Fiction Reviews

The Prisoner

(1969/'79) T. M. Disch, Dennis Dobson, 4.25, hrdbk, 188 pp, ISBN 0-234-72059-X

(1969/'79 / 2010) T. M. Disch, Penguin, 7.99, pbk , 256 pp, ISBN 978-0-141-04940-3


Thomas M. Disch was already beginning to become well known as a U.S. writer - with novels like Mankind Under The Leash (1966) and the masterful Camp Concentration (1968), seek both these out - by the time he wrote The Prisoner (also known as The Prisoner: I Am Not A Number) in 1969 just a year following the series' release. However it was to be another decade before it made it to this side of the Pond and the home of the original TV series. (Actually its British release was the year of the 1979 UK Worldcon (Brighton) and, as it happened, Thomas Disch was there being starred at across a restaurant by a group of very young SF fans two of whom would go on to produce Concatenation. And then in 2010 there was a re-make of the Prisoner as a new mini-series which encouraged Penguin to re-release the book.

Now, Disch is an accomplished writer and not the sort of author you would at first suspect might be suited to a book spin-off of a TV series. Yet the original series was so thoughtful as well as striking, that it is worthy of a more advanced treatment. View this last as both praise and a warning. Praise, because this is a great homage to the series. A warning because those fans whose SF is almost exclusively in the form of television may not find this a particularly easy read. In fact I wondered whether Disch deliberately wanted the readers of this novel to have to work harder than they might. (For example, there is one scene early on in which we are told the butler struggled to reach for a shelf but nowhere up to then was there any reference to his height: of course the shows aficionados would know that the butler was diminutive but there are other examples.)

As for the series, here is the brief. Patrick (Scanners) McGoohan played a secret agent (possibly the UN agent John Drake from McGoohan's previous series, Danger Man) who wants to retire. Having given in his resignation, he is followed driving home. As he packs his bags, gas enters the room and he falls unconscious. He awakes, to find himself in a duplicate room in a 'village' (actually Portmeirion in Wales). Everyone in the Village wears a badge with a number; the agent's is number '6'. Many are other agents who have gone missing and who are kept by those running the Village. These 'captors', in the main, are equally anonymous: so who are the prisoners and who are the warders? Only number '2', who is clearly the head warden, and his butler (Angelo Muscat), are obviously on one side and not the other. There is frequently a new number '2' (though Leo McKern played him for three episodes) but each number '2' is always after information from number '6' as to why he resigned? Escape from the closed circuit TV monitored Village is almost impossible, as is discovering who has built the Village in the first place. With this the scene was set for one of the most enigmatic yet intelligently scripted SF series of the '60s. It seemed to have something to say about many aspects of life and politics of that time. It was popular with a mass audience (it had extremely high viewing figures for a show of its type back then) and remains a most intriguing and challenging series, even if some of the imagery is now clearly dated. McGoohan himself, and perhaps a few colleagues, created the concept. He also produced the series and even wrote some of the episodes.

Catch up over. Now onto the Thomas Disch novel.

The novel begins with our protagonist just prior to a trip to Wales. On the train he gets gassed and wakes up at a rail station of a small Village. At first he does not recognise it but soon begins to suspect that he has been there before. Nipping behind the scenes he discovers some files including some film canisters and he takes a few; they are entitled with abbreviations, and some of these clearly relate to Prisoner TV episodes. Then he makes his escape bid...

The above summary introduction to the plot does not do justice to the mirror that Disch held up to the series. Such are the complexities that, when he does escape, he views one of the films which turns out to be of the episode 'Many Happy Returns' so juxtaposing this spin-off novel, and the protagonist's circumstance with that of an actuality in the series. Also, for the seasoned SF buff whose diet is broad, there are a number of SFnal references. For example, we learn that the Village shop stocks Analog and that Jerry Cornelius must at some point have diversified into the furniture trade.

In short this spin-off is really for SF readers who also happen to enjoy the TV series, rather than die-hard Prisoner fans whose genre interests are virtually exclusive to the TV show. If you are one of the former then do seek this little delight out. If you are one of the latter then you may want it for completeness' sake; but if so, ask yourself how much you are a prisoner of your own enthusiasm?

Jonathan Cowie

Here is a review of The Prisoner Handbook of the series.

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