Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XX DVD
Directed by Kevin Murphy
Starring Joel Hodgson, Michael J. Nelson
Release Date: March 8, 2011
Before I started putting my thoughts for this review to paper, I was trying to remember what movie was being roasted over an open flame on the first episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that I ever saw. Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders? Nope, but I do recall watching about five minutes of that one. Eegah? Close, but no cigar. That episode I watched on a day when I stayed home from school with the flu and it happened at the time I had just discovered the endless source of wonderment that is Comedy Central (in the form of reruns of the original British version of Whose Line is it Anyway?).
I’m afraid my introduction to the subversively hilarious world of MST3K (which we lifetime MST-ies have earned the right to call it) was a mid-90s Saturday afternoon excoriation, all done with good humor naturally, of the 1987 cheapo sci-fi fantasy Alien from L.A. (episode 516 for you fanatics out there), the movie that kickstarted dead-eyed swimsuit model Kathy Ireland’s uneventful acting career and was one of the lesser entries in the filmography of Albert Pyun, the director who excels at bargain basement schlock staffed with actors desperate for a lightning-quick payday (he also apprenticed with Akira Kurosawa…make of that what you will).
The simple but imaginative premise behind MST3K captivated me right from the beginning: watching an average schmoe and two robots that looked like they were assembled out of whatever was found laying around the show’s production office (probably because they were) screening the worst movies that have ever seen the light of a film projector — unless they denied that honor and shunted directly to home video — and dealing with the unbearable pain by cracking endless amounts of jokes, wisecracks, puns, and supremely nerdy in-jokes, was one of my initiations into a world of alternative comedy denied to me by my family’s longtime lack of cable television and my limited access to any form of humor outside of what I could find on the Big Four. Hell, I used to be into Jeff Foxworthy and Tim Allen. What did I know then?
It no longer strikes me as strange that MST3K came into my life when it did. I was about fifteen years old, close to sixteen, when I saw my first episode. At that time I was a few months away from starting my first job, slogging around an amusement park that had long been a place my family and I went to for a guaranteed day of fun and excitement with a broom and dustpan, and that job provided me with my first steady paycheck and I was able to enjoy myself in ways that picking up a few bucks mowing lawns during the summer could not allow me to do. It was with that money I bought my first George Carlin cassette (compact discs would come later in my life), a two-tape compilation of his first three classic records. That was fifteen years ago when it all began, when my evolution from shy and insecure teenager to cynical, dark-humored smartass kicked into high gear. From MST3K and George Carlin I left my naïve youth far behind and grew up even faster than before. It was all uphill from there, my journey of cultural self-discovery leading me to the comedy of Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, National Lampoon magazine, Jim Goad, Patton Oswalt, and so on I continue. MST3K was a signature discovery in my journey and in the time since I first ventured aboard the Satellite of Love and sat in the front row with Mike, Crow, and Servo as they feasted on the bloody, steaming innards of Alien from L.A. with that homespun Minnesotan sensibility that gives new meaning to the phrase “killing you with kindness.” I was changed forever. I was a MST-ie for life my friends and I will always be the better for it.
So imagine my excitement when the latest MST3K DVD box set from Shout! Factory came up for review and the assignment was offered to me. I was elated, and not even the knowledge that every episode in this newly-released set was hosted by Joel Hodgson, the show’s uber-brilliant creator and original star, could lessen (for reasons I’ll explain later) the sheer thrill that I felt when my review copy arrived in the mail recently. When episodes of MST3K first saw release on video DVD it was courtesy of Rhino Home Video, but in 2008 Shout! Factory took over future DVD releases and the original Rhino Video releases promptly went out of print and have since become pricey collectables. The Shout box sets have previously adhered to a format of including four episodes, two hosted by Hodgson and two hosted by his successor Mike Nelson, the show’s longtime head writer who had proved his prowess as a comic chameleon with his on-camera performances as Torgo from the immortal bad movie classic (and the source for one of the best episodes of MST3K) Manos, the Hands of Fate and impersonating A&E Biography host Jack Perkins frequently in sketches and in wraparound segments for The Mystery Science Theater Hour, a syndicated version of the show that featured thirty episodes of MST3K cut down to fill a hour-long slot with commercials. As I previously mentioned you won’t find much of Nelson in this set outside of his behind-the-scenes role, which was sort of a letdown for me personally because as much as I love the Hodgson episodes (and believe me he has presided over many classic moments in the series) it was always Mike’s style of humor I gravitated to the most. Hodgson is a very funny guy but he always looks to me like he’s about to fall asleep. His episodes were more of an acquired taste for me. Mike was way funnier in my book so it makes perfect sense that my first exposure to the show was one of Nelson’s earliest episodes as host.
The latest box set from Shout!, titled Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume XX because between the Rhino and Shout! Factory releases it’s the twentieth set to be issued (although the tenth volume, released in 2006, was pulled from stores due to a licensing issue with the movie Godzilla vs. Megalon, and reissued in 2008 as Volume 10.2 with The Giant Gila Monster in its place), includes one episode from the show’s first season on Comedy Central (back when it was called the Comedy Channel), two from its third, and one from its fifth (Hodgson’s last season as host-he departed about midway through). The included shows give you a good look at MST3K in the midst of its evolution, establishing the soon-to-be-familiar format of the show and bringing together the actors and creative talent that would come to define it.
Episode 109-Project Moonbase (with bonus shorts-Radar Men from the Moon, chapters 8 and 9)
This is the episode I dreaded watching the most because I don’t groove on the first season shows as much as others. Frankly they always came off as awkward and stiff to me. This was MST3K in its embryonic state and it didn’t make me laugh that much outside of the occasional chuckle. The show begins, as most of the first season episodes did, with two chapters of the Commander Cody serial Radar Men from the Moon. Then Joel and the ’bots proceed to the science-fiction feature Project Moonbase, notorious for being co-written by the celebrated author Robert Heinlein (Starship Troopers, Stranger in a Strange Land), based on one of his stories. The paper-thin plot concerns an attempt by evil unknown forces to slip a saboteur onto a ship bound for Earth’s orbiting space station with the intention of destroying it, but circumstances force the ship to land on the moon and then….well not much happens really. Every actor in the cast performs like they’re trying to crush a lump of coal between their ass cheeks and the horribly outdated details concerning Earth’s approach to space travel reek of cheap, unimaginative pulp. Overall this is a dull film lacking in tension and excitement and akin to watching a dinner theater production of Waiting for Godot on sets borrowed from Plan 9 from Outer Space, and the only admirable aspect of the film is its nuts-and-bolts approach to the traditional sci-fi saga. You won’t find a single alien or laser gun fight in Project Moonbase, but now that I think of it one might have helped immeasurably.
After watching this rather lackluster episode the only thing I felt was sorrow for Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein. He joined the staff of MST3K in its very first season at the age of 17 and was integral in helping to shape the show into the masterpiece of brilliant hilarity it’s known as today. But where he is lacking is as an member of the on-camera talent. He was the original voice and puppeteer for Tom Servo and played Dr. Lawrence Erhardt, the first assistant to Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), the show’s primary antagonist and resident crazy-haired nut job, and sadly he’s not that funny. Then again neither were most of the earlier episodes, at least when you compare them to the later ones, and that certainly can’t be laid solely at the feet of Weinstein. But whenever he’s on camera he mostly stinks. He doesn’t do much as Erhardt and as Servo he resorts the majority of the time to reading the title cards in the movie while making an occasional comment. As I said before this isn’t exclusively Weinstein’s fault because the show did have a writing staff after all, but his laidback delivery almost makes you want to take a nap. Maybe that explains why Hodgson is constantly looking sleepy. Speaking of Hodgson, he and Crow (voiced by Beaulieu) do the comedic heavy-lifting but fortunately they’re better suited to it than Weinstein and their riffing and performances barely save the show. Weinstein was gone by the second season, replaced by Frank Conniff as Dr. Forrester’s new assistant “TV’s Frank” and by Kevin Murphy as the voice of Tom Servo, and from there the show’s evolution kicked into high gear. Put simply, Conniff and Murphy were funnier actors than Weinstein and the quality of the later episodes demonstrate that in the solidified core cast of Hodgson, Beaulieu, Murphy, and Conniff.
But every birth is a painful one so the earlier seasons of MST3K were a necessary stepping stone to get to the later greatness, so in the end it was all worth the effort. But it’s a good thing I saved this episode for last. To be perfectly honest if I didn’t have to write a review of this box set I wouldn’t have watched this episode at all. This further proves why, in a perfect world, every MST3K episode would be available on DVD and there would be a website where you could create your own custom box set. My perfect MST3K box set would include Space Mutiny, Godzilla vs. Megalon, Diabolik, and Puma Man. Sadly we do not live in a perfect world yet, but there’s always hope. At least the host segments that air during breaks in the movie brim with some of the visual and verbal wit that would become the show’s stock in-trade, with Joel trying to paddle water, the bots taking turns playing Commander Cody, and a phony commercial advertising a product that cleverly plays on the acronym SPACOM from the movie.
Episode 322-Master Ninja I
With every thing that made MST3K a television classic now safely in place we move on to this third season entry, the first of two related episodes, that presents for the viewing pleasure of the Satellite of Love crew a movie that is actually two episodes of a 1980’s TV action hour called The Master stitched together to reach feature length. Master Ninja I is comprised of the first two shows and features a pretty interesting cast for a cheeseball action series. Legendary western and crime flick character actor Lee Van Cleef (The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, Escape from New York) plays a World War II veteran who stayed in Japan and trained to become a ninja master. Returning to the States to track down his long-lost daughter he meets up with a cocky drifter (Timothy Van Patten, Class of 1984) with a pet hamster and a penchant for getting his ass handed to him and together the duo travel from town to town getting into low-budget adventures as the master trains his newfound compatriot in the art of the ninja, all the while being shadowed by the master’s disgruntled former pupil (Sho Kosugi) who has a score to settle with his former teacher. Every episode follows a fixed pattern: the Vans Cleef and Patten arrive in a new town, get into a dispute with the locals, Van Patten gets into a quickie romance with the female guest star, and eventually the aging Van Cleef (assisted by a more physically able stunt double) must break out his ninja gear and kick a little ass.
The first two episodes contain a decent amount of cheap action and recognizable guest stars: the pilot alone features Claude Atkins (Rio Bravo), Clu Gulagher (Return of the Living Dead), Bill McKinney (Deliverance), and a young Demi Moore. But the show they’re involved resembles little more than a exploitation action flick with the exploitable elements cut out and the footage turned into dental floss. The choppy narrative of two unrelated episodes of a TV show slapped together suffers even more from being cut further to fit into the length of a MST3K episode; characters are disposed of almost as soon as they’re introduced, action scenes take up all of ten seconds of screen time, and the rest of the time is stuffed with dull dialogue scenes and pointless buddy movie banter between the two Vans. Speaking of those action scenes, the obvious doubling of Van Cleef sticks out like a sore thumb; a hobbling, hunched-over old man suddenly becomes a agile fighting machine when engaged in ninja combat? No way friendo, no way. My ability to suspend disbelief can only do so much.
It’s a bad show and with two episodes of a bad show super glued together in a low life effort to put one over on gullible consumers with no memory of the hastily-cancelled TV series adds up to a steaming hunk of rancid cheese that begs for being ripped apart by those armed with a masterful sense of humor. Joel and the ‘Bots have a field day with Master Ninja I, riffing on everything from Van Patten’s lack of acting talent (the actor would later go on to become an in-demand television director, helming episodes of acclaimed series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, and Boardwalk Empire), his annoying narration, Van Cleef’s stunt double, the crappy action, and the pathetic sound quality that makes most of the mumble-mouth Van Patten’s dialogue practically inaudible. Every ample opportunity to take this goofy so-called “movie” is exploited to the hilt and after the dreary Project Moonbase episode it’s a breath of fresh air. Joel, Crow, and Servo even come up with a catchy Master Ninja theme song, which consists mostly of the ‘Bots making beat box sounds while Joel occasionally sings out, “Master Ninja Theme Song!” In a hilarious host segment Crow breaks down the ever-growing reach of the Van Patten acting family into mediocre television programming of the 1970’s and 1980’s in something he calls “The Van Patten Project”.
Episode 324-Master Ninja II
There’s not much to write about this episode. It’s two more episodes of The Master, the third and fourth to be exact, stapled together for the video market. Once more Lee Van Cleef and his mush-mouth protégé Timothy Van Patten travel from town to town getting into made-for-TV shenanigans. The guest stars are different-future Wings star Crystal Bernard in the first half, one-time James Bond George Lazenby and former Man from U.N.C.L.E. star David McCallum in the second-but the glaring flaws remain the same so Joel and the ‘Bots stick to what works best. Van Patten mumbles and flirts, Van Cleef coughs up dust and his double gets plenty of on-camera time, and references to The Simpsons and multiple awful graveyard puns abound. In the host segments we’re treated to custom vans, a Patton parody, and pairing up famous TV detectives with what animal would make for their ideal pet.
Episode 505-The Magic Voyage of Sinbad
The last episode in the set is without a doubt the best and one of my new favorites of the Hodgson era. A surrealist Russian-Finnish fable from 1952 that was released in the U.S. by Roger Corman, but not before he had it dubbed into English and changed the title and the name of the main character to cash in on the popular Sinbad movies of the time. But the “Sinbad” of this wacko kids’ adventure doesn’t resemble any version of the fictional hero seen before or after. Rather than being a dashing rogue and seagoing adventurer this Sinbad is more of a beatific merchant reminiscent of a Hollywood-ized version of Jesus Christ. In Magic Voyage, “Sinbad” returns to his seaside village to find his fellow citizens awash in poverty and decadence. He decides to undertake a journey across the ocean in search of the “bluebird of happiness” that will bring goodwill to his people. His magic voyage takes him to….three places. His crew is pretty inept as well. Despite some imaginative visual effects the story drags most of the time. “Sinbad” doesn’t even get his voyage underway until more than a half-hour in. Before the adventure begins we’re treated to many scenes of the villagers cavorting, people looking distraught, dancing dwarves, and our intrepid hero singing and romancing. Before the magic voyage begins you can’t wait for it all to be over. Then once the action kicks in we get in no short order: a brief battle involving “Sinbad”, his crew, a handful of irate Vikings (I think), and a laughing horse; an encounter with a bird with a woman’s head; and an underwater chase sequence with “Sinbad” riding a seahorse while being pursued by Neptune driving a chariot pulled by shrimp.
The riffing is pure gold and the host segments keep the laughs going during the movie breaks. We get an invention exchange with a Rat Pack chess set and something the Mads come that can basically be described as underwear for your chin, abusive puppets, beards aplenty, Mike Nelson doing a damn good Sinatra, Firesign Theater references, and dancing jester cavorting! This is a priceless episode that makes the entire set worthwhile.
The picture and sound quality on each episode are as good as one can expect, given the source material. The best can be said is that they look and sound just like you were watching them as new episodes on television back in the day.
When it comes to the extras we’re not looking at a veritable bounty of bonuses but there’s enough good stuff to support the included episodes.
Project Moonbase comes with a 9-minute interview with MST3K director of photography Jeff Stonehouse, which seems odd at first since Stonehouse didn’t work on any of the episodes and didn’t even join the show until long after Joel Hodgson had left, but it’s a good feature nonetheless. Stonehouse talks about his work on the show and how he contributed to the evolving visual aesthetic of MST3K. The disc also includes a trailer for Project Moonbase.
Master Ninja I comes with a 6-minute interview with character actor (and Master Ninja guest star) Bill McKinney. The actor spends most of the interview talking about his career and manages to work in a few comments about working on The Master and his amused reaction at its status as an episode of MST3K. It’s a pretty good feature worth at least a single watch.
Master Ninja II has the best extra of the set, “Tom Servo Vs. Tom Servo at Dragon*Con 2010”, a 42-minute panel discussion featuring the two actors who played Servo during the show’s run-J. Elvis Weinstein and Kevin Murphy-talking about their time on the show with writer Ken Plume. Trace Beaulieu also pops in occasionally. It’s a great video, both funny and nostalgic, with terrific stories and information about the show that gave me a lot of geeky entertainment.
Rounding out the extras on The Magic Voyage of Sinbad is a 5-minute introduction to the movie by Beaulieu in which he talks about the episode and how before production on it began Hodgson announced he was leaving the show. It’s an honest and funny intro and you may be surprised to learn what Beaulieu really thinks of the actual movie The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. Finally there are 5 minutes of wrap segments from the show’s syndicated offspring The Mystery Science Theater Hour with Nelson doing his brilliant Jack Perkins impersonation as he rambles on about Magic Voyage.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains after all these years one of my all-time favorite television shows so a new MST3K DVD box set is always a cause of celebration for me, and this latest collection is another winner. Shout! Factory has definitely done an amazing job with these sets since they picked up the license three years ago and I hope they continue to do right by this show in terms of technical presentation and bonus features.