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"Five Mile Creek" The Complete First Season DVD Review

Buy Five Mile Creek: The Complete First Season from Amazon.com Five Mile Creek: Season One (1983-1984)
Show & DVD Details

Regular Directors: Gary Conway, Frank Arnold, Brian Trenchard-Smith, George Miller

Producers: Henry Crawford, John Copeland

Regular Writers: Gwenda Marsh, Peter A. Kinloch, Sarah Crawford, Graham Foreman

Regular Cast: Louise Claire Clark (Maggie Scott), Rod Mullinar (Jack Taylor), Liz Burch (Kate Wallace), Michael Caton (Paddy Malone), Priscilla Weems (Hannah Scott), Martin Lewis (Sam Sawyer), Gus Mercurio (Ben Jones), Jay Kerr (Con Madigan), Peter Carroll (Charles Withers)

Recurring Characters: Jonathan Frakes (Adam Scott), Tony Blackett ("Backer" Bowman), David Bradshaw (Sergeant)

Notable Guest Stars: John Waters (Cameron, "Love Before a Fall"), Tony Barry (Mr. Drummond, "The Scrub Bulls"), Susan Leith (Mrs. Drummond, "The Scrub Bulls"), Marilyn Allen (Mrs. Willis, "The Awakening")

Running Time: 620 Minutes (13 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated
1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Digital Mono 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired
DVD Release Date: November 8, 2005
Season 1 Airdates: November 4, 1983 - May 2, 1984
Four single-sided discs (3 DVD-9 & 1 DVD-5)
Suggested Retail Price: $39.99
Four individual slim-line DVD cases with cardboard slipcover

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By Aaron Wallace

The one-hour drama is a foreign entity to today's Disney Channel, but that hasn't always been the case. In its earlier days, the channel attracted viewers with two imported period dramas. The more popular was the L.M. Montgomery-inspired "Avonlea", but before that, there was "Five Mile Creek", which entailed adventure on the frontier in the Australian outback. The two series had quite a bit in common.
Both were filmed on location in their respective settings, both were inspired by previous works ("Five Mile" springs from the 1981 Disney telefilm, The Cherokee Trail), both paid a great deal of attention to detail, a major star was launched from each ("Avonlea" had Sarah Polley and "Five Mile Creek" gave rise to superstar Nicole Kidman in its third year), and both fall firmly in the family drama category. There are notable distinctions between the two, however, and these differences set "Five Mile Creek" back in a comparison between them.

Maggie Scott (Louise Claire Clark), the central protagonist, is an American who, along with daughter Hannah (Priscilla Weems), has followed her husband to Australia, where he is in search of gold. Word was left for her to meet her husband at an outpost by the name of Five Mile Creek, but when she arrives there, he's nowhere to be found. Instead, there's the hostess, Kate Wallace (Liz Burch), who hasn't heard anything of Mr. Scott but is eager for female companionship and offers the family a place to stay while they figure things out. To pay their way, Maggie and Hannah join hired hand and guardian Paddy Malone (Michael Caton) in taking up work at the outpost, which could use it more than ever as a new coach line -- the Australian Express -- places it on its route. Behind the line are Texan Con Madigan (Jay Kerr) and Australian Jack Taylor (Rod Mullinar), along with frugal but benevolent financier Charles Withers (Peter Carroll). The serialized plot runs on four fronts: the search for Maggie's husband, the Australian Express' struggles for success, confrontations with the ruthless "Backer Bowman" (Tony Blackett), his band of bushrangers and corrupt law enforcers, and finally, the relationships forged between the characters as they emerge from conflict as a blended family. This latter dynamic is significantly enhanced when Sam (Martin Lewis), an orphan raised and subsequently abandoned by criminals, joins Five Mile Station.

The opening title for "Five Mile Creek" that appears in episodes 2-13. Con and Kate take a liking to one another.

While "Avonlea" puts a child in its focus and maintains strong harmony in its mixed-ages ensemble, young Hannah is relegated to only a few lines per episode at most. When Sam comes along, the child perspective adds depth but leaves one wondering why Hannah is seen as so less important.
Sam and Con are the most compelling characters yet aren't treated as leads, and while each character can easily by recognized as an individual, the kind of characterization that leaves a viewer feeling as though they know each character is lacking. Events that take place without much cause or effect, action for action's sake, and a reliance on suspicious visitors to the outpost in each episode all weaken the premiere season. Even more painfully, dialogue frequently enters the realm of the overdramatic and unbelievable. A few episodes do strike gold (apologies for the pun) and those make it easy to appreciate not only the immense effort that obviously went into creating the authentic world of "Five Mile Creek", but also its characters and story too. The show's second season (there were a total of three) seems more promising, without having seen it, because the first season mostly improves with each episode and is at its strongest in the end. As a whole, the collection of 13 episodes that make their DVD debut in Disney's release of The Complete First Season are engaging enough to satisfy but don't guarantee that the mind will never wander away from what's on screen.

A star () denotes my five favorite episodes from the season.

DISC 1 (Volume One)

1. Making Tracks (47:40) (Originally aired November 4, 1983)
The pilot episode establishes the premise, introduces the characters, hints at agitated flirtation between Maggie and Jack, and creates the driving mystery surrounding the whereabouts of Mr. Adam Scott. While it successfully entertains, it doesn't entirely make the sell, meaning viewers were as likely to stay tuned as to not. It's a good thing that the second episode aired directly after it, serving instant gratification.

2. Horses for Courses (47:39) (Originally aired November 4, 1983)
Maggie starts to make a temporary home at Five Mile Creek but she and Kate encounter their first confrontation with "Backer" Bowman, hostile bushrangers, and a police force that doesn't quite keep the peace.

3. Love Before a Fall (47:35) (Originally aired December 7, 1983)
Three episodes into the season, Sam has found a home at Five Mile Creek. The first of many could-be-good, could-be-bad guests is invited to Five Mile Creek, where he is good with the children but rumors from town suggest he may not be on the moral up-and-up.

Maggie Scott, the central protagonist. "Backer" Bowman is the show's chief villain, though he isn't around very often. Sam, the important child, and Hannah, the other one.

DISC 2 (Volume Two)

4. A Few Surprises (47:39) (Originally aired December 21, 1983)
Mr. Withers insists that the Australian Express and Five Mile Creek play host to a party of important people with stately courtesy, but the wealthy group of travelers are abrasively arrogant and impossible to please. When not busy trying to make the best of that difficult situation, the operators of Five Mile Creek brainstorm for a cure for Jack, whose horse-sustained injury is taking a turn for the worst.

5. The Scrub Bulls (47:39) (Originally aired January 4, 1984)
Jack and Con see opportunity for expansion when they are granted more property but a ruthless local insists that the property is his, leading to a violent conflict. Meanwhile, Maggie, who is planning a classroom for the two children at the station, helps build confidence in a submissive and unhappy wife.

6. Bang the Big Drum (47:36) (Originally aired January 18, 1984)
Hannah and Sam are delighted by a visitor who engages with them but begin to compete for his attention. Hannah will soon have more to worry about, though, as a "Wanted" poster for her missing father arrives at the station.

7. Gold Fever (47:40) (Originally aired February 1, 1984)
A lot is going on at Five Mile: Con has been shot and sparks begin to fly between he and Kate. All that is overshadowed, though, by the unexpected but long-anticipated arrival of Maggie's husband (Jonathan Frakes, better known as Commander William T. Riker, 2nd-in-command on "Star Trek: The Next Generation") in less-than-desirable condition.

Mr. Withers may be a hard-nosed banker, but he's hard not to like. Ben Jones (right) is part of the main cast yet never plays an important role. "Where's Deanna?"

DISC 3 (Volume Three)

8. Annie (47:37) (Originally aired February 15, 1984)
A pregnant woman named Annie arrives at the station, and no, it isn't Nicole Kidman's Annie, who doesn't arrive for two more years. Not only must she come to terms with her husband's reemergence and suspicious explanation of his absence,
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Maggie is called upon to aid in the delivery of Annie's baby too, while Con goes to town in search of the soon-to-be-born's father and finds more than he bargained for.

9. Home and Away (47:40) (Originally aired March 7, 1984)
Maggie wrestles over whether to keep her family in Australia or accept her parents' generous offer of a return to home, while Con and Jack try to save themselves from great financial loss after their first transfer of gold under a new contract is disrupted by robbery.

10. The Awakening (47:39) (Originally aired March 21, 1984)
Prejudice is this week's theme as Maggie and Paddy try to help a needy family of aborigines and Kate defends a traveling French singer who is condemned as too free-spirited for a woman, prompting the town newspaper to soil both their reputations. Kate begins to have misgivings over welcoming the embattled performer into her home when she uses the appeal of fame to lure Sam into a desire to leave Five Mile Creek and travel the world.

11. The Prize (47:38) (Originally aired April 4, 1984)
Rocky III had been released only a couple of years before, and it shows. This not-so-subtle tribute has Con reenacting scenes from the films as he trains for a boxing match that will determine the new contractor of the royal mail service. You can actually almost hear "Eye of the Tiger" in the background. This embarrassing episode is easily the worst of the season and interrupts an otherwise upward trend in story quality.

Maggie and Paddy extend a helping hand in "The Awakening." Yo, Adrian! Paddy tips his hat to the ladies of Five Mile Creek.

DISC 4 (Volume Four)

12. Tricks of the Trade (47:40) (Originally aired April 18, 1984)
The Australian Express faces its greatest threat yet as it organizes a secret transfer of gold in order to escape bushranger harassment. To make things worse, Sam's "foster parents" arrive at Five Mile Creek in an attempt to bring Sam back home with them, but no one is less happy to see them than Sam himself. Meanwhile, things begin to heat up between Con and Kate.

13. Thanksgiving (47:40) (Originally aired May 2, 1984)
The season finale is not only the most involving, but the most festive too. The first Thanksgiving was all about the sharing of resources and cultures and that's what Maggie hopes to institute at Five Mile Creek as she introduces the Thanksgiving holiday to her Australian friends. There doesn't seem much to be thankful for, though, as Maggie receives devastating news regarding her family and Jack announces that he intends to sell the Australian Express and close the outpost at Five Mile Creek.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Those who have looked forward to a marked improvement in picture quality over their treasured VHS copies of "Five Mile Creek"'s original television airings are set for disappointment.
Typical complaints over a DVD's video quality are all in order here and in abundance. Obscenely grainy, excessively soft, and sometimes too dark, the video is littered with artifacts and other visual annoyances. Of course one doesn't expect perfect quality from a television show that is nearly a quarter-century old. Perfection is one thing and acceptable is another, but this set is neither. The fourth disc holds only two episodes and these look slightly clearer thanks to that extra breathing room, but it's painfully obvious that no work whatsoever went into restoring the 1.33:1 fullscreen series for digital presentation.

The Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track is appropriate but lacking nonetheless. The discs ask audio receivers and television sets to set their volume levels a little higher than they normally would for full audibility and while there aren't any blatant distortions that distract from the sound, the track does sound too flat, even for a mono presentation.

"Five Mile Creek": Season 1, Disc 1 / Volume 1 - The Main Menu. Disc 4's lone Episode Selection menu.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Don't look for any bonus features here, not even on the fourth disc, where there's plenty of room. A little creativity could have resulted in at least something to advertise on the packaging, but clearly, that was out of the question... not that the packaging needed help. Apparently all of the effort that didn't go into audio/video treatment, bonus features, or promotion was redirected to the impressive packaging.
Housed in an attractive white slipcover, four thin cases (which are becoming increasingly common in TV-on-DVD box sets) are illustrated with colorful montages of scenes from the first season. In this reviewer's opinion, such packaging is more convenient and practical than the Digipaks used in previous Disney box sets. Each slim case continues its montage to the back of the case, where episode summaries for the shows contained on the respective disc appear next to an image from that particular installment. The discs recycle artwork used on the rest of the packaging for their labels.

The menu system is also surprisingly polished, though not at all elaborate. The still, 16x9-enhanced main menu screen matches the show's setting and plays the rousing theme song repeatedly. Three options are offered there: Play All, Episode Selection, and Captions, all of which are pretty self-explanatory (the first disc adds a Sneak Peeks choice). The Captions (which holds the disc registration option) and Episode Selection menus both play the slower portion of the show's theme that doesn't get heard on the main menu. The latter contain one to two screens on which one to two episodes appear with a picture inside a frontier-esque frame. Each episode is helpfully divided into around six chapter selections.

For those interested, there aren't inserts of any kind included, but the first disc (and only the first disc) does start up with previews for December's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the Old Yeller/Savage Sam Double Feature, and a collection of assorted Disney live-action comedies. The Sneak Peeks menu adds Sky High, Toy Story 2, and a "Play All" function to that list.

Sam (Martin Lewis) is the show's most interesting character. The Australian Express, an authentic Australian coach.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Some of television's greatest shows have taken their premiere seasons to find their footing and that may well be the case for "Five Mile Creek." Notable as the Disney Channel's first hour-long drama, the series falters repeatedly in its first thirteen episodes and pales in comparison to the cable network's later period import "Avonlea." Considerable work went into achieving the look and feel of the late-1800s period and in conveying Australia to a wide audience through the friendship of "Aussies" and "Yanks." The series' prospects of release to DVD haven't always been great, so its mere manifestation will no doubt be enough to thrill its fans. Families looking for a new series to enjoy will often find themselves engaged by this one but will have to suffer through weaknesses in plot and characterization, plus video quality that is disappointing, if not abysmal. Better treatment and the inclusion of supplemental materials would have gone a long way in increasing the value of thirteen episodes priced at $39.99 and, as it is, there are many other box sets worth consideration first.

More on the DVD / Buy from Amazon.com

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Related Interview:
Click to read UltimateDisney.com's interview with Priscilla Weems of "Five Mile Creek."
UltimateDisney.com's Interview with Priscilla Weems of "Five Mile Creek"

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Reviewed November 13, 2005.