MST3K: A Beginner's Guide
"What is this Mystery Science Theater 3000 nonsense and why should I care?" is what you're probably shouting at the screen right now. Why, it only happens to be one of the most underrated comedy shows that has ever aired on American television. And unfortunately, almost entirely unknown outside the US. So for the benefit of those not in the know, I've cobbled together this little guide to the wonderful world of MST3K. With Youtube links!
The set-up goes something like this: Joel Robinson (and later Mike Nelson) is an average joe who finds himself shot into space by mad scientist Dr Clayton Forrester. Imprisoned on the Satellite Of Love, Joel is forced to watch the worst movies of all time as part of Forrester's bizarre experiment to find a movie so bad it will bring the world to it's knees. To help maintain his sanity, Joel builds a series of robots(Cambot, Gypsy, Tom Servo and Crow) to watch the movies with him. Each episode of MST3k consists of Joel(or Mike) and his robot friends watching an entire movie and delivering a cynical commentary full of in-jokes, pop-culture references and mean-spirited jibes about the actor's physical appearances, usually to hilarious effect.
The series also had an endearingly lo-fi quality about it as well, with home-made props that always looked as if they'd been put together on the fly(the Tom Servo puppet was constructed from a variety of household objects, including a gumball machine, barrel coin dispenser and "halloween" bowl).
The brainchild of comic Joel Hodgson, MST3k managed an impressive ten years on the air, starting life on a local cable channel in Minniesota before graduating to the mainstream on Comedy Central, eventually finishing up it's days on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1999. Take a look here for an extremely lengthy rundown of the show's history.
If you're reading this in the UK, chances are you'll have heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000 but never seen it. The reasons for this are complicated and annoying; basically, any channel wishing to show MST3k not only has to buy the rights to the series, but also to the films themselves. This is further complicated by the fact that some disgruntled distributors withdrew the rights to use their films after the episodes aired, meaning they couldn't even be repeated, let alone sold overseas. In fact the producers seemed to precipitate this problem, as fans of the series were actively encouraged to bootleg home-recorded episodes(up until Season 4, a message at the end of every episode instructed viewers to "Keep Circulating the Tapes").
So aside from a handful of episodes which found their way onto the UK Sci-Fi Channel in the late nineties, the series has never had a consistent run on British television and probably never will. The exception to this was the
For a while it seemed the movie was all we were going to get. But rejoice! Because thanks to the miracle of online video providers like Youtube and Google Video, the series is at last being made available to the world at large.
But where exactly do you start? There's quite a lot of material out there, and new stuff is being uploaded all the time. So to aid the befuddled newcomer, I've picked out some choice episodes and shorts from what's currently available online.
"MANOS" The Hands Of Fate: Well, you might as well start with one of the best. "MANOS" is very probably the single worst movie the series ever unearthed, a no-budget sixties horror made by and starring a fertiliser salesman from Texas. Acting, script and direction collide into one big never-ending mess. Some of the riffing on this episode is inspired, particularly Crow's rambling monologue towards the end. This is also the movie that brought the world evil henchman Torgo and his voluminous thighs. The whole thing has just been uploaded to Youtube in 10 minute chunks: Take a look.
Space Mutiny: A good example of a later Sci-Fi era episode. An utterly clueless Battlestar Galactica knockoff set in the interior of a giant spacecraft that looks suspiciously like a deserted warehouse. Lots of bad guys fall screaming from balconies. Some "space women" in diaphonous outfits dance about mystically to no apparent effect. The skull of an overracting villian threatens to burst through his skin. Our hero screams like a girl. See the whole thing on Google Video: Here!
Mr B Natural: A terrifyingly chirpy androgynous pixie in a pointy hat(a sinister corporate shill for Conn Instruments Ltd) attempts to flog "the spirit of music" to a hapless schoolboy named Buzz. "COME ON AND BUY SOME CRAP FROM USSSS..." See!
Gumby - Robot Rumpus: Bizarre claymation short about the dangers of allowing robots to do the work of man. Or something. Yes.
A Case Of Spring Fever: Some poor guy called Gilbert is tormented by a demonic talking spring after inadvertantly wishing every spring in the universe out of existence. We are friends, aren't we Coily?