MST3K ran ten seasons, eleven if the KTMA season is included, jumping first to Comedy Central and then the SciFi Channel before coming to an end. The show grew in popularity as fans circulated tapes to people who didn’t have access to the series. Several traditions came about during the series, including the annual Turkey Day marathon, where several episodes were shown in a row. Thanks to word of mouth and circulating tapes, the series is still popular, leading to a revival on Netflix.
The premise of the show is simple enough that the opening theme tells it; evil mad scientists who want to take over the world kidnap an unsuspecting schlub, sending him to the Satellite of Love where he’ll be subjected to cheesy movies, the worst they can find. The goal, to see how long it takes to break the victim’s mind. However, the victim has help on the SoL, robots who can riff the bad movies with him. The Mads have come close to breaking their victim, most notably with Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The episodes follow a fixed format. While the bulk of an episode is dedicated to movie being riffed, it’s not the sole feature. The host segments, including the opening one to introduce the movie of the week and the episode’s plot and the ones surrounding commercial breaks, give both cast and audience a break from the cheesy film. During the Joel (Joel Hodgson) years, the opening segment was used for the invention exchange. When Mike (Michael J. Nelson) became the experimental subject, the opening segment began to focus more on introducing the episode’s plot, including showing him as Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds. The riffing is the draw, the host segments the reason to keep returning week after week.
In 1996, Best Brains, the production company behind MST3K, decided to try a theatrical release. The movie chosen for riffing on the silver screen was This Island Earth, originally released in 1955 and itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones. This Island Earth has many problems, the biggest being the main characters, Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), are passengers on the railroad plot. Even the engineer of the plot, Exeter (Jeff Morrow), doesn’t do much to steer the onscreen events. The film does have opportunities for riffing, though. This Island Earth does have a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it isn’t necessarily bad. The difference between critics and viewer response, though, is telling; viewers found the movie lacking.
If MST3K: The Movie was just riffing on This Island Earth, audiences wouldn’t get the full effect of the TV series. The host segments are as crucial to MST3K as the riffing. The nature of a theatrical release, though, means changing up how the segments appear. There’s no need for a standard opening theme; the audience already knows what film it is seeing. However, not everyone going to see the movie will know what the premise is; as mentioned above, MST3K wasn’t available in all areas. Thus, the movie opens with Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explaining to the audience what he’s about to do to Mike and, now, them, and why in an over the top sequence in Deep 13, setting up the plot of the movie, which is more involved than the plot of This Island Earth.
On board the Satellite of Love, Mike is exercising on a hamster wheel in a scene taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, being coached by Gypsy (Jim Mallon). When he takes a break and a drink from a water bottle, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) arrives to assure Mike that nothing at all is wrong, absolutely nothing, why do you ask and what is that rhythmic thumping. Turns out, Crow (Beaulieu) has his own plan to escape the SoL, involving a pick axe. Mike tries to stop the attempt, but, as even Crow predicted in his own plans, he breaches the hull. As the air rushes out the hole, Mike and Crow manage to grab on to something. Tom Servo’s spindly hands and arms aren’t enough to save him, though, and he shoots into the hole. The hole isn’t big, though; Tom fits perfectly over it, giving Mike time to find a plate to act as a more permanent fix.
Once Mike and the bots are given the movie sign, they head into the SoL’s theatre. With the budget for a feature film, the sequence through the theatre doors, the transition from host segment to riffing, is given an upgrade, though still looks appropriate. This Island Earth starts, the riffing begins, and everything is familiar to fans. Because of the differences between film and television, there are no commercial breaks. To make up for that, the next host segment comes when the film breaks. Dr. Forrester tries to make up to the audience and adjusts his estimates before he takes over the world.
On the SoL, Tom and Crow dare Mike to fly the SoL after he claims to be one hundred per cent certified on Microsoft Flight Simulator. Mike has no initial problems flying the SoL, then he hits something, the Hubble Space Telescope, now caught on the side of the SoL. To get it off, Mike turns to the manipulator arms, conveniently labelled as “Manos“, complete with musical sting. With some care and a little extra damage, Mike gets the Hubble off the SoL and releases it, where it plummets into the Earth’s atmosphere. Way to go, Mike.
With the movie fixed, Mike, Crow, and Tom return to the theatre and resume riffing. When This Island Earth shows the completed interocitor, a faster-than-light communications device, Tom Servo remarks he has one in his bedroom. The trio escape the theatre and go looking in Servo’s room, which is a total mess. They find the interocitor and call out for help, reaching Benkitnorf (John Brady), a Metalunan like Exeter in This Island Earth. Benkitnorf isn’t too impressed, seeing as he was in the shower when Mike and the bots called. Despite the intrusion, the Metalunan tries to help, but isn’t familiar enough with the interocitor’s settings, much to Tom Servo’s dismay and discomfort. Dr. Forrester breaks into the communications with his own interociter, sending the trio running back to the movie.
Mike and the bots finish their riffing of This Island Earth. Instead of being broken like Dr. Forrester expects, they’re recreating the final scene, having a grand party. Dr. F tries to zap them with his interociter but ends up zapping himself to Benkitnorf’s shower instead. With the movie ending, there’s no traditional stinger, a replay of a scene that caused hilarity. Instead, Mike and the bots riff their own credits. “Puppet wrangler? There weren’t any puppets in this movie.”
The riffing during the movie doesn’t call back to previous episodes. The idea was to make it open to new audiences without the familiarity of long-time fans, with the assumption that people going to the movie are science fiction fans. Thus, there are many Star Trek-related riffs, plus playing up on obvious gags. Helping is the addition of Russell Johnson in This Island Earth as Steve Carlson; Johnson is better known for his role as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island. There’s even a brief riff involving Mork & Mindy in reference to the character Exidor (Robert Donner). That isn’t to say that there isn’t any callbacks. The “Manos” manipulators with Torgo music is but one example.
MST3K: The Movie works as an introduction to the TV series. Meddling by Gramercy Studios caused issues that affected the presentation and availability. The movie opened in only twenty-six theatres, yet did pull in audiences where it did play. Gramercy, though, was backing Barb Wire*. However, the core writers of the movie were the core writers of the TV series; the riffing is top notch, if limited to a common knowledge base. The expansion of the Satellite of Love gives a bit of an insight on the characters.
While the cast and crew feel that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie isn’t their best work, it does show how even a TV series featuring films has to make changes when moving to the big screen. The nature of the two media necessitated a slightly different approach in presentation. What works for TV doesn’t for film. MST3K: The Movie, though, does make the jump to the silver screen with few problems.