A recent Internet discussion raised some serious questions about the comedic longevity of such series as The Simpsons and Family Guy. Essentially, could the humor of a show so indebted to a specific cultural context outlive the memory of the generations who bore witness to its genesis? That question applies at least as strongly to Mystery Science Theater 3000. For those of you unfortunate enough to not yet be in the know, the cult series concerns the quip-ready passengers of the Satellite of Love space station, who, marooned in space by their mad scientist captors (Trace Bealieu’s Dr. Clayton Forrester, Josh Weinstein’s Dr. Laurence Erhardt, and Frank Conniff’s TV’s Frank), are forced to endure cinematic dreck (their weekly “experiment”) in an attempt to break their spirits. Over the course of any given episode, some hundreds of insults, references, and sardonic dialectic injections are hurled at the screen by the three primary characters (seen as silhouettes as if you were watching the movie in question from the back row of a theater) in a perpetual attempt to maintain their sanity. This comedic triangle consists of the robots Tom Servo (a red gumball machine head with arms and torso) and Crow T. Robot (a humanoid figure crossed with the essence of a golden duck), and, depending on which era of the show is in question, either human host Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) or Mike Nelson (himself).
The show’s immense cultural grab bag could indeed prove as much a blessing as a curse depending on the viewer (any given episode’s references could easily fill a week’s worth of Jeopardy questions), though the creators have themselves commented on a general resistance to incorporating timely shout-outs in their scripts, knowing that an easy joke one day would likely fall on only deaf ears down the road. Instead, their zingers tend to cull from more canonized aspects of culture past—that is, when they’re not indulging in humor of the more juvenile sort. Taken to its logical extreme, the potential expiration date of comedy simply points the way to the mortality of all things human, but for the cinematically inclined, MST3K has always represented something of an equally timeless nature. One of the pleasures of revisiting any given episode comes in the form of references heretofore unrecognized, but the centerpiece movie of the week remains a bedrock testament to the cultural void our heroes are forced to reckon with (i.e. you don’t have to be marooned in space to appreciate the soul-sucking horror of seemingly endless cultural runoff).
Admittedly, the films featured on the show are usually more incompetent than awful, and sometimes seem undeserving of the lambasting that follows (Robot Monster is some kind of accidental masterpiece, and Parts: The Clonus Horror is superior to Michael Bay’s unofficial remake The Island). Such exceptions go for all forms of criticism, however, and one only need see a handful of MST3K-featured films in their original format to truly appreciate what the creators endured in order to present our weekly chuckles for a glorious decade of television (i.e. for every movie featured on the show, roughly 20 were watched in the weeding-out process). The unique clashing of the high- and lowbrow has always been part of what made this oeuvre such a resilient, democratic creation, while the ingenious in-theater presentation befits both solo and communal viewing experiences to equal, if different, effect. It’s hard to imagine a series with public-access roots being more fully formed, universal, and profound.
This 20th DVD box set of the series dedicates all four episodes to the show’s earlier Joel Robinson era, a fact that, as an unabashed Mike Nelson fan (perhaps I’m biased, as I first experienced the series in its final seasons), originally annoyed me, but only at the conceptual level. More than just a love letter to the early fans of the show, this set seems calculated—and expertly at that—to increase one’s appreciation for the show’s slow evolution over the years, as it transformed from a ragtag operation into something more professional and rounded at both the technical and creative level.
Disc one features season one’s Project Moonbase, a flimsy bit of ‘50s Cold War propaganda concerning espionage in space and an impromptu romance (as one character describes the plot, it’s about as weak as herbal tea). Like many early episodes, its worth is primarily historical, as the art of “riffing” was still in development and the production values quite minimal (the green-screen silhouettes suffer from some serious combing, and Tom Servo’s hands are frequently seen facing the wrong way). All the better to appreciate how far the show had come in two years, as discs two and three feature a rare two-part experiment: season three’s Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II. These films are actually two episodes apiece of the ‘70s TV series The Master, and are quite perfect fodder for the in-movie riffing that had already developed into more or less peak form. By now, Josh Weinstein had left the show over creative differences, leading to his replacement by Kevin Murphy (as Tom Servo) and Frank Conniff (as TV’s Frank, replacing mad scientist Dr. Laurence Erhardt), and the commercial-break host segments are more confidently written and staged. Fast forward to season five, then, for disc four’s The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. The 1952 Russian film—awkwardly dubbed into English and clearly not originally about Sinbad—is notable for featuring some of the finest production values of any movie to ever appear on the show, and the episode is one of the most consistently hilarious of the Robinson years. If Joel hasn’t won your heart by now, chances are he never will.
Like the last 19 sets released by Rhino and Shout! Factory, MST3K: Volume XX features perfectly adequate audio and visual specs, as if you were seeing it in the wee hours of the morning on the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) all over again. (Then again, my preferred viewing method for this series is on bootleg VHS.)
The special features are spread out over all four discs. Included with Project Moonbase is that film's original trailer and an interview with MST3K director of photography Jeff Stonehouse, who headed up the team effort to make the most of the sets and the unseen camera character Cambot. Master Ninja I includes an interview with that film's "guest star" Bill McKinney, who seems appropriately amused by his film's inclusion in the series. Master Ninja II includes the best of the features: "Tom Servo vs. Tom Servo," a panel held at Dragon-Con 2010 with vocal talents Josh Weinstein and Kevin Murphy, who provide thoughts and anecdotes on the creation, transition, and enduring legacy of the show's "puffed-up chick magnet." And on The Magic Voyage of Sinbad you get introduction by former mad scientist Trace Bealieu as well as a pair of host segments from The Mystery Science Theater Hour, an alternate version of the show crafted for channels that aired each episode as two segments.
Pick up this Joel-bilee of the enduringly awesome Mystery Science Theater 3000, preferably in the not-too-distant future.