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"Mystery Science Theater 3000" Volume XXIII DVD Review

Buy Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XXIII DVD from Amazon.com Mystery Science Theater: Volume XXIII
Show & DVD Details

Creator/Executive Producer: Joel Hodgson / Producer: Jim Mallon

Writers: Michael J. Nelson, Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Kevin Murphy, Paul Chaplin, Bridget Jones, Jim Mallon, Colleen Williams, Joel Hodgson, Mike Dodge, Mary Jo Pehl / Host Segment Directors: Kevin Murphy, Jim Mallon

Featured Movies: King Dinosaur, The Castle of Fu Manchu, Code Name: Diamond Head, Last of the Wild Horses

Featured Cast: Joel Hodgson (Joel Robinson), Michael J. Nelson (Mike Nelson), Trace Beaulieu (Crow T. Robot, Dr. Clayton Forrester), Jim Mallon (Gypsy), Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo), Frank Conniff (TV's Frank), Cambot (Himself) / Guest Stars: Nathan Molstad (Jerry), Mary Jo Pehl (Magic Voice - uncredited)

Running Time: 379 Minutes (4 episodes) / Rating: Not Rated

1.33:1 Fullscreen (Original Broadcast Ratio) / Dolby Stereo 2.0 (English)
Subtitles: None; Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Suggested Retail Price: $59.97 / DVD Release Date: March 27, 2012
Subjects Originally Premiered Between 1944 and 1977
Episodes Originally Aired Between December 1990 and October 1994
Four single-sided discs (2 DVD-9s & 2 DVD-5s)
Cardboard Box with four clear slim keepcases

Buy Mystery Science Theater 3000: XXIII on DVD from Amazon.com

"Mystery Science Theater 3000" has some of the most loyal fans in the history of pop culture. Can you imagine any other television series that has been off the air for over eight years and out of production for well over a decade coming to DVD now?
Not only that, but coming to DVD in a compilation of four random episodes that sells for over $35 and still manages to yield an impressive five-digit sales rank on Amazon.com? There is nothing else quite like it.

Of course, "MST3K", as its fans call it, was anything but a typical TV show. What began on local Minneapolis television in 1988 became one of the best-known, longest-running, and most beloved cable shows of the '90s, moving to Comedy Central (first, its precursor) and later to the Sci-Fi Channel. As you almost certainly know by now, the series aired bad, obscure B-movies with sarcastic commentary provided by a human everyman and two robots.

The human (first, creator Joel Hodgson, then beginning halfway into the fifth season, head writer Michael J. Nelson) was a captive on a spaceship called the Satellite of Love and subjected to bad movies as an experiment by evil scientists. He and his wisecracking robot companions, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, make those bad movies fun with their perfectly-timed, sharp-witted, seemingly off-the-cuff (but in reality carefully scripted) observations and criticisms. The three viewers -- one human, two puppets -- appear over the movie in silhouette form at the bottom right of the screen (a process dubbed "Shadowrama") and use nearly all available space on the soundtrack to inject their irreverent remarks, including filmic jokes and Minnesota area references.

Crow, Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson), and Tom Servo have fun with a Joey the lemur puppet and song during "King Dinosaur." A man's bad driving is put on trial before a divine judge (Richard Gordon) in the New Jersey DMV short "X Marks the Spot."

It is amazing to consider that some of these "MST3K" episodes are as old now as some of the movies they riffed on then were. That might explain why so many of the show's references elude even a fairly pop-cultured individual as myself today. While explaining the jokes is sure to rob them of their humor (so much of the appeal lies in letting mentions sink in for you), I feel like the show could genuinely benefit from a subtitle track explaining the allusions. Even if they don't all make sense to you, those that do (and the cracks that require no foreknowledge) are sure to bring smiles and laughs to your face, even today in 2012.

As you could probably surmise, Volume XXIII is the 23rd and latest entry in an ongoing series of multi-disc DVD releases assembled for this cult classic show. The line dates back to 2002 and the count continued after video rights shifted from Rhino to Shout! Factory in 2008. There doesn't seem to be much rhyme or reason to what episode appears on what set. The compilations almost always include shows with both human leads and from a variety of seasons. It seems like the kind of thing where once you start collecting them, you don't want to stop and if you haven't already begun, you may very well be too overwhelmed to start. It doesn't help that the first several volumes are long out-of-print and selling for hundreds of dollars on Amazon Marketplace.

If there is a theme to Volume XXIII, it is variety: lampooned here are a '40s western, a '70s spy drama TV pilot, a '50s sci-fi movie, and a '60s mystery/adventure. Here is a closer look at the contents of XXIII, which becomes available on the last Tuesday of March 2012...

Scientists are corned in a cave and fear death by gumming by this "giant" iguana in "King Dinosaur." Christopher Lee is Fu Manchu in "The Castle of Fu Manchu."

2.10: King Dinosaur (1955) (1:37:30) (Episode first aired December 22, 1990)
Movie Credits - Stars: Bill Bryant (Dr. Ralph Martin), Wanda Curtis (Dr. Patricia Bennett), Douglas Henderson (Dr. Richard Gordon), Patti Gallagher (Nora Pierce), Little Joe (The Honey Bear), Marvin Miller (Narrator); Writers: Bert I. Gordon, Al Zimbalist (original story "Beast from Outer Space"); Tom Gries (screenplay); Producers: Al Zimbalist, Bert I. Gordon; Director: Bert I. Gordon; Executive Producer: Al Zimbalist

Nearly the first third of this episode goes to "X Marks the Spot", a preachy short on road safety by the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles. In it, a reckless driver (Edmon Ryan) appears with his guardian angel (George Matthews)
before a divine judge (Richard Gordon), with his various offenses behind the wheel called into question.

The main event, King Dinosaur, follows two scientist couples to the planet Nova, a land inhabited by snakes, bears, vultures, a lemur they make their pet and name Joe, and "giant" iguanas. This is exactly the kind of ludicrous movie that brings out the best of "MST3K." It is easily the best episode on this set and one of the best of the series that I've seen.

3.23: The Castle of Fu Manchu (1969) (1:37:15) (Episode first aired January 18, 1992)
Movie Credits - Stars: Christopher Lee (Fu Manchu), Richard Greene (Nayland Smith), Howard Marion Crawford (Doctor Petrie), Gunther Stoll (Curt), Rosalba Neri (Lisa), Maria Perschy (Marie), Jose Manuel Martin (Omar Pasha), Werner Aprelat (Melnik), Tsai Chin (Lin Tang); Writers: Peter Welbeck (screenplay); Sax Rohmer (character); Producer: Harry Alan Towers; Director: Jess Franco

This is another so bad it's good movie, sadly the last of its sort in this collection. The story is pretty tough to follow, but it centers on the evil Chinese genius for whom the mustache is named. Played by Christopher Lee for the fifth and final time (believe it or not, this was the tenth feature film adapted from the character by British author Sax Rohmer). Fu's evil plans of world domination see him taking over the governor's castle in Istanbul. That oft-established site, which includes a passage to "eternity", holds an important, ailing doctor (who, it's repeatedly noted, bears quite a bit of resemblance to Rocky's Burt Young). British gents, a local crime organization, Scotland Yard officials, and a couple of modern heroes also feature, though the pieces don't entirely fit together clearly.

Joel, Crow, and Tom Servo are hilariously bummed out by this film, which nonetheless inspires some of their sharpest witticisms. Crow takes a moment to lament yellowface practices. The movie's various technical deficiencies (erratic lighting, very fake blood, etc.) and bizarre stylings lend to plenty of humorous barbs. Amusingly, the episode concludes with Forrester and Frank discovering that turning bad films into broadcastable entertainment isn't as easy as it looks. I don't know if it's accepted that the earlier seasons of "MST3K" are better than the later ones (as is typically the case for TV shows), but that is the clear impression I get from this DVD (whose episodes I watched out of order, so that couldn't have been an issue).

A master of disguise (guest star Ian McShane, a.k.a. "Lovejoy") changes his identity to an army general in the Quinn Martin pilot "Code Name: Diamond Head." Things are mixed up with Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank briefly taking silhouette duties on the generic western "Last of the Wild Horses."

6.08: Code Name: Diamond Head (1977) (1:31:56) (Episode first aired October 1, 1994)
Movie Credits - Stars: Roy Thinnes (Johnny Paul), France Nuyen (Tso-Tsing), Zulu (Zulu), Ward Costello (Captain Macintosh), Don Knight (H.K. Muldoon), Ian McShane (Sean Donovan/Father Horton/Colonel Millard Butler), Eric Braeden (Ernest Graeber), Dennis Patrick (Commander Yarnell), Alex Henteloff (Dr. Edward Sherman), Frank Michael Liu (Hikaru Sakai), Eric Christmas (Fr. Murphy), Ernest Harada (Hero Yamamoto), Harry Endo (Dr. En-Ping); Writer/Producer: Paul King; Executive Producer: Quinn Martin; Director: Jeannot Szwarc / Movie's Original Airdate: May 3, 1977

Code Name: Diamond Head is an unsold action series pilot produced by the accomplished Quinn Martin ("The Fugitive", "The Streets of San Francisco", "Barnaby Jones"). It centers on the titular Hawaiian counter-intelligence agent (Roy Thinnes), real name Johnny Paul, but the plot is easily ignored and forgotten. On the opposite side of the law is a murderous master of disguise, (Ian McShane, a screentime-stealing "guest star" who the MST3K crew likes to refer to as "Lovejoy"), who impersonates a Jesuit missionary and an Army general, among others. Diamond Head is aided by a double agent Zulu (Zulu of "Hawaii Five-O" fame) and an "Asiatic" love interest (France Nuyen). The pilot is pretty much unbearable and doesn't even lend itself to the most amusing of riffing outside of some send-up of the score.

Before the feature presentation, we're treated to "A Day at the Fair", a short black & white 1947 documentary that follows the Olsen family around a seemingly deadly dull state fair. In the in-studio bits, Mike and the robots have made a mess of their place, prompting Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank to get themselves cleaner. Also, Magic Voice encourages Crow and Tom Servo to consider what it'd be like to have a different roommate than Mike, such as the Frugal Gourmet or a Crash Test Dummies band member. It's an exercise which helps them appreciate their Mike just the way he is.

6.11: Last of the Wild Horses (1948) (1:32:03) (Episode first aired October 15, 1994)
Movie Credits - Stars: James Ellison, Mary Beth Hughes, Jane Frazee, Douglas Dumbrille, James Millican, Reed Hadley, Olin Howlin, William Haade, Grady Sutton, Stanley Andrews, Rory Mallinson; Writers: Jack Harvey; Producer: Carl K. Hittleman; Director/Executive Producer: Robert L. Lippert

This boring western involves a small town, the Double C Ranch (or "Cranch", as the commentators call it), its nasty wheelchair-bound owner, and murder charges against a deputy sheriff. With its soundtrack barely audible and its supposedly sepia-toned visuals a difficult to distinguish black and white, this is a tough movie to invest in to any degree. Seemingly aware of that, the show mixes things up with an ion storm that creates an alternate universe, turning Mike and Servo evil and letting an uncharacteristic Dr. Forrester and TV's Frank take the first twenty minutes of commentary on the left side of the screen.

TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) and Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) are mad scientists of the goofy variety. Scientists land on the alien planet Nova and soon find their spacesuits unnecessary in "King Dinosaur."

VIDEO and AUDIO

True to the original broadcasts, picture quality is not the best. Movies picked for the MST3K treatment tend to be old, cheap, and not very well-preserved. To spruce them up for DVD would not only betray the original show, but it'd undermine the movies' laughingstock value. Nonetheless, the show's 1.33:1 presentation (which presumably entails cropping Fu Manchu) is fairly good, if decidedly low-budget. The basic 2.0 stereo soundtracks are sufficiently audible, but the dialogue of both the targets and the original material are not especially crisp. Unfortunately but typically, neither subtitles nor closed captions are offered, with Shout! having deemed them cost-prohibitive. That really is a shame because some of the jokes are so brief and easy not to make out.

You were basically blind before "King Dinosaur", its trailer boldly claims. "The Incredible Mr. Lippert" shows producer Robert L. Lippert poses proudly at his desk, with a cigar in his mouth and "Baron of Arizona" ad behind him. Frank Conniff (a.k.a. TV's Frank) introduces "The Castle of Fu Manchu" in the DVD's all-new short.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

These may be some of the worst movies ever made, but they do not come to DVD without some worthy bonus features.
Each disc includes extras that are pertinent either to the episode or the series.

King Dinosaur is accompanied by its digital-looking original trailer (1:40). More significant is "The Incredible Mr. Lippert" (35:50), a stellar documentary on producer Robert Lippert, whose decades of output included numerous MST3K subjects (from this set, Last of the Wild Horses). Interviews with historians, MTS3K's Frank Conniff, and actress Margia Dean reflect on Lippert's career: his low-budget Cinecolor westerns (excerpted here), his days as a theater owner specializing in the exhibition of small B-movies, his own shoestring pictures, his collaborations with Samuel Fuller and distribution deal at Fox. The piece covers Lippert's business strategies and resistance to cinema's trends, never making him out to be the artist he clearly was not.

The Castle of Fun Manchu includes its original trailer (2:07) and an introduction by MST3K cast member Frank Conniff (3:23) that discusses both the featured movie and his show's film selection standards.

Darkstar creator J. Allen Williams discusses reuniting the MST3K gang (seen in green screen insets) for his long-coming "interactive movie" (video game). Jonathan Etter humorlessly sings the praises of TV producer Quinn Martin in "Codename: Quinn Martin." Kevin Murphy, writer/director/Tom Servo, talks about the book on moviegoing he wrote in the early days of his "Life After MST3K."

That disc also includes "Darkstar: Robots Don't Need SAG Cards" (17:48), a letterboxed featurette which easily qualifies as the set's lamest extra. Without exactly explaining why, this promotional piece looks at the "interactive movie" Darkstar, a glorified video game finally released in 2010 that features the entire MST3K cast. The futuristic "movie" looks cheesy, not funny, and starkly dissimilar from the gang's TV series. But interviewed at DragonCon 2010, the MST3K gang discusses their experiences on the project (which dates back to 2001), from which we get crude clips and green screen outtakes.

On Code Name: Diamond Head, "Codename: Quinn Martin" (6:37) interviews Jonathan Etter, the author of a Martin biography. He talks about the producer's illustrious career, from Desilu to "The Untouchables" to "The Fugitive", paying special attention to the skewered pilot. He seems oddly unaware of the MST3K concept, as he humorlessly and sincerely praises Martin's various efforts.

The first in a new series of extras, "Life After MST3K: Kevin Murphy" (9:24) catches up with the show's writer, producer, and voice of Tom Servo. He discusses what he's done since the show wrapped up: writing a book on the moviegoing experience, then moving on to web endeavors with his collaborators via The Film Crew and RiffTrax. It's a nice interview that concludes with Murphy revealing his yet unrealized dreams.

A 10 AM Saturday morning airing is advertised by Frank and Dr. Clayton Forrester in this 1990s Comedy Central MST3K promo. Tom Servo and Croooow are "terrorized" by King Dinosaur on the first disc of Volume 23's main menu. Fu Manchu is a mechanical fortune teller on his DVD's main menu screen.

Joining Last of the Wild Horses is a reel of 29 "MST3K" promos (14:16). Coming from all over the show's Comedy Central run, these 30-second spots are varied and quite a bit of fun and a wonderful inclusion here.

The fun 4:3 menus identify the people at Shout! Factory as unmistakable MST3K fans. Each simply CG-animated screen is themed to the disc's movie/episode, featuring Tom Servo and Crow barbs. Scene selections would have been nice.

But, wait, we're not done yet. Inside the sturdy cardboard box, which assigns a transparent slimcase to each disc, we find exclusive mini-posters by Steve Vance. These thin sheets are just bordered prints of the slimcase cover art, blending Servo and Crow with the skewed movie's universe. These tasteful, colorful designs are much in the spirit of vintage B-movie marketing.

Crow and Mike (Michael J. Nelson) read up on alternate universes after an ion storm incident jostles their world's order. Get a load of the nose hairs on an ailing Burt Young (not really Burt Young) in Sax Rohmer's "The Castle of Fu Manchu."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

"MST3K" episodes remain good for an entertaining viewing, but though fans will heartily disagree, I think you're more likely to watch and ridicule bad movies on your own than to revisit these with any regularity.
Still, it's nice to have that option and Shout! makes it an appealing one with their winning presentation and strong bonus features. The price is high for what at heart is six hours of 20-year-old cable episodes; no studio would ever try to sell the original movies themselves at such rates. That may make streaming (free through Amazon Prime) rather tempting, but there is no better alternative for owning these episodes and as the secondhand copies of the out-of-print sets demonstrate, there is clearly a market for this content at even astronomical prices.

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Reviewed February 27, 2012.



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