For those unfamiliar, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" was a cult series that ran from 1988-1999 and revolved around a mild-mannered worker (Mike Nelson in the second half of the series, Joel Hodgson in the first half) who is shot into space by his crazed boss, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu, although when Beaulieu left the series, the character was replaced by Pearl Forrester, played superbly by Mary Jo Pehl) and forced to live on the Satellite of Love watching the worst movies that can be dug up while the Dr. monitors his mind. Mike/Joel can't control when the movies begin or end, because those parts were to make robot pals Crow T. Robot (voiced by Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett), Tom Servo (voiced by Kevin Murphy or J. Elvis Weinstein) and Gypsy (voiced by Patrick Brantseg or J. Elvis Weinstein).
The series saw Mike or Joel accompanied by Tom Servo and Crow into the viewing room, where they were subjected to Z-grade movies so horrendously awful (a comment during a sunny scene in one movie: "Such a nice day out and they're wasting it making this movie.") that they often come out onto that other side where they're not only amusing, but oddly fascinating in their sheer badness.
The simple premise of the series has the group commenting on the movie at hand - continuing the thoughts of the characters, making random pop culture references that manage to make sense in the scene or making wisecracks about what's on-screen. Serving as breaks are "host" segments, where Mike or Joel and friends chat about the movie at hand and/or do a bit that often revolves around the movie they're watching.
It's fascinating that it's been twenty years since the series first started airing, but the show's anniversary is given an appropriate celebration in this four-disc box set, which brings together four episodes (all of which are previously unreleased), each of which provides a movie worse than the prior one.
"Future War" sees a race of cyborgs headed to Earth to track down an escaped future slave to a present day city. If it wasn't already crappy enough, the cyborgs also bring back dinosaurs - the rubbery, puppet kind that look as if they're being held in front of the screen - with them. I think what's really shocking is that this was actually made in 1997. Most of the movies that were featured in the series were made decades ago, so it's a tad surprising that, given the technology that's available in the modern era, a film made in 1997 can equal the awfulness - both in terms of look and horrible, horrible content - of B-movies from a couple of decades prior. The filmmakers should be pleased that the film was given the "MST3K" treatment, because otherwise I don't know how anyone could watch it.
Almost impossibly awful (although it at least it takes itself less seriously than "Future War") is "Laserblast", which tells the story of an abused teenager who comes in contract with an alien weapon that allows him to take revenge on those who tormented him. However, he soon finds out that the weapon is slowly causing him to change into a deadly and irritable creature. "Laserblast" is also a funnier episode, with plenty of great wisecracks (responding to a character drinking Coke: "Pepsi gave them big bucks to put Coke in this movie.") by Mike and the robots.
"Werewolf" offers seven wonders of awful, featuring a story about a workman who's injured while working at a mine site (as the camera pans across the barren landscape, Tom Servo cracks, "We got the worst tree farm ever." Another great throwaway one-liner when the movie shows a ceiling fan: "The movie's biggest fan.") by what appears to be the skeleton of a werewolf. Within a matter of hours, the man begins showing signs of turning into a lycan himself. Last - and it might as well be least - is "First Spaceship on Venus", a film which sees a mysterious message on a spool found in the desert. Through detailed and very scientific testing, it's found that the message is from Venus. Not surprisingly, scientists go to the planet to investigate, and find that the planet is not exactly welcoming.
As for the segements where the group is talking outside the theater in the satellite, the image quality is probably the best the episode has ever looked - crisp, clear and with strong colors. As for the films themselves, they look perfectly awful. The movies on MST3K aren't supposed to look great, and these certainly do not. They look soft, worn and often grainy.
As for the sound, the same formula applies - the dialogue between the group in the outside segements is crisp and clear, and the sound from the movie is pretty terrible.
EXTRAS: A 20th Anniversary Panel (about 38 minutes) at the Comic-Con 2008 is included, hosted by Patton Oswalt. The panel brings together members of the cast and crew to discuss the history of the series, starting with the development of the series. It's pretty interesting to hear about the show's small beginnings, as well as elements like how movies were chosen. Also included on the first disc is a compilation of all the different theme songs, which is a fun addition.
"The History of MST3K" is a 3-part documentary taking a look within the "MST" vaults to piece together how the series came together, starting with a discussion of some of the many ideas that were thrown out before the show's idea finally started to take shape. The show's low-budget origins are also discussed, with facts tossed out like how the sets were built and how the crew tried to have the show put together by the end of the day because a wrestling show was going to use the studio directly afterwards and the crew wanted to be out before they arrived. While the creators didn't expect much, they soon found that the show's voicemail was full after every show and viewer mail steadily increased.
Part two opens up with the show's creators deciding that, given the growing fanbase, the series would leave local TV and head to Comedy Central, which wanted changes in the series that thankfully never occured. The show got its way, and given that the execs never wanted to go to the Midwest, the series was able to be left alone. The third part focuses more on the new addition of Mike on the series, as well as aspects like those who worked behind-the-scenes and remained unsung heroes that helped make the series what it was. Finally, cast and crew reflect on the legacy of the series.
Finally, we also get trailers for the films.
Final Thoughts: Hysterically funny, these four episodes of the series make for a very enjoyable compilation of this classic series. The DVD set also offers a few terrific extras that fans should enjoy. Highly recommended.