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It takes a Village (to make a Prison)

By Kurt Kuersteiner Monsterwax Monster Trading Cards) for The Wrapper Magazine

 

It was the most innovative TV series of its time (some say ALL time). It was television's first mini-series. It was censored by CBS. It was confrontational and controversial. It was The Prisoner- Patrick McGoohan's masterpiece of science fiction and psychological gamesmanship.

Who is Patrick McGoohan? He was the star of the popular 1960s spy show Secret Agent Man. He grew tired of the role and wanted to quit, despite high ratings. So ITC offered him a deal: Complete a 7th year of the popular British series, and ITC would give him his own series with complete creative control. It was a one-of-a-kind offer, and the resulting Prisoner series was equally unique.

McGoohan used his creative carte blanche to make a sequel of sorts to Secret Agent Man. His premise was based on a simple question: What happens to secret agents once they quit? Their confidential knowledge is worth millions to either side. Are they allowed to retire in peace? Or are they trapped in a game they can't stop playing?

Each episode of The Prisoner began with the same flashback sequence: A secret agent storms into headquarters and resigns in disgust. He drives home in a rage, unaware that he is being followed by a hearse. As he packs for vacation, knock-out gas is pumped through the keyhole of his door. He falls unconscious. When he awakes, he's in the Village- a quaint island community of unknown origin. Nobody has a name, only numbers. He's called Number Six. He confronts the Village leader, a man called Number Two. Number Six is told he's there to stay until he provides "information". He refuses, and so the stage is set for 17 episodes of cat and mouse intrigue.

It's not easy to forget seeing The Prisoner. The series was very surreal and symbolic. The Village oversaw hundreds of prisoners, ex-spies from all sides. It used all sorts of futuristic technology and manipulative social pressures to keep everyone under control. Electronic cameras kept an Orwellian eye on everyone. Double agents pretending to be prisoners also kept watch. "Guardians" (bouncers in striped shirts) show up whenever an escape attempt is made. But the most frightening deterrent to disobedience is Rover, a giant bubble that bounces across land or sea and literally suffocates anyone who dares to break the law of the Village. Some prisoners survive these attacks. Many do not.

How fitting then that a TV show starring a giant bubble would have bubble gum cards to remember it by. Oddly enough, the most recent of these sets was never produced. Cornerstone Communications had planned on doing a Prisoner set, but has recently canceled it. Apparently there were just too many problems tracking down all the characters featured in the set for license purposes. Such a problem is understandable. The Prisoner only had two continuous characters (Patrick McGoohan, and a midget named Angelo Muscat). Every week, there was a new #2 (sent to replace the previous one who failed to break #6). No doubt it would have been difficult to locate all these people, let alone get their agreement! But collectors did get two full color Prisoner promos out of the Cornerstone project. They are numbered A & B (© 1996).

(Cornerstone IT-8 card)

Another Prisoner item from Cornerstone is the IT-8 card (see photo). IT stands for Insider Trader. These IT cards were only given to members of Cornerstone's "Insider Trader Club". There are about 200 members in the club, so the cards are rather rare. A different IT card is made approximately every year, and #8 is the latest installment (© 1997). They were sent out to members along with a newsletter.

Almost as scarce is The Prisoner "chase set" to 60's Sci-Fi & Terror TV-The Sequel (Funfax, 1994). This set is black and white and numbered P1-P6. The backs have a pretty neat graphic, which unfortunately, limits the amount of text. Six of the episodes from the series are profiled, including Living In Harmony. This was the episode censored by CBS and not aired in the States during the 60s. The network claimed it was because the show included a plot twist involving hallucinogenic drugs. But the Village had used such methods before without any problems. It is more likely that CBS was scared by the anti-war theme. (The Village tries to pressure #6 to use a gun, but he refuses.) If this had been aired in the US during Vietnam, it probably would have provoked even more controversy than the series received without it! (Collectors should note there is also a numbered certification card stating the series is limited to 750 sets.)

(Chase card from 60's Sci-fi & Terror TV the Sequel)

There are also a handful of Prisoner cards (without any back graphics) in the first series of 60's Sci-Fi & Terror TV. One of these cards features the opening narration from The Prisoner series, then describes the show in general terms. The remaining three cards spot-light specific episodes. One of those profiled is entitled Many Happy Returns. This particular episode personifies the nightmarish themes weaved throughout The Prisoner. Printed below is the back text to give the uninitiated a little tour of typical Village tactics:

"The Prisoner climbs out of bed to start his morning coffee and turn on the shower, but neither work. Outside, The Village is quite and deserted. He searches The Green Dome, but there is no #2 or staff. #6 quickly gathers supplies and sets to sea on a makeshift raft. After a long and dangerous journey, he reaches England. He returns to his London Apartment and finds a new tenant, Mrs. Butterworth (Georgina Cookson). She is an older lady who is friendly and helps #6 get to his old office. His previous employers are less cordial. Because of his long absence, they suspect their ex-spy is now a double agent. He offers to locate The Village as proof. They set him up with a jet and pilot. After hours of backtracking his escape route, he locates the island. The pilot suddenly ejects #6, who then floats helplessly down to The Village via parachute. The streets are still empty. He enters his old residence. The water to the shower comes on and the coffee begins to percolate. Mrs. Butterworth enters carrying a cake and wearing the #2 badge. A glance outside confirms his worst fears: The Village is populated and back in full operation."

 

(The classic closing shot of each episode)

To underscore the downbeat endings, The Prisoner series would conclude each episode with a bird's eye view of the Village. The face of Number Six would zoom up toward the camera, but just before reaching it, a loud metallic "SLAM!" would sound, and prison bars would suddenly block his escape. Frustrating... Yet he never gave up. And in the end, he succeeded. Or did he?

The final episode angered many viewers because it provided as many questions as it did answers. McGoohan fled the country to escape the press. (He had written the last episode himself, and everyone wanted to get the scoop about its exact meaning.) He's still elusive about it today. But his silence allows others free reign in interpreting the series.

There are many clubs dedicated to this task. One of them is Six of One. They issued their own set of 64 cards in 1989. These full color British cards are smaller than typical American cards. (They measure about 2" x 2 3/4".) They're still pretty neat, except that they offer very sparse information on the backs about the front photographs. A typical description is as follows: "No. 6, new to the Village."

Like I said, more questions than answers...

(2 different Six of One club cards)

Unfortunately, that's all The Prisoner cards I'm aware of. However, there are other sets that feature Patrick McGoohan. One of them is Danger Man (the British title for Secret Agent Man). This black and white foreign set of 72 cards is also smaller than most American cards. (They measures 2 1/4" x 3".) It was printed in the 1960s by Somportex. The packs to this series offer a free identity bracelet for just 24 wrappers. Gimmicks like this are rather appropriate for Danger Man, considering his was the forerunner to the gimmick filled James Bond films. McGoohan's character had an arsenal of special spy gear, much of which is featured in the Danger Man card set. Not surprisingly, McGoohan was offered the role of James Bond before Sean Connery (but refused it).

Last and least of the McGoohan sets is the 1984 Topps release of Baby. This set was based on the Dinosaur movie from that same year, and like the movie, the cards weren't very successful. McGoohan played the part of Kiviat, an evil scientist. (The line I remember best is when he said "We take no Prisoners".) There are several cards featuring his photograph in the 66 color card set. (There are also 11 die cut stickers that go with the set.)

McGoohan has played a number of classic roles throughout his TV and movie career. He helped the Columbo series win awards with his portrayal of a murdering military school Commandant in Dawn's Early Light. He played Clint Eastwood's nemesis as the warden in Escape From Alcatraz. He was also the title character in Disney's TV special, Dr. Syn- Alias The Scarecrow. Recent movie goers saw him play the ruthless British King determined to crush Scotland in Mel Gibson's Braveheart.

All in all, McGoohan has made many contributions to both big and little screens alike. But his greatest achievement will always be The Prisoner. A series that continues to provoke debate and controversy to this day.

PS. I've since discovered another card set with some Patrick McGoohan cards in it: The Phantom movie featured McGoohan as the "ghost father" of the super hero. It's really a cameo, but he's seen in several of the cards in the set.

 


 

To read a later article on another Prisoner set, go here.

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