Every year Hollywood makes hundreds of movies. This is one of them!
For many reading this, Mystery Science Theater 3000 (known to its loyal following as MST3K) will need no introduction. For everyone else, welcome to the funniest film you’ve never seen of the funniest TV series you’ve never heard of. You’ll watch some of the most woeful attempts at movie-making ever committed to celluloid, and have an absolute blast.
Credit: Tim CookMST3K was the brainchild of stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson and made its début, with Hodgson starring as ‘Joel Robinson’, on KTMA-TV, an independent TV station based in Minneapolis, in 1988. A year later, the show transferred to Comedy Central, before moving on for a three-year spell at the Sci-Fi Channel, where the show ended in 1999, having won a prestigious Peabody Award for writing, in 1993. The premise of MST3K, explained at the start of each episode by the giddily addictive theme song, was simple. The laid back, mild-mannered janitor Joel found himself shot into space aboard a craft named the Satellite of Love (or 'SoL') by his mad scientist employers, who force Joel to watch terrible films as part of an experiment to break his sanity.
To avoid going mad, Joel constructs four robots for company and two of these, Crow T Robot (a golden, spindly critter with a beak like a bowling pin) and Tom Servo (who resembles an accident between a gumball machine and a one-armed bandit), join Joel in the ship’s movie theater where they comment on the onscreen action and mock the dismal films sent to them by the mad scientists back down on Earth.
The films vary from infamous stinkers such as Robot Monster (1953) and Manos: the Hands of Fate (1966) to more obscure fare like Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell (1988) and Girl in Gold Boots (1969). All the films strewn across the show’s 178 episodes have one thing in common – they suck.
The Story Behind The Film Behind the TV Show
By the time of the film version’s release in 1996, Joel Hodgson had left the show, replaced by head writer Michael J Nelson as ‘Mike Nelson’, an amiable, cheery everyman who acts as an ‘elder brother’ figure to the robots. Trace Beaulieu voices the cynical, wise-cracking Crow; Beaulieu also plays the gleefully mad Dr Clayton Forrester, a man who looks and acts like a feverish Groucho Marx playing a younger Albert Einstein. Tom Servo, a more rambunctious but only slightly smarter robot than Crow, is voiced with baritone gusto by Chicago-born Kevin Murphy, the longest-serving cast member of the TV series. The other robot we meet, Gypsy (the voice of Jim Mallon, the show’s original executive producer), is an umbilical creature of seemingly bovine intelligence who runs the crucial higher functions of the ship. Completing the robotic roster is the unseen Cambot, whose sole function is to film the on-board activities and beam them back to the viewer.
The main difference between the TV series and this movie version is the running time. Although each TV episode lasted around ninety minutes in length, the film barely clocks in at an hour-and-a-quarter, the result, the cast have claimed, of studio interference from Universal. Another notable difference is in the film sent to the SoL crew, the well-regarded 1955 science-fiction epic This Island Earth, a cut above the usual dross Mike and the robots faced on a weekly basis. The film matches the TV show for gags, or ‘riffs’ as the fans terms them, and with the show’s generous length, and the dire quality of the movies sent to the Satellite of Love, the jokes can number into the hundreds with each edition. If you find one joke a dud, don’t worry, there’ll be another along in a moment.
I first watched the film around ten years ago in a midweek graveyard slot on the independent British station Anglia TV. Intrigued by what little I knew of the show’s set-up, and with nothing else to do at 1am on a Wednesday night, I settled down to watch. Within minutes, tears of laughter streaked down my face, as I gasped for breath while one joke followed another at breakneck speed. I recognized MST3K as a show I could follow for life, and I wasn't wrong.
If I had to make criticisms of this movie version, it is rather short, with a lot of cuts made to This Island Earth to cram it into MST3K: The Movie’s restricted running time. Also, we don’t see an awful lot more of the TV show’s setting, either onboard the Satellite of Love, or Dr Forrester’s underground base Deep 13, than we would on a standard episode of the TV series. We do get an exclusive peep at Crow T Robot’s extensive, and inexplicable, underwear collection, but that’s about it. Another complaint is we don’t get to meet any of Dr Forrester’s erstwhile sidekicks, such as the chuckling nerd Dr Laurence Erhardt (J. Elvis Weinstein) or TV’s Frank (Frank Coniff), a hapless simpleton who often finds himself killed as a result of Dr Forrester’s evil experiments.
As for the DVD itself, the standard the standard one-disc DVD edition has a brief but entertaining ‘Making of’ featurette, the original trailer and a stills gallery. Re-released in the USCredit: Wikimedia Commons/Steve in 2013, this edition is available on Amazon for under $15, with a two-disc Blu-Ray released on offer for around $20, containing bonus extras such as deleted footage and a feature about This Island Earth, a film well worth seeing even without MST3K’s hilarious commentary.
The line-up seen in MST3K:The Movie is only replicated in the TV show during its seventh season, which ran for just seven episodes in 1996, just as Comedy Central were starting to tire of the series. For the remaining three years on The Sci-Fi Channel, Mike and his robots were at the mercy of Clayton’s mother Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), a character even more hell-bent on world domination than her son, assisted by the dim-witted but happy-go-lucky talking ape Bobo (Kevin Murphy) and the ghostly, all-knowing Brain Guy (Bill Corbett, who also took over as Crow once Trace Beaulieu left the show.
Thirty-one DVD editions of various episodes of the TV shows are available, mostly on the Shout Factory label, with another set of 4 TV episodes set for release in March 2015. But as a starter before the feast, try the movie version as it’s a great way to get acquainted with the format, and avoid the perennial fan question of where newcomers should start with the TV show. Look on it as an introductory investment into the hilarious world of Mystery Science Theater 3000. You’ll never watch bad movies in the same way again!