Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition (review)

Movie Sign!

Quibbles? Do I have quibbles? You bet. Why did Joel Hodgson torment us so with the brilliance that was Mystery Science Theater 3000 if it couldn’t go on forever? How can we take revenge on those who cancelled the show, not once but twice, first on Comedy Central and then on the Sci Fi Channel? Why isn’t the whole damn series available right now on DVD? And how can a robot made of a small plastic toy bubble gum machine be so darn sexy?
In the grand scheme of things, then, the quibbles I have with the brand-new Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition DVD set are minor. Why, if we are granted four “experiments” here — that is, four movies for one man and two robots to snark at — do three of them feature writer-turned-host Mike Nelson? I like Mike fine, but Hodgson’s Joel Robinson, the original host… he was the soul of the show, and a certain poignancy — particularly in the relationship with the robots, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Trace Beaulieu) — and a gentleness that balanced out the nonstop snarking was lost when he departed. I get that two of the movies are from the Comedy Central era and two are from the Sci Fi era, but still: a package meant to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the show should be more representative of the full range of the series, I think, particularly of those early Comedy Central episodes. There’s none of that snarking to educational shorts or serial chapters here: those were among the funniest things the series ever did. The collectible tin encasing the DVDs and the accompanying Crow figurine and funny fake movie lobby cards are nice, but that isn’t what an anniversary set should be about.

Still, more MST3K on DVD is always a good thing, and here we have four experiments enjoying their arrival on DVD. I happened to watch them in reverse production order, just accidentally — the individual DVD cases are not labeled in any kind of order, and that’s how it worked out. So I started with Future War, the newest movie the gang took down, a 1997 Z-grade flick in which trained dinosaurs hunting down humans after the robot holocaust, or something. It’s not one of my favorite experiments, but it does include a lot of Van Damme jokes, riffing on the resemblance of the “star,” which is no bad thing. This disc also includes video of the MST3K reunion panel at San Diego Comic-Con this past summer, during which moderator Patton Oswalt does his obnoxious best to insult the fans in the audience as well as the panel members, but it’s worth watching to hear Hodgson talk about how he created the robots: “I pulled an all-nighter before we did the pilot…” is how it starts. (It was nice to hear him get the biggest round of applause from the crowd, too.)

Traveling backward in time, I then came to Werewolf, another 90s nightmare of bad acting and worse FX; this disc also features Part III of the three-part “History of MST3K” (I was going backward, remember), which is all about reminiscences of when Mike took over hosting duties, and some of the not-very-nice reactions from fans at the time, and why the host segments moved away from Joel’s prop comedy. The unnumbered Disc 2 then, as you might imagine, includes Part II of the history-of featurette, as well as one of the best experiments of the whole series, from either the Mike or Joel era: Laserblast, a sort-of cheapie Star Wars knockoff dating from 1978; this is the last episode that aired on Comedy Central, and could possibly have been the last episode of the series, as far as anyone involved knew at the time. But the gang never flagged in their devotion to snark, not even here, at what might have been the final hour.

Ah, but by the time I got to the first disc, at last, I was so ready to be reminded of why I fell in love with MST3K in the first place: because of sweet-faced Joel Robinson, and his affably paternal relationship with Tom and Crow, and the prop-comedy invention exchange that opened every episode, and the absolutely pitch-perfect writing. “I’ve asked Joel if he’d raise the level on my sarcasm sequencer,” Tom says at the beginning of one brilliant bit. Nobody was doing stuff like this on TV then, and really, nobody is doing anything quite like it now. And now that we appear to be moving into an era that is all about hope and change and optimism and yes-we-can — and perhaps one no longer about bitter sarcasm and tart irony and scorn and derision as a sport — it’s likely that no one will ever do this again, at least not soon. That makes me sad. No, really.

Oh, the movie on Disc 1 (which also includes, of course, the first part of the history-of)? It’s First Spaceship on Venus, and it’s quite bad. Well, the snarking is funny. The movie is bad. Which is just as it should be.

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Wed, Nov 05, 2008 3:43pm

Why did Joel Hodgson torment us so with the brilliance that was Mystery Science Theater 3000 if it couldn’t go on forever?

I’m sure you already know about Rifftrax, but if not: Rifftrax!


Wed, Nov 05, 2008 3:56pm

I expect this sort of thing will continue, but it will be less on TV stations and more free media over the internet.

Wed, Nov 05, 2008 4:55pm

I have to say, while I like Joel, I far prefer Mike for the actual riffings. Joel speaks in a monotone for WAY too much of the time. But no doubt that Joel’s SOL bits were usually better (though Mike had his gems)