Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The Prisoner (Vols. 1-4)

More than 30 years old and still one of the strangest (and best) shows in television history, The Prisoner has remained more heard about than seen. Originally shown on British TV in 1967, it attracted a cult following on both sides of the Atlantic, and its fan base is sure to expand with this video and DVD re-release, scheduled to include the entire 17-episode run. The first four volumes compile the first seven episodes and one unaired, alternate version, which is enough to reel in the curious and keep them hooked. Produced by, starring, and occasionally written and directed by Patrick McGoohan, an actor best known at the time for playing spies in two previous series, The Prisoner plays off his image, casting him as a secret agent who angrily demands early retirement in a wordless opening-credits sequence repeated before each episode. Gassed into unconsciousness with vacation pamphlets in his hands, he awakes in a mysterious village in which the residents, all presumably former spies, have been assigned numbers and live in fear of the unseen powers that be. Interrogated by a series of Number Twos determined to discover the cause of his resignation, a resistant McGoohan plots his escape, despite the ever-present threat of giant, opaque balloons that pursue lawbreakers while making noises that sound like distressed jet engines. Undoubtedly a product of the Cold War, and driven by a plot that works as an espionage thriller, the series capitalizes on its ability to use the paranoia of the period to comment on larger themes. A mix of technologically enforced totalitarianism and rosy-hued nostalgia, The Village serves as a unique but recognizable dystopia in which the preservation of the state and the illusion of order and happiness take precedence over all other concerns. At times dramatically clumsy in its early episodes, The Prisoner really gets going with "Checkmate," found on the third volume of this series (although the correct running order remains a subject of fan debate). Featuring a game of chess played by human actors, the episode takes the metaphor and runs with it, turning McGoohan into a pawn attempting to subvert the game against its unseen players. With nearly every episode featuring a concept both clever and evocative, suspenseful and metaphorically rich, The Prisoner remains a remarkable accomplishment, a series far closer in spirit to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent than Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man."

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