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The first volume of Nicholas Briggs' remake of the classic ITC series The Prisoner was a risky move for Big Finish. After all, a remake in 2009 had failed to take off, and since then, rebooting the franchise had seemed a risky prospect. I suspect that even Big Finish didn't expect the first volume to take off as much as it did. And, just as that first volume was one of the best releases of 2016, this second set of four stories is one of the best releases of the year as well. All four stories are amazingly put together, with fantastic scripts, amazing acting and peerless soundscapes, and two of the four episodes I'd argue stand as two of the best hours of material that Big Finish have ever put out, in its near 20 year history.
'I Met A Man Today'
The first episode, "I Met A Man Today," is a fairly loose adaptation of the TV episode "Many Happy Returns." Of course, there were many who believed that this episode could never be adapted for audio, mostly because the original doesn't feature any dialogue for the first 20 or so minutes, as it depicts Number 6's attempts to escape from the deserted village. So, adapter Nicholas Briggs has had to take a different approach. Instead of focusing upon his escape, we instead get a much more developed relationship between Number 6 and Mrs. Butterworth (called Kate in this version). This is a perfect angle to take, not just on audio, but to bring this episode into the 21st Century. I absolutely loved this episode, mostly because of the way Briggs focuses upon the characters of Kate and Number 6, meaning that this feels very different to The Prisoner episodes we got in the first set. Most of the story is composed of intimate character scenes between Number 6 and Kate, as they try to get to know each other without revealing too much about each other's pasts and motivations. This makes the conversation between them stilted and awkward, which could translate poorly in a medium where it's all driven by dialogue. However, here, it works, for two reasons: one, Nick makes sure that it doesn't feel painful and difficult to listen to, and two, Mark Elstob and Lucy Briggs-Owen are amazing together. They have an instant rapport together, and the conversations between them feel natural and honest. I feel that here, and indeed throughout this box set, Elstob starts to finally cast off the shadow of Patrick McGoohan, and step out as his own, distinct Number 6. Because of the risk involved originally, both Briggs (not just in the direction, but the writing of it as well) and Elstob continually tried to hue back to shades of McGoohan's performance: not a direct copy, but an attempt to emulate how he might have said the lines, had he played them. In this set, however, with the audio version established as its own entity, Elstob has a greater license to experiment, and his interpretation of Number 6 is much more fully formed and interesting here. Throughout this set, Briggs gives Elstob material to really get his teeth into, and he rises to the challenge magnificently. He has made the part his own, and helps to make this emotionally charged episode one of the best of this new version of The Prisoner so far. "I Met A Man Today" is possibly one of the finest things Big Finish have ever put out, and stands as a testament to everything that Big Finish clearly want to achieve with The Prisoner.
If "I Met A Man Today" was possibly one of the finest things ever released by Big Finish, then "Project Six" is certainly one of the finest things Big Finish have ever released. Clever and gripping in equal measure, this is a perfect example of why The Prisoner has endured in the hearts of so many fans: it's clever, convoluted, difficult to follow, and you're not entirely sure how much of it is actually taking place. The CD cover says that this story is an adaptation of A, B, and C. However, I'd argue that this is pretty much an entirely original creation. Sure, Number 2's plan features phases named A, B, and C, and the story is about manipulating Number 6's sense of reality, but, other than those details, this is more about Number 6 attempting to work out if he has been drugged, whether he is hallucinating from malnutrition and then, in the final third, seizing a chance to escape from the Village once and for all. This is a roller-coaster ride of an episode: the story powers along with great conviction and drive, as each layer of reality is exposed. Briggs plays around with reality in various ways throughout this box set: "I Met A Man Today" is careful never to confirm or deny whether or not Number 6 is back in London, and "Living In Harmony" plays with the idea that the moonbase is just another illusion. However, Project Six is the episode that really drives this point home, featuring whole sections of narrative that are illusory. It helps that Briggs is skillful with his use of this technique. Some writers would struggle to try and sell you the idea that each scenario was real, yet tease us with hints that everything that is happening is an illusion. The other standout part of this episode is Lucy Briggs-Owen, who plays a fantastic Number 2. When this box set was first announced, I could never imagine that she would play this part, and I was amazed that she could carry it with so much conviction. While she is superb in the previous episode as Kate, I feel like it is here where she gives her all. And she is phenomenal, without a doubt. She captures the manic intensity that the part demands, yet avoiding becoming wacky or twee. She's definitely my favourite Number 2 from the Big Finish remake, and she's probably my Number 2 of all time. Here, she becomes a shoe-in to play the Fourteenth Doctor when Jodie Whitaker leaves, definitely. "Project Six" is a amazing example of a writer/director, a cast, a sound designer, and a composer all working at the very top of their game, to achieve something truly remarkable, with a cliffhanger that will leave long-term Prisoner fans dying to know what happens next.
'Hammer Into Anvil'
After the highs of the first two episodes, you might be forgiven for thinking that nothing could follow that with any grace. While "Hammer Into Anvil" isn't quite as good as its predecessors, it's still a very enjoyable episode that lays some interesting hints for the future of The Prisoner series, with a simply terrifying Number 2. If you know the TV version, then you will be familiar with the major beats of this version: Briggs decides not to stray too far from the major plot points of the story. We get the scene where this Number 2 tortures a patient to death, where Number 6 decides to bring him down and Number 6 succeeds in driving him mad. We even get the "you must be hammer or anvil" line. What Briggs has cleverly decided to do is to tighten the story up, and, like the first story in the set, decided to focus upon the emotional heart of the story. The connection between Number 6 and Number 2 is genuinely interesting, as it provides some interesting parallels with Number 6's relationship with Number 9 from the first series. 6 has definitely softened, and it'll be interesting to see where this is taken, especially after the events of episode 4 (more on that later). It certainly affords Helen Goldwyn (who has voiced all of the Village Clones since the series began) a chance to get her teeth into something that isn't just the same cheery optimism that she's mastered to a fine art by now. But the standout here is definitely John Heffernan as the deranged Number 2. While Lucy Briggs-Owen was almost playful in the role, Heffernan plays him as a paranoid maniac, who believes that everyone is out to get him, to the point where any single moment of defiance is jumped upon with manic glee. While he was cool and detached in "I Met A Man Today," here, he's ranting and shouting, swearing damnation upon everyone until it's too late. His scenes with Elstob are wonderful: they bounce off each other wonderfully, as each try to gain the advantage over the other. While probably the most disposable story in the box set, this is in no way a criticism of its content, as "Hammer Into Anvil" proves to be a fantastic adaptation of an already strong Prisoner episode, and sets the stage beautifully for the finale.
'Living In Harmony'
And so, we arrive at the wholly original story in the box set, "Living In Harmony." Of course, Prisoner aficionados will know that the title of this story has come from the TV series: specifically, the episode where Number 6 becomes sheriff of an old Western town. And, in a way, this version of Harmony shares a similarity with that one: it twists The Prisoner out of its loose regular format and says "the show is like this for one week." However, that's where the comparisons end, because this goes in a very different direction than its predecessor. To take the setting of the Village and transplanting it into a futuristic moonbase is a great idea, and feels both a very retro and a very contemporary idea. It even feels a little like a re-run of "Departure And Arrival" from the first set at points: we have Number 2's tour of the Village (read: moonbase), Number 6's initial encounter with Rover, and Number 90's plan to escape Harmony. But, even in the warped and twisted world of The Prisoner, something seems off right from the start. There's something not quite right about this set up from the get go, a feeling in not just Number 6, but the audience as well. This is fueled by the presence of "Number 90" who, to the listener and Number 6, is Number 9 in all but name. It's wonderful to welcome Sara Powell back to the series, especially considering the shocking manner of her death in "Your Beautiful Village." A lot of the story revolves around Number 6's attempts to find out why it seems that she is here, and Powell and Elstob slip back into their dynamic as if they never left. This series has certainly played with identity, namely with John Heffernan and Lucy Briggs-Owen's characters, but Number 9/90 represents perhaps the strongest indication of where this series is going. Number 9's presence is crucial here, as she finds herself slipping into the role Number 6 took on in the first set: the cold, hardened figure, desperate to escape and destroy the Village at any cost. Here, however, we get a shocking revelation that (SPOILER ALERT) Number 6 doesn't want to destroy the Village. Not really. Sure, I'd say the moral dilemma at the end is a little forced, but it develops points laid down at the beginning of this series, and sets up a potentially very interesting future for Number 6 and The Prisoner series going forward. "Living In Harmony" is a very clever episode that ends this series of The Prisoner in a very interesting and unexpected way. While it's not quite as good as the previous three installments, it's still a strong finish to a fantastic season.
This release also comes with a bonus disc of Behind The Scenes extras, featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
Overall, this is a near perfect set of stories that build fantastically upon the work done in the first set. While certainly a long wait, it's been well worth it, as each story feels like a lot of time and effort has been put into it. The regular cast (Elstob, Helen Goldwyn, Jez Fielder, Sara Mowat, Barnaby Edwards and Jim Barclay) are all present and correct, each building upon their work in the previous season really well. Nicholas Briggs' turn as director is once again highly appreciated: he knows what he wants from his performers, and gets pitch-perfect performances as a result. And the sound design and music from Iain Meadows and Jamie Robertson respectively once again is the cherry on a pretty perfect cake. Even if you weren't sure after the first volume, this second box set will pull you truly on-board with The Prisoner at Big Finish. And with its labyrinthine storytelling, intriguing characters and fantastic twists on stories you know and love, this is everything fans of The Prisoner, both on audio and on TV, can dream of. But, to be honest, get it for those first two episodes, which are two of the best things Big Finish have ever done, especially Project Six. i Volume 2 cannot be regarded as anything other than an unqualified success.