Shout! Factory // 1989 // 360 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Erich Asperschlager // March 3rd, 2011
"Wokka-chikka-wokka-chikka-wokka-chikka-wokka-chikka-wokka-chikka...MASTER NINJA THEME SONG!"
Massive earthquakes rip through the world's poorest communities. Hurricanes cause mass destruction, leaving thousands homeless. Political unrest brings the day-to-day functions of nations around the globe to a screeching halt. The People's Choice Awards continue unabated. Tragedies like these speak to an imbalance in the universe, a Koyaanisqatsi-esque life spinning off axis, ever closer to a fate too terrible to consider.
Good news everybody! That balance will be restored on March 8, 2011, when Shout! Factory releases the first all-Joel Mystery Science Theater 3000 DVD set. Unlike most of the Mike-centric sets from the Rhino years, and the split-down-the-middle collections of recent memory, Volume XX turns its full attention to everyone's favorite sleepy-eyed jumpsuit wearer, with four episodes from the show's early seasons -- thereby righting a wrong that has gone unchallenged for...well, the past few years.
You're welcome, universe.
The set kicks off with another first season installment. What Project Moonbase lacks in length, it makes up for in full-blown 1950s sexism. The story centers around a foreign spy who infiltrates a U.S. space mission headed by a female astronaut. Her status is openly mocked by her superior (played by I Dream of Jeannie's Hayden Rorke), who threatens to spank her, then offers her up as bride to her antagonistic male co-pilot after the pair make an emergency landing on the moon. At least it's mercifully short. The movie is preceded by not one but two Commando Cody & The Radar Men From The Moon shorts. Chapters 7 and 8 to be exact, which means that if you've been collecting these Shout! Factory sets in order to see the complete run of Commando Cody in order, you'll need to hold off on watching this disc until Shout! releases the Slime People episode, which includes chapter 6. Then again, if you've been collecting these sets for Commando Cody continuity, I'm guessing you're the kind of obsessive-compulsive person who found the six mistakes I carefully hid in the preceding paragraph. Make sure you keep looking until you find them -- it's fun!
Joel and the bots do a decent enough job dismantling the movie and shorts, criticizing everything from the cheap special effects to the blatant disregard for gender equality, though the jokes don't come as fast and furious as they would in later seasons. At this point, it's useless to yammer on about Shout! Factory's inclusion of first season episodes. Love them or hate them, you might as well get used to them.
Project Moonbase comes with two extras: the movie's original trailer, and a featurette called "Exploring the Look of MST3K." Presented by director of photography Jeff Stonehouse, this nine-minute featurette focuses on the show's changing visual style in the later seasons; an odd choice for a Season One episode on a Joel-centric set. It's a cool interview, though, with a guy who helped shape the later seasons' more complicated host segments.
If Project Moonbase is an appetizer, then Volume XX's main course is the one-two punch of BOTH Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II. From the end of the show's excellent third season, the Master Ninja episodes are fan favorites, and for good reason. They star an aging Lee Van Cleef as an improbable ninja and Timothy Van Patten as his marble-mouthed apprentice, Max Keller. The two "movies" are actually four episodes from a failed '80s TV show called The Master. Each episode finds our heroes in a different midwestern town, using their sweet '80s van and middling ninja skills to take down whichever group of thugs is hassling the local girl Max wants to bang (including Demi Moore in an early role I'm sure she'd like to forget).
Packed with murderous industrialists, Japanese mobsters, limp fight scenes, and obvious stunt double work, Joel and company have plenty of gristle to gnaw off of Lee Van Cleef's "Jim Henson rat" bones. During a particularly exuberant car chase, they tell Max to "take a left on Stephen J. Cannell Boulevard!" Even for a show famous for eclectic references, the Master Ninja episodes are on another level, with nods to The Beatles, Robert Mapplethorpe, Tony Scott, Fiddler on the Roof, Clifford Odets, Patton, Charlie Callas, Tales from the Crypt, Star Wars, and Citizen Kane. If you're upset that Shout! Factory included both Master Ninja episodes in the same set, then you obviously haven't seen them before.
Master Ninja I's lone bonus feature is a five-minute interview with "Master Ninja guest star Bill McKinney," a.k.a. the jerkwad sheriff from the Demi Moore episode. It's never a good sign when the person being interviewed starts off by admitting he can't remember much about that time in his career. Even so, McKinney digs up a few choice words about Van Cleef and Moore, and says he liked what MST3K did with the show. Really, though, the most impressive revelation is that the 80-year-old actor still gets up at 4 a.m. to go to the gym.
Master Ninja II also has only one extra, but it's the longest and best of the set, the Tom Servo vs. Tom Servo panel from last year's Dragon*Con. Like the Crow vs. Crow showdown on Volume XVII, this 42-minute panel features the two men who played Servo over the course of the series: J. Elvis Weinstein, who left the show after its first full season on Comedy Central, and Kevin Murphy, who voiced Servo through the final episode on the Sci-Fi Channel. Your average superfan will have heard a lot of their stories before, but it's a fun back-and-forth nonetheless. I'm just glad to see Weinstein getting the credit he deserves.
Volume XX's final episode is from the fifth season. Unlike most of the movies that Mystery Science Theater 3000 skewered over the years, "The Magic Voyage of Sinbad" is actually pretty impressive. That is, it looks impressive -- with elaborate sets, convincing special effects, and a cast of thousands. Unfortunately, this movie (which started out as a Russian fantasy called "Sadko," based on a Rimsky-Korsakov opera) was picked up by Roger Corman and redubbed into English. The sets and sweeping Korsakov music are the same, but the end result is anything but majestic. Besides wondering why Arabia looks so Russian, Joel, Tom, and Crow poke fun at the citizens of Sinbad's hometown of Copasand ("where everyone dresses like Mike Nesmith"), and Sinbad's quest to find the bird of happiness ("That's not the Bluebird of Happiness, it's the Penguin of Giddiness!" "No, it's the Grackle of Weltschmerz!" "Nah, it's the Grebe of Obstinance!"). Add in an excellent invention exchange that introduced the idea of "chin-derwear," and Crow's foolish plan to blast off into space on his own life-changing quest, and you've got a bona fide MST classic.
For whatever reason, there's no theatrical trailer to go with "Sinbad," but there is a new introduction by Trace Beaulieu and a collection of "wrap" host segments from the episode's inclusion on the Mystery Science Theater Hour. Like the introduction Kevin Murphy recorded for "Jack Frost" (another movie in the so-called MST "Russo-Finnish Troika"), Trace goes out of his way to say just how much he admires the movie itself, if not Corman's English redub. It's a sweet and informative piece. As far as I'm concerned, Shout! should record these cast introductions for all of the episodes they release.
Four solid episodes including three out-and-out classics make Mystery Science Theater 3000: Volume XX a must-buy for any fan. Too bad the bonus features aren't as impressive. It's not fair to expect Shout! Factory to dig up hours of brand new extras for every new release, but Volume XX's bonus material is pretty slim. This set includes both Master Ninja movies and the best they could muster is a brief interview with a bit player who was onscreen for maybe ten minutes?
Still, Volume XX is a killer addition to the excellent work Shout! Factory has done to put as much Mystery Science Theater as possible on fan shelves. Only the lightweight extras keep this set from standing with the absolute best sets they've released so far -- and I mean that as a compliment.
Nobbt Gibbity! (Timothy Van Patten-to-English translation: Not Guilty!)
Review content copyright © 2011 Erich Asperschlager; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 360 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Theatrical Trailer
* Lobby Cards
* IMDb: MST3K
* IMDb: Project Moonbase
* IMDb: The Master
* IMDb: The Magic Voyage of Sinbad