Forget the remake—the original Prisoner still rocks!

Contributed by
Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

I've owned a standard-definition box set of the 1960s television show The Prisoner for several years, but I never made watching it a priority because the content on it (in terms of both duration and depth) looked too formidable to tackle in even several sittings.

Even slapped into slimline DVD cases, there seemed to be too many episodes (since most sets feature several episodes per disc), and given the debates over their order, not to mention the commentaries and supplements, the show just seemed a little too big for me to breach. (Not to mention the fact that my most recent mystery-show context was Lost, where I was feeling like nothing would ever be explained.)

Then someone—okay, the new Blu-ray box set—revealed that there were only 17 episodes; and further, AMC's A-list reimagining suggested this was a show that deserved, if not demanded, to be examined. Ironically, however, that slim little Blu-ray package proved to be surprisingly deceptive—albeit not because of its own bonus content, of which there's a ton. Rather, the show is such a buffet of big ideas that it's impossible to absorb them even on an episodic basis, which is why the original show is both a foundation for AMC's update and a terrific addendum for folks who were not fully satisfied by the new series' short-lived mysteries.

The '60s show starred and was co-created by Patrick McGoohan, an actor probably best known by modern audiences as Braveheart's Edward Longshanks. McGoohan plays a top-ranking government agent who is kidnapped after he unceremoniously resigns from service and subsequently plopped down in a mysterious, rural community known as the Village. Given the title "Number Six," he soon discovers that the overseers on the Village want to know not only what he knows, but what's he's going to do with that knowledge. While butting heads with authorities—including a variety of folks known as Number Two—Number Six stages escape attempts, subterfuge and other sorts of mischief in order to get away, or at least to discover the truth about his idyllic prison.

The new Blu-ray set offers the best possible format for viewing the show: Remastered in high definition, the episodes glow with a luster that they haven't had in decades, if ever. Much as with the Blu-rays for Star Trek: The Original Series, the anachronistic nature of the storytelling is both enhanced and made fully modern when accompanying images that look this bright, clean and clear. Unlike the set's standard-definition predecessor, however, this carries no discussion, at least in the packaging, about the designated order for the episodes, which have been subject to discussion since the series debuted in 1967. Instead, the set presents the episodes in the order of their original air date, which quite frankly is as reasonable an order as any, since most of the stories are self-contained or feature vague references at best to any sort of concrete timeline.

What's most amazing about the show, however, is not how vivid it looks, or the way it's chronologically presented, but what its stories contain—quite frankly, some of the most radical and intellectual concepts in television history. There are more obvious themes that run throughout the series' duration, including the dangers of totalitarian regimes and a deep-rooted sense of paranoia and distrust of authority figures, but there are individual episodes that deal with brainwashing, scientific experimentation, hypnosis, dream therapy and manipulation, and the very notion of identity. Sometimes these are explored intellectually or even physically, but they predate the comparatively featherweight mysteries of stuff like Lost and cut much deeper, and offer fascinating (and sometimes downright chilling) deconstructions of what we perceive reality to be, and why.

At the same time, these ideas sometimes come at the expense of a larger sense of cohesiveness or purpose, even if they're utterly fascinating. In one episode, "The Schizoid Man," Number Two brainwashes Number Six into believing he's Number 12, and then convinces him to pretend to be Number Six when an impersonator shows up. The number of ideas just in the conception of this scenario is staggering, but it's completely unclear why Number Two would want Six to be someone else, especially since he most wants what's in Six's head. I say this not as a criticism but as an observation of the creators' complete and total commitment to serving a universe of double crosses, betrayals and misdirection, even if it occasionally comes at the expense of a clear or understandable narrative. There's something undeniably entertaining about watching Number Six restore himself after being brainwashed, but is the transformation into Number 12 for his benefit or for ours?

Suffice it to say that question doesn't have a right, or even better, answer, but unlike modern shows that essentially filter their ambiguities through the number of commercial breaks in a given episode or a collected season, these ideas are examined in a substantive and singular way that also manages to be self-contained where it needs to be. While Number Six's escape attempts are huge and ambitious and ingenious, there's as much excitement in seeing how and whether he'll be thwarted as in whether he'll be successful, but you always know whether it's one or the other at the end of an episode.

In addition to the episodes, there's a feature-length documentary, "Don't Knock Yourself Out"; two new featurettes; original edits of several episodes; commentaries; trailers; an image archive and a DVD-ROM production paperwork archive, all of which add up to a more or less complete portrait of the series' history, even if some of its secrets remain unanswered. But what stands out maybe the most about this set is that the series that it's built around still feels fresh and modern, which is no doubt why a reimagining could work so well. Again, however, it depends on one's point of entry whether this collection is background material, a point of origin or further viewing for fans. But I suspect that no matter why you're watching it, this set will ensure that The Prisoner is not just the name of one of your favorite science fiction shows, but a description of you once you start watching it.