Maybe you remember seeing part of an episode one night years ago, or maybe you had a friend that ranted and raved about it, but you never found the time to check it out. Or maybe, like one of the 48+ thousand fans who pledged over $5.5 million on Kickstarter to fund a revival, you were a huge fan. Whichever way you cut it, chances are pretty good that you know what Mystery Science Theater 3000 is. But, for those who DON’T or those that need a good, “previously on…” recap, here we go…
In 1988, Joel Hodgson – a promising, young stand-up comedian, approached Minneapolis-based channel KTMA station manager Jim Mallon about an idea for a show he had. Mallon, who was trying to fill a two hour block of programming, was all ears. After hiring local comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh (J. Elvis) Weinstein, a 30 minute “pilot” was created and station owner Donald O’Conner signed them up for 13 initial episodes (which was later extended to 21). In 1989, KTMA had to file for bankruptcy and sold Mystery Science Theater 3000 to The Comedy Channel after executives from HBO (the parent company of TCC) saw a seven-minute demo reel prepared by Hodgson and Mallon.
From 1989 to 1996, MST3K was the feather in the cap of Comedy Central (the renamed channel following the Comedy Channel and HA! network merger in 1991). However, despite a very rabid, loyal fanbase and six solid seasons in the can, Comedy Central canceled the show in 1996 following its seventh season (and a theatrical movie which suffered from too much studio meddling). It didn’t take too long, however, for The SciFi Network to swoop in and rescue the show following a write-in campaign to save the show that was organized by the aforementioned rabid and loyal fanbase. Three more seasons followed with the final new episode airing in the summer of 1999.
Sixteen long years passed. Sure, there were similar projects by Hodgson and other alum (like Cinematic Titanic and Riff Trax), but none managed to capture the magic that MST3K had been able to deliver. It wasn’t until 2015 when Hodgson, with the help of film distributors Shout! Factory, regained the rights from Mallon, was able to put the wheels in motion on an MST3K revival. And so now, in 2017, we have fourteen new episodes looming on the Netflix horizon.
Now, aside from the bad movies and riffs that make them tolerable, the other thing that Mystery Science Theater 3000 is known for was the underlying story that played out over its initial 10 year run. Characters came and characters left and while some fans didn’t like the changes (don’t get between a Joel fan and a Mike fan and ask which was the better host!), others had no problem with them. The basic gist stayed the same – a guy is stuck on a spaceship being forced to watch crappy movies but he has a few robot pals to help him stay (relatively) sane – but the scenario in which this played out changed a few times as did the people who were behind the misery being inflicted upon the guy. It all started, as most stories do, with a couple of mad scientists shooting a fellow employee at their place of work into space as a way to test their evil scheme of taking over the world.
All of which brings us to our essential viewing guide. These aren’t necessarily the best episodes (in fact, there’s really only one “iconic” episode listed here), but what it includes are all of the episodes that tell the “story” of Mystery Science Theater 3000. By watching these episodes before the new ones are available, you’ll be up to speed on who is who just in case some of them make a guest appearance. You know how it starts (see the end of the previous paragraph if you’ve forgotten already), so let’s just dive right in and start with the first nationally available episode (and we’ll avoid details so as to not spoil anything)…
The Crawling Eye – ep. 101: As mentioned, this is the first nationally available episode (The Comedy Channel, November 1989) and is also the first episode to mention Gizmonics Institute and Deep 13 which will be around for a number of seasons to follow. Sending movies to Joel, Tom and Crow are Dr. Forrester and Dr. Erhardt.
Rocketship X-M – ep. 201: Gone is Dr. Erhardt and in his place is TV’s Frank. Tom Servo gets a new voice and the Satellite of Love (the orbiting space ship that Joel and the ‘bots are trapped on and where they have to watch the movies) looks a little more refined.
Mitchell – ep. 512: It’s been a few seasons since there was a change, and that lack of change is made up for here as Joel manages to escape the Satellite of Love. Meanwhile, in Deep 13, a temp named Mike is brought in to help out.
The Brain That Wouldn’t Die – ep. 513: Dr. F and Tv’s Frank have sent Mike up to the Satellite of Love (against his will, of course).
Samson vs The Vampire Women – ep. 624: The last episode of season six is also the last episode for TV’s Frank.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie: Notable mostly because it features Dr. F by himself – no sidekicks or henchmen.
Night of the Blood Beast – ep. 701: Dr. F’s mother, Pearl Forrester, arrives.
Laserblast – ep. 706: Changes seem to be happening more often. Dr. F leaves the show and the show leaves Comedy Central.
Revenge of the Creature – ep. 801: The first episode on the Sci-Fi Channel. Crow has a new voice. Pearl is revamped. Gone is Deep 13. Professor Bobo is introduced.
The Thing That Couldn’t Die – ep. 805: The first episode in which The Observers appear.
I Was a Teenage Werewolf – ep. 809: Two of the three Observers are gone, leaving us with the antagonists that will run through to the end of the original run (Pearl, Bobo and “Brain Guy”).
The Projected Man – ep. 901: Pearl and Co. set up shop at Castle Forrester and Pearl rededicates herself to pummeling Mike and the ‘bots with bad movies.
Soultaker – ep. 1001: Notable because Joel and TV’s Frank make appearances. Otherwise, the status quo is maintained.
Diabolik – ep. 1013: The final episode. Everything is wrapped up neatly and we get what might be one of the greatest series finales to a TV show ever (behind, maybe Newhart).
(If you can find one to watch (they’re not hard to find), check out one of the episodes from the inaugural season on Minneapolis’ KTMA. So much is different and yet still the same. Production values are super low and, honestly, it’s not really that good. But you can tell there’s promise and the makings of something great.)
Can this “revival” live up to the legacy that has lasted for the better part of twenty years? There will be some appearances by some familiar faces in addition to the new ones – Kinga Forrester (Dr. F’s daughter. Daughter?!?), TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (hmmm), new voices for Tom and Crow and, front and center, a new guy – Jonah. What has happened to Mike? How did Crow and Tom get back on the Satellite of Love? Who is Jonah and how did HE get on the ship? When did Dr. F have time to father a child? How and why is this other new guy named after TV’s Frank? Maybe we shouldn’t worry about these facts, and just repeat to ourselves “It’s just a show, we should really just relax”.
The all-new Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuts on Netflix April 14th.