Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the cult television series that took movie lemons and turned them into comedy lemonade by adding a humorous commentary track, referred to as riffing. Talking back to the screen and mocking what is transpiring is a long-standing tradition among movie fans; The Rocky Horror Picture Show being the most well-known example of an audience augmenting the movie-watching experience with their involvement.
In 1988 comedian Joel Hodgson (who credits the science-fiction film Silent Running along with shows from his childhood, Beany and Cecil, and the CBS Children's Film Festival, as influences) created the series at Minnesota station KTMA with a talented, creative team. The premise was that mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester sent Joel Robinson into space and forced him to watch bad movies in an effort to discover the one that was so bad it would break a man’s spirit, which he could then use for his world-domination plans. On the ship, Satellite of Love, Joel invented robots, such as Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, to keep him company.
After five and a half seasons, Hodgson left due to creative differences with producer Jim Mallon. Head writer Mike J. Nelson replaced him, which is still a source of controversy for some MSTies, as the fans are known, until the series’ end in 1999.
To commemorate MST3K’s 20th Anniversary, Shout Factory has released a four-DVD set. The episode numbers and movies contained within are:
#211 First Spaceship on Venus (1959). This movie, made in Eastern Europe, is about a team of astronauts who go to Venus and discover a world destroyed by nuclear weapons. Joel hosted this second-season episode, which aired on Comedy Channel, a precursor to Comedy Central. The video and some of the jokes show their age. The video quality is not great and Crow’s antenna creates a strobe effect when the puppet is silhouetted while watching the movie.
Topical jokes about Dan Quayle and Roseanne singing the National Anthem are dated and had me wondering if the kids today would understand them. There is a charm to this episode as the sets have a cable-access look to them, Joel reads viewer mail, and in the credits the audience is told to “keep circulating the tapes,” which is how fans could turn new people onto the show before the Internet made that easy.
#706 Laserblast (1978). This one is about a teenager who turns into a monster due to his use of an alien weapon. The highlights from this movie are the stop-motion scenes of the aliens who are giant-sized creatures that look like turtles without shells. The budget for the series had obviously been increased, as there is an improvement in the quality of the sets and the video image.
This episode is the last from the shortened seventh season, which was reduced to six programs. It is notable because it is the final one to air on Comedy Central and the final appearance of Trace Beaulieu. Thinking this would be the series finale, the characters on the Satellite of Love turned into energy beings and left the ship while Dr. Forrester turned into a star child a la 2001: A Space Odyssey.
#904 Werewolf (1996). Yet another take on the horror classic, notable because Martin Sheen’s brother Joe Estevez had a minor part. The Sci Fi Channel had picked up the series and it ran for three seasons. New sets were created and the audience silhouette of the characters appeared much better, especially Crow’s headgear.
Writer Mary Jo Pehl’s character Mrs. Forrester, the Doctor’s mother, became the series’ villain. Writer Bill Corbett took over as the voice of Crow and played Mrs. Forrester’s assistant Observer while Kevin Murphy, a writer and the voice of Servo since Josh Weinstein’s departure after season one, played another assistant, the Planet of the Apes-inspired Professor Bobo.
#1004 Future War (1997). This movie has a lot of familiar influences from better sci-fi movies as an Earthling from the future, who had been made a slave by aliens, is pursued by cyborgs that use dinosaurs as bloodhounds. The special effects, “special” admittedly being a debatable term in this instance, are amazing to behold.
The bonus features in the set include the movies’ original trailers; an in-depth three-part history of MST3K with interviews from all members of the creative teams and early footage that fans will treasure; and the reunion panel from 2008 San Diego Comic Con International hosted by Patton Oswalt, which was the most anticipated event of the weekend. There is also “Variation on a Theme Song” that presents all the different openings of the show.
While MST3K: 20th Anniversary Edition is a very enjoyable set with a lot of laughs, it is not as completely representative of the entire series run as a milestone release should be. There is only one episode featuring Joel; none with Josh Weinstein, the original voice of Tom Servo and Gypsy; and none from the KTMA days. However, for fans who enjoy bad movies as much as they do good ones, this set is still worth having on the shelf and adding to the collection.