In the Not-Too-Distant Past: ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXV’

Even for a time when TV shows of whatever stripe are unprecedentedly well-archived, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is an unusually well-archived TV show. This has been true nearly since MST3k’s inception thanks to its “Keep Circulating the Tapes” campaign, which encouraged fans to record the show off the air and trade the VHS tapes with fellow fans by mail. As a consequence of the show’s creators’ willingness to waive their copyright privilege, virtually the entire MST3k series run is now available on YouTube or for gratis download from a variety of sources.

All this makes it a bit surprising that DVD distributors—first Rhino and now Shout! Factory—have been able to make a mint rereleasing the show in four-disk packs, premium-priced at around 50 dollars each. Why in God’s name are people throwing down top scratch for reruns of a show that’s readily available for free? Indeed, why does this writer own at least a dozen of these collections himself? There are a few reasons, not all of them entirely rational: The picture quality of the remastered disks tends to be superior to the fan-created tapes, which were recorded off cable or even broadcast television. The disks come with extras, some of them substantial. The physical box sets, with their original cover art, look good on the shelf.

Finally, and paradoxically, many fans fret over the financial fortunes of the show’s talented creators expressly because they were kind enough to waive their copyright privilege in the first place; such fans tend to talk about buying these box sets as though this were an act of charity or contribution. In other words, they’re paying for the show because it’s free, which speaks well of the goodness of their (I suppose I should say “our”) hearts, if not the soundness of their financial sense.

Unlike most TV collections of this sort, MST3k volumes are unnamed, and aren’t usually organized in any obvious way, e.g., by season or by theme. This is unlucky since the show itself is a sort of archive that resuscitated more than one defunct cinematic genre during its run. Theme-based collections—based around, say, the show’s ‘60s biker movie episodes, its Japanese superhero episodes, its B-grade sword-and-sandal episodes—would be easy to assemble, were it not so difficult to re-secure the rights to the movies the show originally lampooned. Yet another irony. Thus these collections tend to have a cobbled-together feel, as episodes are scheduled for inclusion not by theme or chronology but presumably in the order that they clear Shout!’s busy legal department.

Which brings us to our current offering, Volume XXV. (The Roman numerals are not optional.) Like its predecessors, Volume XXV seems to be all over the place. It features an ‘80s Road Warrior knockoff (Robot Holocaust), a ‘60s James Bond knockoff (Operation Kid Brother, or, alternatively, Operation Double 007), a beatnik-baiting home-invasion psycho-thriller (Kitten with a Whip), and a ‘50s Universal monster movie (Revenge of the Creature). But things aren’t as random as they seem, since each major phase of the show’s run is represented: respectively, the season 1 Comedy Channel period, the Joel Hodgson Comedy Central period, the Mike Nelson Comedy Central period, and the Sci-Fi Channel period.

Unlike most shows, which often atrophy after a half-dozen or so seasons, MST3k tended to improve as it matured. After all, it was based around not so much a premise as a practice, and over time its writers simply got better at what they did. This is reflected here. Season 1’s Robot Holocaust is easily the weakest of the lot, mainly because the writers had only started scripting the show that season. (The previous year on KTMA, a public-access channel, saw the show being improvised on the spot; the results were uneven, to be charitable, which is why most fans refer to the KTMA output as “Season Zero.”) The movie itself is a joyless affair, a cynical, ultra-low-budget mishmash of just about every blockbuster sci-fi movie to precede it, complete with a wisecracking, cowardly android a la C3P0 and killer robots a la The Terminator. The accompanying commentary feels made up even if it’s not, and there are long dead spaces, as the movie’s oppressively sluggish pacing perhaps suffocates the writers’ imaginations.

Better is Operation Kid Brother, so renamed not only to avoid entanglement with the rightful owners of the valuable 007 brand but also because it stars—if that’s the right word—Sean Connery’s younger sibling Neil… as James Bond’s younger sibling. This is intriguing, if opportunistic, casting, and some fifty years later I found myself thinking of the likes of Jerry Seinfeld, Louis CK, and Larry David, and their trick of playing vaguely fictionalized versions of themselves.

Operation Kid Brother also features the actors who played Thunderball’s villain as well as Moneypenny and M, which makes it either shrewd or serendipitous that this volume is coming out right on the heels of Skyfall. The latter movie reprises Moneypenny and M’s roles with different performers; the former brings the same performers to different roles.

By and large, though, that’s where the cleverness ends. Neil Connery embodies the notion that the gifts of lineage aren’t shared equally; he’s a ringer for rugged Sean but with all his charisma not so much missing as surgically excised. The film presents costume in lieu of fashion and slapstick in place of suspense; throughout, it’s garish. Joel and the ‘bots manage to make something hilarious of it, though, mainly by way of host segments that essentially reiterate it with the sole embellishment of Joel’s sleepy-eyed impersonation. It’s a great moment when he brags around the stage of the SOL, planting kisses on his puppets and sucking stoag in classic Bond villain style, over canned brass. He doesn’t have many better.

Hodgson hands the hosting mantle to Mike Nelson for the sober thriller Kitten with a Whip, which nearly brings ignominy to MST3k by verging on being a decent movie. Its A-list marquee features John Forsyth and Ann-Margret, for one thing. The first half generates some genuine tension, as an angelic but delinquent Jody (Margret) breaks into David’s (Forsyth’s) home with a sob story about abusive nuns and lecherous suitors. Motivated by altruism (along with, in all likelihood, a degree of ephebophilic lust), David extends an offer of help to the underage girl, only to have her and her roughneck pals use his reputation and his marriage as leverage for blackmail. Luckily for MST3k’s good name, the suspenseful Kitten wanes unbearable in the second half as David persists in being solicitous of Jody even after she proves again and again to be beyond any hope of redemption. The movie further does itself in by featuring neither a kitten nor a whip, an omission that earns it some well-deserved, if savage, mockery.

The MST3k’ers again come close to violating their own prime commandment—Thou shalt not mock a decent movie—with Revenge of the Creature, follow-up to the legendary Creature from the Black Lagoon by the legendary Jack Arnold. Like most of Arnold’s output, Revenge of the Creature is firmly this side of watchable, at least by modest ‘50s monster movie standards. The show’s creators make this point themselves in the extensive extras for this DVD: Mike Nelson comments here on the philosophy of “riffing”—which is more about creating parallel narratives to, rather than necessarily mocking or berating, the source material.

Extras on this DVD collection are irregular with, for example, Kitten With a Whip having only a brief Nelson discussion of the movie, while Robot Holocaust includes an extensive biography of Josh Weinstein, MST3k’s fifth Beatle (he was only on board for the show’s unremarkable first season and missed out on most of its subsequent success). Also included (on the Revenge DVD) is an extensive documentary about Jack Arnold; both are interesting, though at times come off like Wikipedia entries set to video.

All in all, though, this is a fun collection with an amusing and strangely timely selection of episodes (Kid Brother in particular); even Robot Holocaust is among the better of Season One’s subpar output. If you’re a fan you could certainly do worse. Casual viewers and non-completists, though, could just as soon resort to YouTube.

RATING 7 / 10