[25 November 2013]
Twenty-five years ago, a young standup comic named Joel Hodgson took inspiration from, amongst other sources, the film Silent Running, about a man living alone on a space ship with three robots and finding ways to remain sane (relative though that was). In Hodgson’s version, his character Joel Robinson (named after the family from Lost in Space) “entertains” himself with terrible movies with the robots he’s created to help him wisecrack his way through them. The show quickly evolved into a program about a guy who was shot into outer space (by the bosses who didn’t like him) and forced to watch “cheesy movies, the worst” they could find, with his robot friends, as part of a bizarre experiment.
Of course, the theme song encouraged viewers to repeat to themselves “it’s just a show” and to “just relax”. This was even (and especially) as the canonical experiment changed considerably over time, including the movement through three networks and the eventual replacement of the entire main cast. However, the real-world experiment was a great success, producing one of the funniest shows on television (for 11 seasons, plus repeats) and earning the show nominations for CableACE and Emmy Awards, a Peabody Award win and the listing as one of Time magazine’s “100 Best TV Shows of All-Time”.
Longtime “MSTies” might find it hard to believe that two and a half decades have passed since the show’s debut, but Shout! Factory has put together an impressive boxed set called Mystery Science Theater 3000: 25th Anniversary Edition, featuring six of their best full-length episodes (from various eras of the program. The set also contains a multitude of impressive bonus features, starting with the embossed metal case itself.
As with recent Shout! Factory releases of the show, the set includes four excellent spoof posters by Steve Nance. An excellent new documentary called Return to Eden Prairie covers the evolution of the show in three parts, “The Crew”, “The Locations” and “The Characters”, all featuring clips and interviews from past and present. Separate interviews (from the MST3K cast, as well as those of the skewered films) and theatrical trailers round out the program.
The Brain that Wouldn’t Die
Perhaps the best “bonus feature” in the pack is the inclusion of the two, now out of print, fan favorite episodes The Brain That Wouldn’t Die and one of the very funniest and canonically impactful installments of the entire series, “Mitchell”.
“Mitchell” is an (unintentionally) hilarious made-for-TV Joe Don Baker vehicle that gives Joel and the puppet-controlled robots Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu, who also portrayed the main mad scientist) plenty of fodder for ripping this film to shreds. This is also a must-see episode because it introduces Joel’s replacement Mike Nelson (played by head writer Michael J. Nelson) and marks the transition beautifully. It was a surprising and inventive move back in October of 1993, but fans of the show will probably have watched this classic multiple times before this set is released. A short documentary called Last Flight of Joel Robinson details the behind-the-scenes transition.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die also provides great fodder for the trio to skewer and is additionally noteworthy for this monumental set because it’s Mike Nelson’s first episode as a part of said trio. As a canonical follower to the Mitchell episode (that followed the very next week), it’s not only a hilarious episode, but a great experience in seeing the new guy (who, ironically, was already head writer and had played a great many smaller character roles for years) get his feet wet.
The set’s first disc features the “moon western” known as Moon Zero Two which aired duringMST3K’s first season on The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central). The disc showcases the not-so-bad (though infinitely silly) sci-fi movie from Hammer Films, along with the classic host segments that made the show what it is. Unfortunately, while the “Shadowrama” moments (in the theater) look great, the host segments themselves appear dated due, in part, to their having been shot on video. The bonus features on this disc show the line the show straddles between skewering and respecting its prey. While Joel, Tom and Crow show no mercy to the movie during the episode, the theatrical trailer and lengthy introduction by Hammer Films historian Constantine Nasr offer a fitting tribute to the film itself.
The same can’t truly be said for the second disc, which features the short Here comes the Circus and the Finnish feature The Day the Earth Froze (the title says it all), both of which are lambasted with no quarter given. The theatrical trailer is intact, but the real gem of this disc are the Mystery Science Theater Hour wraps. In 1993, many episodes were cut in half to allow for syndication. Each one-hour half was hosted by “Jack Perkins” (really Michael J. Nelson) and the inclusion of his segments are a fantastic bonus.
The Leech Woman is young again!
The Leech Woman is a markedly different episode from the others. This was the program’s second episode made for the Sci-Fi Channel (the first season since 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie) and only the second with Bill Corbett replacing Trace Beaulieu as Crow and Mary Jo Pehl replacing the mad Doctor Clayton Forrester as his mother Pearl and Kevin Murphy’s Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo replacing TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). The episode features many of the best one-liners from the entire series.
Gorgo is the final of the previous unreleased episodes. This episode remained unreleased (and, in fact, unseen) for so long, partially because this British rip-off of King Kong (with a Godzilla clone replacing the big ape) had a copyright claim levied against the show, making the first day this aired on the Sci-Fi Channel also the last day it aired on the Sci-Fi Channel. Extras include an explanation by Leonard Maltin (who actually guest-starred in the episode) about his real feelings about Gorgo, a theatrical trailer and a very well-done “making-of” documentary. Extras are extras, but luckily, this is another incredibly funny episode, not just a filler to round out the set.
The Mighty Gorgo
And that’s the great thing about the “25th Anniversary Edition”. While many of the Shout! Factory releases offer four never before released episodes of varying quality from the different eras of the show, this boxed set features six of the very funniest episodes. Even though two have already been released, their inclusion is worthy of a season-spanning retrospective like this one. Until Shout! (or another factory) begins releasing complete seasons so that fans can watch the show evolve and the story continue as it originally did, this may be the very best example of a “complete” MST3K set.