After five seasons and several dozen of the worst movies ever made, Mystery Science Theater 3000 stood at a crossroads. Host Joel Hodgson was getting antsy, wanting to branch out into other areas before he ended up some Comic-Con convention attraction. Planning his departure, he wondered if the show he helped create and creatively spearhead would follow suit. The answer, oddly enough, was "No" even with a schism that would later drive the various cast members apart. As a result, Season Five was a bittersweet breaking point for the series. While they had always allowed for genres outside of science fiction and fantasy to fuel their funny stuff, the need for more material saw them scouring the barrel bottom scrapings others left behind. Thus we have the reviled revisionist Western Gunslinger. Featuring a female sheriff, a cast of a couple, and a lot of obvious balsa wood building fronts, it would mark the next to last appearance of Hodgson as the Satellite of Love's point man. Now offered up on a single disc from Shout! Factory, it's easy to see why this particular film was picked - and how hard it was becoming to truly say goodbye.
About the only other actual fun one can have with Gunslinger is to play a few rounds of "Name that Familiar Day Player," a game always suggested by a Corman production. If you look carefully, you'll see Jonathan "Seymour Krelborn" Haze, Dick "Walter Paisley" Miller, and good old reliable Bruno "Dave Walker" VeSota. But aside from a few static saloon numbers, and the aforementioned gal-on-gal grappling, there isn't much to recommend this movie. There's too much unresolved intrigue, too many easy answers to rotten questions, to make heads or tails of what is supposed to matter. Is Rose cleaning up the town, following in her husband's footsteps, showing him up, stopping a land grab, or preserving his legacy? Perhaps she is just rabid, like a raccoon with power? Why is Erica so POed? Is running the prairie version of an escort service really that tough? Or similar to a life in organized crime? Shouldn't her desire to outsmart the railroad be sport enough? And should she really be spending her equity on ineffectual hit men? These queries and dozens more come bubbling to the surface during the dragged-out running time of this sloppy soap oater.
On a historic note, Gunslinger was indeed Joel Hodgson's penultimate show of the series (the magnificent Mitchell, Episode 513, would be his last), and you can sense a seriousness in the air that seems missing from other installments. While not actually present, you can feel everyone looking beyond this episode toward that history-making presentation. There is also a weird whiff of nostalgia, as some old childhood items are again offered up--like the old balloon-based board game Ka-Boom idea that was utilized during the first couple of seasons--as part of the SOL comedy skits. Overall, Gunslinger can best be described as MST on autopilot. It is the cast doing what they do best, trying to make their way through a very uninspiring film. Instead of creating some satire from the tired wild Western motifs Corman is employing (aside from the Pony Express portion of the show), the Brains appear flummoxed by the tedious tumbleweeds casually cascading across the screen. While no episode of this series can ever be considered "bad," Gunslinger won't be making anyone's Top Ten (or even Top 40) list anytime soon. Leave it to Corman to nearly scuttle the greatest TV series ever.
Final Thoughts: The sadness felt by every MSTie upon learning of Joel Hodgson's leaving was compounded by the fact that, for most of Season Five, the show was still pretty sensational. Installments like Warrior of the Lost World, Eegah, I Accuse My Parents, and The Girl in Lover's Lane suggested where the series' best, as well as where it was going, and the view was very pleasant (and quite funny) indeed. Gunslinger may not be one of the classic episodes of all time, but it is important in the Mystery Science mythology. Earning an easy Highly Recommended rating, it stands as a strange send-off for a truly brilliant TV genius. Mitchell might have been the moment when the Joel Hodgson era of MST3K ended proper, but this episode is where we first felt the loss - and it was a dizzying experience indeed.