Matthew Kresal will not be pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed, or numbered!
In 1967, Patrick McGoohan and ITV released The Prisoner onto an unsuspecting public. In the nearly fifty years since then it has become an iconic cult series that has remained both a product of its era yet timeless enough to find new generations of fans. It's perhaps no surprise then that Big Finish, the company now famous for producing audio dramas based off Doctor Who and Blake's 7 amongst other properties, and writer/director Nicholas Briggs have brought their talents and energies to bear on a new take of the series. Did they succeed or did they, as many feel about the 2009 TV reimagining, merely create something that was The Prisoner in name only?
Much of the success of the original series was down to leading man Patrick McGoohan and his presence, something that makes casting the iconic role of Number Six all the more difficult. Rather than going for a well known name, Briggs chose Mark Elstob for the role in an inspired piece of casting. Elstob's performance, as well as Briggs' scripts, give a flavor of McGoohan while also not imitating him. Those familiar with the original series will recognize the brooding and defiant former secret agent who finds himself slapped with a number in place of a name and apparently trapped in a prison calling itself "the Village." Elstob though also brings an air of vulnerability to this Number Six, especially in the set's third episode, as well as presenting perhaps a softer side to the character. It's a strong performance and one that firmly anchors the set.
Surrounding Elstob is a superb supporting cast. Like in the original series, there's a rotating series of Number Two's (the one who appears to be in charge of the Village) in the form of John Standing, Celia Imrie, Ramon Tikaram and Michael Cochrane who all bring their unique talents to bear on the role. Of the four, Standing and Cochrane perhaps come across the best with them both finding just the right balance between charm and menace in their appearances and interactions with Number Six. That isn't to diminish the strength of the performances from Imrie or Tikaram who both bring a determination or forthrightness to their Number Two's.
Beyond them are the villagers. Sara Powell's Number Nine is an intriguing character whose origins can be traced to various female characters in the original TV series but who becomes a major reoccurring character here, acting as something of an ally to Six in the Village. Big Finish stalwarts Helen Goldwyn and Barnaby Edwards play a number of different roles with Goldwyn voicing the ever present loudspeaker voice made so memorable in the original series. Rounding off the cast in the final episode of this set is Kristina Buikiate as Number Eight who plays the role splendidly.
What stands out just as much as the cast is the writing. Nicholas Briggs has a clear love for the original series and it shines throughout the four episodes of this set. While initially controversial in some circles, the decision to effectively remake or reimagine three episodes from the TV series on audio was a wise decision. Doing so allows the listener to hook onto the series, hearing familiar stories being not so much retold but presented in a new light. The Schizoid Man, the famous doppelgänger episode, comes across incredibly well on audio and proves a perfect example of how to bring a visual story to life on audio.
Yet this is not a slavish recreation if the original series. The third episode, Your Beautiful Village, is an episode that could only really ever be done on audio due to its plot and how it plays with the setting. There is also a brief glimpse of Number Six before his arrival in the Village that draws some elements from the TV episode Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darling yet doesn't give anything way. There's the Village itself which is undeniably recognizable as the one from the TV series but, in keeping with it, also has a mix of the 1960s with the more futuristic. This Village has tablet computers, flat screen televisions and many amenities familiar to 21st century listeners but that serve to baffle Number Six upon arrival. What's clear is that Briggs isn't afraid to make changes, though none that distract from the elements of the original series.
With this set, Briggs and Big Finish might have done something that seemed unlikely to ever happen. With a mix of strong casting and writing, they've created a new version of an icon that is both familiar yet fresh and exciting at the same time. Fans of the original series will have much to enjoy and recognize while new listeners can take in an incredible tapestry that mixes 60s espionage with thriller and sci-fi elements.
Or to put it another way: Welcome back Number Six...we've missed you.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.