“Keep circulating the tapes.” That was the imperative that followed the end credits for the first four seasons of Mystery Science Theater 3000, an order that fans of the movie-mocking series continue to follow, 25 years after the show’s debut. Long after “tapes” stopped being the preferred mode, even: Some fans still cling to VHS dubs of Comedy Central and Syfy broadcasts, others have digitized their VCR memories and keep the series running by extralegal means on the Internet.
And then there are the über-MSTies at Shout! Factory, who’ve done more to secure the show’s legacy than anyone who didn’t endure multiple viewings of Manos: The Hands Of Fate in the name of cable TV’s greatest cult comedy. By re-circulating dozens of episodes from MST3K’s 11-season run, the company restored a sense of value to the program, one lost in years of network negligence and slipshod commercial releases.
The consequence of that service, however, is the dwindling reserve of unreleased MST3K at Shout! Factory’s disposal. As of this writing, more than half of the show’s 197 episodes have come to market, leaving the new 25th Anniversary Edition set looking outwardly wanting. (The jewel here is Show 422, The Day The Earth Froze, the first entry in the series’ so-called “Russo-Finnish troika.”) Not that the set should be discounted for a perceived lack of flashy and/or fan-favorite titles. Working toward that last count are the two reissued fifth-season episodes—featuring Mitchell and The Brain That Wouldn’t Die—that passed the show’s hosting torch from creator Joel Hodgson to head writer Michael J. Nelson. Meanwhile, Show 909, Gorgo, didn’t get enough play the first time around to cultivate such reverence, airing only twice before copyright claims yanked it from rotation.
Gorgo’s DVD release reveals it as a lost classic from the MST3K canon, a British-born counterpart to the roasts of rubbery Japanese monsters that filled out the show’s early seasons. It’s not on par with the finest of the Gamera series, but it is a strong representation of the quicker-paced, sharper-tongued tone of the Syfy years. At the very least, it introduces a wider audience to the unfortunately named circus proprietor Dorkin, who, judging by the mileage Mike Nelson, Crow T. Robot, and Tom Servo get out of his surname, could’ve been a Satellite Of Love callback as beloved as the Sampo from The Day The Earth Froze.
Endorsed in an opening segment by critic and honorary MST3K adversary Leonard Maltin, Gorgo confirms one of the unspoken truths of the series: A misguided-but-entertaining picture makes for better riffing than a truly abysmal one. The show was still finding its groove when it took on Moon Zero Two near the end of its first season, but the campy, Barbarella-lite fun of the feature presentation makes up for the long gaps between the episode’s jokes. The show has greater difficulty with The Leech Woman, one of the turgid Universal features from the show’s wobbly transition to its second network home.
Every new MST3K DVD collection is a grab bag and a time capsule; 25th Anniversary Edition features a full episode from every era of the show, save its early days on Twin Cities UHF station KTMA. Those salad days are left to be remembered in the three-part bonus feature Return To Eden Prairie, a making-of documentary that delves deeper into the nuts and bolts of the show’s production than any previous Shout! release. Devoting 12 minutes to Mystery Science Theater’s craft-store art direction could scan as scraping the bottom of the barrel, but it’s just another example of the loving preservation effort going into these sets. The average episode of MST3K is crammed so densely with information that there remains enough for Shout! to unpack, even on the eve of the show’s silver anniversary—and, with any luck, beyond that milestone, too.