It was an announcement of seismic proportions. The members of MiSTie Nation could barely contain themselves. After 14 years away from daily production on the series, and eight years since his last appearance on the show, Mystery Science Theater 3000 creator Joel Hodgson was coming back to the comic format he helped establish - and he was bringing a few friends along for the return trip. Under the auspices of a new bad movie mocking setup - given the clever name Cinematic Titanic - our sleepy eyed hero, along with former MST Cast members J. Elvis Weinstein (the original Servo), Trace Beaulieu (the original Crow T. Robot), Frank Conniff and Mary Jo Pehl, were back. The plan - create original installments of this new project for direct to DVD download and/or distribution. For most, it would be their first foray back into in-theater riffing since the original ceased production in 1999.
Of course, there was a catch. Instead of bringing Mystery Science back totally, Joel was forced to create the new entity. It was a problem facing other cast members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett when they started their Rifftrax experiment for Legend Films in 2006. While the overall concept was easily recreated, the naming rights were another story all together. With Best Brains Incorporated in legal limbo, and some slightly sour feelings remaining between the original creators, it seemed like the best way to go was with a brand new identity. With a successful catalog of audio-only comedy tracks (for such major releases as The Matrix, Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and Star Trek V: The Final Frontier) Nelson and his pals had kept the concept alive. They had also started their own set of DVD releases under the Film Crew label.
What Hodgson’s reemergence meant to the reinvigorated trio was a question further complicated by the simultaneous announcement that BBI was bringing back an official MST3K website with old school content and new animated “skits” from everyone’s favorite automatons. Naturally, none of the original actors were involved save Jim Mallon (producer and voice of Gypsy) and writer Paul Chaplin. So, where once there was a dearth of MST-styled material to enjoy, where all a fan had was VHS copies of the original show, the occasional Rhino DVD release, and tape trading, there were now three separate entities planning on the goodwill inherent in the product and the demographic. At first, everyone was ecstatic. Even with the usual apprehension regarding quality, the more MST, the merrier. But as joy was replaced by judgment, the arrival of three competing creative outlets raised more feelings of unease.
Primary among the concerns were surface issues like ego and old rivalries. Fans have long been aware of minor animosity between the Joel and Mike camps, leftover bitterness founded on the Season Five switchover and the resulting Comedy Central/Sci-Fi Channel falderal. When the Rifftrax/Film Crew started up, old timers wondered if the lack of certain participants - namely Joel, Trace, and Jim - meant that there would never be a full blown MST reunion. And then there was the belief that any revamp of past success would barely compete with the legend already in place. Even worse, The Satellite News, at one time the official Mystery Science Theater 3000 site, lost its ability to call itself that, and had to switch over to “fan oriented” content. It wasn’t because of anything they did. In essence, three separate entities are now vying to carry on a cult tradition that, five years ago, everyone considered more or less dead.
Now, Mystery Science Theater 3000 as a phenomenon was never officially over. While the familiar had stacks of prerecorded episodes, new DVDs, and online content to dig through, the main thread of Hodgson’s concept - making fun of really bad movies - maintained its popularity. Newbies were also just discovering the show, using YouTube and other personal file sharing protocols to experience some of the best the series had to offer. Anyone with half a brain knew that there was always an outlet for MST3K and it’s style of humor, and with the supported success of Rifftrax, Mike Nelson commentaries on public domain titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Reefer Madness, and multidisc volumes, it was only a matte of time before the show - in some form or another - made a comeback.
But things don’t look good in film quipping land these days, especially if initial rumors and messageboard reports are to be believed. While a genial “we’re all friends” attitude seems to have greeted the recent Hodgson/Mallon announcements, little rifts in the riffing are being noted. Joel and the gang have tried to maintain a fan friendly email list approach, using direct communication, blog entries, and other personality oriented propositions to draw viewers to their product. Yet in a recent interview, he seems miffed about people sharing copyrighted material - which Cinematic Titanic and old MST definitely fall into. Mallon has also been closing down online clips and complaining about unofficial sites stealing content. Even Rifftrax has announced an official player making the use of their MP3-only product much easier - at least on home computers.
Sounds like a group of competing claimants circling their wagons and preparing for a long legal haul, doesn’t it? And when you consider the trifurcated nature of the approach, three separate and so-far incongruous and incompatible entities competing for the same share of a dedicated and devoted constituency, it looks more like war than mere friendly fire. It’s odd, at least from an impersonal perspective, that so much would be made out of what the performers considered a “little cow town puppet show”. Yet for those who believe Mystery Science Theater 3000 was, and continues to be, the best thing TV has or ever had to offer, such posturing seems apropos. Never appreciated in its time, this newfound mythos can and should be milked for all the monetary value it can garner. But amongst the creative and compelling cash grab, something less affable is in the works.
Mallon’s maneuvers with YouTube and the recent announcement that Shout! Factory was taking over the MST DVD dynamic from Rhino suggests the days of trading posts and “circulating the tapes” may be over. With 2008 representing the 20th anniversary of the show’s appearance on local Minneapolis UHF channel KTMA and tributes bond to occur, who will take the center stage in the celebration seems shaky at best. BBI may take point, since they officially own the name - yet both Hodgson and Nelson were instrumental in making that happen. And this fails to take into consideration known names - Kevin Murphy, in particular - who were around at the time of the show’s inception, and yet didn’t become well associated with it until they stepped up and started performing.
Early opinions of both Cinematic Titanic’s first offering, the hilarious Oozing Skull (see review in Tuesday’s SE&L) as well as recent Rifftrax takes on Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer and Transformers indicate the gang are in classic form, yet it begs the question - couldn’t they rule the entertainment world if they simply got back together, ironed out their differences, and offered up Mystery Science Theater 3001? Imagine the excitement, and the anticipation, of seeing the classic casts and all the classic characters banding together to take down the cinematic scourge of bad, bad movies. With so few sure things out there, a studio or distribution company would be insane not to bankroll a return, and rights issues could be cast aside as deals could be struck with both filmmakers and film owners who’ve longed for the day they’d be subject to Joel, Mike and the ‘bots.
Of course, it will probably never happen. We are dealing with artists here, individuals who mix the fear of rejection with the bravery of performance on a daily basis to earn their keep. Trying to convince them to lay aside differences and work together again is probably a Beatles/The Jam impossibility. Since fans are willing to support all three (or at least Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic - the verdict is still out on the BBI revamp of MST3K.com) there really is no reason to play nice…not yet, at least. Here’s hoping that, one day, the powers that be will come together and realize that one flawless presentation of silver screen spoofing is far better than many still amazing examples. If the differences are too deep, however, then it appears we are in for more than one illustration of MST magnificence. And maybe that’s not such a bad thing after all.