BOOK REVIEW: "The Prisoner #1" by Thomas Disch (1969)

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The Prisoner is easily the best Science Fiction series in television history. When it came out in 1968 I was one year old. When I was ten or eleven, PBS re-ran the series, and I became an avid fan. I even taped 'em on our Betamax, and annoyed my friends by incessantly whistling the theme over and over and over again. When PBS abruptly stopped re-running the show, I happened to have a tape of the bizarre final episode, Fallout, and I watched it repeatedly every couple of months until our Betamax finally went to that big Thrift Shop in the Sky circa 1982. For those wondering exactly what manner of dork I am, it's worth noting that I first heard the Beatles "All You Need Is Love" when it was played ironically over the closing gunfight, and I mistakenly thought it was a Monkees song. To this day, I can't hear that song without thinking of a smiling Patrick MacGoohan and Leo McKern gleefully gunning people down.

(The good stuff starts around 1:45)

Circa 1991, ABC re-ran the series in their late night slot, presumably because they were having production problems with their 'Crimetime' lineup. It might have had something to do with the ongoing Writers Strike, or perhaps there was just a lingerie shortage that cut into their ability to film new episodes of Vendetta and Silk Stalkings. Who knows? Anyway, I was re-introduced to the show by my then-roommate, Miguel Cielo, who asked me if I'd ever heard of it. I had only vague, but positive memories of the machine gun thing, the general weirdness of the series, and of playing the not-very-good Prisoner computer game put out by Eduware in the early 80s, so we rented a few. Then a few more. Then a few more. It was like falling in love with an old girlfriend again after an absence of many years.

For those not acquainted with it, The Prisoner tells the story of British Secret Agent John Drake (Patrick MacGoohan), the star of the earlier Danger Man and Secret Agent TV series, though he's never actually called by the name 'Drake' in this final series, there's any number of internal clues that he's the same character. In the opening credits of the first show, Drake angrily storms into his superior's office, slams down a resignation letter, and then goes home and starts packing for a long trip. A mysterious smoke comes in the keyhole, and Drake passes out. When he awakes, he's in "The Village," a strange self-contained little world. In actuality, it's a prison for people who 'know too much,' such as scientists, bureaucratic file clerks who happen to see the wrong information, and, of course, ex-spies like Drake.

Drake is always referred to as "Number 6"; sort of like the theme song from Secret Agent, "They've given you a number and taken away your name." The Village is run by the autocratic Number 2. Behind the scenes, pulling the strings, is the never-seen, semi-all-powerful "Number 1." No one else's numbers seem to have any significance. In Seventeen episodes, there are thirteen or fourteen number twos. (Some episodes have a couple. One guy was in two episodes, and Leo McKern was in three.) Number 1 and all the number twos want to know one thing of Number Six: "Why did you resign?" He won't tell them. Initially he thinks he's been kidnapped by "the other side" to pump him for information, but as the series progresses, we begin to feel like perhaps the Village is maintained by British Intelligence. We're never quite sure, and by the end of the series there are disturbing clues suggesting that the place is actually being run by both sides in co-operation, and that the world of the future is merely the Village writ large.

To break Number 6, the various numbers 2 embark on increasingly baroque mind games. 6 manages to escape a few times, but is always brought back. He's betrayed, beaten, drugged, cloned, possibly killed and resurrected (The Village has conspicuously higher technology than the outside world) tortured, hypnotized, and, more than a couple of times, soundly defeated. What makes this litany of awfulness redeeming, however, is that even when he's completely beaten, he never entirely loses himself. And what makes this something other than the old cliché of 'young man defeats the Roman empire single handedly' is that virtually every episode works on multiple levels: Dramatic and Allegorical. In fact, the final episode has been said by some to *only* work on the level of allegory.

In late '68, the show was finishing it's run in England, but was just breaking in the states. A publishing house decided to issue some quickie tie-in books as a way of cashing in on the series popularity. The first of these – The Prisoner #1 – was written by noted Science Fiction and Horror writer, Thomas M. Disch, who was flat broke at the time and needed the work. It was issued in early '69 in the states. In all there were three books. 2 and 3 were written by some hacks, and I've never tried to find them. This one seemed likely to have promise, however.

Disch had several strikes against him: (1) He'd never actually seen the show; (2) He wasn't allowed to actually *answer* any of the central questions of the series (Who is #1? Why did #6 resign? Who runs the village? What the hell was the deal with 'Fallout'?), nor contradict any established rules of the show; (3) the story had to be open ended. This is torture for any serious writer. Still, they paid him his pittance and he caught three episodes in reruns, then churned out the book. Despite these publisher frustrations, the book is far better than it's got any right to be. It's not great, it's not a marvel, it's not Camp Concentration, but it's not wholeheartedly boring like On Wings of Song. Neither is it hilarious like the Puppies of Terra, nor is it just disturbing like The Genocides. What it is, is a pretty good vintage-era Disch story with an sort of disappointing ending, but with many good moments that almost, but not quite, make up for this.

Essentially the book gives us the equivalent of three or four new episodes. As the final one is open-ended, let's say three-and-a-half episodes. The first one picks up after the final episode of the show, and basically undermines it to an extent that will be frustrating for any real fan. Essentially it's a variation on the theme of 'Arrival', the very first episode of the show. #6 (Disch never uses his name, and seems unaware that #6 is, in fact, John Drake) resigns from his job, tells his girlfriend about it over dinner, and then wakes up in The Village. Interestingly, aside from some déjà vu, he doesn't remember it. There is a vague suggestion – as there was in the series – of whether he's in the same village, or if there's multiple identical ones elsewhere in the world. He meets #2, finds 17 films of his previous adventures in the village, watches one of them ("The Schizoid Man") and makes a failed escape attempt.

In part two, he makes a more successful escape, getting back to London, where at first everyone seems to be conspiring against him to prevent him from reporting to British Intelligence about what's happened to him. In the end, though, it turns out that London is simply a massively dysfunctional city, and that's the kind of thing that happens to everyone. This is the best, and by far the funniest part of the book.

Part three is another escape attempt, played out during a performance of "Measure for Measure." There's some interesting speculation about the nature of #6's relationship with his girlfriend back in London, and the relationship between #s 1 and 2, as well as some nice twists and turns. This could easily have been one of the middle episodes of the series, and is easily the equal of some of the weaker episodes like "Dance of the Dead" and "The Girl who was Death." In the end, betrayals and twists ensue and while the escape is (apparently) successful for some, I won't say for who or why.

Part four is the 'hurry up and wrap this thing up' phase of the book. After some apparent brainwashing, #6 is promoted to #2, and meets #1, but, you know, maybe not. After all the fooferawl leading up to it, this is rather anticlimactic.

On the whole, it's not bad. Not a classic, but not an embarrassment, either. The dialog is quite good, the escape attempts are rather clever, and the themes of paranoia and social alienation are largely themes Disch ordinarily plays with, so he's deft with them in this venue. In short, it feels like the Prisoner, for the most part, despite some unfortunate shoehorning in the beginning and end. It fails in it's conclusion, and it's higher themes of the rights of the individual and the responsibilities to society are strangely absent, so most of the stories don't really play out on multiple levels like the show generally did. Thus it wouldn't hold up to repeated readings, but it feels right at first blush. It manages to avoid the feeling of an author aping someone else's style, unlike most Trek novels and other media tie-in books.

(I first stumbled across this book during the ABC rebroadcast of the Prisoner, but thought nothing of it. A few weeks later, while reading Miguel's copy of "The Prisoner Companion" I saw a mention that the thing had been written by Disch, who was already a big mojo writer with me. I ran back to the store, but it was gone. I looked around – not too intensely – for the next berjillion years and only just stumbled across a copy this last weekend, so it's comparatively rare. On the whole, I enjoyed it, and it's well worth picking up if you see it.)

Though it doesn't quite manage to become actual literature, that's not really it's own fault and can't be held against it. It's a knockoff, after all, written for spec in a time of financial distress, and one goes into those with lowered expectations, even if the author was once told that he was the reincarnation of John the Baptist by Philip K. Dick. In the end you get what you paid for, and sometimes, as with this, you get a little bit more: I paid a whopping 46 cents for my copy. I got easily fifteen bucks worth of enjoyment out of it.


I think so. There's nothing that would make you wave a flag and pump the air chanting "USA-USA-USA," but the whole mistrust of those in authority making decisions we won't like 'in our best interests' is a theme that plays well with our set.