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Case Number 14499: Small Claims Court

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P.D. James: The Essential Collection

Koch Vision // 1982 // 2075 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kristin Munson (Retired) // September 11th, 2008

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All Rise...

Judge Kristin Munson doesn't think the word "Essential" means what Koch Vision thinks it means.

The Charge

Over 34 hours of heart-stopping suspense.

The Case

P.D. James has been in the mystery business longer than Agatha Christie. She published her first Adam Dalgliesh book in the '60s, and the series is still chugging along in bookstores and on your local PBS station, although a new actor has taken on the role.

P.D. James: The Essential Collection was previously released as a twelve disc set, first by Lance Entertainment and then Koch Vision. In this new edition of Dalgliesh adaptations, there are three more discs for the same price as the 2005 set, adding Devices and Desires and A Mind To Murder to the previously released adaptations of

Death of an Expert Witness
Shroud For a Nightingale
Cover Her Face
The Black Tower
A Taste for Death
Unnatural Causes
and Original Sin

Death of an Expert Witness kicks off the series and almost instantly kills it. It takes 80 minutes to get to an actual death and is so packed with nasty characters that you can't remember who they are when they reappear 30 minutes later. By the time interesting things start happening, it's part three and there's no time left to follow through with any of it. It's not until 1985's The Black Tower that the production team hits their stride. The pacing is quick, the body count is high, and the many sex scandals and poison pen letters between killings at a country rest home make it a gossipy and addictive serial.

As the years roll on, the adaptations get shorter and the sprawling plots get crammed into two hour movies, and even the really good episodes have the same major problem as the bad. Programs don't come to a close; they stop. Dalgliesh discovers whodunnit, confronts the murderer, and the editors slap on the credits and call it a day. It's especially annoying in the earlier installments where there's been hours and hours of build-up for a two-minute payoff.

Roy Marsden (The Palace) is blandly likeable as the man who writes poetry when he's not tracking down killers, but it's hard when your underwritten character is competing against British icons like Bill Nighy, Geoffrey Palmer, and Pauline Collins. Nowadays, our TV detectives have tortured souls and dark pasts, but Adam Dalgliesh is an emotional blank slate. He's the ideal person to run an unbiased investigation but ideals aren't all that fun to watch. Except when they're getting beaten-up by a suicidal paraplegic. That's hilarious.

Along with the one-off fight with the handicapped person, the series has its share of moments that go beyond non-PC and into the awkward. Several installments have long shots of nude female victims and there's an uncomfortable attitude towards homosexuality throughout. Being gay in the P.D. James television universe is a condition apparently "caused" by private schools or the girl scouts, and instantly marks you out for bad end.

The stories aren't the only things that are badly dated; videotape used to record the earlier entries hasn't aged well either. Green halos appear around any brightly lit actor, and the first part of A Taste for Death is studded with tracking lines. The '90s installments are slightly dark and grainy, but the switch means they're better preserved. Later mysteries also have better sound; no more wind hissing across open mics or background noises louder than the actors.

No new bonus features have been provided with The Essential Collection; in fact, the discs are still sporting their Lance Entertainment logos. DVDs have no subtitles and contain such riveting extras as "Credits" and the same bios of Marsen and James on every story. What is nice about the set are the thick plastic holders that keep the pages of the massive DVD book from flopping all over the place and damaging the case, but the hubs for discs on the back of each page don't push down. I almost broke a few DVDs trying to get them out.

For all my complaints, this set is obviously meant for Mystery! fans who have already seen and liked the Dalgliesh series, and buying The Essential Collection saves them a lot of money while clearing out Koch's obvious backlog. The company's newest Dalgliesh release, 1991's Devices and Desires, is even available separately so those who shelled out for the 2005 set aren't stuck having to re-buy. Unfortunately, the set is missing the final Marsden adaptation, A Certain Justice, which was released by someone else. Maybe in another three years.

This set is guilty of charging big bucks for very few improvements.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 74

Perp Profile

Studio: Koch Vision
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
• None
Running Time: 2075 Minutes
Release Year: 1982
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Foreign
• Mystery
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• P.D. James Interview Booklet
• P.D. James Bio
• Roy Marsden Bio
• Cast and Crew Info
• Weblink

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