All together now! “In the not-too-distant future…”
OK, you probably aren’t familiar. The original 1990s run of Mystery Science Theater 3000 never really became the cult hit in the UK that it was in its US home. According to my research, the series was only shown for a short time on the obscure Sci Fi channel, and the 1996 movie has been on late-night ITV once or twice.
Contrast that with the USA. The show was born in Minnesota in 1988, after Joel Hodgson thought up a nice, cheap idea for a TV show while working in a T-shirt printing factory. Eleven years, 197 episodes and one movie later, the original series came to an end, having gathered a huge following not only in its native state, but across the country.
The show has now been relaunched on Netflix with a new cast, after a massively successful Kickstarter campaign. There is an enormous section in the closing credits of each of the new episodes, listing the tens of thousands of backers who helped to bring the show back. It’s a pretty stunning sight, and a great testament to MST3K’s popularity.
But for some unknown reason, it never really became a thing over here. If you have seen a few episodes in this country, the chances are you’re in the same boat as me. I stumbled across Mystery Science Theater 3000 when twenty episodes of the classic series were stuck up on Netflix last month, in anticipation of this month’s reboot.
Since then, I’ve watched an episode whenever I’ve found time, and allowed myself to wallow in the daftness. I’m not going to pretend to be anything other than a relative newbie to the show, but here’s the basic premise:
A man (Joel Hodgson originally, then Mike Nelson, now Jonah Ray) and two of his robot friends sit and watch an entire dreadful B movie. We watch it with them: the film takes up the whole screen, with those three silhouetted at the bottom. They then lovingly take the piss out of it.
There is the very barest of plots running alongside this – the man is trapped on a satellite, with no means of escape, and the films are being sent to him by mad scientists who want to monitor his mind. The film is broken up by short skits featuring the man and his robots (Gypsy, Tom Servo, and Crow) chatting with the ‘mads’. But that’s all covered by the theme song. It’s really just a loose framework to allow the writers to get to the jokes.
And they come at a pretty extraordinary pace, filling just about every gap in the dialogue of the film. There are simple hits, in-jokes and pop culture references. In the first five episodes of the new series, I noticed nods to And Now For Something Completely Different, Hot Fuzz, and even, bizarrely, Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace. If you don’t get the reference, or a joke doesn’t land, it doesn’t matter: three more have come along since you started thinking about it.
If that sounds a little stressful, I’ve given you the wrong idea. It’s the perfect chill-out show. Since each episode contains a full feature-length film, you can just sit back and laugh half the evening away, like I’ve done most nights since I discovered the show. MST3K was made for people who just want a bit of time off thinking about uni or work. As the theme tune goes: “If you’re wondering how he eats or breathes, or other science facts/Repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax”.
Incidentally, it’s quite strange reading back this review in comparison to the ones coming out of the USA. While I’m trying to offer an introduction to the show, they’re already debating whether Jonah is closer in tone to Mike or Joel. They love it over there. We’ve got a lot of catching up to do.
I recommend kicking off with the classic episodes riffing on ‘Manos: The Hands of Fate’ and ‘Eegah!’, and ‘Cry Wilderness’ from the new series. You can find them all on Netflix now.