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  Specs
  • Widescreen 1.78:1
  • 16:9 Enhanced
  • Dual Layer ( )
  Languages
  • German: Dolby Digital Surround
  • English: Dolby Digital 4.0 Surround
  Subtitles
    English, German, Dutch
  Extras
  • Animated menus

Stargate SG-1 Volume 2

20th Century Fox/20th Century Fox . R4 . COLOR . 169 mins . PG . PAL

  Feature
Contract

In modern Hollywood, there’s nothing especially unusual about the arrival of a TV series spun off from a feature film. The merest whiff of a cult following for a movie inevitably sets producers’ minds racing frantically, figuring how to weave a weekly TV drama out of someone else’s concept. In the case of Stargate SG-1, that concept was the 1994 feature film Stargate, directed by Roland Emmerich (later to helm Independence Day, Godzilla and The Patriot). Like most of Emmerich’s films, Stargate - starring Kurt Russell and James Spader - came loaded with special effects but seriously lacking in the script department. Regardless, it developed enough of a following for actor/producer Richard Dean Anderson (best known to you as “TV’s MacGyver”) to come up with a made-for-TV movie, followed by a full-scale series.

That TV series still runs to this day, but releasing studio MGM have already managed to annoy fans (and this series, like many sci-fi potboilers, attracts many die-hards) by releasing a miniscule selection of first-season episodes on a single DVD as the first volume in this series. This second disc picks up at the beginning of the second season, of which the first four episodes are included here.

While this reviewer is no hard-core fan of the series (or, for that matter, the film), the plot basics here are not hard to pick up. With the Stargate being used by the US Government for exploration of worlds that could possibly be used for future colonisation, several teams have been assembled to do the actual travelling; this series focuses on the first, SG-1, a four-person crew led by Macgyver… err, Anderson (as Colonel Jack O’Neill). Along the way, they frequently battle the inevitable Recurring Evil Force, in this case an alien race with the rather clumsy name of the Goa’uld (in fact, counting how many different ways their name is pronounced by different actors is very much part of the fun!) This is another in the long line of sci-fi series where, improbably, almost every alien being is as humanoid as they come, bar the obligatory distinguishing feature or two. Bad science, sure, but undeniably better dramatically, especially for television.

Their adventures are the very essence of television sci-fi, freely borrowing plots, ideas and even character traits from other series and movies - in particular, the Star Trek franchise. Fortunately, the writers only use the borrowed ideas as a base for their stories, which tend to get more interesting and innovative as the episode progresses. Along the way, there are plenty of not-bad-for-television special effects, some token efforts at human drama, and some of the worst acting you’re ever likely to see in a big-budget TV series. In the end, of course, such fussy points don’t matter - this is fantasy, after all, and it wisely never takes itself too seriously. There’s little attempt to elicit real emotion and character development (unlike, say, Buffy The Vampire Slayer or The X-Files) but the writers keep the stories moving along at a good enough pace that things never get too dull.

  Video
Contract

The first disc in the Stargate SG-1 release schedule annoyed just about everyone, and not just because of its seemingly spurious selection of episodes. The word most often used in reviews of this disc was “grain”. And those hoping for an improvement in that department for disc number two are only going to be partially happy - there are severe image problems in the first episode here (The Serpent’s Lair) though things do improve slightly for the remaining three. The Serpent’s Lair is the second half of a two-parter begun at the end of season 1 (it’s on the first DVD volume) and was most likely shot at the same time, possibly explaining its sub-standard video quality.

An important point to make here is that while the artefacts seen here may LOOK like film grain, it’s highly unlikely that this alone is the problem. In fact, the severity of the problem in the first episode allows close inspection of this unwanted image corruption - and to this reviewer’s eyes, it looks like a threefold problem. That there’s some film grain visible in undeniable - and much of the series was likely shot quickly, with fast film used to get around lighting problems. But atop this, there’s the telltale sign of artefacts introduced by the film-to-video transfer process itself. Raw film footage for TV series is usually transferred very quickly to video, then the show is edited on tape, usually with the aid of a computer. The level of attention paid to these film-to-tape transfers is, by necessity, only cursory. And since the final edited episode exists only on videotape, doing a nice hi-def transfer for DVD use is pretty much impossible. This is not likely to change any time soon. But once these artefacts (and they’ve been seen in many TV series over the years) make their way to the MPEG compression stage, we’re in problem territory.

With this disc, what seems to have happened is that the video sources have been digitally sharpened (or “edge-enhanced”) before compression. As anyone who’s ever spent a long evening with Photoshop knows all too well, applying such enhancement to an image means you need to allow more “bandwidth” when compressing the image using a lossy method like JPEG. The same principle applies to MPEG - an over-sharp version of an already-grainy image will not look good in compressed form unless you allow a decently high bitrate. This is why Oliver Stone’s deliberately grainy movie U-Turn uses a dual-layer disc for its two hour running time. And this is partly why this Stargate SG-1 disc looks so disappointing - the image being compressed is so complex, thanks to the grain, telecine artefacts and sharpening, that it needs a high bitrate to stay coherent.

All of the four episodes on this dual-layer disc clock in at an average bitrate of around 5Mbit/sec - by some companys' standards, not that fatal. But whatever MPEG-2 encoder the authors of this disc used, it hasn’t enjoyed the challenge. Throughout the disc there’s frequent shimmer and loss of detail, particularly when busy backgrounds come into play. And atop it all, particularly in the first episode, is a haze of grainy noise that causes people’s faces to literally crawl with noise, and causes background detail to frequently break up completely.

That said, the disc is still perfectly watchable - as long as you’re not too critical. But this is a long way from being a showcase for the DVD format. It looks, basically, like VHS without the colour bleed and video noise.

All four episodes are presented at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and are 16:9 enhanced; the wider screen format suits this material well, but those with large high-resolution displays are likely to be disappointed regardless.

One very positive point that everyone producing TV-show DVDs should pay attention to: all of the episodes here have been seamlessly edited together, completely removing the fade out / fade in used for commercial breaks during network broadcast. While purists may argue otherwise, this presentation makes for a much more involving, feature-film-like experience, unlike the Buffy DVDs which often fade out of a scene and then fade back up into… the very same scene!

  Audio
Contract

Listed on the back cover as being a “Dolby Surround” audio track, the format of the soundtrack here is extremely unusual. It’s encoded as a four-channel Dolby Digital stream in a 3.1 configuration - left and right (mainly music and some effects), centre (dialogue and main effects) and subwoofer (frequently silent during big action scenes, but mildly active on occasion). The surround channels are completely silent throughout, meaning that those listening through 5.1 systems will get NO surround audio at all. When played back downmixed to two-channel Dolby Surround by the player, the audio does generate some surround activity through a Pro-Logic decoder, but much of this sounds unintentional. Whether this audio format is a serious mistake or a deliberate decision is unknown, but it will certainly upset many with full-scale home theatre setups. The German audio track here is in standard 2.0 Dolby Surround, as originally broadcast.

The discrete front-channel format does, though, make for crystal-clear dialogue throughout, and the quality of the audio tracks is first-rate for a television production, refreshingly free of the usual over-compression of dynamic range.

  Extras
Contract

There are only the four episodes here, with no extras of any kind - a decision sure to disappoint fans. Menu animation and/or audio is on offer, but the utterly cheesy, ‘80s-Amiga-game look of them negates any good feeling about that. Navigation, too, is unusually clunky and slow for such a simple menu system - accessing static menu screens should not take as long as it does here.

  Overall  
Contract

If you’re a Stargate SG-1 fan, you’ll probably be buying this regardless; be warned, however, that the disc is far from perfect. For the uninitiated, what you’ll get here is just under three hours of decently-budgeted, entertaining but somewhat derivative sci-fi which nonetheless keeps things moving at a fast enough pace to satisfy anyone who likes a bit of imagination and a dash of straight-faced melodrama in their TV adventures.

MGM, though, need to put in a far better effort for subsequent DVDs of this series, especially considering the superior releases of other series available on DVD in Australia and overseas. After all, without the die-hard fans, Stargate SG-1 wouldn’t have made it past its first batch of episodes, and even MacGyver himself couldn’t have saved it.


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