Chances are, even if you’ve never seen an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K for short), you still know the basic concept: bad guys shoot a good guy into space to study the effects of cheesy movies on the human mind. The good guy and his two robot pals cope with the situation by making smart remarks about what they see with (hopefully) hilarious results. The bad guys changed throughout the ten year run (as did the main good guy), but that concept remained constant. After Rhino put out twelve volumes (and various single releases both on VHS and DVD), Shout Factory picked up the ball with the 20th Anniversary set. Continuing the numbering from Rhino (with the 20th Anniversary set unofficially comprising Volume 13), we have now come to Volume XVII (or ”X-Seven” if you follow Wrestlemania numbering).

Here are the four episodes included in the set:

The Crawling Eye – This was a pretty interesting movie in its own right: a mysterious monster lurks in the Trollenberg Mountains, ripping the heads off unsuspecting mountain climbers. Far from the rubber-suited menaces of later episodes, this monster really did look pretty creepy. This was the first episode of MST3K aired on national television. If you’re used to the more rapid-fire quips that the show usually had, this will seem like pretty slow going. On the other hand, if that pace seems overwhelming to you, you might like this better. The first season paired Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) with Dr. Erhardt, played by Josh (now J. Elvis) Weinstein, who also was the original performer for Tom Servo.

Extras: Special introduction by star and co-creator Joel Hodgson, where he explains how they improvised the riffs on the original shows that were filmed at a local Minneapolis TV station. Once they moved to the Comedy Channel (which later became Comedy Central), they decided to write the riffs in advance. It’s always a treat to hear Hodgson speak fondly of the show. The original trailer for The Crawling Eye is also included.

The Beatniks (with a General Hospital short) – This fourth season episode tackled the ”youth in trouble” genre. Eddie, a member of a gang of thugs, is discovered by a talent scout. Will his hoodlum friends cost Eddie his singing career, or maybe worse? Hodgson gets through this cinematic opus joined by Crow (Beaulieu) and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy). Joel and the bots have a blast with this one, and it’s great seeing them tear into this ancient installment of the soap opera General Hospital too!

Extras: ”The Main Event: Crow vs. Crow” hosted by Ken Plume, filmed at Dragon Con 2009. This is a great discussion with the show’s two Crow T. Robots: Beaulieu and Bill Corbett. The filming wasn’t perfect. There were props on the table in front of the gentlemen, which sometimes got in the way of the shots, especially in Corbett’s case. Wraps from the Mystery Science Theater Hour were another extra feature. (A quick explanation: MST3K was syndicated for a short time, and to accommodate stations who only had one hour blocks to fill, Mike Nelson appeared as an intentionally blatant Jack Perkins ripoff to introduce the shows). I’d actually like to see more of these, since I only got the original two hour shows.

The Final Sacrifice — This episode from season nine is a classic among MST3K fans. A teenager discovers that his father was murdered by cultists. He finds a map to an ancient city and, pursued by the cult, escapes and bonds with a guy with the delightfully improbable name of Zap Rowsdower. Canada takes a pretty thorough ribbing here in this great outing by Nelson and the bots, but not without reason. One website I found even said that Rowsdower was a prime example of Canuxploitation!

Extras: Interview with Bruce J. Mitchell, Zap Rowsdower himself! Mitchell gives background on the filming of the movie, and tells how his son in Texas alerted him of MST3K’s take on the movie. Unfortunately, Mitchell had only seen clips of the show, so he couldn’t give his own critique on the riffed version of the movie. Couldn’t somebody at Shout Factory get the man the episode to watch?

We move to the final season with Blood Waters of Dr. Z. A scientist mutates himself into a half-man, half-fish creature in order to get revenge on those who have wronged him. This is the kind of movie that Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a field day with: cheaply made and horribly acted, with an awful looking monster. This one was a favorite of mine from the original run, and I’m happy to finally get it on DVD.

Extras: Original promos and original trailer for the movie (formerly entitled ZaAt (as in ”What in the Wide World of Sports was ZaAt?”). There is also a photo gallery consisting of pictures of the lobby cards and the press kit.

Another general extra to be aware of is a set of four mini-posters (one for each movie) with excellent art by Steve Vance, and even hilarious original skits on each movie’s menu.

Shout Factory has really outdone themselves on this set. My only criticism is that I wish that they would change the box art. The logo with the giant Roman numeral is nowhere near as imaginative as what Rhino’s box sets sported. That’s a minor nitpick, but it’s all I can fault them for here. Pick up this set if you can. I highly recommend it!

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