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If anything brought postmodernism into the appreciation of exploitation cinema, it was Mystery Science Theater 3000.  This long-running show took the cult film fan’s pastime of goofing on b-movies to the masses and increased the viewership of celluloid rejects like Robot Monster and Manos, The Hands Of Fate, presenting them in an accessible way to  an audience who otherwise wouldn’t have bothered.  The end result became so popular that “MST3K,” the acronym for the show’s name, became part of the lingo as both an adjective (“Did you see that flick? It’s total MST3K material.” ) and a verb (“I’m gonna have fun MST3K-ing that movie.”).

Some schlock-cineastes bristle at the show’s approach to satire – mainly because of all the bad armchair satirists it has inspired – but a close look at Mystery Science Theater 3000 reveals a certain brilliance in their ability to deconstruct the most obscure pop culture in an entertaining style.  At their best, the show’s writers and performers were able to draw deeply from several points on the pop culture continuum to create virtuoso displays of free-associating that could engage the savvy viewer on multiple levels comedically.

In fact, you could argue that no one else did this kind of thing better.  The show’s creators and performers spent a lot of time honing their craft and they have ten-plus seasons’ worth of shows to prove it.  That brings us to MST3K Vol. 20: this 4-disc set serves up a quartet of episodes from three different seasons during the first half of the show’s run.  Along the way, this set illustrates both the pleasures and the perils of the series.

Project Moonbase comes from the first official season of the show (the real first season of the show was done on a UHF station and is considered “Season Zero” by both creators and fans).  The show staff had just switched over from free-associative riffing for the films to actually assembling a script and this episode has a tentative quality as a result.  The jokes are more sparse during the film because they were still feeling their way towards the right speed and quantity of gags.

This is unfortunate because the film itself is dull to the point of being lethal.  Project Moonbase is a slow, talky example of the kind of films about space travel that preceded actual space travel and is notable for its threadbare special effects and a casual attitude of intense sexism that is pretty eye-raising in retrospect.  The latter element is most memorably expressed when the head of the space project threatens to spank an unruly female astronaut!  The mix of a dull film and a tentative comedic style ensures that this episode never gets beyond moderately amusing, even with a few episodes of the Radar Men From The Moon serial to spice it up.

The Magic Voyage Of Sinbad is better.  It comes from the fifth season so the show’s style of humor was both confident and fully-realized.  However, this episode illustrates an element unique to the show: sometimes the films were so weird that they actually competed with the crew.  Thie film was not really a Sinbad story but a Russo-Finnish coproduction about a different character that was refashioned into an ersatz Sinbad tale via dubbing so it could be sold to an American audience.  As a result, there is a weird dislocation between the dialogue and the images.  Combine that with an odd mixture of large production values and accidentally surreal special effects and you have a film that vies against the cast for your attention.

Thankfully, Joel and the bots turn in a solid performance.  The riffing builds in a slow-burn fashion as the crew gets their bearings before giving way to a pretty hilarious final half-hour (especially when they poke fun at the cop-out nature of the film’s finale).  There’s also a great bit early on where a scene of a man wrestling a bear (!) is commented on as if it were an intervention for Grizzly Adams.  The wraparound segments are pretty great here, too: the highlight is a killer “invention exchange” bit that allows the gang to show off their knowledge of Frank Sinatra’s Rat Pack.

However, the best part of this set is a pair of episodes from the third season: Master Ninja 1 and 2.  These “films” are simply repackaged episodes from Lee Van Cleef’s short-lived action show The Master, with two episodes slapped together to create artificial feature-length stories.  Since they come from the early-1980’s networks t.v. mill, they have plenty of familiar faces: Demi Moore, Claude Akins, Clu Gulager, David McCallum, Crystal Bernard and George Lazenby to name a few.  The main stars were Van Cleef and future t.v. director/Class Of 1984 alumnus Timothy Van Patten.

Since The Master was an inherently formulaic show – basically, it was an attempt to make t.v.-friendly riff on the early 1980’s ninja craze – it has the kind of simple narrative conventions that leave plenty of room for MST3K-style spoofing.  Joel and the bots tear into it with glee: highlights include Tom Servo improvising inspirational lyrics for a handicapped character’s heart-tugging theme music and everybody goofing on Van Patten’s mumbly, Stallone-esque delivery of his lines.  There are also some great bits in the wraparound segments, particularly the crew’s beatboxing-and-vocalese creation of a “Master Ninja Theme Song.”

To sum up, this set offers two gems and two lesser but still interesting examples of Mystery Science Theater 3000 crew at work.  If you’re already a fan, the Master Ninja episodes alone make it worth the purchase price.