The Prisoner #1 – ‘The Uncertainty Machine’ – Comic Review

Publisher: Titan Comics
Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Colin Lorimer
Pages: 35

Half a century on, The Prisoner remains a truly landmark piece of television. Much like Twin Peaks some quarter of a century later, Patrick McGoohan & George Markstein’s series adds definition to the era it was made while remaining defiantly *in*definable. A 16-part series for British TV channel ITV, The Prisoner ostensibly concerned an intelligence agent—known only as Number Six—who, after quitting for undisclosed reasons, finds himself captive in The Village – a strange, quaint British seaside town filled with nebulous intelligence operatives looking for why he left the service. This, however, is just the base layer.

The Prisoner was much like a set of Russian dolls in terms of narrative and comprehension – every answer just seemed to lead to another question. It remains one of the most fascinatingly bizarre TV shows ever made, on British TV or anywhere else, steadfast in its refusal to provide conventional narrative storytelling; indeed the more its star McGoohan took control of the reins, the stranger the concept became. McGoohan edged it away from being a quirky spy thriller (and possibly sequel to his earlier hit series Danger Man) and further into an allegorical, surrealist farce designed to commentate on the evolving idea of big government and deep surveillance on society. By the end of its final episode, ‘Fall Out’, his message was clear. *Everything* is the Village.

Much as The Prisoner held a mythological core that remained devilishly out of reach, with the show never answering the key questions everyone believed it would in 1968—principally, the identity of the force behind the Village, the unseen Number One—you equally felt that the further away the show edged from the 1960’s, the more it should remain a signature piece of popular culture in television of that decade. McGoohan never tried to make more, and while for years there were rumblings in Hollywood of a movie remake, mercifully this never happened. A TV remake, however, did; starring Jim Cavieziel & Ian McKellen, it tried and failed to update the thematic ideas McGoohan laid down for a new generation. The Prisoner, surely, could never truly be replicated.

Props, therefore, to Titan Comics and writer Peter Milligan, because with this first issue there is a strong feeling they might well have managed the almost impossible. ‘The Uncertainty Machine’, in essence, is a prologue to what, daringly, is a modern-day sequel version of The Prisoner, holding to the same continuity beyond ‘Fall Out’. Half a century later, the Village still exists, and Milligan looks set to frame this strange conceptual prison in terms of modern ideas about technology, surveillance and the deep state. In many ways, this might well be the perfect time to bring back a show so paranoid and absurdist as The Prisoner, and one only hopes the deeper down the rabbit hole Milligan takes this revival, the stranger he will dare to venture.

This prologue is more linear and straight-on in establishing a new protagonist. Much like the classic credits sequence of The Prisoner depicts how the agent (John Drake, anyone?) comes to be part of the Village and named Number Six, so ‘The Uncertainty Machine’ uses this first issue to do the same for our new character: Breen. He isn’t just a number, he has a name, and for the majority of this story he’s a free man – or is he? Breen if anything feels more aware than the original Number Six did at the outset that a stranger world exists beyond the curtain, that perhaps a great deal in his life is being stage-managed in order to get him to all-pervasive Village, for purposes unknown. Milligan coats the tale, consequently, in an ominous sense of foreboding. Breen may well be in the Village before he even gets there, which is what McGoohan’s Number Six often found.

Colin Lorimer’s artwork really helps sell the nature of The Prisoner revival too, beyond Milligan’s intriguing and creeping words – he compliments the writer neatly in shading out a modern 21st century Britain in his panels which remains, oddly, anachronistic; this isn’t a slick digital world filled with innovations, indeed everything about ‘The Unit’ within MI5 that Breen works for remains purposefully timeless and, if anything, retro-1960’s in its futurism. It serves to keep you as off-kilter as Breen finds himself once the mission parameters are established, and Lorimer uses a range of colourisation to depict various different aspects to Breen’s story; the shadowy browns of the Middle East or the drained texture of the MI5 offices. It captures a similar aesthetic to the 1960’s show.

You sense that aesthetic connection will only grow in subsequent issues, once we fully begin to embrace the Village setting, which is no bad thing. The Prisoner manages something hugely difficult with this first issue – re-establish the conceptual idea of the near-mythical Village, set up a new Number Six while giving him a potential female foil (much like McGoohan often had, particularly in earlier episodes of the show), and successfully update the idea into the 21st century while remaining uniquely British and culturally aware of how rooted in the 1960’s the show is. Not an easy task, but one Milligan and Lorimer together make work.

Where will The Prisoner go? Who knows? One thing is certain: this is easily one of the most exciting and potentially daring, not to mention topical, revivals of a classic property in comic form for a long time. Be seeing you for the next one…

The Prisoner #1 is now available to buy from Titan Comics.

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