Can we talk personally for a moment? Just me and you. Here we go: I love Mystery Science Theater 3000--love it with a devotion and passion reserved for precious few television programs. But their new set, Mystery Science Theater 3000: XX, marks my fourth time reviewing the show, and I gotta tell you, I'm about out of overarching commentary for the series and what it says about popular culture. Oh, don't get me wrong, I can tell you all about the four episodes packaged here (and will do so presently), but in terms of the grand statement about why a puppet show from Minnesota has persevered for over twenty years? Well, if I knew, I've already said it. Theories have been floated, hypothesis tested, spin-offs mentioned, jokes quoted. Is it the disposable nature of exploitation filmmaking? Our inherent need to critique? Our love of talking robots? Sure, why not.
It's more than that, though--and less. The show survives because it's funny, period. End of discussion. But why--sorry, it's apparently not the end of the discussion. Why is it so funny? Well, frankly, ya got me. The formula has been properly broken down--fast pace, deserving targets, copious pop culture references, and general silliness. But that elixir was also just right at that moment, as alternative comedy was on the rise and the Internet became an empowerment tool for pop-culture nerds. The show's current off-shots, Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, often recapture that magic--but not with the consistency and sheer brilliance of the original series (particularly in its Comedy Central years). It was funny, it was brilliant, it was just plain perfect.
The plot, quickly, for anyone new to the show (and I'm certain the 20th DVD box set will draw in countless neophytes--as, presumably, will this review): Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) is marooned in outer space, the object of an experiment to monitor his responses to truly terrible movies. To keep himself company, Joel builds two robots: Crow (voiced by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett) and Tom Servo (first voiced by J. Elvis Weinstein, then by Kevin Murphy), and the bulk of the episodes consists of the trio, watching the movie (and seen in silhouette) and cracking wise.
Joel left the show halfway through the ten-season run and was replaced by Mike Nelson; the battle over who was the superior host raged for years. Shout Factory, which took over DVD distribution for the show from Rhino a few years back, has usually done its best to please both factions by including two Joel episodes and two Mike episodes in each set; surprisingly, this one offers four Joels and no Mikes, with the last episode coming shortly before his exit.
So Mike fans may be bummed out, but this is a stellar quartet of very funny early episodes. The films themselves are varying degrees of terrible, but the riffing is mostly top-notch, and the references are expectedly all over the map. I jotted down the following: The Dukes of Hazard, Shaft, Starship, the Mackenzie Brothers, It's a Wonderful Life, the great San Francisco fire, The Absent-Minded Professor, Eat My Dust, Chuck Woolery, Oprah, Blazing Saddles, the "Band on the Run" album, The Wizard of Oz, the JFK assassination, Race For Your Life Charlie Brown, Cheers, Chinatown, A Night at the Opera, "Happiness is a Warm Gun," Tales from the Crypt, Knight Rider, In The Heat of the Night, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Monty Python's "Parrot Sketch," Sanford and Son, Annie Hall, Poe's "The Raven," The Dating Game, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Dan Haggerty, the B-52s, and, of course, Gymkata. This is, by no means, a complete list.
Disc one gives us the first season episode Project Moonbase, preceded by not one but two episodes of the awful "Commander Cody" serial--a "double dip," according to mad scientist Dr. Forrester (Beaulieu). The chintzy serial ran throughout the first season, and it certainly doesn't get any better here, though chapter eight includes their funny lyrics for the theme song ("He gets in trouble/every week/but he's saved/by the editing") and chapter seven has an endless stream of awful (and wonderful) tool puns. We're seeing the early stages of the relationship between Joel and the 'bots, which had more of a mentor/student, parent/child dynamic, when Crow asks, "Hey Joel, do mechanics fight better than scientists?" And the back-and-forth between the film and the riffers is quite good--when Cody says, during a fight, "A ray gun blast! See what's behind us!" Joel responds, "Uh, I think it's a ray gun!"
The feature takes place in the futuristic 1970s, which look an awful lot like the 1950s. (One character listens to a baseball game on the radio, prompting Crow to note, "This is the future, when they sold the Dodgers back to Brooklyn.") Hayden Rorke (aka "Dr. Bellows" on I Dream of Jeannie) lays out the plot during a science briefing; he's so clearly reading off cue cards that Joel helpfully rises and holds up one of his own. You get the picture. This is vintage cheeseball '50s space-travel sci-fi, with intrigue, romance, and bad props and costumes galore ("They look like salt and pepper shakers!"). I've made clear my comparative distaste for these first season episodes; the shows tend to be slower and less funny, the crew not yet having found their groove. But as far as season one episodes go, this is a pretty good one--Beaulieu has abandoned the robotic element of the Crow voice and is settling into the character, and the laughs, though less frequent, are big.
We then skip ahead to season three and two of its best episodes, Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II. Some background on the films themselves: the good folks at "Film Ventures International" assembled the two features (and more) from the brief run of the 1984 NBC action series The Master. The "films" (if you'd like to call them that) basically consisted of two episodes of the show Scotch-taped together; these two films amount to the first four episodes of the show. Timothy Van Patten starred as "Max Keller" (or, as he says it, "Max Kella"), who tools around the country with a gerbil in a conversion van (no, seriously) and becomes the pupil/apprentice/buddy of B-movie star Lee Van Cleef , playing John Peter McAllister, a ninja (no, seriously) known as "The Master." It's a (justifiably) long-forgotten show, a shoddy A-Team knockoff notable for its dull car chases, Van Cleef's too-obvious stunt doubles, and Van Patten's marble-mouthed line readings.
There's much here for Joel and the 'bots to take on: the guest stars (Demi Moore appears in the very first episode, prompting Crow to note, "I've dreamed of her running out of the woods into my Chevy van!"), Van Cleef's preposterous casting ("He looks about as much like a ninja as Irene Ryan"), the period production design ("His office looks like a Chi-Chi's"), and the unsettling notion that Max is somehow just irresistible to the ladies (He propositions Wings ingénue Crystal Bernard with "How about a little victory party?" to which Servo helpfully adds, "I've got a gerbil!"). They also have a good deal of fun with the slapped-together "movie" construction--in the second half of Master Ninja I, Joel demands, "Where's Demi Moore? This movie's gone off in a whole different direction!"--finally half-heartedly giving into it with lines like "That was in the last epis--the last half of the movie."
By Master Ninja II, the riffs are starting to run out of gas a little bit, and they may spend a little too much time on Van Patten's mumbly line readings ("Jeez, you need the universal decoder to understand that guy") and on the unfortunately overweight actor who plays the cannery foreman. But these are still terrific episodes, brutal to the endless TV-style establishing shots ("We've seen it! It's a nice piece of real estate, we know!") and slow-motion ("Oh, I love these shots, slow it down, please"), as well as the downright stupid premise. "Good thing he studied with that ninja for those ten minutes," Joel notes after Max's first fight.
The final show in the set is The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, a season five episode from the Russian-Finnish school of filmmaking that previously gave us episodes like Jack Frost and The Day the Earth Froze--beautiful and utterly nonsensical Nordic fairy/folk tales. This one is rendered even more incoherent by its acquisition by Roger Corman's Filmgroup; their dubbed dialogue changed the leading character from "Sadko" (the film's original title) to "Sinbad" and basically grafted the Sinbad mythology into it--badly. "Man, I never knew Arabia was so Russian!" Joel notes.
The trouble with these films is that they're so absolutely ridiculous that it's almost as if the show couldn't find the right angle to come at them from--this one, for example, is not a bad episode, but the sheer volume of laughs decreases sharply from the Master Ninja shows. It's just so strange, borderline surrealistic at times ("This started getting weird a little while ago, didn't it?" Joel asks), and if they can't seem to make heads or tails of, say, the underwater dance scene, well, it's not like you can exactly blame them. But there are some gems in this episode--particularly from Joel, who would depart from the show a couple of months later.
As with the previous Shout sets, each episode is on its own disc, and each disc is packaged in a clear ThinPak with cute cover illustrations of the 'bots in a scene appropriate to the episode. (Again, those illustrations are also each included as a separate "mini-poster".) The four cases are housed in a simple cardboard slipcase. Each disc has an animated menu, and while there are no chapter menus, each film does include chapter stops at commercial and host breaks.
By this point in the show's slowly-but-surely DVD release schedule, it's been established that pristine video quality isn't all that important to anyone; the films here look about average, no better, no worse. As we've often seen in first season shows, the silhouette edges in Project Moonbase are quite a bit fuzzier than we've grown to expect, while the color reproduction for Magic Voyage of Sinbad isn't quite as good as, say, Jack Frost--a bit of a disappointment, considering that these films are among the best-looking in the MST library. That film also has an odd fuzziness around the edges of the frame (strangely reminiscent of Altman's Quintet), but that appears to have been intentional.
The 2.0 stereo track is also about what we've come to expect. Moonbase is a little hissy, but not bad; riffs throughout all of the films are clear and clean. There appears to be some issues with bad source audio in Master Ninja I--the music goes notably sour in the second epis--um, second half of the movie. Aside from that, no real complaints.
The Shout Factory sets boasted a noticeable increase in quality bonus features, though there's only so much that they could do with some of these long-forgotten titles. The best of this box's extras comes on the third disc: "Tom Servo vs. Tom Servo Panel at Dragon-Con 2010." Running approximately 42 minutes, this video (apparently uncut) captures the two voices of Servo, Murphy and Weinstein, in a panel discussion with film writer and podcaster Ken Plume (and with Beaulieu occasionally piping in from the back of the room). It's a real treat, informative, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable, and kudos to Murphy, who brings along an assortment of old clippings, network notes, fan mail, and even the dot-matrix "I HATE SERVO'S NEW VOICE" banner that he mentions in the Amazing Colossal Episode Guide.
The other bonus features are a bit more uneven. Disc one includes the nine-minute featurette "Exploring the Look of MST3K with Director of Photography Jeff Stonehouse." It's interesting, and Stonehouse appears to be a likable and thoughtful dude. But it seems out of place here--Stonehouse didn't join up until season six, later than any of the episodes represented in this set. Project Moonbase's original Theatrical Trailer is also included.
Master Ninja I comes with a "New Interview with Master Ninja Guest Star Bill McKinney," running about six minutes. McKinney, who played evil "Sheriff Kyle" in the pilot episode, is something of a crotchety old character actor; he's fun to watch, but doesn't add much.
The final disc includes a "New Introduction by Trace Beaulieu," which runs about five minutes and is quite a bit of fun--Trace's wry commentary is a welcome contribution. The disc concludes with five minutes of the show's "Mystery Science Theater Hour Wraps," as odd as ever.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: XX is a touch more uneven than some of the other recent sets, but it's still MST3K, and even the spottiest episode still has more laughs than just about anything on television these days. The inclusion of both Master Ninja episodes was a splendid choice (earlier sets spread out connected films like Crash of the Moons and Manhunt in Space), and not just for continuity's sake, but because they're among the show's most mercilessly funny episodes. Overall, it's yet another sterling effort by the folks at Shout.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.