Mystery Science Theater 3000: Vol. XX

Actors: Christopher Judge, Peter Woodward, Graham McTavish, Ricardo Chavira, Gwendoline Yeo
Director: Mike Disa
Format: Animated, Color, Widescreen
Language: English
Region: 1 (U.S. and Canada only)
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Number of discs: 1
Rated: NR (Not Rated)
DVD Release Date: January 25, 2011
Run Time: 90 minutes




By now, the Mystery Science Theater boxed sets have attained Kabuki-like regularly, with the producers adopting a “we ain’t gonna fix it ‘cause it clearly ain’t broke” approach and benefiting from the resulting stability.

Things underwent a slight change when Shout Factory took over the line from Rhino, but the basics remain the same. Each set contains four episodes of the cult classic series, along with a few bells and whistles to fill up space. Shout Factory gets a few demerits for neglecting to include chapter searches on its discs, but otherwise, it’s a case of resolutely meeting expectations without a lot of monkey business.

So it goes with the twentieth boxed set in the series: a well-managed package that neither breaks new ground nor rocks the boat unduly. It falls to the films themselves to sell us on the package, and thankfully, this latest collection doesn’t disappoint.

Fans of Mike Nelson, who hosted the series’ later episodes, should be warned that all four films come from the earlier Joel Hodgson era, though that shouldn’t deter them from making the purchase. The high points of the set are Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II; both fan favorites witnessing their first official appearance here. The producers cobbled them together from a crappy 1980s TV show called The Master, in which ninja guru Lee Van Cleef (?!) and his apprentice Timothy Van Patten (double ?!) tool around in a custom van looking for wrongs to right.

Each film consists of two hastily-connected episodes presented as a single film. A pre-fame Demi Moore shows up in part one, as does Sho Kosugi, for whom no ninja movie can pass without a token appearance.

The cheese factor borders on the overwhelming, and Master Ninja’s obvious Stephen J. Cannell envy makes potent targets for Joel and the bots. The jokes attain a slightly sharper bite than some of Joel’s other entries, and rarely miss their mark. Long-time fans should rejoice at the arrival of the infamous “Master Ninja Theme Song” at the end of the first disc.

The set’s other two entries are slightly weaker, but only just. The first, Project Moonbase, aired during the show’s opening season and features Josh Weinstein as the voice of Tom Servo instead of Kevin Murphy (he also plays one of the mad scientists). You can sense the gang still struggling to find the show’s tone, with more infrequent riffs and much less confidence in the approach. Luckily, the film itself is truly awful – an embalmed bit of 1950s sci-fi (written by Robert Heinlein no less!) with a deadly earnest approach to its plot and some staggering bits of sexism thrown into the mix.

It also includes another pair of entries from the Commando Cody serial; the disc carries more appeal to completionists and as a barometer for how much the show evolved, rather than a selling point in and of itself.

You can see that evolution first-hand with the last disc in the set: The Magic Voyage of Sinbad. MST 3K found a gold mine in bad Finnish fantasy movies, as witnessed by Jack Frost and similar entries. This one boasted top-notch production values and excellent special effects, only to be kicked right in the nuts with a goofy redub, courtesy of Roger Corman. The gang’s rapid-fire jokes show poise and polish, the material begs for a giant “kick me” sign, and as one of the last episodes which Joel hosted, it lends the set a lovely sense of closure.

THE DISCS: The extra features constitute a very mixed bag, and don’t demonstrate much consistency. The best comes courtesy of series DP Jeff Stackhouse, who talks about the show’s evolving look and increasingly complex mythology. Cast member Trace Beaulieu discusses The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, paired with the collected host segments from the “Mystery Science Theater Hour” (which broke the shows into two hour-long segments for later re-airing).

Master Ninja guest star Bill McKinney reminisces on his experiences on the first Master Ninja disc, and the second contains a “Servo vs. Servo” face-off in which Weinstein and Murphy discuss the evolution of the character. The original trailer for Project Moonbase rounds out the set, along with four-loose leaf mini-posters for each film. The extras remain mildly diverting and modestly insightful, though they don’t merit any undue excitement.

WORTH IT? As I said earlier, there’s no point in messing with success. MST3K fans know what to expect from each set and Volume XX doesn’t let them down. Newcomers will find it readily accessible and can get into the groove of the show very quickly. Nelson’s presence is missed, but he has an old Rhino set completely to himself, so we won’t begrudge his absence here.

RECOMMENDATION: Mystery Science Theater never gets old and the new set continues to deliver the goods. Fans and newcomers alike should discover plenty to smile about here.



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