Signals From Next Sunday, A.D.: Mystery Science Theater 3000
I don't have a favorite movie. I love too many of them to pick just one as a representative of what is most important to me in the medium, and at best could narrow those down to a number of 30. The same can be said with books, comics, or albums - I'm an art polygamist. But when it comes to live action television shows, I have little such reservation. For half of my life, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has held the top spot as the series most dear to me.
The landscape of local television was once inhabited by a number of so called "horror hosts". They were your guide to late night broadcast showings of classic, campy or obscure genre films of years past, from Universal's Frankenstein to Deiei's Gamera. Nearly always costumed as some variation of vampire, ghoul, or gothic seductress, they would interject at commercial time to speak about the film, read fan letters, and often make jokes. Though perhaps not his intention, an imaginative comedian named Joel Hodgson would arrive just as this wonderful trend started to fade, and would evolve the form into something new and unprecedented. Inspired by interior artwork from an album featuring silhouetted moviegoers in front of a theater screen, a novel concept was born. Instead of the host showing up only at interstitial breaks, they would be visually present during the movie itself, literally watching it along with the viewer while contributing humorous commentary. This would become Mystery Science Theater 3000, or MST3K to its fans.
The premise is brilliantly simple, a clever joke about sitting through less than perfect movies. A mad scientist and his assistant decide to test the limits of psychological endurance by forcing an unwitting test subject to absorb the full brunt of genre cinema's misbegotten spawn, from b movie cheapies to z grade misery. To ensure that he won't escape watching the films, they enclose him in a spacecraft, The Satellite Of Love, or S.O.L., and withdraw oxygen from all areas of the ship other than the built in theater. Fortunately test subject Joel Robinson (Hodgson), like the man portraying him, happens to be an inventive sort, and he constructs robot crewmates from those mechanical parts of the S.O.L. which determine when the movies stop and resume play. In addition to Cambot and Gypsy, the robots include the lanky, gold, sarcastic Crow T. Robot (occasionally referred to as Art after a fan letter dubs him so) and compact, red, lively Tom Servo. Crow and Servo join Joel as he watches the movies, and the trio jokes about, or ''riffs'' on what's happening in the film. They appear at the bottom of the screen, silhouetted at the right along a row of otherwise empty theater seats. This signature image is familiar even to people who've never seen the series.
The premise and innovation thereof would have alone allowed MST3K to become a cult hit, but it also had an extremely distinct comedic voice, at once odd, playful and exceedingly smart. Additionally it bore a touch of the refreshingly non Hollywood flavor of Minneapolis, where it was produced. The show was bestowed a Peabody award in deference to its wit. It also possesses a genuine warmth and charm, from the quaint friendship of Joel and the 'bots, to the conceit that Cambot is filming and broadcasting the proceedings for us to see, allowing characters to address the viewer directly. This invitation to join in, to be a guest on the S.O.L., helped to foster an unusually strong bond between the series and its fans, one which persists even now.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 lasted for 11 seasons, (if you count its initial run on KTMA, a Minnesotan UHF channel) and there were significant changes to the cast over the years. Frank Conniff replaced Josh Weinstein as the assistant to mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), and Weinstein was replaced early on as the voice of Tom Servo by Kevin Murphy. Beaulieu was himself later replaced in his dual roles, as the voice of Crow by Bill Corbett, and on screen by his character's evil mother (Mary Jo Pehl), in the show's Sci Fi channel era. Most notably was the transition from Joel to Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) as host and test subject in the season five episode featuring the movie Mitchell. What is impressive about these changes is in how they did not negatively impact the quality or voice of the show. It didn't hurt that Nelson had already been an important writer and contributor on the show since the second season. He was part of the family. Furthermore, the character of Mike shared a different dynamic with the robots, more of a peer or roommate to Joel's father figure or big brother role.
The great bulk of films, or "experiments", on MST3K are sci fi or horror, usually from the 50's through the 70's. Many had little to work with in terms of production budget, and regularly feature hokey special effects. In the old, z grade outer space pictures, visible strings, used to suspend rocketships, are a constant. These and similarly budget strapped monster costumes are frequently the target of laughter on the part of the host and the 'bots. Within this dynamic lies perhaps the most brilliant and subtle trait of the show. MST3K is itself a low budget sci fi production, with its own visible strings, homemade sets and model spacecraft. Everpresent is an acknowledgement of the charm inherent in things handmade, of creative people doing what they can with limited means. The laughter is often affectionate, comes from a shared humility, a sense of fun. In many superficial ways MST3K is the very thing it tends to make jokes about, is a kind of stylistic blood brother to the films on display. In The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, a terrific book written by the series' creators, it becomes clear that there is something of an affinity for many of these movies on their part. If you are a fan and can find a copy of this book, I highly recommend it.
Not every film is worthy of affection, however. In its eleven years on the air, the crew of the S.O.L. witnessed a sizeable sample platter of truly bottom level cinema. Some films were just boring, illiciting jokes about Roger Corman being personally brought on to supervise endless scenes of characters walking down bland corridors. Some featured rough, unpleasant scenes that had to be cut for television. But then there were the films which weighed on the soul, not just boring, but incompetent and depressing as well. Manos: The Hands Of Fate is probably the most well known, a movie made by a fertilizer salesman on a casual bet whose title translates literally to Hands: The Hands Of Fate. But my favorite auteur in the MST3K library is probably Coleman Francis. He contributed three films to the series, including The Beast of Yucca Flats and Skydivers. Each one is a downer of an experience. His Red Zone Cuba is probably my favorite episode, featuring a wandering plot about escaped convicts who get caught up in the Bay Of Pigs invasion. For a while. It is often the case that the movies that cause the most suffering for the makers of the show result in the most entertaining episodes, and Francis' use of inexperienced or non actors, long torturous sequences of dialogue punctuated with long torturous pauses, and a typically bleak and serious tone are a perfect counterpoint to the silliness of joking robots.
I am a movie watching purist. I prefer to watch films alone, in one sitting, without distraction, and all the way through to the final end credit. I take it seriously, and this can lead to great frustration and audible shushing of chatty moviegoers in a theater. I've been known to jump over seats to attain one further away from impolite patrons. So how could a show built entirely around talking during movies be my favorite show? Firstly, the movies featured on MST3K are ones I'd probably never get a chance to see otherwise, or would not be among those I might want to watch. So I get exposed to a wider range of movies than I otherwise would - it's a bit of free film education, with the added bonus of sharp humor. The humor encompasses another feature that distinguishes the show's riffing from typical movie interruption. When Joel, Mike, Tom Servo, Or Crow make comments, they're not only funny, but usually a response to an element within the film. In order to get the jokes, the show demands you pay attention to the movie, often drawing your focus to it, as opposed to away from. It also doesn't hurt that the riffing is usually saved for pauses in dialogue, placed with care as to not obscure the fundamental storytelling of the movie. It's designed to accompany, not obstruct.
The most important reason for my love of the show, though is that picking it as my favorite series is, in fact, kind f a cheat. I love genre film, and MST3K sneaks entire genre films into a TV show. I love this TV show because it is, in actuality, movies. And the silhouettes of the empty seats to the left of Mike, Joel, Crow and Servo are for us, the viewers. I've been a viewer for twenty years, from the first episode I saw, featuring a movie called Teenagers From Outer Space, and I haven't stopped watching since. I treasure my continued time spent in that front row, enjoying movies with my friends from the not too distant future.
"Keep circulating the tapes"