Like Deadwood, Sports Night, and The Pirates of Dark Water, among others, the cancellation of Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains one of the great injustices in recent TV history, one made all the more puzzling for the fact that the show was cut down at the height of its pre-DVD popularity. While the volley of movie-riffing series that followed in its wake attempted to reignite the spark, things have never been quite the same outside the ramshackle confines of the Satellite of Love where Joel, Mike, Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, and countless adoring fans (“MSTies”) endured hundreds of terrible—and a few not so terrible—movies over the course of a decade. The low-rent production and generally self-deprecating humor of the host segments offset the more passive-aggressive tendencies exhibited in the theater (themselves perfectly justified, as anyone who’s ever seen a Coleman Francis film knows all too well), and even if a few cheap shots were occasionally fired, the playful deconstruction always struck me as an act of love, as opposed to a cynical distancing mechanism. Shout! Factory’s exquisite DVD packages of the series continue to reinforce the act of riffing as a window into the world of film, and the milestone Volume XXV set offers what might be the most well-rounded cross-section of the series yet released.
First up is the season-one episode Robot Holocaust, and despite the limitations of the earlier seasons (the Crow and Tom puppets are particularly crude-looking here), it may be the highlight of the set, if only for how singularly preposterous the film in question is. Released theatrically in Italy but sent directly to video-store shelves stateside, it’s an embarrassing amalgamation of Star Wars, Alien, The Road Warrior, and, uh, Stayin’ Alive (and, retroactively, The Matrix, via an unlikely savior named Neo), and it’s doubtful that even the most tight-lipped of moviegoers would have kept mum after handing over legal tender to see it. In short, anything resembling competent filmmaking would appear to have been accidental, and by the time it’s over, you’ll likely fantasize all manner of violence being inflicted upon the C3PO knockoff. This was the first color film featured on the series, but to these eyes, the episode stands out more so for a less savory reason: Roughly 20% of the commentary comes at the expense of actress Angelika Jager’s accent, thus cementing the series trademark of obscenely exaggerated—and frustratingly unimaginative—confusion for lack of anything else to say.
On disc two is season five’s Operation Double 007, going by the alternate moniker Operation Kid Brother on the packaging for legal issues. The idea for this James Bond spoof was to cast Neil Connery, Sean Connery’s younger brother, as the lookalike replacement for his conspicuously unnamed and unseen secret-agent sibling. Whatever levels of meta-textual comedy or commentary you could imagine this scenario achieving are surely better than the flimsy mishmash of intentions that found its way to the screen, and before long it proves depressing to watch such Bond icons as Lois Maxwell, Bernard Lee, and Daniela Bianchi cashing in on their popularity for an easy buck. For MST3K purposes, the film is wanting for opportunity, less the result of its genre than its own attempted self-mockery. Disc three’s Kitten with a Whip, from season six, similarly fails to jive with the intended spirit, though I found the laugh-to-dud ratio to be slightly higher. The 1964 exploitation drama was intended to establish Ann-Margret, playing the titular feline, as a more serious actress, but the contrived screenplay and nonexistent chemistry between her and John Forsythe (as a blackmailed politician) sees the whole affair dead on arrival.
Disc four showcases what might be the highest-profile film ever featured on the series: 1955’s Revenge of the Creature, arguably the flimsiest effort in Jack Arnold’s prodigious career and a sadly inert follow-up to the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon (in a galling show of laziness, the sequel recycles the final shot from its predecessor verbatim). The episode was the season-eight premiere, and it was the first to air on the Sci-Fi channel, which picked up the series after it’d been canceled by Comedy Central (only to be resuscitated by a motivated and organized online fan base), and as such was also the first to include the new cast of supporting characters. Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), who’d already appeared as the departed Clayton’s indifferent mother, took over as leading mad scientist, with the eternally abused Professor Bobo (Kevin Murphy) in tow, and, later, the Observer (Bill Corbett). (Professor Bobo and Observer’s roots in Planet of the Apes and The Seventh Seal, respectively, say plenty about MST3K‘s far-reaching cultural inspirations.) These later episodes focused less on outright mockery of their cinematic subjects and more on incidental humor, and dare I say it represented the show at its most technically and philosophically evolved.
If you're expecting superior image and sound from these discs, this show clearly isn't for you. As usual, these transfers do perfect justice to an experience defined by its cable-broadcast quality, itself a step up for a community long since accustomed to third- and fourth-generation tape recordings and, more recently, YouTube files.
As usual, the special features are spread across all four discs. Each episode contains an introduction by Mike or Joel, but the cheeky animated menus usually serve the same purpose more effectively. On disc one there's a "Life After MST3K" profile of J. Elvis Weinstein that runs about 10 minutes. Ditto the profile of Bill Corbett on disc four, alongside which is also included a healthy 20-minute doc on Jack Arnold's career at Universal Studios. The most bang for your collection buck, however, can be found in the illustrated mini posters by artist Steve Vance.
On the eve of the show's own quadranscentennial, this 25th box set release may or may not contain your favorite episodes, but it's an excellent addition for newcomers and completists alike.