For a great many fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s hard to imagine a time before this unofficial institution of bad-movie mockery, a perspective that has less to do with said fans’ age bracket than it does the skill with which the series created something of archetypal timelessness. The rare current-events gag aside, the show is rooted far more in time-tested brands of comedy that speak to the larger human experience, from the id/ego/superego clashing of its marooned protagonists to all manner of burlesque, its broad (and enduring) appeal apparent in everything from the notable online fan presence in the early days of the Internet to the show’s recent cameo appearances in the fourth season of Arrested Development. Cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike have grooved on the acidic commentary provided by hosts Joel Hodgson and Michael J. Nelson and their automaton sidekicks Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, while the Silent Running-inspired scenario of a man stranded in space with robots of his own creation, all the while bedeviled by a scorned captor, is evocative of nothing less than the Prometheus myth. Such readings may appear antithetical to a series in which the theme song explicitly states “you should really just relax,” but it’s the tendency to lampoon everything, even its own pretensions, that makes MST3K so inclusive an enterprise, and one open to interpretation.
That the series is only now approaching the 25th anniversary of its on-air debut makes its accomplishments and cultural impact that much more impressive, and this finely curated DVD package from Shout! Factory’s finest to date, with episodes ranging from the first to the penultimate season: “Moon Zero Two,” “The Day the Earth Froze,” “The Leech Woman,” and “Gorgo” (with the bonus offerings “Mitchell” and “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die”). The inclusion of season nine’s “Gorgo” is particularly fitting here. The featured film, an allegory-light British kaiju, is competently made and entirely watchable, while the consistently hilarious riffing, trio of classic skits (most notably “Waiting for Gorgo”), and added level of meta-madness afforded by guest star Leonard Maltin make this one of MST3K’s standout achievements, while a seemingly minor pre-movie exchange deftly encapsulates the show’s anything-goes, all-inclusive spirit. Probing the brain of their guest critic, Tom and Crow inquire as to his thoughts on, respectively, “the stylistic resurgence Italian neorealist filmmaking” and a theoretical remake of The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh. In doing so, they say more about the elasticity of cinema than many a thesis paper combined.
That none of the other featured episodes match this high-water mark is no surprise, and as is expected for a net cast this widely across the series, quality varies. “Moon Zero Two” isn’t so much a bad episode as an undercooked one typical of the earliest seasons. The ambitious but poorly written space-western, competently directed by Roy Ward Baker (who had some guidance from Stanley Kubrick for the special-effects work), is so uneven that the show’s writers can’t keep up with it, and there are vast portions of the episode where the sub-par riffing ceases entirely. “The Day the Earth Froze” is a stronger effort, but the bizarre fantasy film in question is so dull that most of the comedic potential is effectively neutralized. The Leech Woman, from 1960, yields greater returns in an episode which finds the show’s writers in nearly top form, and the obtusely racist and sexist rip-off of Roger Corman’s The Wasp Woman provides no shortage of opportunities for mockery from Mike and the ’bots. As always, your mileage will vary based on individual preferences (if it wasn’t obvious, I’m more of a Nelson-era fan), but even with said inconsistencies, this collection remains strong for its greater representational value: What some of these episodes may lack in quality, they more than compensate with in historical worth.
These releases have consistently presented the low-budgeted source material in the best possible technical form, so, we’re reprinting what we said the last two times: For a show limited to cable-video quality, these transfers are about as good as they’re likely to ever get. The colorful sets (and sometimes less-than-colorful films) are nicely balanced, and there’s next to nothing to be found in the way of pixelation or combing. Sound is similarly acceptable: Dialogue is crisp and the music is consistently hum-worthy.
The main content alone makes this a standout set, but it’s the prodigious special features that kick this anniversary edition into high gear. Tops is the documentary "Return to Eden Prairie: 25 Years of Mystery Science Theater 3000," which is spread across the first three discs and runs over 70 minutes in full. Without putting too fine a point on it, this may be the finest special feature yet produced for these sets. Insightful and heartfelt without resorting to hagiography, it’s a wistful look back at the genesis of the series and the struggles and joys its creators faced from day one. Disc one also includes an edifying 10-minute introduction to "Moon Zero Two" by Hammer films historian Constantine Nasr. On disc two, "The Day the Earth Froze," you’ll find the wrap segments used when the episode was split in two for The Mystery Science Theater Hour, featuring Michael J. Nelson in his Jack Perkins persona. "The Leech Woman" includes Mary Jo Pehl’s "Life After MST3K" segment, in which she provides amusing anecdotes about her humbling experiences as an author and her residual celebrity status. Accompanying "Gorgo" is the featurette "Ninth Wonder of the World: The Making of Gorgo," a healthy half-hour on the film’s production and legacy, as well as a brief but inspired clip, "Leonard Maltin Explains Something."
Finally, disc five includes a double feature of two previously released, discontinued episodes, "Mitchell" and "The Brain That Wouldn’t Die." These are significant in that they represent the season-five transition between hosts Joel Hodgson and Michael J. Nelson, though they’re excellent episodes apart from their historical significance. In addition is the 10-minute featurette "Last Flight of Joel Robinson," in which the cast recalls the decision by the show’s creator to hand the reigns over to a successor, and there’s also a brief interview with the lovely B-movie actress Marilyn Neilson (formerly Marilyn Hanold), whom regular viewers will recognize from the later-season openings as a smiling, disembodied head. Original trailers for each of the set’s four primary episodes can be found on their respective discs, and also included are miniature posters of Steve Vance’s artwork.
A generous package for a historic occasion, the capital-quality 25th Anniversary Edition is perfect for hardcore MSTies and newcomers alike.