Unfortunately, my first real exposure to Mystery Science Theater 3000 came as the show was beginning what would be its last season on the Sci Fi Channel. From the first episode I was hooked. One human and two robot puppets providing zinger after zinger as overlaying commentary on already laughably bad movies. The broadcasts on Saturday mornings came to feel like a grown-up version of what getting up early to watch Saturday morning cartoons used to be for me as a kid.
Then, tragedy struck. The Sci Fi Channel "went in a different direction" and my Saturday mornings with Mike and the 'bots came to an end.
Fortunately, Rhino Entertainment began releasing older episodes on VHS, then on individual DVDs, then in DVD sets containing four episodes each — the latest being The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Collection, Volume 12 — and I was able to start catching up on the vast catalog of bad movies "mocked to perfection" by the crew aboard the Satellite of Love.
While it would be hard to deem Volume 12 "the best yet," it is one of the more well-rounded collections of episodes, containing an even ratio of "Joel" to "Mike" and featuring four very different types of awful films: a '60s beatnik caper film, a lifeless, all-dubbed secret agent flick, an Air Force promotional movie thinly disguised as a drama, and a bleak '70s sci-fi horror story.
Volume 12 starts off with a trip to the Canadian National Exposition in the 1950s short Johnny at the Fair. It's here that the MST3K riffers really shine, taking on the kind of stark, promotional fluff that begs to be spoofed. Young Johnny, dressed like a dark-haired Dennis the Menace, ditches his cold and aloof parents to live out every young boy's dream of enjoying the Canadian National Exposition all by himself. Taking in a baseball game, meeting with Canada's former Prime Minister, racing along in a speedboat, and cavorting with a few "celebrities" lets Johnny showcase all the fun the fair has to offer in a creepy framework of neglectful parenting and child endangerment. Doesn't the former Canadian Prime Minister even wonder where Johnny's parents are?
Next up is the first disc's feature: The Rebel Set. At first a rambling amalgam of scenes from a beatnik cafe, the movie later makes a jarring turn into becoming a suspense/crime drama where a group of losers led by the guy who played "Chief" in Get Smart, Edward Platt, pull off a robbery and then get snuffed out one by one in a very un-groovy manner, man. Can you dig it? Well, can you at least keep from falling asleep during it? You'll have Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo to help you stave off the snoozing with some great zingers, though not enough to rank this episode among their most notable.
The collection's second feature is a foreign rip-off of James Bond, titled Secret Agent Super Dragon. Instead of Bond, here we have Super Dragon, a secret agent just as smug as Bond but with no charisma to back it up. Instead of Q we get a dumpy, unfunny sidekick who would provide the comic relief if there was any tension in the film to relieve at all. The story involves chewing gum, Amsterdam, drugged college students, Ming vases, and an auction where everyone wears masks. How all these parts fit together I have no clue and I'm not sure the screenwriters did either. This disc is the weakest of the set as even Joel and the 'bots have a hard time making this film watchable.
You might think that a movie named The Starfighters would be some sort of dazzling, sci-fi tale, right? You wouldn't expect it to be a "story" about Air Force pilots that ends up amounting to what could essentially be termed "plane porn" as the film features little other than prolonged scene after scene of planes flying, mid-air refueling, planes dropping bombs, more mid-air refueling, planes landing, planes taking off, and some more mid-air refueling. There's also a smattering of dialogue to try to tie things together, about which Mike Nelson remarks that the script for The Starfighters must have been only two pages long. As the action onscreen turns once more to a prolonged sequence depicting mid-air refueling, Mike and 'bots all verbally agree that they've just run out of ways to make jokes about refueling, but then along comes the term "poopysuit" and the riffing reaches new heights of low-brow hilarity. Despite the horrendously boring content of the film itself, the Mystery Science Theater treatment of The Starfighters is the highlight of this DVD set.
Also a solid episode is Parts: The Clonus Horror in which the crew of the Satellite of Love pull ceaselessly from a pool of '70s references in dealing with a story about a secret, sinister cloning project. A company called "Clonus" — get it? "Clone-us?" — is hiding away a secret clone-farming campus where a never-ending source of replacement human organs are kept healthy and available, along with plenty of Dick Sargent-supervised Track and Field events. Also starring Keenan Wynn and Peter Graves (translation: get ready for a slew of Biography jokes), Parts is a bleak and unhappy little film that does well with lots of good-natured MST3K riffing.
A variety of special features are spread across the four discs in this DVD set, including spoiler-filled trailers for The Rebel Set, Secret Agent Super Dragon, and Parts along with the third installment of the "MST3K Video Jukebox," which features several of the original songs written for the show's "host segments." There are also two interviews, one with an actor from The Rebel Set and the other with the director of Parts, the latter being far more interesting as the director discusses his lawsuit against the movie The Island that he alleges is an uncredited remake of his film and applauds MST3K for bringing Parts to a whole new audience.
If you're a MST3K fan, you've either already got this set in your collection (and are therefore probably not reading this review) or you're contemplating if Volume 12 is right for you. While it may not be the most "bang for your buck" set available, you could do much worse. If you're really on the fence, consider if you'd find a song about the "poopysuit" funny and proceed with your purchasing accordingly.