Plot: What’s it about?
Smallville was a show I knew little very about at the beginning of 2003, which was pretty surprising considering how much of a Superman fan I’d always considered myself to be. I was raised on comic books, and The Man of Steel captured my imagination like no other superhero ever had. Even while many people were beginning to seek out more vulnerable (or perhaps more relatable) characters, my affection for Superman never wavered. Perhaps it was naÃ¯vetÃ©. Or maybe growing up with the Christopher Reeve films just painted too much of my worldview. But whatever the reason, I latched on to the idea of this virtually indestructible alien sent to Earth to save us from ourselves as only a child could do. I admired how forthright the character was. How he chose to believe in and fight for the very best in humanity, even when faced with its worst qualities on a daily basis. Many people, I think, misinterpreted this ideological choice as a sign of weakness in the character. But for me, Superman’s greatest strength has always been his unwavering optimism and steadfast belief that anyone and everyone has within them the capacity to reach for more and to be greater than themselves. If I were forced to name a single, defining reason why I believe Smallville managed to endure for a record-breaking, ten-season run, it’s that it got that essential element so very, very right.
The series follows a young Clark Kent (played by Tom Welling in a decade-long performance that’s so unabashedly wholesome that Mr. Rogers would blush) from young adulthood through to his ascendance to the world’s greatest hero. Along the way, we’re introduced to an incredible array of characters, both significant and minute, from the annals of the DC Comics archives. Chief among Clark’s adversaries, of course, is Lex Luthor, and he’s played here by the absolutely incomparable Michael Rosenbaum in the role of a lifetime. Rosenbaum doesn’t just play Luthor as the over-the-top evil mastermind that we all know he’ll eventually become. Through subtlety and circumstance, Lex’s journey toward darkness is a realistic one – brought on through a strained and damaging relationship with his overbearing and hyper-competitive father, Lionel (brought to diabolical life by John Glover), his misplaced affections for Lana Lang (Kristin Kreuk), and his tragically doomed friendship with Clark. Helping Clark along the way in his journey are characters frankly too numerous to detail in this review. But what I think resonated so well about this series was just how well it seemed to understand that a personal destination – and indeed a man’s eventual character itself – is the product not of a small handful of experiences, but rather of the cumulative influence of all those around us, the obstacles we face, and how each of those situations and relationships converge to mould us in ways both large and small.
Taken as a whole, Smallville could really be seen as two very different shows, with the most notable transition occurring between the series’ fifth and sixth seasons. Up until that point, one could almost insert the show into the canon of the Richard Donner films (with some meteor crater-sized exceptions, I grant you). It told the story of a young and awkward Clark coming of age in a small town in Kansas, and how he came to eventually discover his true calling and create The Fortress of Solitude to communicate with his long-lost Kryptonian father, Jor-El. For all intents and purposes, that story was told in full by the time Season 5 ended. After the obligatory post-season cliffhanger, however, Smallville ventured into different and, some would say, more dangerous territory. It became a Superman show that didn’t – exactly – feature Superman. For many fans, this premise was exhausted before it even had a chance to define an identity of its own. Which is a shame, because while the show certainly could be faulted for making an art of delaying the inevitable (especially where Clark’s power of flight was concerned), it’s also a huge testament to how effectively the series was written and its characters drawn that such a delay was ever effectively maintained for a full five years after what some argued was the logical end to the story. For my part, the drawing out of the storyline never bothered me, as I saw that as the very charm of the series. Those longing to see the more evolved exploits of The Last Son of Krypton had only to spin any one of several films which had already been released on the subject to get their fix. Personally, I enjoyed nearly every moment of Clark’s protracted journey. Even the show’s occasional missteps look in retrospect as a natural progression of a journey whose conclusion is uncertain to all but its viewers. Life is rarely played out in a straight line, and if Smallville was guilty of milking its premise for all it was worth, at least it can be said that it did so with love of its material, respect and understanding of its characters, and a reverence for Superman’s unquestionably enduring legacy.
Video: How does it look?
Well, Smallville fans, it looks like the news isn’t very good for those hoping beyond hope that this series would get a fresh remaster for its complete box set release. In fact, nothing at all has been changed from the previously-released versions of these season discs. This is especially disappointing for Season 1, as the initial release was plagued by reds that virtually dominated the color palette any time they appeared onscreen from being so overblown. Compression is only just fair during the first year as well (as the master now dates back nearly a decade), and sadly, the most egregious error that marred those first discs is still as present as ever in this set: interlacing artifacts. If you’ve got a decent HDTV and the means to manually deinterlace either the output from your player or input from your monitor, this isn’t exactly a deal-breaker, but it also just isn’t something that should be present on a 2011 release, SD or no. The news isn’t all bad, however. The show’s technical video score does get a nice bump up in Season 2, and gets consistently better as the series progresses. The latter seasons are especially strong for an SD offering, with as good and pleasing an image as you’re likely to find on anything this side of blu-ray.
Speaking of that format, there’s been much said about the lack of a blu-ray set of the complete series, and (arguably) rightly so. Believe me; no one is as disappointed as I am that this box set is SD-only. Warner Bros. has cited technical difficulties stemming from the original shooting methods on the earlier seasons as the reasoning behind this, but I’m not sure how much water that really holds. Firefly was a series which benefited tremendously from a blu-ray release, even though the effects shots in particular were merely upconverted from their 480p native resolution. The rest of the show, though, was an order of magnitude more detailed and pleasing than its DVD counterpart, and I was more than happy to trade in a few blurry moments on my blu-ray set to get the rest of the episodes looking as good as they did. I have a feeling that Smallville fans feel the same way about their favorite series, and I do hope that Warner is listening to them. There is, of course, the possibility that the show was fully edited on video (ala Star Trek: The Next Generation), though I honestly can’t see why in the world this would have been done as recently as 2001. As such, a blu-ray version should be entirely possible in my humble opinion. Smallville doesn’t look terrible on DVD, but it’s disheartening that such a lavish box set doesn’t at least include the early episodes with the fresh remasters they so desperately need. On the plus side, those of us who have already purchased each set individually know exactly what to expect here. Unfortunately, those looking for a visual reason to replace their season boxes will have to wait until when – or if – something better comes along.
Audio: How does it sound?
Likewise, the audio presentations on these discs should, for better or worse, be quite familiar to those who’ve already picked up the standalone box sets. The first three seasons are presented once again in Dolby Stereo, seasons four and five in Dolby Pro-Logic Surround, and six through ten in Dolby Digital 5.1. Obviously, the sound design opens up greatly as the seasons progress, and one should temper expectations of the earlier installments from a sonic standpoint. On the positive side, dialog is always clear and intelligible, and even the first three seasons’ stereo presentations are generally pleasing to the ear, with very little of the harshness or “plugged up” attributes of lesser efforts in that format to diminish the experience. The 5.1 tracks naturally fair the best of the bunch, with Season 10 rounding out the audio tracks on a particularly high note – the triumphant swells of John Williams’s iconic score filling the soundstage in grand fashion. It’s worth noting that even the blu-ray releases of seasons six through nine of Smallville have never enjoyed the lossless treatment afforded to other productions (with Season 10’s forthcoming release on the HD format boasting the first lossless option ever to grace the series), so fans of the show really shouldn’t feel slighted by these perfectly serviceable audio presentations. Would I have preferred a full set of remastered 5.1 soundtracks? Of course. But again, for now, what we have here is perfectly up to the task.
Supplements: What are the extras?
Aside from the collection of new documentaries, featurettes and pilots we’re given in The Complete Series box (more on those in a minute), one of the main draws of this collection – at least to me – happens to be the box itself. This is one immense (and very heavy) set! The outer case is slightly reflective, and is made from very high-quality stock that should hold up exceptionally well over time and shelf wear. The discs themselves come housed in two handsome hardbound books – one for the first five seasons and another for the latter five. Each page is very thick and adorned with gorgeous publicity art on every panel. The discs, though merely ports of the earlier releases, have thankfully been treated to new (and matching) art that goes well with the corresponding palettes of the book pages. A packet is also included inside which features even more artwork, a copy of The Daily Planet newspaper, and a newly-renumbered episode guide (which, again, should look most familiar for those with the separate sets already in their collection) that features a few pages of highly-detailed production sketches. The latter I found to be a particularly nice (and surprisingly unadvertised) addition to the set.
By far the most anticipated extra included with The Complete Series is the new retrospective documentary which covers the entirety of Smallville‘s ten-season run. This is an excellent documentary that touches on the majority of the major beats from each of the show’s years on the air. This isn’t so much a behind-the-scenes feature so much as it is a love letter to the show, its creative team, and the fans that kept it alive for so long. This is exactly the type of feature that I wanted to see in a box set like this, and it’s extremely well-done. There’s a risk of these types of documentaries to come off cheesy and/or self-congratulatory. I’m happy to say that the retrospective is neither. It’s simply a joy to watch. Virtually everyone is on hand to recount his or her favorite moments from their tenure on the show, and you can tell right from the start that this was an extra that was crafted with a lot of care, love, and attention. Fans will absolutely love this from start to finish. I know I did. When it was over, I instantly wanted to start the show all over again from the beginning. I can think of no greater compliment to give it. The only downside I can see here is that there is no “play all” function so that one can watch the entirety of the retrospective at once, forcing you to head back to the menu and hit play again every ten minutes or so to start the next season’s portion of the documentary. For something that is virtually always going to be watched as a whole and not in segments, I cannot understand why this wasn’t included as an option.
Nearly as good as the retrospective is a documentary on the history of DC Comics. I honestly wasn’t expecting a lot out of this feature for some reason, my interest being more with Smallville and Superman in particular than with comics in general. I was surprised, however, at just how informative and engaging this 100-minute look back turned out to be. I learned a lot about why comics evolved how they did and when they did in relation to historical context. Particularly fascinating were the transition periods between the golden, silver, bronze, and modern ages of the DC Comics company and how those fictional eras reflected real-world American and even world culture. I was pleased that Superman did indeed feature quite prominently in this documentary – enough even to sustain my interest through other, equally interesting bits. I didn’t expect to enjoy this one as much as I did, but it’s crafted very well with a wealth of information spanning over seven decades of comic and film history.
An archival trio of featurettes on the making of Smallville‘s 100th episode is also included, and it’s a good if not great addition to the set. Running around an hour in total, these three featurettes are a highly informative look at the creative process behind a single hour of broadcast television, ranging from story development to production to final editing, compositing, and scoring of the episode. If I have one caveat about these featurettes, it’s that the editing and music is terribly distracting. It’s shot in that quick-cut MTV style that induces headaches more than it engages, and the preponderance of incessantly loud, percussive-heavy music (sometimes to the point of burying dialog) slightly undermines what would have otherwise been an understated and intriguing piece of making-of material. I was also disheartened to see a brief section on Mark Snow’s scoring sessions with nary a mention of Louis Febre’s orchestral contributions to the series (which, for the record, began well before Season 5). Still, I’m glad to have this look at “Reckoning”. If only they’d made it a tad less sensationalistic.
Also newly added for this collection is another surprisingly strong featurette on the show’s ten-year history at San Diego’s ComicCon. What begins as a fluff piece about the Con itself quickly changes tone and becomes nearly as tear-jerking as some of the best moments from the retrospective. It only runs a scant 13 minutes, but by the time it was over, I found myself more than a little nostalgic for my favorite series, wishing I had a new episode to look forward to. The actors and writers of Smallville are simply some of the most appreciative and loving of their fan base in the business. That’s really showcased well here, which lends to an even greater affection for the people who brought us this great show each and every week. Another, 26-minute “Paley Fest” featurette is also included, though to be honest, this one wasn’t quite as interesting to me even as the making of “Reckoning”. Shot in 2004, it’s a cool little piece of archival footage to have in the collection to be sure, but doesn’t really add much to the overall experience.
Fans will be happy to see the inclusion of the Aquaman pilot as a part of the new set as well. The show features Smallville alum Justin Hartley in the lead role and, while there’s certainly a certain level of camp to be found here, it’s obvious that a great deal of effort was put into the production. A mystery-based mythology is laid out very early on surrounding the destiny and origins of the lead character, and it’s a shame that more wasn’t ever done with the concept. To be sure, this is no Smallville pilot episode, but the ground work is laid just well enough here to be at least modestly intriguing. I have no doubt that many, many fans of Superman would have followed the adventures of another superhero had the series been picked up. In addition, the largely unknown and previously-unreleased Superboy pilot from 1961 is here as well. Dated, to be sure, this one is nonetheless notable (at least in hindsight) for its focus on characters and plot over action and demographic catering. In that way, it was ahead of its time and shares many of the themes that would make Smallville such an enduring series over four decades later.
Since all of the discs in this box set are direct ports of the previously-released versions, fans can expect all of that familiar content to reappear here. ALL of the extended and deleted scenes, commentaries, featurettes, gag reels (yes!), and even the “Chloe Chronicles” mockumentaries make return appearances, so no worries on getting rid of your old copies and replacing it with the box set. You won’t be missing a thing in the transition.
While fans have bemoaned (and will no doubt continue to cry foul over) the lack of a blu-ray release of The Complete Series of Smallville, one can hardly say that Warner hasn’t produced an attractive package with this, as yet SD-only, set. The box is a difficult one to recommend to those who’ve been buying the series all along (probably the majority of those reading this review), because all you’re really paying for here is a better-looking package and a few (albeit well-produced) documentaries. But for those who haven’t, it’s a no-brainer. Currently, the set can be had online for around $200. That’s the equivalent of getting every season of the series for $15 (which is about as cheap as they get when they’re on sale) and receiving the absolutely stellar box art, Daily Planet newspaper, two pilots, and newly-produced extras for an extra $50. Are those items worth $50? Every fan will have to determine that for themselves, but for me, the answer is a resounding “yes”. As far as I’m concerned, the quality of the box alone is simply incredible, making it a late contender for best packaging of the year. And the new material (especially the retrospective and history of DC Comics features) are exceptionally entertaining additions to any serious Smallville fan’s collection. My only reservation would be for those of you (like myself) who were hoping either for a blu-ray release or at least for an improved technical presentation of the show’s early episodes. For my part, I’ll be purchasing the Season 10 blu-ray in addition to this box set. I’m absolutely thrilled to have this gorgeous box in my collection, but I also know how I’ll personally be watching Seasons 6 through 10. My advice is to weigh your options (and personal audio and video requirements) and purchase accordingly.