not entirely true because society is more subtle than that: we are being watched more than ever, but the difference is that to a great extent a lot of us are more willing, even desperate, to be so, with millions of people happily recording the minutest detail of their day on Twitter and anyone who is anyone signed up to Facebook. Our understanding of surveillance has changed and our relationship with what we want people to know is more tricksy than the black-and-white certainties of the Cold War. Thematically, were The Prisoner to be made today as it was then, it would look a little simplistic in its examination of the theme. As for the second issue, McGoohan so defined the show - he was the Prisoner, both in front and behind the camera - that it's very hard to justify any other incarnation existing, while almost as importantly the setting was so caught in the Sixties, with the Cold War backdrop, LSD-laced atmosphere and Carnaby Street decor, that to take it away from that time would be to lose much of its essence.

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From the brief snippets we see of him in the extras on this set it seems that writer Bill Gallagher (Clocking Off, Lark Rise to Candleford) was very much a gun for hire rather than anyone with a great passion for the original material, which actually ends up being to the project's advantage in that having no slavish love for the original he was able to avoid producing a carbon copy. There are the odd tributes to the original (a penny farthing bicycle hangs from the ceiling of the Go Inside Bar, the two old chess playing codgers make a blink-and-you'll-miss-them-cameo, the map-buying scene from the two versions of Arrival are very similar) but, aside from the basic premise - man (James Caviezel) wakes up to find himself in a bizarre, self-contained world from which he cannot escape - everything else is determinedly different. The setting is no longer the faux-Renaissance splendour of Portmeirion but a chocolate-box 1950s US suburb straight out of Leave It To Beaver (or Revolutionary Road), located somewhat incongruously in the middle of a seemingly endless desert. There is only one Number Two (Ian McKellen), and even more weirdly he has his own family, including a wayward son on his own journey of self-discovery (Jamie Campbell Bower) who also live in the village. The most important difference, as far as the underlying themes go, is that unlike the original, in which nearly all the residents knew their predicament and played along, here no one seems to remember a time before they lived in the Village, or even realise there is any world beyond their own limited confines, aside from oddballs the rest know as "Dreamers." These are people who go round talking of another place and drawing images of the Statue of Liberty while the rest of the place frown and cross the road to get away from them and Two, whenever he catches up with them, whisks them away for some trolley-and-needle treatment in the Clinic. Six latches onto one of these characters, Ruth Wilson's doctor, who is torn between the certainty of the Village and the nagging awareness that what Six is saying about another place is somehow familiar. It's all very symbolic, all very impressionistic, all very... dreamy. Over the course of the episodes, Six slowly begins to piece together memories of what happened to him immediately before he arrived: he resigned from a shady corporation called Summakor only to meet the same night a mysterious female called Sara (Hayley Atwell), with whom he ended up spending the night with even after he established she had come from the company he just stormed out from. As the series nears its climax, the two worlds begin to collide, as it becomes clear that past and present are not quite as they might appear, at the same time as Two suffers his own family problems, as his son begins to rebel against the stifling world in which he finds himself.

Initially, against the odds, it works. The first episode is surprisingly intriguing and manages to establish its own identity apart from its progenitor, leading one to hope that the rest will miraculously manage to justify its existence, while the striking exteriors shot in the Namibia desert provide a visually exciting setting, as said very different from the original but in its own way just as powerful. The early flips between Six’s life in the Village and the events immediately following his resignation help heighten the mystery and provide a welcome contrast between the real, hard world he has left behind and the sun-drenched, sleepy dreamworld in which he now lives, creating a more ambitious, expansive worldview than the intentionally small, confined environment of the Sixties. But as the series wears on, it becomes clear that the initial promise of a show as intellectually provocative and thrilling as the original is not just unfulfilled but positively misleading. It’s around the time that the first pot holes appear that the truth dawns: this isn't just a series that doesn't say much, but it doesn’t even have a clue what it wants to say or how to go about saying it. Gallagher tries to theme each episode around a particular topic, but his targets are either outdated - Anvil, with its twisty you-spy-on-me-spying-on-you-spying-on-me-so-trust-no-one bent, is very The Lives of Others - or hackneyed - Schizoid has two Twos and two Sixes, split into their animalistic and intellectual portions, an old trope with no new variation (and certainly not a patch on the original) – and in the end none of it adds up to a hill of beans. The show is ultimately superficial while desperately trying to convince its viewers it isn’t. Characters sombrely intone things of vast import that are ultimately meaningless while no one acts remotely naturally or even realistically, as though we are watching an awkwardly symbolic tableau rather than a proper narrative. The only problem is that much of the time it isn’t symbolising very much of anything. Prick the surface of this Rover and you’ll find a gaseous interior of hot air – the metaphor of the pot holes, which appear when Two’s wife wakes up, is fitting, in that they seem very important but are actually just great big empty spaces of nothingness.

There's very markedly something of a Twin Peaks vibe going on here, with its setting of an isolated community, stylistic portentousness of significant images, and an at-times wilfully disjointed narrative, but the pretentious, sub-Lynchian melee, which theoretically should reflect the original’s, is nothing more than smoke and mirrors to disguise the emptiness. Stylistically it doesn't work (and ending two episodes in a row in exactly the same way, with a blurred montage of scenes while Bryan Wilson's Smile plays, is unforgiveable) while from a narrative perspective it's extremely irritating - you get forty minutes of build-up before things deteriorate into five minutes of incomprehension before the end making for a deeply frustrating exercise. This hallucinogenic quality creates a barrier between audience and characters - we cannot know what it is really (or going on) so it swiftly becomes impossible to emphasise with the characters and their problems, on which the series relies for a great deal of its effect.

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There's a further flaw in that there are no baselines established for these people - we don't know what the status quo is with them, so can't react when something changes. For example, when Two's son starts carrying on, because we haven't seen him acting "normally" the impact is wholly lost. Likewise the doctor, whose real role is uncertain and who doesn’t appear to have any significant personality of her own, so that her carrying on with Six – is she on his side or not? – cannot engage us. Is she an enigma or just an obligatory plot device, a love interest and handy character to have around? One can't help but suspect the latter. It’s tempting to say that Caviezel’s blank performance is a major problem – and in other circumstances it would be – but in this mixed-up world of blank mannequins going through the motions he fits right in. The only promising character is Two but that’s more because he’s Ian McKellen than anything the script does – tellingly, the most interesting moment for him, in which he admits blowing up the restaurant in episode one and thus shows real conflict between him and the Village – ends up on the cutting room floor. There are other moments throughout where he’s allowed vague signs of life, such as when he breaks the rules of the Village and wakes his wife up just because he misses her, or when he breaks down in Schizoid, but these are rendered largely meaningless by the ending, and in general he’s very much generic Mysterious Figure. On another day, and with a better script, having a single Two in this way could have been made for a very interesting spin, but his limited interaction with the Village denizens and run-of-the-mill battle of wits with Six neutralise any power the character could have had.

The below paragraph contains spoilers for the final two episodes - skip down to below the next picture if you wish to avoid them!

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As a result, in the end you just don’t care what happens, the very antithesis of one’s reaction to the original. In normal circumstances, the muddled last episode would be deeply annoying, given that it makes no sense either practically (it’s never clear how the dream world and real world precisely interact – the glass skyscrapers suggest they are in the same space, but isn’t 2’s wife dreaming the whole thing?) or within the context of the show. But by the time I reached it all this viewer did was shrug and sigh and mutter “Yeah, reckoned it’d end something like that.” The major twist that the people in the Village are avatars of their real world counterparts is fairly easy to suss from early on, but once again I can’t help wondering what the point is. The message is confused, contradictory – seeking solace in a virtual world, is that a good or bad thing? Are we so manipulated by the greater forces around us that we don’t even realise how profoundly we are affected? This is stuff being done, ten, twenty years ago, with no new spin on it, while the execution is, as with the rest of the series, blurry to the point of obfuscation. The ending, and to a large degree the rest of the series, makes the naive – or disingenuous – equation of ambiguity with moral profundity, when in this case the grey picture it’s painting is not a rich, intriguing mix, but just... grey. Dull, lifeless, grey. It also sees Gallagher effectively admitting he was far more interested in Two than Six. Whereas the former’s life is changed forever, as a lead character’s should be in a climactic instalment, Six faces little challenge other than self-discovery, from which he goes to acceptance remarkably quickly. This is one Winston Smith who, it seems, has no need to visit Room 101. The punchline of the series, in which he takes on the mantle of Two, is not an ironic Stockholm-Syndrome observation about this culture but a bad joke, on both its audience and the character (although, in fairness, McGoohan did something similar with the “door closing” sound effect at the end of Fall Out.)

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End of Spoilers

To its credit, this is a series which really tries. Unlike many, it's not content to rest on the laurels of its name alone, but does its damnedest to go in a new direction, find a completely new take on the original concept, and to a certain degree manages to do just that. I applaud the balance it achieves between honouring the Sixties show and doing its own thing, and taken purely on a production level this is a success. It's a good-looking, attractive show, which when it isn't having one of its manic spasms is well directed by Nick Hurran who has a good eye for composition and judgement in scene pacing. But sadly it also has a reach which far outstrips its grasp. It almost completely fails to achieve what it sets out to do, presenting a muddled, sometimes incomprehensible series of metaphors instead of the elegant parables of the original. Worst still, while many of its basic decisions have the right idea, the execution is usually badly misjudged. Giving Number Two a family is an odd but not necessarily bad idea; giving him this family definitely is. Equally, running the two parallel stories of Six's former and current life works up to the point the explanations start, while establishing more regulars in the Village could have worked perfectly had they been different regulars. But it doesn't work and in the end this will be the footnote in the history of the original we always suspected, from the very first announcement of its existence, it would be. Oddly, though, saying that doesn't give me nearly as much pleasure as I thought it would before watching it. Rather like the efforts of the numbers Two in the McGoohan original, who work hard to get Six's secret but never succeed, this gets nowhere, but one which has a damn good go anyway, making for a rather noble failure.

The BD

Unlike the US, which only got an SD release, the UK gets both a SD and BD release for the series, the latter of which is under review here. That’s the good news; the bad is that the US got two Commentaries, with producer Trevor Hopkins and editor Yan Miles, on Arrival and Checkmate, which have gone AWOL this side of the Atlantic. The arrangement of featurettes appears to be different in the two regions as well, although judging from the running times, at least we appear to have got a little more material. The six episodes are presented on two BD50s, with a little over 30 Gigs being used for each, using the H.264 codec at 25fps, the audio presented in Dolby Digital AC3. The Main Menu consists of a series of clips, a small band of Options running along the bottom, with each episode having its own submenu for options and extras specific to it. All perfectly well arranged. The Video for the most part is very nice, handling the intensely bright scenes set in the desert and village very well with little sign of artefacts or other problems, colours are nice and clear and there's plenty of fin detail, every pore is visible whenever Caviezel gets a close-up. However, dark scenes, especially but not solely those set in the Go Inside Bar, are incredibly grainy, excessively so, adding not atmosphere but distraction, creating a very jarring visual effect which I suspect was not intentional. The Audio, on the other hand, is very good, with reasonably good use of all channels being used, although it's not an immersive experience - the Village never aurally encompasses the viewer, while the desert is likewise a little lacking in ambience.

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The package of Extras is perfectly fine if resolutely formulaic for a release of this type – it’s a solid package if uninspired. The most remarkable thing is what there isn’t; bar a few perfunctory mentions in interviews, there’s not a sign of the McGoohan original to be seen, either in clips (for which, I presume, the rights were too expensive) or in comparison to the new version (afraid of the competition?) Of course, this version is expected to stand on its own, but even so its absence is very noticeable, an elephant that wasn’t even allowed into the room.

Each of the six episodes get their own Deleted Scenes, Making Of, and ”Inside Episode” profiles. There’s between five and ten minutes of excised material each time, which range from the usual cutting-room-floor dropouts which no one will miss to a couple of moments that would have been worth squeezing in, an extra confrontation with Two after the restaurant explosion in Arrival, for example, or a couple of scenes of Six in Two’s mansion in Checkmate that would have made the series’ conclusion a wee bit more satisfying. The Making Ofs and Inside The Prisoner featurettes, both of which again range between five and ten minutes in length, offer slightly different perspectives on each episode. The former looks at production, mixing general on-set footage with problems and issues faced in that particular instalment - you know the sort thing, lots of men standing round on set wearing sun glasses and chewing gum while they wait an explosion to be set up or something. It’s all very EPK but decent enough. The Inside The Prisoners are more interesting, however, with Gallagher and cast members talking about the episode’s story, the writer explaining his inspiration and aims, and the cast offering what insight they can. The brief running time means Gallagher can’t get very deep into his aims, but in the absence of commentaries these at least give his side of what he wanted to do with the show.

As well as the episode-specific material, there are a couple of extra drabbles across the two discs. A selection of highlights from the Comic Con 2009: Prisoner Panel (11:20) are a little dry - there’s no Ian McKellen to get the crowd going, while Caviezel is quite a quiet presence, leaving it up to the producers to try and razzmatazz it up a bit. There’s an anecdote about McGoohan’s reaction to the show that’s quite fun but this looked to be have been an otherwise low-key affair. The Prisoner Readthrough (2:42) is a bit of promotional fluff that doesn’t actually feature any of the readthrough other than some shots of all there sitting around the table. The rest is taken up by interviews with, mainly, McKellen, filmed on the day making the point that this is going to be a very good show. Which is nice, if somewhat superfluous to requirements. McKellen also features in the final extra, the three part Jamie Interviews Sir Ian in which the old sheepdog sits quietly and watches with amusement as the young pup dances round him excitedly, wagging his tail and trying to impress. Each segment is only two minutes, and in fairness to Campbell-Bower he does ask a couple of good questions, but this is still not substantial stuff. Neither are the Character Profiles which I suspect are included solely to look good on the list of extras, amounting as they do to nothing more than a fifty word summary of six of the main characters, displayed on the menu. And that's your lot. Be seeing you!

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