Shout! Factory // 1989 // 400 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // February 22nd, 2010
Shout! Factory continues its thankfully relentless schedule of Mystery Science Theater 3000 box sets. The latest, XVII, offers a swell balance of Mike and Joel, campy sci-fi and cinematic swill, classic episodes, and obscure installments -- in other words, it'll please the fans.
For the uninitiated, Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired on Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel throughout the '90s. Each episode featured host Joel Hodgson, or Michael J. Nelson, making fun of schlocky B-movies with the help of their robot crew on the Satellite of Love.
As is custom, the set comes with four episodes:
The Crawling Eye (101): This is the debut episode of the show's first season on The Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central) featuring Joel, some weird sounding bots, and two evil scientists -- there's the usual Dr. Forrester, played by Trace Beaulieu, along with Dr. Laurence Erhardt, played by Josh Weinstein. The film, also known as The Trollenberg Terror, is about a monstrous, alien eyeball attacking mountain climbers.
The Beatniks (415): Another Comedy Central Joel episode, this time featuring a film about a bunch of punk kids who in no way resemble actual beatniks. The episode also features a General Hospital short.
The Final Sacrifice (910): A Michael J. Nelson episode featuring a Canadian film about an evil cult trying to take over the world. This somehow involves wearing A-shirts and ski masks, and running around the Canadian wilderness. The film is culturally significant because it gave the world Zap Rowsdower (Bruce J. Mitchell).
Blood Waters of Dr. Z (1005): Also known simply as Zaat, this episode from the final season features Mike and the bots ripping into a sci-fi mess about a Nazi scientist who turns himself into a sea monster.
Fans of the show, in most cases, tend to favor one host over another. There are Joel-fans and Mike-fans, with a fair amount of crossover. It all has to do with when the fan discovered the show, really. So the best way to satisfy MSTies is to include two Joel episodes and two Mike episodes -- that way everyone's happy.
This time around, despite being in half the set, Joel gets the shorter end of the stick. The Crawling Eye is more of an academic inclusion than a quality episode. The episode, their first after leaving public access, has a lot of kinks in it: the set is rickety, the sketches feel longwinded, and the silhouettes look pixelated. It is a pretty funny episode, however, especially in the last 30 minutes. The jokes, much like the film itself, are more of a slow boil this time -- Joel admits in the introduction to the episode that they hadn't yet nailed down the accelerated riffing pace. Things pick up nicely towards the end, and I really enjoyed the obscenely long series of "eye" puns Joel, Tom Servo, and Crow start spewing. It's not an awful episode, but it's certainly rough.
The second Joel episode in this set, The Beatniks, is much better. It's one of those strange instances where the gang riffs on a straight-up drama, in this case a bizarre film about a two-bit punk becoming an overnight pop star. While the General Hospital short isn't that funny, mainly because the source audio is pretty muffled, it doesn't last long enough to detract from the episode. The feature film is hilarious, and the gang does a great job of capitalizing on all the strange logic involved behind a music producer discovering a "beatnik" in a roadside diner. I even enjoyed the host segments, which had TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) and Dr. Forrester dressed as Troll dolls. Remember those? It's a solid Joel installment.
The first two discs, chronologically, do a good job providing representation to the show's early seasons, but it's the latter two that are the best in the set. The Final Sacrifice is a classic installment, if only because of Zap Rowsdower. The film is awful through and through, but the gang latches on to this beer-drinking, mustachioed, Canadian drifter (with a shanty town in the bed of his pick-up truck) and create a series of running gags that amount to everyone exclaiming "Rowsdower!" It's a joke that would transcend the episode, similar to Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate or anything featuring Joe Estevez. It's one of the strongest episodes from the Sci-Fi Channel years, and is, really, the best reason to pick up this latest box set.
That's not to cut short the final episode in the set, Blood Waters of Dr. Z, from the show's tenth season. This bizarre film opens with a ten minute monologue set to footage of sea creatures muddling around in a fish tank -- something about a scientist vowing revenge, taking over the universe with fish, blah, blah, blah. The plot is about as deep as a small town creek in July, but the riffers are up to the task. It's a consistently funny, engaging episode, but it falls short of reaching Manos levels of awesome -- Zaat may be one of the worst films ever created, but the gang never quite hits it out of the park.
XVII retains the same high-quality production standards as previous Shout! Factory releases. The later episodes look bright and colorful, but the early ones suffer from poor source video. These are about as good as the episodes can look and sound, and are complimented by some cool DVD menus and extras.
Each disc comes with at least one or two supplements. There are original trailers and teasers for the films, as well as a cool introduction to The Crawling Eye by Joel. There's also a 30-minute interview with both actors who played Crow, Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett, from Dragon Con. It's a fairly interesting discussion, but it probably could have been edited down a bit. On The Beatniks disc, Shout! dug out some of the Mystery Science Theater Hour segments that bookended the hour-long version of the episode -- they feature Michael J. Nelson caked in Jack Perkins (Biography) make-up. This is all trumped, of course, by the brand new interview with Rowsdower himself, Bruce J. Mitchell. He talks about what it was like filming The Final Sacrifice and how odd it was when he found out he had a cult following of his own.
This is another great release from Shout! Factory featuring the same production quality, design, and balanced content as every other box set they've pumped out in the past year. Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XVII is worth picking up for The Final Sacrifice alone, but there's surely enough here to any fan of the series. The 17th time's still a charm.
Rowsdower, it's not guilty!
Review content copyright © 2010 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 400 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* IMDb: Zaat
* IMDb: The Final Sacrifice
* IMDb: The Crawling Eye
* IMDb: The Beatniks
* Official Fan Site