Mystery Science Theater 3000: The sci-fi show 30 years ahead of its time
Ivan Radford | On 13, Apr 2017Reading time: 5 mins
This year sees the much-anticipated return of a sci-fi series on Netflix. A cult classic that was ahead of its time, and still has a lot to say about our current society. No, not Star Trek, but Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The show sounds like one of the worst ideas in TV history: a programme that follows a man sent into space by an evil scientist (called Dr. Clayton Forrester) and trapped on the Satellite of Love and forced to watch terrible movies. His only company? Some robots he’s fashioned himself, including Tom Servo (wonderfully sarcastic) and Crow (wise-cracker extraordinaire). Together, they sit through each of these dreadful films, commenting over the top to keep themselves sane.
Watching other people watch movies? That’ll never catch on, you might say. But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 went on to become a cult hit, gradually building fans through word-of-mouth, before eventually winning a Peabody Award and bagging two Emmy nominations. At the time, that was a testament to just how funny the series was: Joel Hodgson’s janitor (later replaced by temp worker Mike Nelson – played by Michael J. Nelson) and his puppet sidekicks formed a brilliantly immature trio, interjecting sarcastic mockery every time the slightest mistake appeared on screen. Even as the ensemble evolved, with Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein being replaced by Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy in later seasons, the laughs kept coming – thanks, in part, to the variety of dire celluloid the series kept unearthing, from dreadful horror flick Manos: The Hands of Fate to infamous sci-fi/Christmas mash-up Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
“Film distributors would do this trick where they’d license you several movies. Half of them might be movies you’d heard of, and half were the movies we actually wanted, the B movies,” Hodgson told Wired in an interview a few years ago. “We didn’t want the cocaine — we wanted the baby laxative they put in the cocaine.”
Art Bell, an exec at Comedy Central, which eventually picked up the show, added: “We probably sent 10 films for every one they picked for the show. It seemed like we’d find the perfect movie for them, and they’d say, ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ But the fact that they were so picky helped make the show as good as it was. They honed bad-movie selection into a fine art.”
What’s amazing about Mystery Science Theater 3000, though, isn’t that it’s still amusing today, but that it feels more at home than ever. The show was a success in the 1980s and 1990s, but it was 20 years ahead of its time.
Only last month, the Oxford English Dictionary officially introduced the word “Hate-watch” to its collection, a verb defined as “to watch (a television programme, etc.) in a spirit of mockery, as a form of entertainment”. It’s a term that’s become more and more common among modern audiences, thanks to the rise of social media, which has enabled people to get together and jointly mock things without having to be in the same room. Trending topics on Twitter have encouraged the natural growth of communal cynicism, whether it’s directed at a national occasion or a major TV event – and often both at the same time. Eurovision, Question Time, even the news. All of them are prime targets for group sniping, but Mystery Science Theater 3000 was there three decades before, throwing shade at the screen, albeit with a deceptively warm affection – and proving that it can be just as fun to watch it happen as it is to take part.
The idea came from, of all things, an Elton John album. Joel Hodgson spotted some illustrations on the liner notes of Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (for the song I’ve Seen That Movie Too) and thought that the idea of silhouettes watching a film should be turned into a living, breathing show.
But it’s more than just commentary: MST3K also mastered the art of inserting spoof sketches in between clips, including Torgo coming to life outside of Manos, and spent half of its time just dubbing stupid things over characters’ voices – jokes that today can be seen in web series such as Honest Trailers and Bad Lip-Reading. (Nelson and co., meanwhile, have gone on to launch Rifftrax, doing a similar thing to MST3K but without the space part. Several of those Rifftrax films, incidentally, are available on Amazon Prime Video.)
“The idea of riffing, of mocking, of commenting on things is very prevalent nowadays,” writer and performer Mary Jo Pehl commented to Wired. “Obviously, it was happening before Mystery Science Theater codified it. But it just seems to have pervaded a lot of the way comedy is done now — it’s its own genre.”
It’s only fitting, then, that the show should return in 2017 on Netflix, which announced this year that it would become the home of the crowd-funded revival. Will the new episodes live up to the original 100-odd instalments? It’s hard to imagine them not being funny, but either way, they’ll undoubtedly be relevant.
The only change in the online age, perhaps, is that we’ve now turned the cameras more onto ourselves than the things being riffed. YouTube springs immediately to mind, but MST3K’s real test of time can be found in more traditional media: the cult comedy’s influence is an inherent part of Gogglebox, the two-time NTA-winning Channel 4 programme in which people who have never heard of Tom Servo or Crow watch telly and talk along with it.
Naturally, every time it airs, it trends on Twitter.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription. A collection of old episodes are already available to stream.