Disc Five - Definitive Versatile Discs
What do I mean by definitive? Well, first up it isn’t the discs with the most special features. If we used that as a basis for comparison then no set would ever be truly definitive as there are always more puff pieces that could be added. I’m using definitive to mean a disc which realistically couldn’t be made any better. A package where the diminishing returns from adding more material would reduce the overall effect. I’m including everything except Doctor Who DVDs in this piece – they get their own article eventually down the line – be it a single disc or a boxed set. I hope it comes across as a celebration and recognition of the effort some people put into DVD releases in a market place where a lot of corners are cut and a lot of companies are content to release circular VHS calibre titles.
Lord of the Rings 4 Disc Sets
These are a classic case of further extras beign available. The 5 disc sets with the free figurine obviously have an extra disc with them (some kind of National Geographic documentary if memory serves) and the cynical cash in early 2 disc release contains a whole disc of extras which aren’t included in the 4 disc sets. But the 4 disc sets are so well thought out that it is hard to fault them. Apart from having only a 50% success rate as far as the placing of the end-of-disc-one that is. The first film has the gap placed so perfectly that it actually feels like it could be the end of film one in a six disc saga. The second film is rather clumsier. But the extended films are, by general consent, superior to the shortened theatrical cuts. One could claim that the producers deliberately shot too much footage so as to drain more money out of the viewing public but anyone who has ever sat down to read LotR can testify that it is a staggeringly long book and trying to tell that story in nine hours isn’t ever going to be easy. As someone who has never seen the theatrical cuts I don’t find the extended versions to be obviously padded or clunkily extended with cutting room floor scenes. And the extras are immense. Four themed commentaries and two extras discs which tell their own story. The packaging is attractive and, hopefully, robust enough to last. I have no doubts that further releases will come (by the end of 2004 each film will have already been released a staggering five times on DVD – 2 disc, 4 disc, 5 disc plus statuette, 6 disc theatrical boxed set and 12 disc directors cut boxed set). But it would take a massive effort to top that already presented. Possibly future discs with massively increased capacity could see the release of one twelve hour film with further material added during the re-editing process but as things stand it is hard to imagine a film getting better treatment. My only complaint is that even I don’t have enough time to watch everything and I’m a tragic loser with no life.
The BBC have a curious attitude to DVDs. When the can be bothered to try they come up with some absolutely superb titles. But most of the time they just cannot be arsed. Little Britain is the pinnacle (so far) of their comedy output. Eight episodes across two discs – each episode looking superb as it should given their youth – plus a special features package which neatly gives us summery of who Matt Lucas and David Walliams are and where they came from without it coming across as a self indulgent celebration of themselves. The commentaries explain the production of a pretty complex show. Walliams especially speaks with enthusiasm and wit about the whole process. Elsewhere we get a fifteen minute package of clips from a charity show where they did several live sketches. We see the pilot episode (a feature repeated with the audio CD release of the first Radio 4 series), a compilation of Rock Profiles clips (a series they made a couple of years ago and which was a fixture on UK Play before it became Play UK and then UKTV Food) and a bunch of deleted scenes. Considering the random broadcasts that the first series had on BBC3 (where I thought I’d watched every week and still only apparently caught three and a half out of the eight episodes) this DVD is essential. And it costs as little as £12 which five years ago would’ve bought you a video with eighty minutes of "highlights" if you were prepared to pay another quid.
The Tomorrow People
This is a classic example of what I meant about it not being a matter of quantity of extras but the quality of them. Aside from text based bits and bobs (some of which are quite interesting to flick through) there is only one extra feature on each disc. Thankfully it is worth the price of admission on its own. The Tomorrow People commentaries are gaining a reputation as the best in the whole DVD industry. Treading a fine line between taking the piss out of the programme and merely taking the piss out of each other, they are a joy to listen to. Indeed, I’ve long since stopped actually watching the programmes. I get the discs and watch them with the commentary on. Because the Tomorrow People is crap. I’m sorry if you’re a fan but it is. Even the best stories (such as "The Blue and the Green") are awful. But awful in a good way once you’ve pressed that audio button. Nicholas Young is a brilliantly witty man. And so charming and likable that his occasional lapses into very un-PC humour raise a smile. The quality dipped a little once Peter Vaughn-Clark left (though he came back to "moderate" at last once) as Mike Bell lacked PVC’s wit. But even the worst of them proves a fascinating insight into a show made under frequently difficult circumstances for no money and whilst treating the actors like dirt. And they’re funny too. When the extras are better than the main feature you know you’ve either got a staggeringly bad main feature or some superb extras. The Tomorrow People earns its laurels by having both. It’s like MST3K but without the crap sketches and with genuine affection.
Ripping Yarns was always served badly by VHS. The BBC decided, for whatever reason, to turn each tape of three entirely separate stories into a ninety minute omnibus. They were slapped out with no real care and those VHS tapes formed the basis of the original Ripping Yarns DVDs. Whoever this company was they were deranged enough to think that people would pay £20 for three chopped episodes with poor picture quality. The show deserved more and thanks to Network it got more. It got fully restored prints, a choice (where the tapes existed) between the soundtrack and the soundtrack with audience laughter, commentaries on all nine episodes (Palin and Jones were only booked for four but enjoyed themselves so much they insisted on coming back to do more), episodes uncut (and in one case extended slightly) for the first time, scripts in .pdf form from Michael Palin’s personal collection, an extremely rare programme they made which was thought lost, a documentary about Palin and Jones and all packaged in a box designed to look like a boys own novel. It is a niche product and one which would probably have sold similar numbers with only a fraction of the effort.
There were a number of titles which I considered but ultimately didn’t include for various reasons. Clerks X was going to be included but I haven’t actually seen it yet. With the original cut and a new Kevin Smith 2004 cut, a feature length documentary and lots of other bits and bobs it will surely be included in the director’s cut of this column in the future. The WWE release "The Ultimate Ric Flair Collection" is ten hours of Ric Flair matches over trhee discs and would have been guaranteed a place except that Flair’s career was so long and so magnificent that they can (and no doubt will as it was their biggest selling DVD ever) do a second volume. With Flair vs Vader (Starrcade 93) and Flair vs Sting (Clash of the Champions I) both absent from the URFC, along with one of the legendary Steamboat trilogy, it cannot be considered definitive. Besides, he got great matches out of Lex Luger and none of those are on the URFC so a second volume is needed to prove he wasn’t just the best wrestler of all time but he was a bona fide miracle worker. The James Bond discs were considered but although they are all very well made, the inevitability of 2 disc Ultimate versions renders them ineligible. Besides, aside from the Brosnan ones, none of them feature their Bond in a commentary so there is realistic scope for improvement. I could go on and on – it’s a subjective issue as some people don’t care about extras and other care more about the minutiae of the features than they do about the main feature.
DVDs cost more than their VHS counterparts. VHS has quickly become a minority format and yet you can still go into WHS or HMV and see the latest movies or series side by side with the DVD costing appreciably more. Once upon a time this could be explained by DVD being aimed a collectors and VHS at the general public but that is no longer the case. DVDs are cheaper to physically produce, transport and stock so it is a mixture of studio greed and the cost of the extra features which keeps the price high. So extra features aren’t so much a free gift as a piece of the package for which you are paying real money.