Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Memory Bank: Laserdiscs
Once upon a time, I was certain that the future of home entertainment media belonged to the laserdisc format.
From about 1992 to 1999, I amassed a huge (now virtually worthless…) collection of laserdisc films and television programming, and paid a pretty penny for those discs too. I remember that when Goldeneye (1995) came out on laserdisc in the mid-1990s it sold at (the now-defunct) Media Play stores for the princely sum of forty-five dollars.
But still -- for a while anyway -- laserdiscs were the best game in town.
At some point, probably during the mid-1980s, film lovers, scholars, and critics began to see and understand the inherent limitations of the VHS home-video format, and that’s what created an opening for laserdiscs, I suppose.
For one thing, most movies on VHS saw their original aspect corrupted, reducing the rectangular frame of the silver screen to a box. I remember seeing somewhere (was it on Siskel and Ebert at the Movies?) a side-by-side comparison of a scene from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home in theatrical format and VHS format, and feeling pretty darn upset at how much of the frame was sacrificed on the latter.
One of the tremendous benefits of the laser disc “optical storage” medium was that, as a collector’s format, it most often featured films in their original, theatrical widescreen ratio. You didn’t losing anything of value, frame-wise, and the picture was crystal clear.
Laserdiscs were wonderful as well, for their capacity to navigate frame-by-frame (in CAV mode, anyway). They could also feature a host of extras outside the film itself, both on the discs and on the over-sized, record album-like packaging. The laserdisc for Aliens (1986) and The Abyss (1989), for instance, featured extended cuts of the film.
But I’ll be honest: I didn’t join the laserdisc revolution because I had to see my favorite films in immaculate widescreen and with extra material.
I purchased a Pioneer laserdisc player in late 1993 because that format represented the only way I could view the entirety of Gerry and Sylvia Andersons’s Space: 1999 (1975 – 1977) again, for the first time in over a decade. Image Entertainment and J2 Communications had released (virtually) all of the four-dozen or so episodes on laserdisc, and, well, I was determined to see the series again after it had disappeared from the spotlight. If this was the way I had to see it…well, so be it.
It was a months-long and expensive proposition to hunt down all the laserdisc volumes of the series. Fortunately, I found an outfit in Fairfield New Jersey called U.S. Video Source (“America’s Laser Disc Store”) that was selling a number of the Space:1999 releases, at $26.96 a disc (consisting of two hour-long episodes).
To demonstrate what a crazy and obsessive collector I am (as if I haven’t already…) I still own many of my invoices from U.S. Video Source during the span from 8/25/93 to 01/05/94. I have no idea why I’m still keeping these documents, except that they reflect a time in my life that I remember fondly.
There was something wonderful and exciting about hunting down every laserdisc volume of Space: 1999 I could find at both at both remote venues like Video Source and at real locations such as the Camelot Music store that was located on Central Avenue in Charlotte, North Carolina.
I have great memories of that Camelot Music store laser disc bin, although the store is long-since closed. It was there that I found some truly great (and bizarre…) deals. Still, I’m not sure what fever possessed me to buy a laserdisc of Mom and Dad Save the World (1992).
But for me, the absolute truth is this: I became a professional writer in large part because I had to legitimize with my then-girlfriend/now-wife the amount of time and money I had sunk into collecting all the Space: 1999 volumes. In the end, it turned out okay for me, of course…and here we are.
Over the years, I collected everything I could on laserdisc. I even began collecting Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in that format…even though I didn’t like them so much that I had to own them.
On the other hand, I’m thrilled that today I own the Star Wars Original Trilogy on laserdisc, sans the CGI changes of the Special Editions and DVD and Blu-Ray releases.
I also love re-reading the liner notes on my Star Wars laserdisc. George Lucas – who sued Battlestar Galactica (1978 – 1979) for copyright infringement - commented there (“Behind the Scenes”) that he made Star Wars “so everyone will copy it. Then I can go see the copies and sit back and enjoy them.”
Anyway, laserdiscs (LD) never really took off in the United States, and even after several years on the market were only in something like 2% of American households. And then came the real kicker: DVDs were on the horizon by the mid-1990s, and the new, cheaper format represented the death knell for laserdiscs.
Today, I still possess my Space: 1999 laserdiscs, though many have succumbed to the dreaded condition called “laser rot.” And, I’ve again bought the series on DVD and once more (Year One, anyway…) on Blu Ray.
Given my penchant for collecting, my wife is extremely happy that DVDs and Blu Rays are much more affordable than laserdiscs. Yet there’s something about that oversized format that I still cherish. And yes, I’m nostalgic for it.
Although, I suppose, I don’t miss getting my ass up off the sofa to flip laserdisc sides…