The hot holiday home video guide

"Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides" is the fourth film in the series and part of the set.

Story highlights

  • Lots of film sets out for the holiday season, including "Lord of the Rings" and "Jurassic Park"
  • "Law & Order": The Complete Series offers the show's entire 20-year run
  • There is also plenty of "Doctor Who" available
Over the next two days, I'll be spotlighting some of the best and brightest content recently arrived on home video for the holiday season. I have divided it into a few rough categories.
For lack of anything more reasonable, I've decided to do as follows: Today, I'll be writing about the more modern film and television sets (heavy on the TV), while tomorrow will be devoted to classic film and TV, kids' vids, a couple of really killer sports sets and stocking stuffers.*
Got it? For the sake of having a dividing line, I am counting anything pre-1990 as "classic."
Battle of the geek icons
This year has seen the release of three of the all-time geek touchstone series on home video: a classic that originated on film ("Star Wars"), an adaptation of a literary legend ("Lord of the Rings") and a modern culture phenomenon (the Harry Potter films). The question I am sure all, some or none of you are asking is: "Mark, If I was going to buy one geektastic movie set this holiday season, what should it be?" Well, I'll tell you.
I'm a fan of all three film series (well, half of "Star Wars"), "The Lord of the Rings" is my favorite book, and I love all of the Potter books and most of the films. All of these sets are worth owning. (Although I haven't seen the new eight-film collection HP set, I am sure it's amazing, but I am also willing to bet that there will be an even more "complete" one in 2012 including all the extras from the "Ultimate" editions.) But there is one that stands head and shoulders above the rest.
"The Lord of the Rings" Trilogy: Extended Edition
This is pretty much "one set to rule them all," and if the movie fan in your life didn't pick this up over the summer, it's the perfect present. The sound and picture are amazing (although there is a certain amount of debate regarding the changes in the color palette between the theatrical and extended editions), the extras run for hours and not only that, the films are exceptional.
"Jurassic Park" Ultimate Trilogy
Buy this. Seriously. Go to the store now. The sound and picture are over the moon. It's serious "abuse your neighbors" time. The original "Jurassic Park" is still a great film, and I actually like the third film better than the second. Plus, this Blu-ray release is rather amazing! There's a new six-part doc spread over the three discs, and for a few extra bucks, you can get the gift set, complete with a limited-edition T-rex.
"Pirates of the Caribbean" Four-Movie Collection
Four films, 15 discs, serious sound and vision. What's not to like? If you're a fan of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" films and dig combing through hours and hours of extras, this is for you. Of course, if you've already got the first three films and don't care about 3-D, then save your coin. It's not worth the extra money just to get the chest, but as a whole series (so far) set, it's a nice collection. Of course, there is a fifth film in the works ...
Kicking it off is the mother of all TV show sets, "Law & Order": The Complete Series. The full 20 years of this groundbreaking series are presented on DVD for the first time as a complete set, and for fans of the show, it's a must-have. The number of actors who went on to become TV or movie stars could easily be a drinking game for TV nerds. The first episode alone had John Spencer ("The West Wing"), Rocky Carroll ("NCIS"), Ron Rifkin ("Brothers & Sisters") and Daniel Benzali ("Murder One") as guests.
That said, there are a few odd things about the set, not the least of which is the relative paucity of extras. You'd think there would be at least one extra full disc for a 20-year run. The most glaring absence? Commentaries. None. Zip.
There are the great "Homicide: Life on the Street" crossover episodes; profiles of the late Jerry Orbach, Fred Thompson and Jesse L. Martin (but none of the other stars); a few other featurettes; and some deleted/extended scenes. The season one mini-doc with series creator Dick Wolf is pretty interesting, as you realize just how hard it was to get a gritty police procedural shot on 16 mm with no stars, on a network schedule. All in all, "Law & Order" was an exceptional series, and relative lack of extras aside (after all, the actual episodes are the real jewels), this would make any fan happy.
"Friday Night Lights": The Complete Series (DVD)
The hardcore fans of "FNL" often describe it as the best show in the history of television, and while I am not quite ready to anoint it as such, I will say that they aren't far off. I haven't seen the original film, and I hear it's damn good, but this ... this is one of those extra-special shows that comes along only once in a very long while. There is a fair amount of extras, including deleted scenes and audio commentary, but as with most truly fantastic entertainment, the genius is in the episodes. Alas, it's only on DVD. Do me a favor and write to Universal and beg for a Blu-ray release of this show. It deserves it!
"Farscape": The Complete Series
If you're a casual fan of this excellent and reliably quirky series from 1999-2003 and already own the DVD set and a good up-converting player, you'll probably not need to pick this Blu-ray setup. That said, I think it looks great and, most of all, sounds amazing. While it's true that the episodes were taken from the European PAL masters rather than the original film negatives -- and that's a shame -- it's still rather stunning. There are 31 audio commentaries, copious mini-docs, deleted scenes and a new doc, "Memories of Moya." What is not included is the series-concluding "Farscape: The Peacekeeper Wars" miniseries, since Lionsgate owns those video rights.
"Band of Brothers"/"The Pacific": Special Edition Gift Set
I missed both of these exceptional HBO miniseries when they first appeared and hadn't seen them on home video or TV since. While I'm probably not going to persuade someone who hasn't seen them to take a chance on a pricey gift set, if you're a fan of the miniseries but don't own it on Blu-ray (or know someone who would appreciate it), this set is cheaper than buying both sets individually, has an exclusive extra ("He Has Seen War," a new documentary that examines the postwar lives of veterans of both series) and looks and sounds amazing. When done right, I am continuously amazed by the Blu-ray experience, and HBO has done it right.
(Full disclosure: HBO is owned by CNN's parent company.)
The Whoniverse:
"Doctor Who": The Complete Sixth Series
The most recent season of what is for my money the best sci-fi series running on TV today arrived on Blu-ray Tuesday, and for any of you who watched the show on BBC America: Buy. This. Now. Here's why: The show is produced for the BBC, a network that doesn't have commercial interruptions. As a result, the show is not written with ad breaks in mind. Do yourself a favor and watch the show the way it was intended. The BD looks and sounds amazing, and the extras are pretty cool, including the long-talked-about "Night and the Doctor" additional scenes, as well as commentaries (although none with Matt Smith or Karen Gillan, alas), prequels and other such goodies, although I am not sure why the prequels can't be played before the actual episodes they are attached to.
"Doctor Who": The David Tennant Years (DVD)
As many of you know, The Doctor occasionally regenerates (and therefore, the actor who plays him changes), and since his return to TV in 2005, he's worn three faces (Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith), with arguably the most popular being that of Scottish actor Tennant. This well-designed set includes every Tennant episode and special, from 2005's "The Christmas Invasion" through the 2009-10 two-parter "The End of Time," including various animated spinoff series and a whole load of extras, audio commentaries, deleted scenes, etc., etc. It's entirely in DVD, which is a shame, considering the four specials that bridge the gap between series 4 and 5 are available on Blu-ray. That said, it would be significantly more expensive to produce some sort of a hybrid set, and I love my Tennant Years set!
"Torchwood": The Complete Original UK Series
If you watched the recent attempt by Starz and BBC to Americanize the series, I am sorry. If you liked it, good for you, but please, watch these episodes, now.
The UK series is fantastic. While "Doctor Who" aired in the UK around the more kid-friendly time of 8 p.m. (it was still often scarier than most U.S. series), "Torchwood" was a bona fide adult show, airing at 10 p.m. and often scaring the crap out of me. That said, there's continuity between "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood," and both take place in the same Whoniverse, so if you really want the full experience, do your research and watch the episodes of "Doctor Who" and "Torchwood" in their intended broadcast order.
*All are Blu-ray releases and available now unless otherwise noted.