Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie Revisited

For the lonely nerd in all of us… Andrew Stimpson watches the cult TV series’ 1996 big screen spin-off, newly released on DVD and Blu-ray

Comprising 198 episodes broadcast over 11 years, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to save my fingers) is a double Emmy Award nominee and occupant of Time magazine’s Top 100 TV shows of all time list. Shortly after the sixth season aired in America in the mid-’90s, MST3K made its first and only foray into cinemas with what is essentially a higher budget episode made for theatrical release.

The series only ever received an extremely partial UK television broadcast, a few years back on the Sci-fi Channel. That may be because it is difficult to market, and its target audience tough to quantify. I’m a huge nerd. Not in the staggeringly intelligent software writer for military spy drones kind of way, but in the spends too much time on the sofa looking like a poorly attired, porridge version of Keith Emerson with a laptop and a Cornetto in place of two enormous Moogs and a deep love of ‘misunderstood’ movies kind of way. I imported Slugs on DVD. I adore 1970s Godzilla films and prefer the dubbed editions. I signed the counter-petition urging Uwe Boll to continue making movies.

Despite all of this I would not watch an episode of MST3K with similarly inclined friends (if I had any). Nor would I expect my partner to sit through them with me. She accepts my taste for low-rent garbage just as I tolerate, although cannot understand, her obsession with the fantastical array of detective shows that clog up our TV planner. We keep our viewing largely separate. In the case of MST3K that’s just how I like it, because for the duration of the episode I have three wise-cracking viewing buddies who perfectly complement my internal monologue while indulging my tastes for the obscure, weird or just downright crappy. Plus they are very funny.

I recall a few years ago reading a criticism of MST3K on a forum that ran along the lines of: "Why would I want to watch a movie with the superimposed silhouette of three turds at the bottom, talking all the way through it?"

A solid query, until one counters with the question: "Why on all the moons of Mongo would you want to watch Miles O’Keeffe vehicle Ator, The Fighting Eagle WITHOUT the superimposed silhouette of three turds at the bottom, talking all the way through it?" Now that I’ve written that sentence I should acknowledge that, were I a reader encountering that title for the first time, I’d feel compelled to track down said flick in the vain hope of discovering a new Deathstalker.

I can confirm, however, that only serious mental aberration would enable any normal humanoid to endure Ator in its entirety without the support of the aforementioned three talking heads, or at the very least a heroic dose of your favoured poison, to make the experience even slightly bearable. The trio in question are the crew of the Satellite of Love space station, who are forced to sit through the world’s strangest or just plain worst movies by their evil scientist boss back on Earth. The clips are interspersed with breezily humorous movie of the week-themed skits involving the characters aboard the Satellite of Love. For a lengthier explanation of their predicament, see the programme’s opening theme tune.

The magic of MST3K is that it provides mind-numbingly tedious or stultifyingly average pictures with an entertaining dimension. In fact, I’m surprised that distributors haven’t cottoned on to the MST3K technique to repackage and re-release their back catalogues on home video. That’s the only way I could ever be drawn into buying Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man (again), or watching any 21st century Nicolas Cage film.

In the US the show has steadily been receiving high quality DVD releases (now up to volume 24) incorporating three or four feature-length episodes per set, along with numerous extras such as shorts during which the space station crew cast their eyes over vintage educational and other film material worthy of being expertly deconstructed by the writers’ perceptive collective wits. For that reason this extras-light Blu-ray release of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie feels a bit flimsy, particularly as its running time is almost ten minutes shorter than a standard episode – not to mention shorter than the movie which provides its subject for commentary.

Inevitably, after six seasons the ‘top’ terrible movies had already been done, so the choice here – Joseph M Newman’s 1955 sci-fi This Island Earth – is not as ripe for comedic plunder. In fact it’s a decent genre flick that was fairly influential back in the day, and so does not provide as many opportunities for ‘riffing’ as some of the earlier selections, such as the widely acknowledged worst movie ever made Manos: The Hands Of Fate or Juan Piquer Simón’s sad nadir, The Pod People. Additionally, the subjects of the TV episodes were often in poor condition print-wise. Their numerous jump cuts and other blemishes added to the overall feel of crappiness, providing additional opportunities for wisecracks. In contrast, on the Blu-ray release This Island Earth looks really rather beautiful in places, probably much better than it has on previous DVD transfers.

Much like the ubiquitous ’70s big screen spin-offs of English sitcoms, MST3K: The Movie serves as an adequate introduction to the original series yet, despite higher production values, does not necessarily display the best the show has to offer. Nevertheless, the writing is sharp and the commentary both wry and entertaining, so this overdue release is well worth the splurge as a taste of one of the best and longest-running American TV series of the past twenty years.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is out now through Mediumrare Entertainment.

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