overthinking the idiot box

February 1, 2006

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials

by Jeff Stone

The basic premise is simple: three guys (well, two were robots) sit and a theater and make fun of incomprehensibly bad movies. I am of course speaking of the cult phenomenon Mystery Science Theater 3000. Spanning 10 seasons over two different networks, the show remained consistently hilarious through its entire run (okay, so it stumbled a bit when it first moved to Sci-fi, but quickly recovered). Rights issues have prevented a release of most episodes (I know I'll never see a release of my all-time favorite, Godzilla vs. Megalon), but some of the series's best entries have made it to shelves, as evidenced by the Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Essentials 2-disc set.

The brainchild of inventor/comedian Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K to the converted) premiered in the fledgling days of Comedy Central, and its unique premise and quirky humor quickly made it one of the network's flagship shows. Hodgson played Joel Robinson, a man haplessly shot into space by two scheming scientists — Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and his dopey assistant, TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) — who forced Robinson to watch terrible movies as part of a vaguely-defined take-over-the-world experiment. To keep himself company aboard the lonely Satellite of Love, Joel built robot companions Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (Beaulieu again), who joined him in the theater to make wisecracks. The show featured numerous cast changes over the years, including Hodgson stepping down as the primary human on the show to be replaced by head writer Mike Nelson in the midst of the fifth season, but The Essentials episodes are both from the Joel years. Joel was always my favorite host, exuding a general easygoing likeability that Mike never managed to emulate. His friendship with the īBots seemed genuine and sweet, despite their being made of plastic. Joel just seemed to be playing himself, and Joel seemed like the kind of guy you'd want to be friends with.

"The Master," it turns out, is a mustachioed devil-man who has awoken for... some reason, to do... something. Anyway, he has a cool black robe with two giant red handprints on it. It's boss.
The first disc includes the all-time classic episode, "Manos" The Hands of Fate, widely regarded to be the worst film the MST team ever took on. The film is so stupifyingly awful, in fact, that Entertainment Weekly did an article on the film's production not long ago, claiming it to possibly be the worst film ever made. And yes, when translated the title does read "Hands: The Hands of Fate." In the film, a married couple and a young girl take a wrong turn only to find themselves at a strange house, where a bizarre manservant named Torgo warns that "The Master" won't like that the family is staying the night. "The master doesn't approve of dogs or children," Torgo point out, prompting Tom to ask "Is the Master W.C. Fields?" "The Master," it turns out, is a mustachioed devil-man who has awoken for... some reason, to do... something. Anyway, he has a cool black robe with two giant red handprints on it. It's boss. Manos has several wives, who sleep in the basement and wake up to bicker and wrestle. The whole film is stifling and unpleasant, "a buffet of loathsomeness," as Crow points out. It truly has to be seen to be believed, especially Torgo, who is implied to have goat legs under his long pants, but it just looks like he has knees-exclusive gigantism. Whenever he slowly limps into frame he's accompanied by strange music, which Joel dubs "the haunting Torgo theme." Torgo was a popular enough character to regularly show up on this and subsequent episodes, played to a T by Mike Nelson. In this episode, Torgo delivers a pizza to Dr. Forrester and Frank. It takes him a really, really long time to get to cross the room.

The second episode of the set is the aptly— and ridiculously-titled Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. The emotionless Martians kidnap Santa to make their children happy, and he wins over the Martian people with his endless Christmas cheer, despite opposition from a surly Martian named Voldar who hates Santa for... some reason... because he's so happy all the time? These movies don't always make sense. Regardless, Voldar repeatedly tries to kill Santa. At one point, Voldar attempts to eject Santa into the vacuum of space, and when his plot is foiled Crow pipes up in his best Bond-villain voice: "Ah, Mr. Claus. You have a nasty habit of surviving." And don't even get me started on the mugging of Dropo, the laziest Martian on Mars. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is a prime MST episode, combining hilarious commentary with a movie that's pretty funny on its own merits. The episode also contains one of the series' best sketches. MST always excelled at funny original songs, and they don't come much funnier than "A Patrick Swayze Christmas," a carol Crow has written combining Christmas with his favorite movie, Roadhouse. "It's my way or the highway, this Christmas at my bar/I'll have to smash your kneecaps if you bastards touch my car." It's just the sort of pop-culture-soaked ridiculousness that made MST such a success.

Also included on disc 2 is the MST Blooper Reel, which is funnier than one might expect. Sure, there are flubbed lines and collapsing sets, but the best bits are anything with Crow and Tom onscreen. Murphy and Beaulieu are both skilled puppeteers, and in most takes stay in character despite a blown line or Tom's head falling off. Their screams of terror as Crow's head erupts into flame in one sketch are worth viewing the half-hour compilation alone. Also, there are few things funnier than puppets swearing.

Although there are eight other Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode collections, as well as numerous single episodes available, if you're new to the series, this is the place to start. If these two episodes don't clue you in to the show's genius, nothing will.

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Return to Season 2, Episode 9.