[18 November 2007]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It remains the single most significant debate in the series’ otherwise stable history. While many consider it to be a minor, or even moot point, messageboards and fan sites still sizzle with its personality based paradox. On the one hand there are fervent admirers of stand-up legend and show creator Joel Hodgson. His sleepy eyed sense of whimsy matched by a non-threatening satiric irony made him the perfect post-modern kiddie show host. But when he finally left Mystery Science Theater 3000, the movie mocking comedy cavalcade that he had shepparded through growing pains and cable channel cultdom, he was replaced by the soon to be celebrated Mike Nelson. Longtime collaborator and head writer, the Midwestern mook took his confused Everyman shtick and launched it into the stratosphere. Before long, he was the most recognizable face the show ever had, far more mainstream than the previous personality.
Thus, the ultimate standoff was established. On one side are the faithful, the ones who believe Joel represents everything MST3K stands for. He’s the cornerstone of the classic, the reason the show exists and why it still resonates some two decades later. And yet those who support Mike argue that his substitution actually saved the series. He sat at the center of Mystery Science’s commercial renaissance, the shift from unknown quantity to noted example of the medium’s multifaceted excellence. Oh course, the question boils down to this – who is better? Is Hodgson’s culturally astute ramblings, laced with enough pop life references to strangle a steer, the true tenet of MST, or does Nelson’s nice guy numbskullery, the buffoonish set within a pure distillation of homespun humor, best exemplify the show’s entertainment essence?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or with the human equivalent of same, Mystery Science Theater 3000 offers a rather surrealistic premise. Hodgson plays a former worker for the fictional Deep 13 Laboratories shot into space by disgruntled mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester. With the help of henchman TV’s Frank, the fey super villain subjects his orbital guinea pig to the lousiest, lamest films ever conceived. He then monitors Hodgson’s mind to see how the ‘experiment’ affects him. Of course, our hero combats the sniveling psycho by creating a collection of robot friends. Gypsy runs the higher functions on the spaceship. Crow and Tom Servo act as buffers to the bad movie mania, sitting in the Satellite of Love’s screening room and riffing away to combat the crap. When Joel escaped his fate during the mid-section of Season 5, Nelson simply replaced him as the newest test case.
With 1959’s The Rebel Set, we have one of the best examples of this premise in play. The staid little heist flick substitutes stupidity for suspense, and offers the most unlikely set of criminals this side of an episode of Dragnet. Working angles both unbelievable (a struggling actor agreeing to a between trains snatch) and beatnik (the ‘oh so uncool’ coffeehouse setting gives poets an even worse rep) it’s a stagnant, unstoppable mess. Naturally, it makes for flawless MST fodder. One of the show’s signatures remains its host segment/sketch material. Instead of quipping throughout the entire film, the picture occasionally pauses so that Joel, his tormentors, and his automaton pals can comment on what they’ve seen and extend the comedy beyond the actual meaning of the movie. Here, we get suggestions for what someone could do on a four hour layover in Chicago, how to hone one’s acting chops the “Scott Baio” way, and a discussion of unknown character actor Merritt Stone. Throw in a sensational short subject (the Canadian National Exhibition exercise, Johnny at the Fair) and you’ve got a pristine illustration of Joel-era bemusement.
For exemplary Mike, on the other hand, it’s hard to beat the diabolically dull Starfighters. Clearly crafted as a recruitment tool for the US Air Force, we watch as new pilot recruits (including one rather spineless daddy’s boy) take their multimillion dollar fighting machines up, up, and away. Endless footage of mid-air refueling commences. Deconstructing such blatant propaganda is not hard for the gang – especially when the last act revolves around something called a “poopie” suit – but the lack of anything remotely amusing or engaging does give the jokesters a run for their riffing. Again, the midpoint material is sensational, Crow and Tom taking the notion of a ‘de-briefing’ to sensational slapstick heights, while the United Servo Men’s Choir provides an acappela medley of flight-oriented catchphrases. Any film featuring future former Congressman Bob Dornan as a wussified jet trainee has its own unique entertainment inertness. But Mike proves that all facets of humor, from commercial parodies (a BBQ sauce setpiece) to old school tech tweaks (Crow tries, unsuccessfully, to merge onto the information superhighway) are ripe for rediscovery.
Of course, the movies themselves manufacture much of the mirth – especially when they play like an inadvertent spoof of the genre they’re shameless imitating. Joel’s second offering, the espionage ipecac Secret Agent Super Dragon is verifiable evidence of such poorly planned production misfires. This ersatz Bond, bumbling around like Matt Helm and Derek Flint’s bastard offspring, is about as intriguing as a bureaucratic seminar in triplicate. This typical Italian rip-off starts out sloppy, and only gets more inexplicable along the way. Centering on an international dealer smuggling drugs via auctioned artworks, there’s plenty of ripe ridicule material present. And Joel’s jesters make the most of it. Even better, we get another sensational sketch segment where Crow writes a politically correct script for his own take on the misogynistic, chauvinistic spy thriller. One of the best amalgamations of type with treatment the series ever established, it’s sad to think that there were only eight more episodes featuring Hodgson after this.
Luckily, Nelson was able to carry the comic mantle expertly. Even after cancellation, renewal, and constant fretting over the Sci-Fi Channel mandates regarding content (this is a network that now considers professional wrestling as acceptable genre subject matter), MST3K still managed to deliver undeniable comic genius. Nowhere is this truer than in the now classic take on the clone organ harvesting extravaganza Parts: The Clonus Horror. Remember Michael Bay’s The Island from a couple of years back. Same plagiarized story. Dopey duplicates kept in a utopian resort learn they are actually body part banks for influential individuals. One rebellious replicant decides to fight the system. Boredom ensues. Unlike the other three installments of the series offered herein, Parts has problems that have very little to do with the quality of what’s going on and everything to do with unclear context and continuity. Unless you followed the show from Season 7 on, you’ll have no idea who Pearl Forrester, Professor Bobo, or Brain Guy actually are. You’ll hear Crow’s new voice and wonder why the switch was made. Granted, the PBS pledge drive segments are wonderful, but the lack of perspective and place may confuse the uninitiated.
In fact, the only fault found in any of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 material is the latter versions need to maintain season-long story arcs. Sci-Fi’s suits must have slipped a substantial gasket requiring a show built around a different movie every week to develop some manner of character/narrative continuity. It’s unnecessary, and makes future syndication seem scattered – or impossible. In any case, these delightful DVDs give us an opportunity to revisit the series without having to worry about messy torrents, Nth generation bootlegs, or DVD-R scams. They look amazing, and Rhino fleshes out the films with trailers, interviews (Rebel Set star Don Sullivan) and another installment of the MST3K Video Jukebox. Many forget just how many amazing songs and music based skits the comedians created, and this third go round collects some of the best.
Yet none of this really addresses the opening concern – who, indeed, was a better show host? Joel was a jolly if slightly cynical sort who let his razor sharp observations slowly stumble and creep up on you. He wasn’t the hit you over the head type that Mike masterfully manipulated. Hodgson often played as if he knew this was all a joke, retrofitting a lifetime exposed to WGN family fare as a means of making a grander, neo-nostalgic point. Nelson gave the premise all he could, frequently letting the robots redesign his reputation into slacker, stooge, cheesehead, and chump. You could call it a perfect example of humor yin and yang, the intellectual and the inbred blissfully blundering away together – and frankly, you’d be right. One of the main reasons Mystery Science Theater 3000 remains a TV classic is this combination of heart and head, the brainiac and the balderdash. It suggests no one is better and both are best. Indeed, to argue between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson is rather pointless. When something as brilliant as the episodes included in Volume 12 stands as validation, there’s no need to choose sides.