The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine Gives Us a New Free Man

A man with a shadowed face, wearing a 70s-style boating blazer, stands with his hands dramatically upraised. Behind him is a white sphere with a face and hands pressing out of it.

The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine

Simon Bowland (letterer), Joana Lafuente (colorist), David Leach (editor and original plot), Colin Lorimer (artist), George Markstein (co-creator), Patrick McGoohan (co-creator), Peter Milligan (writer)
Titan Comics
October 31 2018

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

My childhood was filled with charming experiences of my father shouting, “I am not a number! I am a free man!” for no good reason, preferably at highly inappropriate times. “We want answers. You won’t get them!” was also in the rotation, along with “Vote for me/I’m for you/Vote for me/Six for two!” Why did he say these things? That’s kind of a trippy existential question, really, but the source of these particular quotations was his all-time favorite British television programme, The Prisoner. (They’re programmes rather than programs in Britain.)

A man with a shadowed face, wearing a 70s-style boating blazer, stands with his hands dramatically upraised. Behind him is a white sphere with a face and hands pressing out of it.
That jacket is the iconic look of the original Prisoner. My dad had a replica of it made for him recently. His first cosplay!

The Prisoner, for those of you who aren’t familiar with late ’60s British television programming, was a show inspired by one part James Bond and three parts “mind-expanding pharmaceuticals.” It was created, written, directed, and starred in by Patrick McGoohan, along with many others. It revolves around the experiences of a secret agent who, after resigning from his job, is captured and held prisoner in a beautiful seaside town (short in scenic Portmeirion, Wales), surrounded by people trying to interrogate him in various ways, and fellow prisoners, though it’s very unclear which team or teams any given person is playing for at any given moment. The Prisoner, whose name is never given, is assigned as Number Six. Number Two, working on behalf of the mysterious Number One, uses a wide variety of methods to attempt to get information out of the Prisoner, usually by somehow causing him to doubt his perception of reality. There are also weird floating white balloons that capture him whenever he tries to escape. It’s all quite surreal.

The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine is a comic adaptation of the property. Colin Lorimer brings an art style somewhere between that of contemporary espionage comics such as The Fade Out and a style more reminiscent of the spy comics of the ’60s and ’70s. Joana Lafuente captures the essence of the 35mm film color palette of the original. Peter Milligan is one of the most well-established names in mind-bending British comics, thanks to his runs on Shade the Changing Man, Tank Girl, Hellblazer, and more. His sensibility fits nicely with The Prisoner, and it seems likely that the original programme was an early influence on him, given that he was born in London in 1961.

I had my father read my review copy of The Uncertainty Machine, and he said, “It’s a good story. Very entertaining and solidly based on the original.” I agree. It’s a tightly plotted reimagining of the original, with the time period left somewhat vague, and presumably a new prisoner, named Breen, finding himself in the role of Number Six. Number Two and various others mess with his mind in insidious ways, trying to get answers out of him.

My father added, “If I had a complaint, it would be that too much is revealed. One of the great attractions of The Prisoner is the Kafka-like theme of not knowing who or what is behind the Village. All we know is they want information. And they won’t get it.” The Uncertainty Machine establishes much more about Breen’s career, life, and associates prior to his capture than we ever knew about the original Prisoner. It’s suggested that he was assigned to deliberately get the attention of the Village in order to investigate and stop them, though Breen and the reader are both quickly given reason to doubt this. By the end, Breen seems to have uncovered the bizarre truth behind the Village, an event the original programme studiously avoided in order to preserve its sense of mystery and surreality.

The Prisoner: The Uncertainty Machine is an excellent spy comic that fits well into its five-issue format, and it does a marvelous job of using elements from The Prisoner. Its team made different decisions about some fundamental aspects of the property, which makes it slightly less effective as nostalgia but possibly much more effective as a story of its own.

Annie Blitzen

Annie Blitzen

Columnist. Trans mom. Got married in a Captain Marvel dress to a lady in a Wonder Woman dress.