SF/F Saturday: Mystery Science Theater 3000


The whole East Coast is snowed in after last night’s blizzard. If you’re feeling a touch of cabin fever, I’ve got a suggestion for how to while away the time.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a cult-classic TV show that came out of Minnesota in the late 1980s. It’s about a mild-mannered janitor named Joel (series creator Joel Hodgson), who had the misfortune of being employed by two mad scientists. As part of their evil, never-fully-specified plan to conquer the world, they kidnap him, shoot him into space and force him to watch terrible movies to gauge how each one affects his mind.

Together with his robot friends, the wisecracking Crow and pompous Tom Servo, Joel watches the movies and preserves his sanity by keeping up a running commentary of jokes, mercilessly ribbing amateurish acting, ludicrous dialogue, laughable special effects and ridiculous plots. During the fifth season, Joel departed the show and head writer Michael J. Nelson took over as the new host, but the concept stayed the same. After seven seasons and a theatrical release (riffing on the 1955 movie This Island Earth), Comedy Central canceled the series, but it was picked up by the Sci-Fi channel for three more seasons.

At its best, MST3K was a dense soup of puns, quips and obscure pop-culture references. Across ten seasons and 197 episodes, Joel, Mike and the ‘bots skewered B-movies of all kinds, especially low-budget sci-fi fare like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians or The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. As a general rule, the worse the movie, the better the cast’s riffing. One of their most famous episodes featured the legendary clunker Manos: The Hands of Fate, in which an innocent family on vacation is waylaid by a satanic cult leader called The Master and his goatish henchman Torgo:

(Other full episodes are online also.)

MST3K went off the air in 1999, but remained a cult favorite even as its creators moved on to other projects. Its community of fans kept it alive, trading bootleg recordings of old episodes – “keep circulating the tapes” was one of the show’s early mottos – but it found new life on the internet.

In 2015, Joel Hodgson announced a plan to reboot the show, citing other series that were brought back by fan demand and the rise of alternative outlets like Netflix. In one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever, the showrunners raised over $6 million (!), enough to fund a brand-new season with a new cast, including comedian Jonah Ray as the new host and nerd royalty Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new mad scientists. It hasn’t been announced yet whether the new season will only stream on the internet or whether it’ll find a home on traditional TV as well, but either way, I’m eager to see the show revived for a new generation!

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