TV on DVD 01/25/11 – Old Zorro, New MI-5 Agents and Cold War Spies

Zorro: The Complete Series (1980-1983) (A&E) – Duncan Regehr (remember him?) dons the mask and cape as the Robin Hood of Old California in this half-hour adventure made for The Family Channel in the early 1990s. The light-hearted half-hour, shot on the cheap in Spain, takes its cue from the old Disney series to offer a simple world of early 19th century California where Los Angeles was a dusty peasant town of mud haciendas with a cantina, a jail, a village square and corrupt colonial rule taxing the citizens into poverty.

In this incarnation, Regehr’s Don Diego de la Vega is a scholar, poet and man of science who hides his swordplay skill behind his costume and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is all dignity as Zorro’s dad in the first season but replaced for the rest of the four-season run by Henry Darrow, who previously played Zorro in live action and animated TV incarnations. But before Darrow’s arrival, the season two premiere features Adam West as an inventor named Dr. Wayne, a scholar and scientist who gets a gander at Zorro’s secret cave: Holy masked inspiration, Batman! Other guest stars through the show’s run include Doug McClure, Roddy Piper, Andre the Giant, Jesse Ventura and Tim Reid.

All four seasons—88 episodes—are available in a box set of 14 discs in four standard cases (with hinged trays) plus an exclusive bonus disc of supplements highlighted by an alternate version of the pilot with a different cast and a completely different approach to the story and setting. The old videotape master shows its age but it provides an interesting contrast to the ultimate version and its more anglo-centric cast. Also includes the original silent Mark of Zorro with Douglas Fairbanks (a fair, if unremarkable, version with a piano score that verges on melodrama camp), the first chapter of the 1939 theatrical serial Zorro’s Fighting Legion and trailers to three Zorro serials.

MI-5: Volume 8 (BBC) – Britain’s answer to 24 may lack the budget, breathless momentum and cliffhanger spectacle of American TV but it makes up for it with ingenious international conspiracies and this season presents a doozy: a sprawling plot tangled up Iraq, Pakistan, weapons-grade uranium and a new CIA plot to stir up trouble that takes all season (a short eight episodes) to play out. Against my better judgment, I am addicted to this series, partly because of the volatility of the culture that eventually makes of all of its heroes and partly because of the design of the season arcs, where the big picture is pieced together from each episode story. And yes, as in 24 they just as willing to defy protocol, orders and the Geneva Convention to do their job, all in the name of greater good: sacrificing law and individual lives to save country and more lives. I just happen to think that Ros (Hermione Norris), who is the best team leader ever this show has seen, is mesmerizing as she coldly makes promises and then systematically breaks her word.

Peter Firth is still the show’s ace in the hole as MI-5 chief Harry (and soon into the season he officially becomes the last member of the first season cast still on the show) and the series has evolved to make him a more central part of the stories, and the return of Nicola Walker as Ruth Evershed gives this season the human touch. Eight episodes on three discs in a paperboard digipak, with commentary on select episodes and two featurettes on the special effects.

Man in a Suitcase: Set 1 (Acorn) – Richard Bradford plays McGill, a disgraced American spy (wrongly accused, of course) turned free agent in the lucrative European market, in this British espionage series. While he’s more private detective than rogue agent, his cases—and his connections—tend to tangle him in webs of international espionage and sometimes old allies and nemeses and Bradford’s understated performance gives him a gravelly gravitas. There’s a neat visual crispness to the production and a continental attitude to the stories, which combined with a budget beefed up by an American partner (it played in U.S. on ABC) gives the show an intriguing sensibility. Donald Sutherland co-stars in an early episode as a double-dealing American who comes to Mac for help and ends up bringing trouble along with him. This set features the first 15 of 30 episodes of its one and only season on four discs in a standard case with hinged trays. No supplements.

Webster: Season One (Shout! Factory) – Another in a long line of sitcoms about adorable orphans and instant parents (see also Family Affair and Diff’rent Strokes), Webster stars real-life married couple Susan Clark and Alex Karras as newlyweds who return from their whirlwind romance and find themselves the legal guardians of the most adorable orphan since “Annie.” This one ran for six seasons through the 1980s, largely on the “awwww” factor of co-star Emmanuel Lewis, arguably the cutest sitcom moppet of all time. Former Detroit Lion turned actor Karras plays a former NFL player turned sport commentator to Clark’s upper-class socialite and philanthropist and the collision of their worlds provides much of the predictable comedy of the series. The rest comes from the fumbling but sincere efforts of these unprepared parents to be responsible guardians, and of course the cute antics of an adorable moppet who says and does the darnedest things. As if there could be any real dramatic issues with a kid as sweet and affectionate and eager to please as Webster, or parents who make up in integrity and effort what they lack in experience. The series came after Diff’rent Strokes, about a rich white widower who adopts two orphaned black children (including the very cute Gary Coleman), but avoided dealing with issues of race brought up in that series and simply played on the charm of the performers. It’s a cute but unmemorable show and, nostalgia factor aside, unnecessary. Not every show needs to be on DVD. 22 episodes on three discs in a standard case with a hinged tray and no supplements besides a trivia game.

Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated: Season One, Volume 1 (Warner) – Scooby and the gang enter the 21st Century of crime solving in this new animated incarnation of the series that riffs of the original with a modicum of wit and a lot of affection. This time around, they’re all high-school buddies in a town called Crystal Cove forever beset by phony monsters. The ascot-clad leader Fred is obsessed with traps and oblivious to the affections of curvy redhead Daphne while Shaggy is secretly dating Velma! Crazily enough, it all works in this knowing, stylized reboot that both spoofs and pays tribute to the original. Four episodes on a single disc.

Also new this week: Matlock: The Sixth Season (Paramount), Pie in the Sky: Series 4 (Acorn), Wish Me Luck: Series 2 (Acorn) and The Agatha Christie Hour: Set 2 (Acorn).

For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog and my DVD column at MSN.

Author: seanax

I write the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website (www.streamondemandathome.com). I’m a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online, Keyframe, Independent Lens, and Cinephiled, and the editor of Parallax View (www.parallax-view.org).. I’ve written for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Weekly, GreenCine.com, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, and Psychotronic Video, among other publications, and I am a contributing editor to Parallax View.

I currently live and work in Seattle, Washington, with my two cats, Hammet and Chandler.

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