This is the monster that cost me a month of my time.
You wouldn’t think it would take so long to watch 17 one-hour episodes of anything but it did. I almost didn’t make it though and I’ll tell you why in a second. But for now, let us get on to what has been heralded as one of the most important shows to ever hit the television medium. Prior to actually sitting down and watching it, "The Prisoner" was always referred to in hushed tones as though the very speaking of its name required a silent prayer of thanks.
Overall, the show ain’t half bad even though it is painfully obvious that AMC was unable to obtain the rights to whatever music selections were used in key parts of the show, most notably during the finale. This hurts far more than it helps. What music was substituted in is fine, if you can get past the show suddenly shifting into a foreign film sans subtitles where you have to accept that the dubbers aren’t pulling your leg with the translation.
The show kicks off like a rocket with an unnamed secret agent, the brilliant if over-the-top Patrick McGoohan (later famed as Edward the Longshanks in "Braveheart"), resigning from his secretive organization. He throws down his resignation, storms out the door, drives home and starts packing his suitcase before heading off to parts unknown.
Those plans are diverted a split second later when someone gases him. He wakes up in a remote place called The Village where he is assigned the number six as his designation. He doesn’t know who has him, who they work for, or where he is. All he knows is that the people who run The Village want information on why he resigned, and he’s convinced they won’t stop there should they ever get it. The chief antagonist is Number 2, the person in charge of The Village and in a brilliant decision the character changes from episode to episode. Sometimes Number 2 is a woman, sometimes a man.
This helps keep both Number 6 and the viewer off balance because every Number 2 approaches Number 6 differently so you never know what to expect.
The best moments of the show begin to occur a few episodes in as Number 6 comes to terms with his surroundings and starts to taunt his captors. The first few episodes focus on him trying to escape and being foiled in the end, but McGoohan (essentially the show runner) was smart enough to factor this in.
Number 6 soon begins to fight back against his captors and those episodes are usually brilliant. Equally brilliant are the episodes where Number Six actually escapes, such as "Many Happy Returns," because the show constantly plays against expectations.
But the second episode almost killed it for me. It was written and directed by McGoohan and it is absolutely insane. Number 2 holds an election where Number 6 runs against him for the title of Number 2. It sounds fine on paper but the way they did the episode is absolutely bizarre and assaulting. I almost held off on watching anything else, but decided to try the next disc.
I forget if it was episode three or four that was titled "The Chimes of Big Ben" but that one episode sold me so completely on the series that I relentlessly watched the remaining episodes as soon as they would come in. This episode also introduced my favorite Number 2 in the entirety of the show.
In watching an interview on the discs, the producer reveals McGoohan practically had to go into hiding because of how he ended the series. Remember, not every series is dragged on and on and on by networks desperate for ad dollars. Overseas markets tend to tell a story to completion, then end the show and move on.
Personally, I thought the ending to "The Prisoner" was solid even if the first half of the episode was strange rift on a trial, and one of my least favorite one-off characters was brought back. The reveal of Number 1 was surprising though so the show did get me there. But it does end well, in my opinion, so take that for what it’s worth.
The show deserves its place in history for a number of reasons, and I wouldn’t be surprised if one of them was how it played with traditional story telling. I have no frame of reference for television during that time other than sitcoms so a continuous dramatic arc, despite a lot of early evidence to the contrary, must have seem revelatory. It swims in style, though, so if you are even remotely a fan of 1960s Cold War spy thrillers then this show is an absolute must-see.
Yes, even the episode where Number 6 "switches brains" with another agent, which was probably written because McGoohan wanted a break that week.
But there are more hits than misses through the show and when it does manage to strike a bulls-eye, you'll find yourself thinking about that one episode for weeks afterwards. Oh, and the theme song is deceptively catchy. You hear it the first time and regard it as good. Then you'll catch yourself whistling it while in the supermarket.
The show gets under your skin so if you haven't seen it then do check it out. Just be prepared for some rough going in the second episode, and some equally rough going just prior to the final two episodes.