Cynics may believe the extended editions of Peter Jackson's Lord Of The Rings movies are just a clever way of making fans pay twice for the same product - three times if you count that initial breathless sprint to the multiplex.
In fact, it simply offers consumers more choice. Only the most obsessive Tolkien addict will have succumbed to the theatrical release on DVD just three or four months before the real deal became available - whereas the shorter version is there to offer the casual viewer a cheaper and more manageable experience.
For those of us who revel in Middle Earth, though, this is . . . well, precious. As with the extended cut of The Fellowship Of The Ring, some existing scenes have been extended and some entirely retrieved from the cutting room floor; there's 42 minutes of new footage in all. Some - like the long flashback to Minas Tirith before Boromir leaves to attend the Council of Elrond - explain backstory and illuminate character. We understand now why Faramir of Gondor is so eager to 'show his quality' by capturing the One Ring, and why Boromir, pride of his family and hero of the hour, is so susceptible to the effects of hubris. In Fangorn forest, we learn why the Ents are a long-lived but doomed race; long ago, they lost their womenfolk in a vast emigration they can no longer even fully remember.
Other episodes deepen our understanding of plot and pave the way for the climactic events of The Return Of The King. Aragorn's lineage and history are sketched in much greater detail than in the theatrical release, and we see more of his troubled relationship with Eowyn, shieldmaiden of the Rohirrim. We also witness his gentle side as he tames Brego, the traumatised horse who will later save his life after the Warg attack on the plains of Rohan; and we learn the fate of Saruman's fleeing Orc army after the battle of Helm's Deep.
As the main plotline in the original cut, the story of Frodo and Sam perhaps benefits least from this restoration - although there is extra pathos to be squeezed from some of Gollum's new lines. There's new repartee involving hobbit double-act Merry and Pippin, though, injecting some welcome light and humour into what was previously a very dark and battle-driven movie.
As with Fellowship, the extra features take us into the very heart of the production. As well as four alternative commentary tracks, there are many hours of behind-the-scenes features and illuminating interviews with director, writers, cast members and production teams - including one fascinating documentary on the conception and creation of Gollum, from drawing board through to Andy Serkis' groundbreaking involvement in the motion capture process which brought the CGI animation so memorably to life.
Other featurettes show us much of the backstage badinage between actors and crew which made the production such a happy one, as well as the painstaking commitment shown by everyone from the tea-boy upwards. Production photos and design sketches abound - and there's even an interactive atlas, which plots the movement of every character through the intercut narratives and mountainous geography of Middle Earth. Sadly, the UK Region 2 version doesn't include Gollum's infamous spoof acceptance speech on the MTV Music Awards – but that's the only possible drawback on another fantastic DVD in this memorable series.
:: Clare O'Brien