❉ How did three guys watching a B movie and talking all over it become one of the most beloved cult TV shows of all time?
One of the beauties of ‘Mystery Science Theatre 3000’ (or MST3K as it will henceforth be referred because the editor has a word count and I have a lot of enthusiasm) is that you can sum up the premise of the whole show, neatly and concisely with its theme tune. Which makes my job a lot easier, it has to be said:
“In the not-too-distant future – Next Sunday A.D. – There was a guy named Joel, not too different from you or me. He worked at Gizmonic Institute, just another face in a red jumpsuit. He did a good job cleaning up the place, but his bosses didn’t like him so they shot him into space.
We’ll send him cheesy movies, The worst we can find. He’ll have to sit and watch them all, and we’ll monitor his mind.
Now keep in mind Joel can’t control where the movies begin or end. Because he used those special parts to make his robot friends.”
This simple premise led to eleven series and one feature film which spanned the nineties. Not bad for a ridiculously cheap bit of filler that just somehow, through sheer tenacity, determination and a hell of a lot of word of mouth defied everything to become a legend on its own terms. A new series with an all-new cast will be returning to screens very soon, thanks to one of the most impressive Kickstarter campaigns I’ve ever seen.
MST3K is a fairly polarising show, very few people seem to be indifferent to it but those that hate it really hate it and those that love it actually tend to live it (Not a typo!). It’s been the programme I’ve watched the most since discovering it, almost clandestinely in the late 90’s. It’s probably only a par with ‘Doctor Who’ in my affections, and, since giving up my TV earlier this year, it’s been a regular treat most nights.
And all it really is, is three guys watching a B movie and talking all over it.
The three guys in question, the ridiculously sleepy-eyed human Joel Robinson (show creator Joel Hodgson, later replaced by head writer Michael J Nelson) and robots Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot who Joel just happened to make out of the very components aboard his prison that would have allowed him to control when he can nip out of the theatre for a crafty fag or not. I defy anyone not to be charmed by Servo, especially through the 8 years where Kevin Murphy operated the prop and voice. He is a definite victim of ‘small man syndrome’ with a bit too much confidence in his own abilities. Constructed from a gumball dispenser and a toy barrel he wisecracks (or ‘riffs’ to use the technical term) through the movies, ably assisted by Crow, a slightly more acerbic creation whose head has been fashioned from a lacrosse face mask and a bowling pin.
It’s this level of cheapness, because they started with nothing and had to use their creativity, which actually ends up being a key strength to the show. Though the budgets increased, especially during the three years spent on the Sci-Fi Channel, the makeshift attitude, prevails. The reason that Servo and Crow endure as brilliant examples of puppetry is purely down to the real characters that their operators give them. If you find you like the show, and you’ll know if you do or not very quickly, you’ll begin to really miss those guys when they’re not on your screen. Stay long enough in the madness that is the world of MST3K and you’ll find yourself throwing their favourite expressions at whatever else you’re watching. I can’t hear a list of names without mentally throwing in a ‘McLeod!’ for instance.
I should warn you that if you venture down this path, and find it is for you, it is addictive. Pretty soon you’ll be imagining Mr B Natural jumping out of the window display in the PDSA shop, or Torgo, the frankly tragic figure from Manos: The Hands of Fate turning up at your door just to let you know that The Master wouldn’t approve. And for those of you who did just understand that, you’re imagining Torgo’s theme in your head right now, aren’t you?
How you react to an episode is, of course, very much determined by what you think of the, sometimes atrocious, movies they are forced to watch. Some, especially those directed/written/starring/tea made by Coleman Francis, I find tortuous and really need the guys to get me through to the end. Others, well, you just can’t help but liking. Roger Corman’s ‘The Undead’ is the perfect example of this for me. It’s ridiculous but it’s brilliant it it’s ridiculousness. Indeed, the show has given many movies a chance to shine again as perfect examples of just what not to ever do on any account should you be trying to make a movie’ and deserves at least three seconds of applause for that alone.
I know that you could throw quite a lot of accusations at the show’s humour and I’m not going to say you’d be wrong. Certainly some of the jokes would probably not make the cut these days and I suppose that’s fair enough but personally, because I never felt that any of those jokes were made out of malice, I’ve never really had an issue with them. Sure, they shift where the line is a few times, I can certainly accept that. As for the humour, it’s pretty relentless, and even the worst, most tedious movies gave the cast plenty of opportunities to assault you with a volley of mirth. Lots of the riffs are very specific to whenever the episodes were made but many, many of them still hold up today. In fact a lot of the jokes have aged incredibly well from a position almost 30 years later.
You’re pretty much guaranteed a proper belly laugh once an episode though. Can’t ask for more than that can you?
❉ ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ will return with 14 new full-length episodes, all of which will be streamed on Netflix. The show has its own YouTube channel which is currently releasing the episodes in HD on a monthly basis.