This is a guest post written by a rank amateur. Please turn down your expectations, where applicable.
It’s November 24rd, 1988. Robin Beck remains at number one with “First Time,” a situation resolved two weeks later when Cliff Richard unseats her with “Mistletoe and Wine.” Phil Collins, Michael Jackson, Pet Shop Boys, Rick Astley, and Salt-N-Pepa also chart.
In real news, Benazir Bhutto is sworn in as Prime Minister of Pakistan. The number of HIV positive people in the UK is pegged by a government report at 50,000, and it’s estimated that by 1992 as many as 17,000 people may die of the disease. Health Minister Edwina Currie causes a massive crash in egg sales through a carelessly worded claim about salmonella. The last shipbuilding facilities around Sunderland close. And Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuts.
The degree to which that last one qualifies as “real news” is at once unsurprising and completely and utterly baffling. Of course it’s not news to most people—MST3K debuts somewhat quietly on a third-rate UHF station in Minneapolis and St. Paul. But Joel Hodgson, the show’s lead writer and “host”, has appeared on Letterman and Saturday Night Live, and this has granted him a small degree of local celebrity. The show gets popular enough that, of that first local season, only three of its twenty-one episodes have not been recorded for posterity and put up on YouTube.
The degree to which recordings of MST3K are important is hard to explain without overstating. Unlike Doctor Who, MST3K is debuting at the cusp of the home video movement, so it’s unlikely any episode would well and truly be lost for good. To our knowledge, no episode actually is—even the three missing local episodes are safely in the possession of producer Jim Mallon, who isn’t willing to finagle the legal rights to the films therein in order to secure the release of what he and everyone else involved consider subpar work notable only as historical curiosities. And yet, there’s the thing—without home video recordings, there’d be no way to watch many of the episodes.
At this point it’s probably worth explaining what, exactly, MST3K is for the uninitiated. Joel Hodgson plays Joel Robinson, a janitor for some nebulous technology company which houses a couple of mad scientists in its subbasements. Said mad scientists abduct Joel, chuck him into a satellite with an onboard movie theater, and attempt to drive him insane with B-movies and educational shorts. In response, Joel builds some robots, and two of them, Tom Servo and Crow, join him in the theater each week to make fun of the movie in real-time while silhouetted against the bottom of the screen. Every twenty minutes or so, the film cuts out and Joel and the ‘bots return to the satellite’s bridge for a few minutes to discuss the movie, parody it, or engage in some irreverence.
What this means is that a good 80% of each episode contains footage that doesn’t actually belong to the show, and needs to be licensed in order for its use in any broadcast or release to be legal. So, while you can readily watch the entire show’s run on YouTube, amassing a complete collection by legal means is pretty much impossible. To date only half the series is commercially available.
Here, we have our first contrast with Doctor Who. For Who, copyright law is a threat to the show’s future—it means, going forwards, we may not have Daleks, or the Rani, or TARDIS merchandise. Each character creation needs to be handled carefully to make sure the rights stay with the BBC rather than with the writer introducing them. But the rights transference doesn’t stop the BBC from releasing things that already have the Daleks or the Rani in them. For MST3K, copyright law is a threat to the show’s past, leaving long gaps therein in the eyes of the general public.
And yet, so much more of MST3K’s past is available than Who’s, even as the latter’s is unencumbered. Why? Part of it is obviously the tape junking, and MST3K’s comparatively briefer run and smaller history. But another part of it is the way in which the creators of the show encouraged the spread of the show’s past. “Keep circulating the tapes” was in each episode’s end credits for a good long time, halted (of course) because of legal concerns, but the fans took it to heart. You’ll never hear rumors that a fan is hoarding a lost episode or some piece of obscurity the way you so often do with Who. The show thrives on being spread around.
This is but one parallel with Who, however; but a singular example of how the show is in fact some sort of bizarre mirror-world version of that one. There are a couple more, but I’d like to move now to the big one, which is that both series are commonly mistaken for science-fiction when in fact they’re more accurately designed as being extremely adaptable to any genre.
This blog has discussed narrative transgression before, and I assume if you’re still here you have a basic functioning knowledge of how it works and how it applies to Doctor Who. (This is, naturally, an unfair assumption, seeing as I’m still here and reading—name’s Seth, by the way, nice to meet you—but it’s a necessary one that saves me the trouble of explaining it myself.)
For MST3K, it works in almost the exactly opposite direction. The show does not transgress on other narratives, other narratives transgress on it. Most obviously, each episode has a movie thrust upon our protagonists, and they spend the entire time merely reacting to it. It openly influences the way each episode plays out. Joel and his robot friends, as mentioned, spend much of their time between film segments picking the film apart, dressing as its characters, or engaging in sketch comedy. When the “host segments”, as they’re called, have nothing to do with the film, it’s still motivated by a conscious choice to ignore the feature.
The setting is also important. While the TARDIS can go anywhere in time and space, the Satellite of Love where Joel and the ‘bots are stranded is just that: a satellite. It has a fixed trajectory around the Earth. While the TARDIS to the Doctor is a means of escape, the Satellite is a prison, a symbol of captivity. Even its shape embodies this—it’s a dog bone, a symbol of animal imprisonment and reliance. Food to be given to a dog, rather than taken. Better yet, it was designed as a dog bone for the purpose of facilitating an episode about the ship being attacked by devil dogs early in the series. Even dogs in this universe have more freedom than our leads.
The devil dogs, however, are a sign of another way this premise inverts Who. The ship can get visitors. The Doctor can wander out of the TARDIS and meet anyone, but Joel and the ‘bots only meet the people who come to them. More often than not, these are characters from the film—breaking down the doors of the world’s reality. Everyone but our leads, it seems, can do what the Doctor does.
To put it simply—Doctor Who is defined in terms of its ability to go anywhere and warp the narrative, MST3K is defined by its ability to have anywhere come to it and be warped by the narrative.
|Though yeah, actually, this works too.|
The degree to which this makes MST3K not science-fiction, though, is important. It has some of the chameleon-esque tendencies of Who—most notably, not all of the films are science-fiction, with fantasy, melodrama, exploitation and procedurals being among the show’s standard fare. But more importantly, MST3K tends to define itself as falling very definitively into the comedy genre. It takes pride, for example, in the increasing number of jokes (“riffs”) made at the movie’s expense per episode, and even goes so far as to expressly tell you in the theme song not to worry too hard about its overall narrative logic. It is expressly, aggressively disinterested in defining itself by science fiction standards. (Of course, it’s also disinterested in defining itself by a sentient piece of metatext, so what do I know.)
There’s a pretty big problem with this reading, though, which ties itself into the third and final tenant of Who parallels—malleability. Because, while the show’s reality was rather fluid, it still had one that could be digressed from and knocked down.
It’s October 30th, 1993, in flagrant violation of how this blog usually does things. Meat Loaf is at the top of the charts with “I’ll Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”, which is almost exactly two decades away from being made creepy by an M&Ms commercial. Cappella, Bryan Adams, Dina Carroll, and Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince also chart. In real news, a Halloween party in Greyskeel, North Ireland is fired upon by Protestant terrorists, Archbishop Paul Grégoire passes away, Martin Fettman preforms space’s first animal dissection, and Michael J. Nelson officially replaces Joel Hodgson as the host of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
By this time, MST3K is in a decidedly different place. It got picked up by the Comedy Channel after its local season (Season “0”), and by Season 3 the Channel had been subsumed into a merger and became Comedy Central. It’s got large, if niche, fanbase, and while it hasn’t quite earned the notoriety that would later place it on numerous “top cult show of all time” lists its decidedly popular.
This article was originally going to be about dueling fandom reactions to Who and MST3K across their many changes, but in writing it I decided that the direction Michael J. Nelson took the show was decidedly more interesting than the fanwar that didn’t so much ensue as start preemptively.
Nelson was not a new presence on the show. He’d been around since Season 2 and quickly impressed the original staff enough to go from secretary to head writer. The idea that swapping him for Joel as the show’s “host” would change much would be kinda laughable if, y’know, it didn’t change pretty much everything.
Mike immediately established that he wasn’t, like so many replacement TV characters before him, just going to be a pale imitation of his predecessor. If Joel had been calm, fatherly, and bizarrely friendly to the “Mads” who shot him into space, Mike was more a slightly-baffoonish big-brother type who took every opportunity to defy his captors and attempt escape. He wasn’t having any of this “warped by the narrative” bullcrap, he was going to build his own stories, and the show surprisingly acquiesced.
It started slowly. An “Umbilicus” between the Satillite of Love and the Mads’ headquarters in Deep 13 suddenly facilitated increased interaction. A radioactive time machine, while not allowing directly for escape, created new narrative avenues and ways for Mike and the ‘bots to interact with the show’s world. Slowly, the rules began to change.
And then the show got cancelled, got resurrected by Sci-Fi, and everything basically went crazy and decided to be Doctor Who.
|Yes, thank you.|
This is maybe not an entirely fair assessment—the decision for the show to suddenly have plot arcs was made by Sci-Fi, not the crew, and yet…well…this is what the show decides to do, given the order to have plot arcs. It wanders from a Planet of the Apes spoof-future to a distant planet populated by superintelligent aliens to ancient Rome and eventually back to Earth as Mike accidentally blows up planets and gets put on space-trial. I mean, it’s easy to read that last bit as some sort of metaphor for the show defending itself from near-death, but…I mean, that’s just Who also. And it comes off of this after a season or so and largely gets back to the business of being itself, and has a tenth-anniversary special where Joel comes back, and…
I mean, yeah. The parallel’s there if you want it. The show utilizes its malleability in order to shake things up, much as Who does, but it uses this opportunity to shatter the mirror and straight-up become a Who clone with bad movies. And, interestingly, shortly after recovering from that phase, gets cancelled. Wandered too close to the sun, I suppose. That does happen.
Bizarrely, though, it comes back. Not in any recognizable form, of course—Mystery Science Theater 3000 is very much something that died in 1999 and stayed dead. No, it came back kind of splintered and fractured. Members of the old guard went in two separate directions: Mike headed up a team that releases MP3s to be played over existing home releases of more recent and popular movies, while Joel headed up a team that does live shows and DVDs of riffs of the sort of obscure crap the original show tackled. Fans started making their own versions of the show based around the concept of movie riffing. Internet reviewer culture started up. Fanfictions started developing snide remarks in the margins.
It’s easy to read this as another Who parallel, with the audios and books and “webisodes” and eventual revival coexisting, except this is something altogether more interesting. Who is in a way constrained in how many directions it can pull itself. It can travel anywhere and time and space but has to do so by a complex web connecting it back to a singular character and a corporate brand name. It’s almost constrained compared to MST3K, which converted itself into a concept called “riffing” which was capable of infinite permutations. To continue Who in a way that begets recognition requires you to get the proper approvals or live under a certain roof. To continue MST3K, all you need to do is record yourself making fun of things.
The solution to the problem of narrative transgressing-upon was never to add more plot, it was to strip it away altogether. Riffing has left the Satellite of Love, and can now be anything. And, much like the practice of cobbling together bizarre readings of cult television, is too important to be left to the professionals.
Keep circulating the concept.