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Graphic Novel Review

Book Cover

The Prisoner
The Uncertainty Machine (Paperback)


Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Colin Lorimer
Colourist: Joana Lafuente
Publisher: Titan Comics
RRP: UK £13.99, US $16.99
Age: 17+
ISBN: 978 1 78585 915 1
112 pages
Publication Date: 13 November 2018

MI5 agent Breen has been ordered to break into the most secure and secret intelligence location in the world, codenamed the Village, and either rescue or liquidate his fellow agent – and lover – Carey, before vital information she is carrying can be extracted. Subsequently, Breen awakens to find himself renamed Number Six, a prisoner of the Village and its mysterious controller, known only as Number Two. Now Number Six is about to discover that, when it comes to the Village, nothing is what it seems and reality is fluid, as he struggles to unwrap the mystery of the place and the secrets behind its true architect…

It’s been half a century since the original UK transmission of the cult spy-fi series The Prisoner, and three decades since DC produced a comic-book continuation in the form of Shattered Visage, so it’s fair to say that a graphic revival of the concept was long overdue. Be aware, however, that this is not The Prisoner of old. Certainly the opening chapter of The Uncertainty Machine doesn’t feel much like its parent show.

This is not a flashback to the 1960s. The setting is very much the present day, as evidenced by artist Colin Lorimer’s (The X-Files, Hellraiser, Blackout, Millennium) depiction of the refurbished interior of King’s Cross station and writer Peter Milligan’s (Shade the Changing Man, Enigma, Rogan Gosh, X-Statix, Hellblazer) references to Airbnb, Millennials, Isis, the Euro and austerity.

The hero is a brand-new Number Six, an MI5 agent named Breen (which makes it a bit cheeky of Titan to depict the original Patrick McGoohan version on the cover of this graphic novel). The old prisoner appears in just a single panel, during a gas-induced hallucination – though he is also possibly alluded to by Breen’s boss Section, who (looking not unlike a young Jacob Rees-Mogg) states that only one agent has ever escaped from the Village.

In stark contrast to McGoohan’s Number Six, whose identity and motivation for resigning remained an almost total enigma throughout his 17 episodes, we learn a great deal about Breen. He is just as tough as the previous Six, but more sympathetic, getting emotionally and romantically invested in ways that McGoohan’s character never did. The writer (working from a story by editor David Leach) spends most of Chapter One setting up Breen’s background, not transporting us to the Village until 20 pages in. Compare that with the opening instalment of the television series, which arrived at the location within its first few minutes.

There are some characteristically bizarre touches, though, even before we reach the gilded cage, such as a man in a black-and-white check suit playing chess, Breen driving an ice-cream van, and a top-secret artefact that is accessible only via a transparent walkway to a rocky precipice. Numerical in-jokes are dotted throughout the episode, such as Breen’s vow to be the second person to break out of the Village: “Then I’ll be number two.” When we have a flashback to a few days earlier, guess how many days it is – that’s right, six! For a moment, it seems as if the writer is trying too hard to match the original show’s idiosyncrasies, when Breen asks a friend in a pub, “Do you ever have the feeling that there’s something monstrously surreal… just beyond your vision?” However, it soon becomes clear that the agent is trying to attract the right kind of attention with his comments.

With little mystery surrounding the new prisoner or his prison, Milligan sets up a new puzzle instead. What is in the box that Breen liberates from the inner sanctum? By this point, you will want information.

The second chapter is decidedly more Prisoner-esque, coming across like a pastiche of the offbeat original. Though there are a few more current references, such as the use of a video remote control, the writer throws in numerous familiar elements, including the Village’s courtroom, its human-size outdoor chessboard, the beach, a whole bunch of balloon-like Rovers, and a fistfight between the hero and some hapless guards. As the new Number Six finds himself echoing his predecessor’s catchphrase about not being a number, there is a meta moment as he thinks to himself, “I suddenly feel like an actor, repeating lines said by another man.” In a fantastical flashback / hallucination scene, we even see Number Two astride the show’s famous penny-farthing. Milligan may well pull the wool over your eyes regarding a subsequent shocking development by making some scenes seem more surreal than others…

Meanwhile, the look of the television show is well captured by Lorimer, who re-creates the Village beautifully, and provides lots of moody close-ups and expressionistic Dutch angles.

Happily, a handful of scripting and lettering errors that affected the original monthly issue of this episode have been rectified in the graphic novel.

Chapter Three changes tack again (finding a third way, you might say) by remaining true to the spirit of the original while expanding upon its established universe. The psychodrama element of the show remains intact, but it gets a technological upgrade via the use of virtual reality. If anything, the hallucinations become even more outlandish, including nightmarish visions of giant spiders and other monsters.

The Village’s resident beasts, the Rovers, also benefit from some development. Here Breen discovers where the deadly balloons are housed – in an underwater chamber that looks horrifyingly biological. Encased in what appear to be blood-red tendrils or sinews, one gets the impression that the Rovers might be eggs or, even more disturbingly, tumours.

There are also more familiar images to keep nostalgic fans happy, such as another fistfight between Number Six and a guard, and a couple of shots of a Rover smothering its victim. One or two of the elderly residents of a psychiatric ward visited by Breen might also stir intriguing feelings of recognition. Who do I mean? That would be telling!

Recalling the head-scratching finale of the television series, the concluding chapter of The Uncertainty Machine appears to show Number Six getting back to London with surprising ease. But is he really a free man? Fans of The Prisoner should be able to guess the answer to that… Offering an explanation for the peculiar events of the episode Fall Out, it is suggested that the Village is not so much a place as a state of mind – and how can you escape from that?

Echoing the look of the parent programme, the prisoner drives home in the same make of car as his predecessor, the distinctive Lotus Seven (but without the private plate KAR 120C). However, a pair of bowler-hatted, umbrella-wielding guards bring to mind another iconic 1960s show, The Avengers.

Commendably, the writer takes the bold step of actually revealing who (or what) Number One is. This formidable intelligence cleverly manipulates several major characters into doing exactly what the Village wants them to do, even as those characters believe that they are acting upon their own free will.

The ending is rather abrupt, and Section proves to be something of a blabbermouth considering he’s the head of a British Secret Service department – but otherwise this is a highly effective conclusion to the book and a satisfying coda to the classic series. I will admit that I was not immediately hooked by The Uncertainty Machine, but my appreciation grew as the story unfolded, and by the end it had well and truly taken me prisoner.


Richard McGinlay

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