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Mystery Science Theater 3000, Vol. xxii

Cast: Mike Nelson, Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, Jim Mallon, Kevin Murphy

(US DVD: 6 Dec 2011)

There are more than a few ways that being an MST3K fan is similar to being a deadhead. Both the Grateful Dead and (hear me out!) MST3K operate on two distinct levels, for fans.


On the first level, they are entertainment, pure and simple. They both represent something enjoyable and engaging, both meet a certain subjective standard for “good” entertainment (that is, if they meet your subjective taste requirements). This is no different from, say, the reason that there are fans of Nickelback or Florence + the Machine or Avatar or say, Cougar Town: people like what they like, and sometimes with a rabidity that is basically unaccountable.


But it’s the second level on which both MST3K and the Dead operate that makes them both exceptional, and similar. Both are designed (quite self-consciously) to invite geeky enthusiasm for their work. Indeed, both carefully cultivate the will of their fans to consume massive quantities of their products, to obsess over them, to debate and decry and celebrate their relative merits, and to develop vast but ultimately meaningless caches of knowledge of their oeuvres.


It doesn’t hurt, either, that in both cases the material is wildly uneven (often within the space of one concert, or one episode, respectively), which both humanizes the performers and makes the really successful stuff pop. In funny but important ways, both the Grateful Dead and Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revel in, and rely on, the illusion that their fans constitute a community of peers.


What’s cool about this is that both of these otherwise commercially unviable entertainments – the Dead were basically a cultural anachronism by about 1975, and MST3K is pretty much the epitome of A/V Club dweebery – have managed to become not only commercially viable, but actual bona fide capitalist success stories. Though both adopted the seemingly counter-intuitive approach of encouraging people to trade bootlegged copies of their work for free, both continued to attract new enthusiasts and develop broader (and more rabidly devoted) fanbases through this easy access to their products. In turn, since these bootlegs were distributed via interpersonal communication, mailing lists and (eventually) social networks via chatrooms, fanpages and torrents on the internet, fans felt linked to each other in pretty much exactly the kind of ways geeks long to be linked to others – through a shared obsession with something they are convinced only an elite few really get.


And then, at a certain point, when the moment was right, both turned to selling well-packaged and extras-laden collections of their stuff to the people who already had the stuff for free and knew a lot of it by heart. And, in both cases, people bought it up hungrily. This, my friends, is genius.


As someone who is completely guilty of both Grateful Dead and MST3K devotion, I speak from first-hand experience here. And, from that same vantage point, I’ll happily let you know that this new set, like pretty much every other MST3K set ever released, is by turns astoundingly funny and ho-hum (but the former well outpaces the latter).


The set contains two bona fide classics from the much-revered Season Three: Time of the Apes and Mighty Jack, both spectacularly incoherent Sandy Frank sponsored Japanese sci-fi disasters. The first, a clean rip on Planet of the Apes (featuring a young boy who just does not care), is pure brilliance all the way through, and fans will be glad to finally have this one on official release. The second, a hopeless vision of James Bond in which a submarine does battle with an iceberg for some reason, is less consistent, but equally loved by fans for its countless zingers and for the overall insanity of the source material. 


The other two films here are a dog of a sexploitation picture (scripted by the reliably awful Ed Wood) called The Violent Years, and The Brute Man , a fairly standard creepy misunderstood Phantom-of-the-Opera-type movie which, aside from the “Chicken of Tomorrow” short that opens it (among their very best of the short programs),  is probably the weak link here. (Though it does contain the immortal, film-summarizing line from Mike Nelson: “Ahh, now his creeping has just turned into wandering”.)


Each film is accompanied by an introduction and a few extras (most of which feel unnecessary and tacked on). The set also contains four mini-posters, one for each movie, which you will probably not know what to do with.

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Stuart Henderson is a culture critic and historian. He is the author of Making the Scene: Yorkville and Hip Toronto in the 1960s (University of Toronto Press, 2011). All of this is fun, but he'd rather be camping. Twitter: @henderstu


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