Joel Hodgson, creator and original host of the simply wonderful “Mystery Science Theater 3000”, launched a kickstarter campaign on November 10th to help fund production of new episodes of the iconic TV series.
As of this writing, four days later, the campaign is $250,000 shy of reaching it’s minimum goal. That’s “minimum”. As in, the bare bones they’re hoping to meet.
Comrades, I’m not going to mince words here: This. Really. Really. Really. Could. Happen.
There really and truly could be a brand new series of “Mystery Science Theater 3000” (or, for brevity’s sake: MST3K) on whatever screen format we choose to watch by next year’s time.
This is, in short, HUGE.
If you don’t know what MST3K is, well, I feel truly sorry for you. And not in some smug, condescending manner, no. I really do feel sad that you’ve never had that pleasure in your life. It’s an ultimate good, basically. I mean, yes, it’s basically just a TV show, but, really it’s so much more than “just” a TV show. Kind of like how The Beatles were never “just” a pop group.
The basic set-up had laconic yet clever handyman Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) being trapped in a bone-shaped satellite (named “The Satellite Of Love”) by a pair of Mad Scientists (“The Mads”, again for brevity’s sake). The Mads regularly force Joel to watch a string of awful old movies to see how much he could take before his will was broken and his spirit crushed. But Joel creates a bunch of robot pals to keep him company and together they fend off despair and madness with a non-stop barrage of banter.
The series’ premise was similar in many ways to the old “Creature Feature” shows that once populated local TV stations during the non prime-time hours of a broadcasting day. Hosts like Vampira and Philadelphia’s Dr. Shock would present a creaky old horror or thriller movie, commenting on it’s inherent poor quality or ludicrousness at commercial breaks. MST3K, however, took the hosts into the theater and showed them watching the film in real time. Three little silhouettes appeared along the bottom of the screen, all the while making wisecracks that ran the gamut from erudite and obscure to obvious and crude.
A typical MST3K “experiment” was a hopelessly obscure horror or sci-fi movie made in the 50s, 60s or 70s. Most were titles I’d never heard of before – such as “The Mad Monster” (a 1942 “Wolf Man” rip off starring Gerge Zucco) or 1962’s “The Slime People” – but there was the occasional Japanese rubber suit monster movie I remembered watching in my youth. (It could be argued that MST3K was responsible for keeping the name “Gamera” alive and relevant to US audiences. In fact, I would make that argument if it weren’t so late where I am.) Some of the show’s greatest moments, however, came when the film being screened was an attempt at a serious drama or “message picture”. (One of the all-time, best-ever MST3K experiments is “I Accuse My Parents” from 1944, wherein main character Jimmy is seen to fall under the sway of mobsterish types because his parents are drunks. It’s an amazing piece of dunderheaded moralizing, yet oddly sweet-natured.)
Hodgson left the program in the middle of it’s 5th season, replaced by head writer and frequent guest performer Michael J. Nelson as “Mike Nelson”. And while the tone of the show changed, the quality of the “riffing” did not. In later years, fandom predictably split into “Joel Vs. Mike” camps with one side proclaiming the inherent “betterness” of their choice, but… honestly the Nelson years produced just as many outright classics as the Hodgson years. (To name a few? “Skydivers”, a sordid melodrama about, er, skydivers that has to be seen to be believed; “Space Mutiny”, a none-more-80s space “epic” from South Africa; and “Angels Revenge”, a 1979 “Charlie’s Angels” rip-off that Quentin Tarentino very possibly used as the inspiration for “Fox Force 5” – the failed TV pilot Uma Thurman mentions in “Pulp Fiction”) Anyway, Hodgson & Nelson have both been nothing but complimentary towards each other, so… knock it off fandom.
Regardless, the series ended in 1999 after 10 on-air seasons. Life moved on, people kept circulating the tapes and then uploaded the shows to YouTube, and MST3K settled into the hazy dust of fond memory. But it’s DNA could be found in countless places across the pop culture landscape. Everyone became a “riffer” in one way (Tosh.0 anyone?) or another (Red Letter Media’s epic, 90-minute takedown of the Star Wars prequels comes to mind).
Then, in 2008, Patton Oswalt hosted a panel at ComicCon that brought nearly every member of MST3K’s cast together onstage. The public reaction was overwhelmingly positive. It revealed that the audience’s love for the show hadn’t really waned; just gone into hibernation. And predictably one of the questions that kept echoing through the blogospheres was “will they actually bring back MST3K? For real?”
In fact, slightly differing versions of MST3K had been in existence for awhile by then. Mike Nelson had started a series of downloadable commentaries called “RiffTrax”. The idea was you could pop in your DVD copy of, say, Batman & Robin and sync up the RiffTrax commentary on your player of choice and… presto! Batman & Robin would finally receive the MSTing it so richly deserved.
Meanwhile, Hodgson and several ex-MST3K players were doing a project called “Cinematic Titanic”. While they did release DVDs of their takes on clunky old sci-fi and horror films, the Cinematic Titanic crew really came into it’s own as a live event. Hodgson and co. travelled to theaters all over America and performed the riffs onstage in front of an audience. (I personally attended three of these shows and I assure you, they were flat-out wonderful.)
But, good as these substitutions were/are, there remained a genuine longing for a return of the “real deal” Mystery Science Theater 3000. With Joel (or Mike!) and the Bots, and definitely a Mad or two overseeing the “experiments”. When Joel hosted a streaming video marathon of old MST3K episodes on Thanksgiving in 2013, the YouTube page was flooded with happy throngs of Misties giving thanks and praises. (I should know: I was right there with them.) The following year, another Turkey Day marathon prompted an even greater outpouring of support and, I’m not ashamed to say it, love. Or, as Hodgson puts it himself on the Kickstarter page:
“…MST3K is more than just movie riffing. It’s a stranger and denser recipe than just saying smart aleck things to a forgotten movie, but I think this is the secret ingredient: we believed that it’s easiest to survive the cheesy movie that we’re living in with friends who keep us from taking it all too seriously.”
Yeah, see… that’s the real reason I think MST3K hasn’t shaken it’s hold on anyone who ever became a fan: at it’s core, the show is essentially about keeping your spirits alive in the midst of utter despair. The premise of a person who is trapped far from home in a vessel they can’t control by a capricious, petty monster that is essentially toying with them and tormenting them so that they will, eventually, lose the will to survive… that’s… pretty fucking heavy if you look at it objectively. It’s Kafka with puppets. But Joel/Mike endure because they have Tom Servo and Crow there with them. For all the bickering and silliness, there is a center of friendship and camaraderie that keeps them going. They keep each other sane with jokes and games and pranks. They know their situation is pretty much hopeless, but they never actually lose hope. Why else do you think they call it the “Satellite of Love”? Every time the host and the Bots emerge from the week’s experiment unbowed, joking and carrying on, it’s a tiny victory of love and joy over an evil, unfair universe.
I realize this sounds like utter hogwash. But I mean every word. And after reading Hodgson’s proposal on Kickstarter (link here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/mst3k/bringbackmst3k) I feel confident that this “reboot” of MST3K will be a continuation of that spirit of love and joy vs. adversity. And we could certainly use some of that these days, comrades, now couldn’t we?
Hey! I just realized that I never do this sort of thing, but what the heck! I’m gonna list my favorite MST3K experiments and then maybe do a Poll Thingamujig to see if anyone out there agrees or… whatever. It’ll be educational!
1: “The Crawling Hand” (season 1) This was one of the very first experiments I ever watched. It’s a dreary tale of a teenager who becomes a remorseless killer when possessed by an irradiated severed hand. The show won me over by making an Adam Ant reference. Simple as that.
2: “Rocket Attack U.S.A.” (season 2) A piece of Cold War propaganda wherein everyone appears to be zonked on quaaludes. Featured one of my favorite host segments “The Civil Defense Quiz Bowl”.
3: “The Final Sacrifice” (season 9) The one with Canada’s answer to Chuck Norris – the one and only Zap Rowsdower. I am at a loss to explain it, but I love this crappy little Canadian action fantasy romp. It’s got heart, damnit!
4: “Space Mutiny” (season 8) Another Canadian effort, but unlike “Final Sacrifice” this is unwatchable without Mike & The Bots’ riffing. It’s got it all: ridiculous costumes, inane dialogue and utter contempt for the concept of “continuity”.
5: “The Giant Spider Invasion” (season 8) Contains one of my favorite-ever Crow lines: “WHY DOES THIS MOVIE HATE US???” Also features an impossibly jovial performance by Alan Hale Jr.
6: “I Accuse My Parents” (season 5) Priceless. As I mentioned above, this movie wants so badly to be a worthy “message” picture, but oh, how it does fail. Plus, this experiment also features the “Truck Farmer” short, which is surprisingly still rather topical.
7: “Attack of the Eye Creatures” (season 4) Or, as the title card reads: “Attack Of The The Eye Creatures”. Yep. This is “Z” Grade schlock at it’s, er, finest. There’s an oddly icky undercurrent of sexual perversion in this movie that Joel & The Bots rightly jump all over. Dame Rumour has it that this episode also invented the “RickRoll”.
8: “Monster A Go Go” (season 4) This is one of the most jaw-droppingly boring “monster” movies ever made. Things happen until, well… They just stop. It almost makes abstraction an artform. Almost. Like “Space Mutiny”, unwatchable without the MST3K riffing.
9: “Skydivers” (season 6) This is pretty much an all-around perfect episode. The main feature is just so inept it makes Ed Wood look like Orson Welles, and the short it’s paired with, “Why Study Industrial Arts”, is perfect fodder for the MST3K treatment.
10: “Manos – The Hands Of Fate” (season 4) It almost feels like cheating to include “Manos” on a list of favorite MST3K experiments, but… It’s inescapable. For many people this is the definitive Mystery Science Theater 3000 moment: a movie so devoid of craft or skill of any kind that it seems inconceivable that it actually exists. That said, the sheer incompetence gives it a quality one could almost call “compelling”. Almost.
Well… I could keep going. But I’ll leave that up to you lot. What’s your MST3K Top Ten Fave Raves? Sound off!