In Features, Issues

The Prisoner | Dune | Quatermass and the Pit | Raumpatrouille Orion

Although original television programming is often derided by cineastes as a wasteland of self-important doctor dramas and faux-edgy sitcoms, there have been those rare times when a person or show has actually transformed the cathode-ray tube into a forum for debate of serious issues while also providing a quirky self-examination of the invasive nature of the invited flicker-box guest itself.

Take, for example, "The Prisoner," a unique work of televideo genius without genre or precedent. Seemingly an allegory of strident individualism trying to take root in the shifting moral sands of a world gone mad, the program exists because British television producer Lord Lew Grade owed star Patrick McGoohan a favor for the "Secret Agent" series that the actor had helped make so popular in Britain in the 1960s. McGoohan originated the concept of "The Prisoner" and wrote and directed a number of episodes. And though there are many talented hands in the birth of this prodigal show (notably script editor George Markstein), in the end it really is McGoohan’s show in a way that very few other performers can claim. Every episode’s success or failure rests on McGoohan’s conviction in playing Number 6, a character waging a never-ending struggle to maintain his identity and humanity against the tireless forces of social and political oppression. Conceived for 17 one-hour episodes, the series is like a hellish free-form jazz session in which themes are introduced, played with and transformed from show to show.

"The Prisoner" tells the story of an ex-British secret service agent (McGoohan) who is abducted from his home one day and taken to "the Village," a sinisterly quaint island town where every citizen is identified by just a number. In each episode McGoohan, called Number 6, faces off against "Number 2" who, using psychological mind games, tries to force Number 6 to reveal his reasons for leaving the service. Meanwhile Number 6 alternately tries to escape from the island and to discover the identity of Number 1, the person who must secretly be pulling his strings. The series builds to a wildly surrealistic finale that famously outraged British TV viewers, managing as it does to simultaneously explain all and none of the series’s provocative riddles.

McGoohan’s face, an eternally anguished question mark haunted by the self doubt of the truly righteous, is perhaps the greatest asset that the occasional writer and director could ever have been blessed with for this role. Mixing James Bond, Franz Kafka and Herbert Marcuse, he and co-conspirator Markstein created enough dramatic material for any number of feature-length films (indeed, a long-awaited "Prisoner" feature is forthcoming with Simon West directing), but instead they saw fit to bless us with a TV series that hasn’t aged a day in terms of relevancy. It’s probably the only series Ayn Rand might have admitted to watching.

In the U.S., A&E is releasing "The Prisoner" in a series of two-disk boxes, while in England, Carlton Video has released all of the episodes as a five-disk box in a colorful slipcase showing an angry McGoohan. Both sets contain an alternative version of episode #2 ("The Chimes of Big Ben") with different title music and additional scenes, artwork and still galleries, bio material and a documentary overview of the entire series called "The Prisoner Companion" that, frankly, sucks. Interestingly, whereas the British edition presents the episodes in order of airing, the American release has placed the episodes in what is widely regarded as McGoohan’s preferred viewing order.

Another singular piece of television sci-fi from England is a marvelous PAL Region 2 kinescope of the 1957 live-TV version of Nigel Kneale’s science-fiction classic Quatermass and the Pit. Originally in six weekly half-hour installments, this three-hour black-and-white mini-serial was eventually shortened considerably and filmed in color by Hammer Films in 1967 with the same title (the American release was rechristened "Five Million Years to Earth"). The film version has been widely seen, thanks to a terrific-looking Elite Entertainment restoration a few years ago, and is rightfully considered a thought-provoking classic of the genre. But this more colorful and expansive version pales in comparison with the original TV production, which with much more claustrophobic production values establishes an almost documentary-like recounting of events that keeps you on the edge of your seat. Briefly, the story begins with the discovery of "human" remains at a construction site and escalates into a delirious melange of scientific, religious and supernatural explanations, finally blossoming into a philosophical denouement that is not without spiritual debt to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. Along the way, the always-prescient Kneale predicts an SDS (Star Wars)—type missile defense system and a prototype of virtual reality. Some wonderful performances and a script so tight, smart and packed with ideas it’s truly astonishing, "Quatermass" has lost none of its power.

This is probably one of the best-looking kinescopes I have ever seen; in fact, for most of its running time the flaws inherent in this early tape-to-film transfer process go completely unnoticed unless a character suddenly moves quickly from one side of the screen to the other and their edges get jaggy. It helps that the original PAL format, running at 25 cycles a second, was captured by a film camera running at 25 frames per second. The framing seems a little tight on all four sides, but it is not detrimental and sometimes adds to the story’s claustrophobia. Will some enterprising acquisitions person pick this up for U.S. release, please?

And then there’s the extended TV version of Dune (35 extra minutes!), directed by "Alan Smithee" from a screenplay by "Judas Booth" (don’t worry, David, your secret is safe with us). Far be it from me to recommend a venture that takes one of the best science-fiction films of the 1980s and lobotomizes it for the lowest-common-denominator TV viewer, but if you’re a fan of this film there are many compelling reasons to seek out this idiot-savant Frankenstein edition. First, the negatives: the complexly layered sonic environments designed by Alan Splet have been stripped from this mono version and replaced with wall-to-wall music and greatly simplified (in many cases redubbed) alien voices and sound effects; the film-to-video transfer is awful; the cropping of Smithee’s sprawling 2:35 frame to TV’s comparatively minuscule proportions destroys many of this epic’s most powerful moments; and the print is too contrasty, poorly color-timed, and crusted with enough dirt and hairs to make you think they pulled the whole damn thing off the editing-room floor. It’s pretty easy to tell the new footage from the old when the quality shifts within a scene, but it’s especially fun once our intrepid heroes meet up with Dune’s inhabitants, with their blue-within-blue, optically enhanced eyes. In one shot everyone has blue eyes, and in the next they don’t. (It makes for one hell of a drinking game. Hint: vodka with blue food coloring looks just like the film’s Water of Life.)

Now here’s the reason why you need to own this: the extra 35 minutes of footage ranges from a sentence inserted within an existing scene to the reinstatement of full scenes that help to delineate some of the film’s finer plot points and deepen our understanding of the characters. In fact, there are a couple of cut scenes that are so good that you won’t believe they were pruned from the theatrical release. Unfortunately, there are also a number of bogus scenes cobbled together from previously existing footage and patched into place with rheumy narration that has to be heard to be believed. But this PAL Region 2 DVD project was obviously a source of pride for those involved in its production, evidenced by the epic credit page (music, motion, the works) the disk’s creators have allocated to themselves via the main menu. The DVD offers the film in 16 less-than-comprehensive chapters with beautiful full-motion menu screens and an amusing juxtaposition of chapter titles (Chapter 5 is "The Conqueror Worm"; Chapter 9, "The Worm Conqueror"). A theatrical trailer and a nice booklet that folds open into a miniature reproduction of the film’s poster round out this highly flawed but overall worthwhile package.

Finally, there are the indescribable joys of "Raumpatrouille Orion," a German-made TV miniseries from 1966 that seems to have fallen from an alternative universe in which Fritz Lang directed Barbarella instead of Metropolis. Wow! Are you concerned that you’ve never heard of this show? Don’t worry, nobody has. I can’t find any English-language sources of information on it, so just knowing about it feels all the more subversive. The setup is the typical "international crew on a spaceship" story; think "Star Trek" in black and white with a German-speaking crew in dark tights. It goes without saying that there’s lots of questionable science. The usual exploring of mysterious worlds and fighting alien enemies happens in between bouts of political intrigue and angst-filled character development. Of course, since I don’t speak a word of German and there are no subtitles, I could be reading more into all this than is actually there. But in terms of production value, set design and special effects, this show is a treat for the eyes. The bridge of the titular Orion is all curves, lights and silver knobs at odd angles. The underwater base of our main characters contains a glass-ceillinged dance club/bar where expressionistically oversize fish right out of The Lady from Shanghai swim about as patrons dance "futuristically." There’s a shuttlecraft with multiple bubble windows, laser pistols that power up with protruding spearheads, huge circular monitor screens with whooshing numerical displays — the list goes on and on.

The series’s eight-episode run is presented over the course of two DVDs (available separately and as a set) decorated with extras such as a target game you can play with your remote, a Bavarian TV show reunion of the show’s cast 20 years later and a retro-futuristic music video set to a remix of Peter Thomas’ dreamy sci-fi lounge music. The whole thing is accompanied by a nicely designed photo booklet. The film-to-video transfer of these PAL Region 2 disks appears to be fresh and is stunningly beautiful. You can practically see the price tags on some of the kitchen hardware that doubles as props. Paramount’s supposedly restored "Star Trek" episodes should look half this good.– Scooter McCrae


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