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Comment > Neighbours Defining Moments DVD by Stuart

Wow! I've seen it all now... Just when the proliferation of Rainbow DVDs seemed to strain credulity as to the breadth of the digital revolution, Neighbours bursts onto shiny discs in Australia in a deluxe new package of classic episodes. Proof, when it was seemingly desperately needed that Neighbours merchandising needn't begin and end with bad board games and pulpy annuals... So, is it any good, I hear you ask?

Presentation: The set comes in a standard clear Amaray case, with synopses of the episodes printed on the inside. While in most cases they adequately allow the episodes to be enjoyed in isolation, some will leave less seasoned fans scratching their heads trying to remember all the situations and running plots. Perhaps in future an additional recap sequence could be prepared for each episode, or onscreen introductions relating relevant information could address this problem.

The moving introductory menus are impressively produced, with their use of the 1992-1995 closing credits backdrops lending them a nice feeling of authenticity. The menus feature some aptly chosen clips from the episodes, backed by the "Sad Occasions" version of the theme music. Extra content is particularly scant, in the form of a very basic photo gallery, which features a random grab-bag of blurry stills in no real order or theme, in a slightly squashed ratio. Surely a few brief soundbite interviews or original Network 10 trailers wouldn't be too difficult to collate for future releases?

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Left: Disc Menu. Right: A shot from the bonus photo gallery

For UK fans, the release offers a rare chance to enjoy the episodes as orginally broadcast in Australia, with full-length versions of the last two closing themes never heard on the BBC, original sponsorship logos, and advertisement break idents. A culture shock indeed, but an interesting sideways take on Neighbours as many of its fans know it.

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Left: Qantas sponsorship logo from 1994. Right: Commercial break logo

Picture Quality: The transfers are generally impressive and crisp, with only minor MPEG blocking visible, usually on the older episodes. The post-1999 episodes are presented in full 16:9 digital widescreen, and for obvious reasons, look the best of the bunch by far. Presumably to curb manufacturing costs, the episodes are presented on a single layer disc and a second dual layer disc. At times, the bitrate (image resolution) could be higher, as squeezing 10 episodes onto a dual-layer disc is ambitious within today's quality constraints and the limitations of the technology. While it's less economical to manufacture, putting seven episodes each onto a pair of dual layer discs would be far more satisfactory for future releases.

The Episodes: To be honest, picking isolated episodes of serial drama and presenting them standalone is a thankless task, highlighting the general lack of incident and neat closure generally found on home entertainment. The episodes chosen are, perhaps inevitably, a mixed bag, but have sufficient variety to ensure that fans of all eras can find something to enjoy. The central theme of births, marriages and deaths is a sound one, though certain installments like Todd and Jim's deaths badly whet the viewer's appetite for a main course that never comes. If anyone seriously wants to see Beth and Brad clown around in a registry office over the resolution to the climactic Julie/Fiona catfight over Jim's corpse, I'd imagine they're a rare soul indeed. So, our eclectic line-up reads...

Episode 295: Daphne and Des' Wedding
Episode 523: Scott and Charlene's Wedding
Episode 544: Daphne's Baby
Episode 690: Daphne's Death
Episode 724: Madge and Harold's Wedding
Episode 1563: Christina's Baby
Episode 1721: Todd's Death
Episode 1904: Jim's Death
Episode 2068: Brad and Beth's Wedding
Episode 2290: Mark and Annalise's Wedding
Episode 2965: Helen's Death
Episode 3708: Libby and Drew's Wedding
Episode 3740: Madge's Death
Episodes 3920 and 3921: Libby's Baby

Excited yet? Weddings are traditional Neighbours highlights, one assumes. It's what the show does best. Yet somehow, all the featured weddings seem the poor relations of the more dramatic offerings. As occasional milestones, they are a welcome break from the normal business of suburban strife, yet strung together, they seem repetitious and overly similar. None of them are particularly bad, but they're generally unrepresentative of the show and its characters. The exception to the fairytale gloss is Annalise and Mark's aborted wedding, but it plays on too small a canvas with too few players to convince. That said, the moment where Mark changes his mind is surprisingly engaging, mainly due to some taut direction and well-chosen music.

The births are mixed too, though Jamie's birth has some wonderful comedy, including the ever-excrutiating Eileen Clarke on top form, and Madge's aghast horror at Henry's new girlfriend, Melanie Pearson, a hilarious grotesque with a foghorn laugh and zero tact. Compare the humour to Andrew's birth and learn the subtle difference between trying and succeeding. The latter washes over the viewer seemingly in slow motion, unfunny set piece following unfunny set piece. When Christina bemoans how long it's all taking, the viewer is left agreeing for all the wrong reasons.

Deaths are something Neighbours generally does its audience proud with, and these are the strongest episodes by far. Daphne's demise is surprisingly emotive even after so long, with a real sense of darkness hanging over the characters, in spite of the almost burlesque antics of Charlene and Jane avenging Daph with some frankly bizarre self-defense elsewhere.

Todd's death is a great example of just how daring and confident Neighbours was in 1992-1993, with a sense of conviction and truth that today's producers could learn much from. Director Steve Mann makes it a visual tour-de-force, with unsettling monochrome flashbacks and deft visual tricks, such as the ghostly reflection of Dorothy in a window pane. It's a tense half hour that makes a swift impact without ever seeming rushed, with a final scene that just brims with adrenaline and shock, slow-motion extras not withstanding.

Jim's death continues in a similar vein, and works brilliantly, since it breaks just about every established rule of Neighbours. Jim is abandoned and dies alone, without his loved ones, before his partner systematically and cooly dismantles his entire legacy. It's a daringly downbeat end for such a beloved character, and the subtle mix of black humour, airtight plotting and logical progression takes the viewer into surpreme melodrama, yet never loses its basic emotional impact. When Julie and Fiona howl at one another over Jim's corpse, it's easily as daring and dark as Neighbours ever gets.

Helen and Madge's deaths seem remarkably similar in form, which both settling for warm send-offs and convenient goodbyes, reducing their central figures to almost incidental status in the process. Both characters seem almost irrelevant at times, making thin fillers such as Lance and Amy's bickering schoolmates and Tad and Steph's day-to-day meanderings seem particularly grating. Madge's manages to be the superior, however, mainly due to the conviction of Jonathon Dutton and Ian Smith, who really seem haunted by the inevitability of the situation and make its inherent helplessness genuinely affecting.

Elsewhere, Libby and Drew's wedding lends itself well to self-enclosed viewing, with a nice community turn-out, and acts as a neat teaser for the 2001 season finale, Libby's baby, which also centres heavily around Stephanie and Woody's dramatic reunion. The latter seems almost indecently recent for home release and is probably the weakest of the bunch, failing to justify one episode on the disc, let alone two. The DVD cuts the 2001 season finale and 2002 premiere together, which really does bring home just how low-key a climax it was, and how simple and uncomplicated its resolution turned out to be. Disappointing, and far more enjoyable for the sub-plot of Woody's return than for its main attraction, which simply treads water.

These quibbles aside, this is an impressive package which offers good value for money and a decent overview of the show's entire history. Hopefully the market exists for a regular series of Neighbours releases, with some extra content to add particular incentives for fans to purchase.

This DVD is presented in PAL Region 0 format, and will play on any UK DVD player. We recommend EzyDVD.com.au, which ships the title worldwide within 5-10 days.