At one point in the mid-'90s, Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired every weekday on Comedy Central, on the weekends in syndication, and in countless impromptu screenings of passed-around VHS tapes. By the end of the decade, the show had been booted off two cable networks, and it remains off the air today, in spite of the preponderance of new cable channels that could surely make use of MST3K's nearly 400 hours of programming. Meanwhile, the show's former cast keeps cooking up diluted MST3K-like projects, and the series has begun to lose its status as a common cultural reference.
Perhaps Shout! Factory's new Mystery Science Theater 3000: 20th Anniversary Edition will help restore the show's proper legacy. Unlike the relatively featureless MST3K DVDs which Rhino has been releasing over the last decade, Shout! Factory's set contains actual special features—most notably, an 80-minute documentary. The set also contains the Joe Estevez vehicle Werewolf, the aliens-and-dinosaurs-in-L.A. adventure Future War, the European B-movie First Spaceship On Venus, and the shaggy 1978 alien-invasion laugher Laserblast—the last Comedy Central episode of MST3K, and one of the funniest. (For those who care about such matters, that's three episodes hosted by Mike Nelson, and one by Joel Hodgson.) When Laserblast really gets rolling, with its dope-smoking cops, claymation creatures, and cameo appearances by Keenan Wynn, Roddy McDowall, and Eddie Deezen—MST3K reaches peak levels of lunacy, and every element of moviemaking starts to seem inherently ludicrous. It's just those scales-falling-from-the-eyes moments that made the show so beloved.
As for the documentary, it relies too much on talking heads instead of illustration, and it glosses over the cast's various personality conflicts. But there's never been such a thorough history of how Mystery Science Theater went from being a little Twin Cities UHF show with a $100-an-episode budget to being the signature program for a fledgling cable channel, and the subject of a serious critical study in the pages of Film Comment. As Hodgson and company reflect on how they developed their process one piece at a time—and with copious amounts of hot glue—their doggedness becomes a tribute to a lost handmade age, and a rebuke to those who throw things away too soon.
Key features: The aforementioned documentary, plus 40 minutes of footage from the recent MST3K reunion at Comic-Con.