Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Mystery Science Theater 3000

Illustration for article titled Mystery Science Theater 3000

Geek obsession: Mystery Science Theater 3000

Why it’s daunting: A true cult classic, Mystery Science Theater 3000 maintained a fervent following (a.k.a. “MSTies”) over and beyond the run of its 10 seasons and 198 episodes, which were originally broadcast between 1988 and 1999. The premise is simple enough to be encapsulated by the series’ jaunty theme song: Every episode involves a two-hour “experiment” wherein mad scientists subject the series’ human host and his robot friends to one of the worst movies ever made. The subjects fight back with the only weapon they have: a rapid-fire barrage of jokes. But several stumbling blocks toward devotion remain. First, there’s that run time, which still amounts to 90 minutes without commercials. Second, there’s the fact that the show was subject to constant cast changes: By the time MST3K was canceled for the second time—it was first canceled by Comedy Central, then moved to the Sci Fi Channel—none of the onscreen roles were occupied by their original performers. Add in the fact that negotiations over movie rights prevent the home-video release of full-season sets—they’re released instead in non-chronological batches of four episodes—and you have what seems to outsiders a tangled, confusing creation as foreboding as any cinematic turkey screened on the Satellite Of Love.


Possible gateway: Episode 820, Space Mutiny

Why: Despite the cast switch-ups, Mystery Science Theater 3000 maintained a great sense of continuity in its writers’ room, where the creative core of the aptly named Best Brains, Inc. broke down the films featured on the series to the subatomic level. Under the guidance of head writer Michael J. Nelson (who also assumed hosting duties from creator Joel Hodgson after Hodgson’s 1993 departure), the Brains watched and re-watched each film, singling out key moments of ineptitude and flinging innumerable jokes, cultural references, and observations at the onscreen action. With the more accessible and enjoyable episodes of MST3K, there’s a sense that this painstaking process was actually fun; this certainly applies season eight’s decimation of the South African sci-fi cheapie Space Mutiny.

The series highlighted some out-and-out stinkers in its time, but in terms of production value and pacing, the relatively slick and zippy Space Mutiny is the Star Wars of the MST3K canon. (Or the Battlestar Galactica—the film repurposes several special-effects shots from the original BSG.) It still gives Nelson, Crow T. Robot (Bill Corbett), and Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) plenty with which to work, though. John Phillip Law turns in a deliciously hammy performance as the leader of the titular insurrection. Cisse Cameron appears to be two decades too old to be the romantic interest of hard-bodied hero Reb Brown. A character killed by Law in one scene briefly reappears, silent but alive, a few scenes later. (Quotes Crow: “I think it’s very nice of you to give that dead woman another chance.”) Plenty of jokes are made at the expense of Brown’s weightlifter-like physique, including an increasingly ludicrous series of nicknames punctuating his character’s most heroic actions.

The episode comes at the end of a bizarre season-eight arc that places Nelson’s Sci Fi-era tormentors—world-domination-seeking Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), omniscient extraterrestrial Observer (Corbett), and dim-witted ape Professor Bobo (Murphy)—in ancient Rome, so the host segments that break up the film might bewilder MST3K newbies. Still, this is a series built for weekend-morning drop-in viewing, so Nelson quickly gets the exposition out of the way in the first few seconds of the episode, and the remainder of the between-movie breaks—like Crow and Servo’s dogfight in the Satellite Of Love’s previously undisclosed hyper-warp escape shuttles—feature Best Brains’ sketch-writing at its sublimely silly best.

Next steps: MST3K’s B-movie well ran much deeper than inept space operas and crummy monster movies—it just so happens that those types of films are featured in some of the series’ most memorable episodes. When it comes to poorly dubbed imports in which Japan is menaced by rubbery creatures, few worked as well as the five Gamera movies featured in season three. The last of those films, Gamera Vs. Guiron, provided the series with one of its most inspired musical moments.

The Spanish E.T. wannabe Pod People, also seen in season three, is another highlight of the Hodgson era. In line with Hodgson’s sleepier approach to hosting, the episode takes a while to get going, but its second half is imbued with some fun metatextual gags—after one character takes a break from being terrorized by fuzzy aliens to enjoy a cocktail, Joel and the ’bots reimagine him as a grumpy drunk with an encyclopedic knowledge of hooch—and a completely off-the-wall segment where the friendlier of the movie’s intergalactic visitors gives a crash course in stop-motion animation.

Hodgson’s departure was the source of much “Kirk Vs. Picard”-style debate among MSTies, but Nelson brought his own energy and a new spin on the host-and-bots relationship upon donning his green jumpsuit in the middle of season five. More of a friend to the ’bots than Hodgson’s paternalistic Joel Robinson, the character of Mike Nelson brought more of a hang-out vibe to MST3K—even if he was still technically a captive of the “Mads.” As such, there’s a puckish spirit running through many of the better Nelson episodes, like Show 907—featuring the flimsy Gremlins facsimile Hobgoblins—or Show 910, where The Final Sacrifice introduces mulleted fan favorite/beer-swilling folk hero Zap Rowsdower.

Where not to start: Though Show 424 helped cement the infamy of Manos: The Hands Of Fate, it hardly sets a good precedent for the rest of the series: The filmmaking on display is so egregiously inept that the Brains could do little more than express their exasperation through Joel and the ’bots. The same goes for another season-four feature, Monster A-Go Go, which despite being surrounded by some top-notch host segments—including the introduction of Johnny Longtorso, a piecemeal action figure invented by “classic” Mads Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) and TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff)—is a maddeningly muddled, fans-only endeavor. Beaulieu’s elaborate, explanatory introduction to 1996’s Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie makes the series’ big-screen adaptation a worthy candidate for an entry point—too bad studio meddling cut the film to the point that it runs shorter than the average episode.