Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner

Recently I started investigating the works of author Thomas M. Disch, a well-known horror author and generally remarkable fellow who committed suicide in 2008.  His book The M.D.: A Horror Story was one of the books I read in my younger days, and it has always stayed with me.

I was delighted and surprised to find that one of Disch’s early works was a novel about the classic television show The Prisoner!   Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner (1969) serves as a non-canonical sequel to the original series:

dischprisoner

The book is in a sense an ideal situation: if anyone could, or should, have recreated and extended the original series, it is Disch.

If you aren’t familiar with the 1960s television series The Prisoner, you really should be!  The story concerns a British secret agent, played by awesome actor Patrick McGoohan, who retires from the job unexpectedly and without stated reason.  While preparing to go on ‘holiday’, he is gassed, and he awakens in a strange community, referred to only as “The Village”.  The Village is unique, with curious, eclectic architecture, its own style of dress, and odd culture.  Friendly on the surface, it is actually a prison and interrogation camp with a friendly face, where all inhabitants are identified only by the number assigned to them.  The secret agent (now known as Number Six) has been brought to The Village in order that its masters can determine the actual reasons for his resignation, or, as they put it, “We want information.”  The public face of The Village, an ever-changing official named Number Two, works as the nemesis of Number Six and attempts to break him.  Hidden, but running everything, is the mysterious Number One — and it is not clear ‘whose side’ operates The Village.

The series spans seventeen episodes which follow Number Six’s attempts to escape, resist the pressure of his captors, help others in The Village, and investigate its authorities.  The series has very strong science fiction elements in it, and some of the episodes are so bizarre as to defy description.  The final episode is entirely a political allegory and makes no sense aside from its metaphorical imagery, and is pretty much an acquired taste on the order of four-year-old Dutch cheese.  (Which, I should note, I actually like.)

It is fair to say that The Prisoner is one of the greatest television programs of all time, if not the greatest.  It would be hard to repeat it or follow it, and many people are nervous about the in-production remake due out in 2009.

Disch’s novel appeared soon after the end of the series and was clearly designed to capitalize upon the popularity of the show (and the outrage the last episode generated).  The novel begins in a curiously ambiguous way: a man (presumably Number Six) dines and flirts with a charming lady friend on the eve of going on permanent holiday.  He is drugged, however, and wakes up The Village, in a scene which is eerily reminiscent of the very first episode of the series:

She wiped the towel across the plastic joke that hung above the low entrance to the kitchen: YOU DON”T HAVE TO BE CRAZY TO WORK HERE — BUT IT HELPS!  She glanced back to see whether he had noticed, whether he would laugh.

“Could you tell me the name of this town?  Please.”

“Village, you mean.” Pouting, she gave the plastic another swipe.

“Very well, the name of this village.”

“Because towns are bigger.  I don’t care for towns, myself.  They’re impersonal.  People forget that you’re a human being.  And we’re all human beings, you know.  Do you want toast?”

“No, thank you.  If you–”

“Negg?”

“No. I –”

“You don’t look like you’ve had breakfast.”

“I’m afraid I got off the train by mistake.  That’s why I asked the name of this village.  It does have a name, doesn’t it?”

“You must take me for some kind of simpleton, Mister.  I suppose next you’ll want to know what year it is?  And then maybe how many shillings in a pound?”

Although the book is advertised as a sequel, it is unclear on reading it whether it is really a sequel, since the events mirror the original series so well and Number Six has no recollection of being in The Village before!  This is an excellent, clearly intentional, mindfuck by Disch that occupies a significant part of the early novel.

Inevitably, Number Six comes into conflict with Number Two.  This Number Two is even more aloof than the ones in the series, only appearing to Six on a video monitor!  These conflicts result in two truly ingenious escape attempts by Number Six, as well as the usual Village shenanigans (Number Six is told that he’s just been elected the new Mayor of The Village, even though the election hasn’t been held yet).

The story culminates in a number of excellent, hard-to-spot twists and turns, and a rather uncharacteristic love story which turns out to be quite significant.

For those true fans, it is worth noting that one learns quite a bit about the mysterious amorphous non-human security guards of The Village (Rover), and by the end of the novel, the identity of Number One is revealed!  This identity is at odds with the revelation of the last episode of the television series (which isn’t directly addressed in the novel), but serves to make a broader point and, like the original series, raises just as many questions as it answers.

The  beginning of the novel I found confusing and slow-going, but it picks up speed and in the end is a worthy successor to the television series, with a quite satisfying ending.  As I said, Disch was the right man to continue the saga of The Prisoner.

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3 Responses to Thomas M. Disch’s The Prisoner

  1. Blake Stacey says:

    A few months ago, I discovered that the last episode of The Prisoner almost makes sense. . . if you watch the five previous episodes in a row.

    DVD box sets can be a horrifying thing.

    • Blake: At one point, I think I had about five different interpretations of the last episode, ranging from the extremely literal to the completely allegorical. Nowadays, I just sit back and enjoy the crazy ride!

      You’ve reminded me that I need to break out my Prisoner box set and watch a few episodes again. Dance of the Dead is now my favorite episode…

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