TV GEMS: Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988-1999)

With a reboot on the way, Richard goes to space to review the best of the worst in this beloved cult favourite. 

Come April 14th, I suspect many people might be confused as to the antics of their slightly nerdier and more cult-film fanatical friends. Why are these usually reserved and oddly humoured men and women crying out in joy whilst shouting “Huzzah!” at any passing forklift, and calling out names such as Big McLarge-Huge and Roll Fizzlebeef? Well, after a nearly eighteen years of exile on the planet Gor, the incomparable Mystery Science Theater 3000 makes its triumphant return on Netflix due to a successful Kickstarter campaign. While now primarily experienced through a barrage of clips on YouTube highlighting some of their greatest moments, MST3K existed as a strange bridge between cinema and television and was like nothing the world had ever seen before. It became a cultural touchstone for college kids, film nuts and stoners alike in the age before the Internet carved out little niches for all those people and more.

It was the story of one man and his robot pals forced to… you know what, I’ll let the show explain:

MST3K follows the misadventures of a man sent into space to suffer through the worst movies ever made in an experiment aimed at weaponising their awfulness. To help keep him sane, he has constructed some robot friends with which he can spoof, riff and ridicule these films weekly for our enjoyment. As that clip and description might suggest, this is a show of a strange nature, and to be clear, they aren’t joking about the content; every single one of the 197 episodes made over the course of ten seasons include the full running time of a bad movie for the host and bots to tackle. Now, in our world of comedy commentary and humourous film kill-counters, this seems familiar, but in 1988, it was something of a revelation.

The reason for the show’s odd success lay in the foundation of its comedy: the movies. Now, these were not films brought in for the show, but rather titles already owned by the station to fulfill requirements about not running dead air. To keep the channels showing back-to-back, the stations would bulk buy terrible low-budget films to show through the night when almost no-one would be watching. Working from an established format of hosted shows such as Elvira’s Movie Macabre and Chiller Theater, Joel Hodgson pitched Mystery Science Theater 3000 and a small and often overlooked legend was born. Starting as a local broadcast, the show moved after one season to become a staple of Comedy Central, then known as the Comedy Channel before moving for its last few seasons to the SyFy Channel, then more correctly named the Sci-Fi Channel.

I’ll take a moment here to make a confession – this is perhaps more of a retrospective than it is a review. The reasons being, firstly, that I have neither the time nor the adequate amount of energy drink to review the show episode by episode, but that’s more of a practical consideration. The second and more important reason being that I love this show and can’t consider it objectively. MST3k was a major source of my own love of movies growing up, as I learned from Joel and the bots that while not all films are good, even the bad ones have their own charm if you look at them right. While Joel left at the end of season 5 to be replaced by head writer and regular guest star Mike Nelson, his run will forever have a special place in my heart. To avoid controversy, however, please note that I’m discussing the show here as the sum of its seasons rather than making the Joel/Mike dynasty distinct, which has divided the fanbase for twenty years. 

mysterysciencetheatre3000-2

The humour of MST3K is admittedly a take it or leave affair with the constant commentary creating as many golden moments as it does clunky ones attempting to fill the void. The times when the show achieves its greatest heights are in the two extremes, films which are well-intentioned but flawed, or films so bad their existence challenges all reason. The two most quoted examples for this would likely be Pod People and Manos: The Hands of Fate. While Pod People may have hints of basic competency and a great deal of love, if not any talent, in showing the story of “If E.T. was a serial killer,” it is often Manos which takes the prize as the greatest film the show ever riffed. Independently-financed using a paltry and I can only assume cursed sum, this was a movie so bad it brought Joel to tears and the edge of madness, whilst bringing audiences to the edge of their seats with tears of laughter. The episode became such a hit that Manos went from utterly obscure Texan trivia to a small cult almost overnight. Much like the rest of the show, I’ll simply provide my wholehearted recommendation and encourage any of you who may be curious to look it up online.

Most came for the films, but some also stayed for the frankly bizarre but often hilarious short segments by host and bots which worked as an intermission for the movie. While the Joel run was prone to making elaborate prop humor at the continued expense of the film in question, Mike’s story often detailed the ongoing misadventures of the satellite and its captors. These little segments were often strange, generally weird, but occasionally pure comedy gold which captured the insanity of the week’s film perfectly. While the commentary sections may have been Marmite-like in divisiveness, the host segments ranged in said divisiveness from vegemite to the consumption of live eel. From Joe’s deadpan prop comedy to Mike’s high-energy banter, there was one thing that was always certain – you never knew what on earth they were going to come up with next!

While the show in its entirety is simply not purchasable from any source due to the limited copyright of the films shown, and the various channels on which the show took place, you can still get a hold of their greatest hits, as well as their feature film, from DVD retailers such as Amazon. Over the years, many whole episodes have also found their way onto various video-hosting sites, including the newly-established Mystery YouTube channel which has some lesser-known but still excellent episodes in full. There is simply no other way to explain this series’ wonder and madness other than to experience it for yourself. So, get clicking and you too can have a small moment of pure happiness and the knowledge that there is indeed some good left on this planet. That’s comforting in times such as these, when many thousands of people chipped in their little bit to bring something this simple and joyous back to life for all of us to enjoy. That is, all of us who have a Netflix subscription…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • While in high school, Joel Hodgson bought Elton John’s 1973 album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. The album had accompanying artwork for each song in the liner notes. The artwork for the song “I’ve Seen That Movie Too” showed a silhouetted couple watching a film in a dark theater. Hodgson thought a series about silhouetted people talking back to the film would make a great idea for a show.
  • Kevin Murphy has said that for every film used, 10 to 20 were screened and rejected. For just over 200 episodes, the writing staff watched over 2,000 films.
  • The Crow and Servo puppets used in the theater segments were spray-painted black, to ensure that they appeared completely black in silhouette, and to prevent the film from being projected through Servo’s transparent head. The black Crow puppet was used in a host segment as Crow’s alter ego, Timmy.
  • The Satellite of Love set was made entirely of toys that the show’s creators bought at Goodwill. All of the robots were made from common household items. Items on the interior walls include: a toy Millennium Falcon from Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), a Darth Vader action figure holder, a plastic reindeer cut in half and glued over the theatre door, plastic toy trumpets, silverware trays, bundt cake pans, and extra bowling pins that would’ve served as Crow’s beak.
  • Shortly before his death in 1993, Frank Zappa planned to make a film with the members of MST3K.

Here’s my favourite moment from the Space Mutiny episode.

Richard Herring

Half-American, half-Norwegian. All Engineer, amateur filmmaker, former Scuba Diver, qualified Forklift Operator, continual Stand Up Comedian, and Certified Cinephile.

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