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You shouldn’t have interfered, Number 6. You’ll pay for this… September 29, 2009

Posted by John Hodson in : Television, Film & DVD Reviews , 5 comments

The Prisoner comes to Blu-ray; well, most of it…

A couple of Christmases ago, in the 40th anniversary year of its first broadcast, Network produced a truly scrumptious gift for admirers of Patrick McGoohan’s enigmatic, emblematic, trail-blazing puzzle wrapped in a conundrum that is The Prisoner.

That boxed set, a digipak of DVDs, plus Andrew Pixley’s wonderful book of production notes, proved near nirvana not only for that army of obsessive fans of the TV series, but for those who simply, like myself, recall it as fascinating, unmissable, wonderfully crafted. And, let’s face if, downright screwy. In both picture and sound, it was The Prisoner as never - well, not by myself and I would guess by millions of fans worldwide - seen before. The series was accompanied by a host of wonderful bonus materials; interviews, features, photographs, commentaries, on and on. It couldn’t possibly get any better than this. Could it?

Well, now it has.

The Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

Network’s newly released The Prisoner on Blu-ray initiates a sheer sensory overload, every single one of those 2,073,600 high-definition, on-screen pixels smashes through your retina and into your occipital lobe as blindingly vibrant, new - no - better than new. Minute details can be picked out, Portmeirion never looked so lush, the costumes and production designs never looked so…so damned ’60s, while at the same time appearing to have been shot yesterday.

Happily, Network appear to have taken on board fans’ niggles over the first set - a handful of audio problems, incorrect credits and the like - and put right those wrongs. The audio (it’s transferred at 24fps so there is a scintilla of difference from PAL video’s 25fps) is not lossless, but the mono track packs a delightful punch, those lightening crashes and McGoohan’s incandescent desk thumping, wakening the sub-woofer from its slumber. The 5.1 track, for those that want it, is a distinct improvement over the abomination that was included with the previous set. It’s a thing of genuine, eye-popping, ear-caressing, beauty. Now, surely it can’t get any better than this. Can it?

The Prisoner on Blu-ray pack shot

The packaging eschews the digipak of the previous set and goes for a big black coffin of a box with, nestled in storage pockets inside, all six discs economically stashed within one translucent blue case, Pixley’s paperback novel sized ‘notes’ - exactly the same book as with the previous box - alongside it. Maybe they thought both in a small slipcase would appear to undervalue such a big release with an rrp of £59.99, or maybe they are simply anticipating a day when the book will no longer be included, and the 6-disc box will be sold alone. It’s quite pretty, but another storage nightmare. I think the box may have to go into storage (i.e. the loft).

I can’t say any better about the contents of The Prisoner on Blu-ray than point you at James Gray’s excellent DVD Times review, complete with screenshots and a full rundown of the plethora of extras, and you can see snatches of the HD content on YouTube here, here and here.

I must however point out a small problem. Several folks have reported problems playing (ironically) disc six of the set on their BD machines. When my box arrived, I thought I’d better check it out as a matter of priority on my Samsung BD-P1500, and sure enough, after whirring uselessly for a few seconds up popped a terse on-screen message - ‘This disc can not [sic] be played’ - and it was disdainfully spat out.

Disc six, being one of two DVDs of extra features in the set (the only extras in hi-definition I can find thus far are the on-set photographs), was quickly popped into my DVD player…and accepted without problem. Very odd; so only a couple of hours ago I contacted Network via email, and in just a few minutes received a reply that they were ‘looking into it’. Within the hour came this thorough reply from Production Assistant Tim Berry, to whom I’m very grateful:

Following my previous email, we have looked into the issue you raised with the final disc of the Prisoner blu-ray set and have a likely explanation for your problem. We suspect it may be because the final disc includes the PDF content for PC/Macs, and it appears that this may not be compatible with all BD players, depending on the manufacturer.

To put PDF content on a DVD we make the DVD into what is called a ‘hybrid’ so that it can contain both ‘DVD video’ and ‘DVD ROM’ content. As a blu-ray player is more computer based than it is DVD (using more codes, etc.), all blu-ray discs are effectively BD-ROMs, so players need to read both the ROM and video elements on a blu-ray disc in order for it to play. It would appear that some companies are manufacturing BD players that first try to read the ‘ROM’ content on any disc – whether blu-ray or DVD - as opposed to the video element of the disc first. With disc 6 of The Prisoner, your BD player appears to be trying to read the PDF files, which are only playable on PC/Macs and declaring the disc unreadable before attempting to read the DVD content.

We are unsure how many players would behave in this manner. Blu-ray technology is still in its infancy and some manufacturers are still working out how to make their players compatible with previous technology; we do know, however, that the PS3 and Sony350 are able to play these discs. We can only apologise for any convenience caused but I hope that this email goes some way towards answering your question.

…Blu-ray production is completely new territory for a lot of companies and inevitably, just as when DVD replaced VHS, there will always be an element of trial and error - both on the part of the distributors and the BD player manufacturers - in order for the technology to develop and improve.

While we at Network are aware of how a blu-ray disc is read, we had never been in any situation to made aware that some manufacturers may not have taken into account, when making a BD player compatible with previous technology, that it will need to read video elements first. The variety of players we used to make and check these discs worked were programmed to read them correctly, with no problems and it is the aim of manufacturers to ensure that DVDs can continue to be played on BD players. We put a lot of research into our release and it’s a problem that has never been brought to our attention up until now.

This is obviously an experience we will learn from for our future releases and I’d be surprised if the manufacture [sic] who made your BD player was not already aware of this flaw in their production also. It may be worth contacting them directly though, to make clear the specific problems this has caused you - they may even be able to offer you a suitable solution to this problem.

Fair enough, but, gentle reader, the plot thickens. Stap me for a fool, but it didn’t occur to me until tonight to try other ‘hybrid’ discs in the BD player to see if Network’s finger pointing holds water. 2|entertain’s ‘Doctor Who’ releases of Inferno and Genesis of The Daleks are hybrid discs and Network’s own Man In A Suitcase set also features discs containing PDF content. All booted up in the Samsung in a trice. I’m sighing - can’t you hear me sighing?

I’m reliably informed that disc six of The Prisoner set works fine in a Panasonic BD35, an unspecified Sanyo, but is also ejected from the budget Curtis machine - so it does appear to be some kind of player specific issue, an authoring problem, or possibly a bad batch of discs (or a combination of any of those) - oh dear, time for another email to Network.

Number 6, as always, is proving a tough nut to crack. Be seeing you.

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