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5.0 out of 5 stars
Some rather original and well written spin-off stories, 18 Feb. 2015
I tend to avoid reading spin-off or licensed fiction. It either ends up being a total rehash of the source material, or attempts to introduce some 'high concepts' to the franchise and ends up being a pretentious, artsy mess. But when it came to The Prisoner, I was willing to give these books a try...not least because of the lack of any real feeling of resolution in the TV series, but also because I hadn't watched it since I was a teen. I've always wondered what our hero Number Six got up to after the show was over, and rather than leave it to my imagination I finally caved and decided to wade into the murky waters of the Prisoner's extended universe.
So, which was it in the end? High-art waffle or recycled ideas? I'm actually really happy that The Prisoner Trilogy was neither. The slim novel contains three very different stories, each with a distinctive theme and tone, and all of them set some time after the events of the TV series. Each one starts with a few words from the author roughly outlining the premise of the show, which means that the bulk of the stories aren't spend going over the events of the series. Instead, the stories and characters are given breathing room to progress as if the series had continued beyond the seventeenth episode.
Think Tank, the first novella, picks up a year or so after Number Six escapes. The story opens with a chilly scene where we see all of the 'failed' Number Twos from the series being chastised by the ominous, unseen Number One for their inability to uncover Number Six's secrets. A plan is hatched to bring Six back to the Village once again, before we are launched into the protagonist's life in London. The scene almost felt like a 'pre-credits' teaser; in fact, the whole story had the feel of a pilot episode for a second series. Not only that, but it restores Number One to being a figure of mystery and power. Back in the capital, Six is still trying to get over his captivity. There's a feeling of paranoia and anxiety in the character that I never got from the show. Settled back into his life with fiancée and father-in-law, the story wastes no time in returning to the village's plotting and schemes. Six is soon returned to the village, which looks exactly as he remembered it despite the events of the series finale. The sickening, claustrophobic, feelings of pseudo-contentment remain intact. The only change that Six does notice is the strange windmill insignia that the villagers now wear, and, much like the show, Six gets straight to finding an escape from his captors. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot as there's some stunning ideas and revelations into Six's past. But suffice to say, Think Tank kept me gripped through it's fast paced spy-thriller plot, all the way from the return of some familiar faces (and numbers) through to the climax with the titular organization and the menacing cliffhanger.
By contrast, the second -- and longest -- story in the collection, When In Rome, is a much more gradual and brooding affair. Where Think Tank is the action blockbuster of the trilogy, When In Rome is a character-centric drama that slowly unfolds over the course of the story. The focus is on the village this time, making it one of the central characters in the story rather than it merely being the backdrop. Six is once again being held captive by the village, with the new Number Two hatching a scheme to break our hero by setting him against fellow villager Christine/Number 9. Only it's not long before Christine and Six pair up against their captors. With the focus on the supporting characters as much as the protagonist this time around, we get to see the inner thoughts of Two -- who seems much more malignant and aggressive than some of his predecessors -- and the genuine fear of Christine as she simultaneously tries to please her masters while colluding with Six. There are some particularly harrowing scenes where we see Christine being bullied by her masters into complying, including one memorable scene where she is 'tortured' by being forced to watch footage of Rover, the village's guardian. The author manages to weave a feeling of paranoia and distrust into the dialogue between the two captives, with neither one being sure if they can rely on each other. Meanwhile the writing has a stark, almost chilly vibe to it; there are times when the prose comes across so sparse and metallic that it almost echoes the oppressive, dictatorial atmosphere of the village. It was like I could actually feel the weight of the village's presence in the writing. But one of the things I was impressed by is that in amongst all that, the author will suddenly throw in a beautifully constructed turn of phrase or a sympathetic moment with his characters that reminded me of their need to escape. The duo continue to pair off against Two, hatching their own rebellion and plans to break free, and the eventual pay-off was so satisfying that when it came to the inevitable cliffhanger I was left with that same feeling of defeat I used to get from the TV series.
Thankfully, the momentum continued through the final novella Charmed Life, which was by far my favourite of the three. And while I'm not going to reveal the plot too much, I will say that if even a few of the concepts in Charmed Life had somehow found their way into the final episode of the TV show, then I would have been a lot happier with the ending. The novella opens with an ornate and ambiguous prologue titled 'Scene I', in which we see a newly-formed village Committee observing what appears to be some kind of medical or psychological test. From there on, we're once again thrust into village life and our hero's captivity. This time around, the Committee has ordered that an amnesiac Number Six be subjected to a series of word association therapies as part of his 'treatment' for his condition. Meanwhile, interspersed throughout the narrative are more forbidding 'Scenes' involving the newly-elected Committee of Number Twos (dubbed with lower-case letters following their number) in which the author subverts our expectations of what exactly is going on here. Meanwhile, Number Six is growing frustrated that his continual escape attempts are always being foiled. He finally concludes that if escaping the village won't solve the problem, then he must get rid of the village itself entirely and be done with it. It was at this point that I began to realise that Charmed Life wasn't going to be yet another botched escape plan; instead, the author takes a lot of risks with the story and, unlike a lot of franchise-fiction I've read, actually manages to progress the story along. In amongst the action we get a lot of insight into the village's workings, and there's some great ideas on show -- one of my favourites being the village weekdays, dubbed 'Free Day' and 'This Day' etc. Six continues to seek out a weak spot in the village until he eventually witnesses a former Number 2e being involved in an accident and becoming the latest victim of the village. From here, Six hatches a plan to expose the Two Committee by rallying the people of the village behind him to demand a full inquiry into the death of 2e. Ultimately though, Six has his own agenda: to bring down the village from within by going after its unseen benefactor Number One. The ensuing inquiry unfolds, and while I won't say anything about the novella's ending, I will say that the author manages to put a spin on Number One that completely reinterprets the character in a way that's actually quite chilling. I also liked that bringing Number One back into the fold brought the story full-circle back to the opening to Think Tank. Suffice to say, the author manages to deliver a satisfying and climactic finish, so when the eventual 'twist' was delivered I almost wanted to flip back to the beginning and read it again, if for nothing other than to tease out the meaning of the 'Scenes'.
The Prisoner Trilogy's greatest strength is its focus on character building and on emulating the weird, trippy, surreal fashion of the show. It's a rare example of 'extended media' that actually manages to expand on the ideas of the source material and then take them further. Even as a casual fan, I found the three stories in this volume really complemented the TV series. And despite my initial reticence, I actually really enjoyed returning to the village one last time. Highly recommended.