DVDs - they're a bit crap aren't they?

I was first aware of the arrival of DVD several years ago. One of my friends was the proud owner of a laser-disc player and was in the habit of spending a small fortune on movies that came in the form of 2 or more silver LPs. However, he then became aware of the arrival of this wonderful new format in the States and spent another small fortune buying an American DVD player and started obtaining films on things that liked look a CD. I was impressed, but not impressed enough to follow his lead at that point.

This was about 3 or 4 years ago. It was not long afterwards that DVD was officially launched in the UK, but I was sceptical about how mainstream it would become, given that laser-discs had been around for years but had hardly caught on. However, I started to realise that the format was starting to catch on when you could actually buy DVDs in my home town in Dorset, the sort of place where the horseless carriage is seen as an un-natural modern fad.

And that was only the beginning. We are now told that DVD has the fastest take-up of any new consumer format and certainly faster than CD. The format is now starting to edge out VHS in a similar way to what happened to vinyl in the 80s, and soon it will become dominant. And we are also told that this is in every way a good thing. But is it?

I am not questioning the fact that DVD offers unprecedented quality of image and sound. Indeed, it is a shock when I am unfortunate enough to watch something on VHS these days how we put up with something that looked so bad for so long. But I sometimes wonder whether DVD is a step forward in every way…

The first problem I have with DVD is that the viewer is starting to lose some control over his or her viewing experience. All pre-recorded VHS videos had a little copyright warning at the start. A little copyright warning that we all fast-forwarded through to get to the real stuff. That copyright warning is still there on DVD but is cunningly encoded in a way that can't be skipped. In theory, this is only a minor inconvenience. However, a lot of discs seem to have multiple copyright warnings covering just about every country in the United Nations. And some Disney releases in the States are including trailers for other films within this unskippable opening. Fortunately, that is not something that has taken off over here. Yet.

And then there's the factor of convenience. Maybe I'm unusual, but I quite often don't watch a film in one go. On VHS, I can just stop the tape and return to it at exactly the same place when I want to, even if I watch another tape in between. To do the same thing on DVD requires me to take a note of where the film stops, and manually resume from there. The handy feature of VHS where you can leave the tape where it stopped has many uses. I mean, when the BBC finally release the "Doctor Who" story Planet Of Fire on DVD fans will be able to freeze frame that panning shot up Nicola Bryant in amazing quality. But they'll have to faff around a lot each time they put the disc in order to find it...

One of supposed huge advantages of DVD is the addition of extras. Indeed, when the format was first released in the UK there was a huge outcry that British discs were missing extra material compared with the US equivalent. Of course, some DVD releases do have fascinating extra material. But at times, it seems that people are missing the point about extras. The fact that they are…erm…extras. Many a time I has seen people on the net complaining that they won't be buying a certain film on DVD because it is lacking extras. Indeed, there have been times that I have been admiring the extra features on certain discs and have been considering buying it, but have then released that I'm not actually that keen on the film itself. A recent relevant trend has seen many movies being released on 2 discs, with the second disc being devoted to extras. Meaning that the studio then has an excuse to charge more for the film, whether you want the extras or not.

And then there's the question of length, and the confusion over precisely how much material can be fitted on a disc, particularly concerning "Doctor Who" releases. We are told that a 6 episode story cannot fit on one disc. We are told that it is irrelevant that 3 hour films can fit on one disc, because things are different for tv shows rather than films. But what about the BBC's "Only Fools And Horses" releases, which manage to fit 7 or 8 30 minute episodes on a single disc. I suppose there are compression issues and the quality of these releases is apparently below par, compared with the exacting standards we expect of "Doctor Who" releases. But it still seems to be a step backwards. We could fit 6 or 7 part Doctor Who stories on a single tape. The fact that the BBC chose not to is a different issue…

Which brings me to one final point, regarding "Doctor Who" on DVD. Does anyone else feel that it is suspicious that the format has started to take off at the same time as the BBC are running out of "Doctor Who" stories to release on VHS? I mean, they now have a ready made excuse for getting everyone to buy the episodes all over again*. I think we should be told the truth...

(* - On second thoughts, these are Doctor Who fans we're talking about. They could just re-release the stories on VHS with different covers and fans would buy them again. Oh look - they've just re-released City of Death like this...)

Originally published in KKLAK! Issue 4 - July 2001.

This is an article by Matthew Newton. Visit his Homepage.
Copyright © MJ Newton 2001. All rights reserved.