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reviewed by Donald Melanson

June 14, 2004 | Only a decade ago, the notion of owning an entire television series was an uncommon one - reserved mostly for Trekkies and other really obsessive fans. But now some of the best selling DVDs are regularly TV series.

These are usually divided into individual season sets, costing anywhere from $40 to over $100. But DVDs seem particularly well suited to short-lived TV series. Sure, you can own the entire run of The X-Files if you want, but it'll cost almost a grand. Series that only lasted a season or two, however, generally cost around $100 or less.

A&E Home Video has latched onto this market, releasing a number of short-lived cult television series on DVD. Two of the series that I was most interested in are shows on opposite ends of the 60s science fiction spectrum: The Prisoner and Thunderbirds.

The Prisoner: The Complete Megaset

The Prisoner is a remarkably intelligent science fiction series created by Patrick McGoohan, who also stars in the series as an unidentified secret agent captured by an unidentified group and imprisoned in a remote location known only as The Village. Each episode finds McGoohan trying to learn who his captors are and how he might escape.

No one in The Village has a name, only a number. McGoohan's character is No. 6, the leader of the village is No. 2; the identity of No. 1 is a mystery.

Like the best science fiction, it uses the form as a means of examining issues of its time. In this case, the Cold War. Although it ran for only 17 episodes in the late 1960s, the series has left an indelible mark on the face of science fiction.

Right from the first episode the series refuses to give the viewer any easy answers. We don't know who the prisoner is. We don't know why he's captured. We don't even know which "side" captured him. The series' imagery further challenges the viewer. The Village is not some cold, dark prison. It is an idyllic location, with bright and cheery inhabitants, and no walls other than a seemingly endless horizon. But it's also unnerving - a self-contained homogenous society with Orwellian touches at every corner.

A&E presents all 17 episodes on ten discs in what they call "fan preferred order". A rationale for the placement of each episode is given on each disc and it does indeed seem to make more sense than the original order in which they aired.

The quality is solid all around, with the episodes looking and sounding better than they ever likely looked on broadcast TV. A number of special features are spread across the discs including trailers for each episode, Prisoner trivia, production stills, interviews, and behind the scenes footage. The most significant bonus features are The Prisoner Video Companion, a 50-minute overview of the series originally produced in 1990, and a 25-minute interview with production manager Bernie Williams produced for the DVD. Also included is an alternate version of one episode, The Chimes of Big Ben.

The only extra not included that I would have really liked to see is commentary tracks. If not by McGoohan himself than perhaps by Bernie Williams, who does provide commentary on the behind the scenes footage. Also, with only two episodes per disc, the set seems unnecessarily stretched out. I think three episodes could just as easily fit on each disc without any comprise in quality, therefore reducing the cost (and size) of the set.

Nit-picks aside, this is an excellent presentation of one of television's best series. The Prisoner is also available divided into five sets of two discs each. Although with a show like this, you'll really want to own the whole thing, since once you watch one episode, you'll have to see the rest.

Thunderbirds: The Complete Megaset

Thunderbirds is a television series you either love completely or couldn't care less about. It is puppets we're dealing with, after all.

Following the success of his earlier "supermarionation" series, Thunderbirds was Gerry Anderson's most ambitious project to date - a science fiction series about International Rescue, a secretive family-run operation that thwarts impending disasters around the world and, occasionally, in space.

Like The Jetsons, Thunderbirds imagines a brightly coloured, excessively automated future. The Thunderbird pilots don't just run and jump into their ships - they sit on a sofa, which turns into a conveyer belt, which carries them to them to another sofa, which carries them up to the cockpit.

The puppetry work is really quite impressive, creating a world and characters that are at times odd and wonderful. And the production design by Derek Meddings (who also worked on many of the Bond films) is incredibly inspired, fusing atomic age sci-fi with 60s cool.

Much of the series draws on the disaster movie genre, which was especially popular in the 1960s. The pilot episode establishes the formula - a small group of individuals are trapped on a plane that is unable to land because a bomb has been planted on it. The episode unfolds, alternating between the internal drama of the trapped individuals and International Rescue's attempts to save them. Most of the episodes stick tightly to this formula, swapping one disaster for another and ever more ingenious means of rescue.

There's a live-action version of Thunderbirds being released this summer. The early reports are that it's aimed mostly at a younger audience, instead of fans who appreciate the camp and cleverness of the original series. I would have liked to see someone like Tim Burton tackle the project, who's shown he can make a film that appeals to kids and adults alike. Instead we get Star Trek's Jonathan Frakes, who's track record as a director is mixed at best.

"Megaset" is an apt description for this package. All 32 episodes of the series are presented on twelve discs which, like all other A&E sets, are in individual keep-cases, making for quite a substantial boxed set. There are a handful of extras including some vintage behind-the-scenes material and one newly produced program on the series.

As with The Prisoner, you can also purchase Thunderbirds divided up into sets of two DVDs. I should also note that the two feature-length Thunderbirds movies are not included in this set, but will soon be available on DVD from MGM.

Donald Melanson is the founder and editor-in-chief of Mindjack. He also writes about movies on his film blog.

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