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From Nytimes.com


A Dvd Face-Off Between the Official and the Homemade

Tuesday 23 December 2003, by Webmaster

A DVD Face-Off Between the Official and the Homemade By EMILY NUSSBAUM

Published: December 21, 2003

A year ago, the television series "Firefly" was canceled, and promptly became a hit - at least online. Created by Joss Whedon, who also created "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," the show featured an oddball genre mix that might have doomed it from the beginning: it was a character-rich sci-fi western comedy-drama with existential underpinnings, a hard sell during a season dominated by "Joe Millionaire." For four anxious months, a devoted cadre of fans watched the series falter, its episodes broadcast out of order, plugged misleadingly as a fun-loving space romp, until it was axed last December by Fox (fast gaining a reputation as a serial killer of quality shows.)

In the nostalgic memories of the Internet fan base, "Firefly" quickly became that sentimental fetish object: the brilliant series cut down before its time. A Web site called Fireflyfans.net continued to thrive; episodes were passed around via file-sharing programs. And this posthumous fan base waited expectantly for the show’s vindication: what has become television’s afterlife, the collectible DVD. Just in time for Christmas, that package finally arrives, a complete "Firefly" boxed set with all the goodies: three episodes never shown on network television, plenty of juicy extras, a melancholic mini-documentary on the show’s production, and commentary tracks by the show’s creators, its cast, even its costume designer - a permanent record of a series that once would have dissolved into network history.

But for the true completist, there’s another option out there: a handmade DVD created by Philip B. Gaines, a graduate student in digital media at the University of Washington. On this small, white two-disc set, Mr. Gaines puts forth his own idiosyncratic take on "Firefly," scrolled over montages of stills and short excerpted scenes. His production includes episode summaries and visual mini-essays on subjects like "irony" and "violence." He timed his project to piggyback on the official "Firefly" DVD (released by 20th Century Fox Home Video), touting his production on the geek-news site Slashdot.com. His discs are a charmingly ungainly valentine to the show - more experiment than true collectible. But they do offer a glimpse of a new possibility, the fan’s-eye approach to the television DVD.

Fan’s-eye DVD’s are a logical offshoot of the newly pushy online fan culture - the participatory television community that takes an increasingly critical (sometimes downright cranky) approach to members’ favorite shows. On sites like Television Without Pity, they gather to debate like snarky doctoral candidates, or propose alternate plots in the form of fan fiction. In such a world, democratizing DVD commentary makes a lot of sense: it offers viewers the opportunity to graft their analysis right onto the show itself, to whisper a new perspective into the ears of other fans. Think of the intrusively footnoting narrator of "Pale Fire," crossed with the robots of "Mystery Science Theater 3000."

Movie geeks have already begun producing such tracks, ever since the film critic Roger Ebert’s rabble-rousing column on the subject for the online magazine YahooLife.com in February 2002. "I’d love to hear a commentary track by someone who hates a movie, ripping it to shreds," Mr. Ebert wrote. "Or a track by an expert who disagrees with the facts in a film. Or a track by someone with a moral or philosophical argument to make. Or even a Wayne’s World-style track from dudes down in the basement who think `The Mummy Returns’ is way cool." Mr. Ebert suggested that interested fans simply record their own tracks on MP3’s and post them on the Internet - legally providing alternate soundtracks for existing DVD’s.

Online fans jumped to the task. On DVDTracks.com, contributors post links to MP3’s on films from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" to "Mulholland Drive." Software like MovieMask (a controversial program best known for allowing censors to camouflage movies’ naughty bits) allows viewers to add their own tracks by breaking the DVD code.

As far as I can tell, Mr. Gaines’s offering is the first disc to apply such techniques to a television show - or, for that matter, to be produced in a DVD format, rather than as an MP3. Mr. Gaines says he intended his contribution as both an experiment and a bit of a résumé: the "ultimate portfolio," he jokes, in his search for a job in information technology. (He designed the disc to "withstand a lawsuit," he said, including only fair-use excerpts and offering the project - via Slashdot and his own Web site, www.pbgaines.com- only for feedback, not for sale.)

But if Mr. Gaines’s project is still a bit of a rough draft - his comments consist mostly of praise for the show, with fairly generic analysis - it contains moments that hint at the form’s potential, small revelations of bias or quirky interpretation. "When I watched this pilot episode for the first time, I got a bit mixed up, and I got the impression that Kaylee and Malcolm were brother and sister," he muses at one point, watching Capt. Malcolm Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) banter with the engineer (Jewel Staite). The second disc includes a pithy filmic analysis of nearly every character’s relationship with every other character, a kind of capsule guide to unexplored interpersonal subtext.

Mr. Whedon himself seems bemused by the project, recognizing that he’s the strangest possible viewer for such a disc. "I find it kind of fascinating," he said. "It starts out with bunches of praise, which, you know, works for me." Mr. Whedon can imagine the appeal of such commentaries to fans, although he wonders how consumers would sort out thoughtful options from mere chatter. And he’s aware of the potential for harsh commentary: "It’s because of the feeling of intimacy and privilege of being in this community; people feel as though they’re almost friends with the creator, and they can say such personal stuff." (Not that Mr. Whedon is immune to such fantasies himself: he considered creating his own angry commentary track for the film "Alien Resurrection" - which he helped write, only to have his work mangled in production - but declined, for fear of being sued.)

As for Mr. Gaines, he imagines his small "Firefly" set as a kind of first entry in an enormous future library - a future, he speculates, in which fans will act more like scholars. True enthusiasts will collect a whole library of DVD’s, he suggests: the official version, one or two commentary tracks by critics, and a selection by a particularly entertaining set of fans. How would such projects support themselves? Here, Mr. Gaines begins to verge into science fiction territory: someday, he suggests, interested patrons might offer to finance particularly excellent DVD commentators. "I worship art, almost literally," he explained cheerfully. "You know, I want to sit there and talk about it. A great show like `Firefly’ just seemed like a perfect match to me: it deserves this kind of treatment."