Rhino released the first volume of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD way back in 2002. Let that sink in: two different companies (Shout! Factory took over licensing MST3K in 2008 before acquiring the brand outright in 2015) have spent more years than the show actually ran (ten, or eleven if you count KTMA) tenaciously negotiating rights to movies that otherwise would have long disappeared down the memory hole, all to satisfy one of the tightest and most dedicated fan bases in television. (Sheepishly raises hand.)
And now, to quote Henry Hill, it’s all over.
With Volume XXXIX, Shout! Factory has made it clear that, barring some kind of divine intervention, there will be no more releases of classic MST3K episodes. The last collection doesn’t quite go out on a bang — the company could only license three episodes, making up the shortfall in a way we will discuss below — but it’s nevertheless a solid outing of our favorite cowtown puppet show, featuring the last (pre-revival) episode, one of the most notorious shorts, and some nice extras that round out the MST3K story. Tony Redman and Dan Wiencek come together for one last time (at least until the new episodes start filtering out on disc) to bid farewell to Mystery Science Theater 3000 on DVD.
Girls Town (Episode #601)
Tony: Girls Town is the first episode from the show’s sixth season. It features Mamie Van Doren (unseen to MSTies since season one’s Untamed Youth) as a teenager forced to go to a Catholic reform school after she was convicted of pushing a guy off of a cliff. It features a number of famous stars like Mel Tormé (as a tough teen), Elinor Donohue (as Van Doren’s sister who (SPOILER ALERT) actually accidentally killed the guy), and “Introducing Paul Anka” (as a singer who one of the Girls Town residents has a serious crush on). It seemed odd that they had a great singer like Tormé in the cast but Paul Anka and Mamie Van Doren were the only members of the main cast who got to sing. It did lead to a number of “scat” jokes in the riffing though, as in Mike mentioning that if they wanted to catch Mel, all they had to do was “follow the trail of scat.” This was a fun one and a nice change of pace from the usual horror/sci-fi stuff they tended to do.
Dan: Probably the best episode in this set, though it’s not a knockout; for a movie about a dormitory full of bad girls, there’s surprisingly little of a salacious nature going on, so we get lots of Paul Anka jokes (“Make him promise not to sing ‘Having My Baby’!”) and, as you say, an awful lot of references to scat singing.
Extras: Chuck Love and the Anatomy of a Theme (an interview with Chuck Love, the man who wrote the music to the MST3K theme) and the theatrical trailer.
The Amazing Transparent Man (Episode #623)
Tony: The Amazing Transparent Man appeared (so to speak) near the end of the same season. It was the story of a bank robber who can turn invisible, thanks to a reluctant scientist whose young daughter is being held hostage. This one was OK, but it wasn’t a standout for me. It is preceded by the short The Days of Our Years, a cautionary film narrated by a minister warning railroad workers about the dangers of their jobs, involving advice like paying attention to what you’re doing (so you don’t accidentally run a train car into somebody) and applying “gentle pressure” if you want to get a welder’s attention (and not lose an eye or two). The host segments were good on this one, where Dr. Forrester and Frank open up Auntie McFrank’s Bed & Breakfast. The scene with Mike as a backwoods hillbilly in overalls and Crow as a llama was disturbingly funny (and ended up being used during the opening theme).
Dan: “That was so incredibly average!” Yeah, The Days of Our Years (“I regret everything!”) easily overpowers poor Amazing Transparent Man. And Mike Nelson was never funnier than as the slack-jawed, llama-petting Mikey — check out the way he holds the camera without blinking for that entire take. “You bring any matches for Mikey?”
Extras: Beyond Transparency (a documentary about the making of The Amazing Transparent Man) and the theatrical trailer.
Diabolik (Episode #1013)
Dan: Diabolik is one of the those movies some people have tried to argue are too good to be lampooned on MST3K. While renowned giallo director Mario Bava does imbue it with some palpable Mod style — an early scene of leather-clad cops prompts Servo to declare, “If Hitler had won, and hired Stu Sutcliffe as a fashion designer!” — Diabolik is hard to love, given that its namesake protagonist is a complete sociopath and the people trying to foil him utter morons. The film itself is largely beside the point, however; this is the rare episode in which the movie feels like time filler between the host segments, which gradually tie off what little plot the show has to demolish the Satellite of Love, send Pearl et al away and deposit Mike, Crow and Servo safely back on Earth. The fact that this final episode is firmly in the good-but-not-great category supports the view that, after ten seasons, the team was ready to move on, a notion confirmed by Jim Mallon in the bonus material. Still, that last shot of Mike and the Bots settling into Mike’s crappy sofa to watch The Crawling Eye certainly felt like saying goodbye to Mystery Science Theater 3000 forever, and while Diabolik isn’t a high-water mark as an episode, it’s a warm and fitting farewell.
Tony: Yeah, the trouble with Diabolik was that, as crazy as it was, it wasn’t enough to keep your mind off of how they planned to end the show. It was sad to see the show come to an end, but this ending was more satisfying to be than the way they ended the Comedy Central run, where they turned into balls of light and left to explore outer space. (Yes, really.)
Extras: Showdown in Eden Prairie is a surprisingly brief look at the production of the final episode, with comments from Patrick Brantseg, Jim Mallon, Beez McKeever and Kevin Murphy. Shout! Factory has produced some pretty comprehensive overviews of the show on previous volumes, so perhaps it’s not a surprise that this particular film is short on reflections. (Though Jim Mallon’s revelation that AMC would have ordered an 11th season, only to be rebuffed by the creative team, was belated news to me.) For those in the mood for something more comprehensive, The Last Dance collects more than an hour of raw behind-the-scenes footage of the production (it’s been available online for ages).
Dan: Shout! Factory has done an amazing job of stewarding Mystery Science Theater since taking over its licensing, and it’s no reflection on their efforts that, in the end, eleven of the original run’s 197 episodes could not be cleared for DVD release. By way of compensation, this disc collects every host segment from those missing episodes; “It’s the best we can do,” the sleeve copy admits, “so we are doing it!”, which pretty much sums it up. To be sure, this encompasses some pretty monumental MST moments, including the first appearances of TV’s Frank and Kevin Murphy as Tom Servo. It also illustrates how crucial Mike Nelson was to the success of the show, as his appearances in Joel’s segments perk them up every time he appears. Beyond that, this is a for-completist’s-only affair, and not something I can imagine myself ever putting on and watching again. We can only hope that, as the years pass and rights change hands, Shout! Factory can release a Volume XL, and some of these segments will be restored to the full episodes to which they belong.
Tony: I appreciate the fact that Shout! Factory compiled the remaining host segments, but many of them are weakened by the absence of the movies surrounding them. Plus, when the series moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the players were asked to write continuing stories. Since some of these episodes have been released to DVD, the remaining segments from that time frame end up being confusing to those who haven’t seen all the shows. (Of course, they experienced this same problem when Sci-Fi didn’t run the reruns in order.) Still, it was good to see the “origin stories” of TV’s Frank and Tom Servo’s new voice. And I was more than happy to see two segments in particular that showcased Kevin Murphy’s mellifluous singing voice: the madrigal originally on the Quest of the Delta Knights episode, and When I Held your Brain in my Arms (from Terror in the Year 5000).
Extras: None, or the whole thing, depending on your point of view.
It’s sad to see that these box sets have come to an end, but you can’t fault Shout! (and Rhino) for not trying. I would have been willing to bet that we never would have gotten the Gamera movies, but we did. Many of the remaining movies were owned by one person, and they weren’t even willing to release the unriffed movies on DVD, so I guess it had to be the end of the line. In happier news, we did get a new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 on Netflix this year, shepherded by creator Joel Hodgson himself. (As a Kickstarter backer, I’m proud to say I had a tiny part in helping to make that happen.) And it was just announced at the end of this year’s MST3K Turkey Day Marathon that Netflix has greenlighted (greenlit?) another season! So as long as there are still cheesy movies to be unmined, it’s good to know that Mystery Science Theater 3000 will still be there.