For 11 seasons Mystery Science Theater 3000 was the unlikely funniest show on television, starting in 1988 on a local Minneapolis station before hopping to the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) and finally The Sci-Fi Channel. MST3K became a cult hit in the pre-DVD days, partially due to fans trading VHS recordings of the episodes (many of which ended with words encouraging this practice: “Keep circulating the tapes”).
Official VHS and DVD releases often chose the most popular episodes for maximum sales, which left an uneven collection of released material and to date, no “complete seasons” of the show have been offered. This leaves current distributor Shout! Factory to fill in the collection gaps by releasing the remaining episodes in four-packs, combining some of the best and some of the worst episodes, to keep sales consistent.
This causes two problems. First, many of the “best” episodes have been released already and while there really aren’t any “bad” episodes of this hilarious show, some of the more boring movies skewered by Mike (or Joel) and the ‘bots do tend to make for unexciting entries in the series. The second issue with these scattershot collections is that MST3K is, indeed, a series in its own right with evolving characters, rotating actors and continuing plot lines that kept the show going as much as the bad-movie mockery does.
With a selection from seasons one, two, five and eight, this 27th DVD release (appropriately called “XXVII”) makes for an interesting retrospective of the show throughout the years, but can prove jarring when the robot voices are completely different from episode to episode and both the host and the supporting cast completely changes out by the time of the eighth season.
The first disc spoofs 1954’s The Slime People and features original host Joel Hodgson along with Robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot being tortured with this awful movie concerning (alleged) reptile menaces covered in slime descending upon a helpless Los Angeles. The episode is notable for featuring J. Elvis Weinstein as the original voice of Servo as well as one of the two mad scientists in charge of torturing Joel and the ‘Bots. Early episodes such as this also show off the inventive low-budget set design and the (intentionally) obvious, yet brilliant use of miniatures in true B-Movie fashion.
Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1958) fills the second of the four discs and is prime fodder for the expert satirists. This cynical cold war era drama features sanctimonious, often stock characters in barely connected panic stories that still manage to be boring. Luckily this is exactly what the Satellite of Love gang thrive upon. Crow’s (Trace Beaulieu) vengeful synopsis of the film is worth sitting through the entire program.
Beaulieu also portrayed the senior Mad Scientist Doctor Clayton Forrester in most of the seasons and once joined by “TV’s Frank” (Frank Conniff) in the second season, the “Mads” as we know them truly coalesced. Season five’s Village of the Giants (from 1965) is not only prime raw material for MST3K flaming but the episode also shows the Dr. Forrester and Frank at the height of their hilariously wicked team up.
Directed by Bert I. Gordon (who “contributed” a lot to MST3K fodder) and ostensibly based on an H.G. Welles novel, the film stars Ron Howard as a young genius who accidentally creates a formula that can make people and animals grow to the size of giants. Beau Bridges is the leader of a group of ne’er-do-well 1960s kids who are generally as threatening as the gang from Scooby Doo until they voluntarily ingest the giant formula in order to become gargantuan hipsters who take over the town with extremely bad dancing and inane dialogue.
The episode itself features Michael J. Nelson as Joel’s replacement Mike in a plot that shows TV’s Frank getting fired by Forrester and replaced by Torgo from Manos the Hands of Fate. One of the series’ best and funniest musical numbers of the entire series (a tribute to both TV’s Frank and Frank Zappa) can be found here in “The Greatest Frank of All” by Nelson and Bridget Jones.
Somewhat surprisingly the fourth disc’s feature, 1957’s The Deadly Mantis is not so bad for a giant insect attacking Washington D.C. movie. By this time in the series, Forrester and Frank had exited the series, to be replaced by Forrester’s mother Mrs. Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) still torturing Mike and the ‘Bots in the far future where she is joined by Professor Bobo, as portrayed by the second voice of Servo, Kevin Murphy. Bobo’s Planet of the Apes-inspired makeup and origin provide additional hilarious layers to the show allowing the team to spoof more films than they are actually watching for the sake of the show.
The extras begin with four newly designed spoof posters by Steve Vance featuring Crow and Servo in collectible (even framable) mini-sizes. The discs themselves include funny animated menus (also with Crow and Servo), original theatrical trailers for the films themselves and interviews with stars of the films as well as the show. The most interesting of these is Beaulieu’s detailing of his “Life After MST3K”, including his contributions to The West Wing, America’s Funniest Home Videos and his (thankfully) unsuccessful audition for the voice of Star Wars‘ Jar Jar Binks.
Showing that the Best Brains are not all about sarcastic skewering, the included documentary Chasing Rosebud: The Cinematic Life of William Alland is a serious and quality look at the work of The Deadly Mantis‘ producer which shows that his contribution to film goes far deeper than the B-Movies that fuel this classic show.
Of course, the point of the collection is that in all of these four eras of the show, even if they can be confusing when viewed back-to-back, the respective casts and writers do a hilarious job of eviscerating some truly bad movies and for fans of esoteric, absurdist humor surrounding film, there may be no better source than Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Volume XXVII may not contain the four BEST of the entire series and their inclusions jump around in time to a confusing level, but for completists and casual fans, this is not a release to pass up.