Mystery Science Theater 3000 Could Only Have Happened When It Did

In a sense, of course, all things can only happen when they did. Still, it’s interesting to consider how much the circumstances that led to Mystery Science Theater 3000 existing. (These thoughts were triggered by coming across some DVD special features as I was curating my MST3K DVD collection.)

MST3K began when Minneapolis-local UHF station KTMA needed programming but had all but no budget.

That in itself is an interesting sentence to unpack, because a lot of younger people won’t know what a local TV station is, nor what UHF was. (It has been very interesting explaining this to my twelve year old son who has become a fan of MST3K.)

For those who don’t know, in the 1940s when television got started through the 1980s, TV was broadcast over radio waves. This meant that the station was a building with a tall tower, atop of which was a very powerful radio antenna (ranging from the kilowatts to the megawatts, depending on the station, its budget, and its radio license). A given station could reach, depending on geography and other factors, from a dozen miles to a few hundred miles. There were a few nationally broadcast channels; this meant that they sent their signal out to many stations throughout the country which would broadcast it over their radio transmitters simultaneously. (For a long time there were only three; ABC, NBC, and CBS.) Most TV channels were local, though, typically only viewable from a single city and its surrounding area.

The first radio spectrum allocated to television was higher frequency than that allocated to radio, which was in part a necessity because it needed far more bandwidth, which can only be found higher up in the spectrum. This was still all fairly low frequency, though, as the technology to easily transmit and receive at higher frequencies was harder to make and, in practice, out of reach. Early TVs could only receive these low-frequency channels, channels 2-13. Later on the technology to broadcast on higher channels came about and began to be incorporated into television sets. These channels (channels 14-83) were called UHF channels, for “ultra high frequency”. On early radio TVs these were received somewhat differently and were thus less convenient than the lower frequency channels. This coupled with the shorter propagation of high-frequency radio waves meant that UHF channels tended to have a smaller audience than the standard channels would get.

KTMA (which was the radio call-sign of the station broadcasting in the Minneapolis area on channel 23) began as a station for broadcasting local sporting events. This niche fits a UHF station fairly well since only people relatively close will care about local sporting events anyway. That said, it didn’t really work. (There were other things relating to subscription television that also didn’t work.) Thus around 1988 Jim Mallon was hired as the station director to try to make it viable. There were a few packages of movies that had been purchased to try to broadcast something but because they were the cheapest ones possible they were the worst movies available that no one else wanted.

To make KTMA financially viable, Jim Mallon needed to create some extremely cheap local programming that was at least better than the stuff they were licensing. Jim had roots in the local comedy scene and made contact with Joel Hodgeson. Joel had the idea for MST3K and KTMA having a vault of the worst movies available for license was a great fit. Joel also had contacts in the local comedy scene, and pulled in J. Elvis Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu to co-star with him. At this point all of the riffing was ad-libbed during the live broadcast. (Supposedly Trace and J. Elvis were making $25 a show.) The show was popular but not enough to save KTMA, which was heading into bankruptcy and canceled it. Joel thought that there was something to the show, though, and had enough material to put together a 4 minute pitch tape. He put this together because he’d heard that the newly forming Comedy Channel on cable TV desperately needed programming, and Joel happened to have worked with the president of the forming channel so had a contact and a path of trust.

(For those who don’t know, Cable TV largely replaced broadcast TV because it had much higher quality and, having vastly more bandwidth, it had far more channels on it. People would pay a subscription fee to their local cable TV provider to cover the cost of physically running cables out to everyone’s house. Cable Channels would broadcast their transmission over satellites which the local cable providers would receive on satellite dishes and distribute over physical cables. Adding channels didn’t require licensing radio spectrum and there weren’t issues of radio interference that caused visual and audio static.)

The Comedy Channel picked up the show; as (IIRC) Trace Beaulieu put it, they represented 90 minutes of inexpensive pre-packaged content to a network that rapidly had to create 24 hours of programming in a genre that is notoriously best when short. At first the network tried to interfere a bit, but it didn’t have time to interfere much and rapidly MST3K was popular, took care of itself, and was produced in the mid-west which was inconvenient to travel to so they mostly left it alone. (Things would change a little bit when they got canceled on the Comedy Channel and moved to the SciFi channel, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)

This is quite a string of coincidences that could only really have happened when they did. There hasn’t really been another time when people would invest the sort of money into a TV station which needed programming like in the UHF days; enough to pay a bunch of people, not enough to pay them much. There hasn’t been the same sort of cache where talented people who dreamed of being on TV would work for peanuts because at least they were on TV. There is rarely that kind of money available to hire talented people who will work for peanuts with so little oversight. Even when you have something like this, it’s almost never the case that when the first one evanesces (as such things always will in this world) a second such opportunity, with a larger budget, shows up.

I don’t want to overstate my meaning; weird and unlikely things happen all the time. This one was just especially weird and unlikely, and extraordinarily a product of its time.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

At the behest of my oldest son (who is 11 years old), we watched the Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring Santa Claus Conquers the Martians as the experiment. It’s not easy to come up with a list of the best Christmas movies, nor of the worst Christmas movies, at least if one requires a strict ranking and not merely a loose grouping, but in some sense Santa Claus Conquers the Martians might be on both.

Released in 1964, it was a low budget movie that was trying to fill an as-yet-unserved niche of sci-fi Christmas movies (the Star Wars Holiday Special would not be released for another 14 years, and is only arguably a Christmas movie or, for that matter, a movie, since it was only ever shown on TV).

The MSTK episode is pretty good, though it is a Joel episode. I should mention that I have nothing against Joel as a host, but the writing during the Joel episodes just wasn’t as good as it was during the Mike episodes, especially the later Mike episodes, for the very natural reason that the writers weren’t nearly as experienced during the Joel episodes. There were very good Joel episodes, to be sure, such as Cave Dwellers (one of my favorites). It just took the writers a while to learn how to really work with the movie rather than against it. In the Joel days it was common for Joel or the bots to talk over key plot points in the movie, making it much harder to follow and consequently making it harder to realize how bad the movie actually was.

There was also the issue that it’s hard to sit through almost two hours of a show if there is no plot one can follow to keep one’s attention during it. However bad a movie might be, finding out how it ends can help one get through it. Jokes, it turns out, just aren’t enough.

Be that as it may, this is a fun episode, and does include the memorable song A Very Swayze Christmas. It’s also got a decent invention exchange, though as usual the mads have the funnier inventions.

The movie itself is very curious. The Martians are absolutely hilarious and cannot possibly be meant seriously.

You can’t quite see it clearly, but I’m pretty sure that those hoses which go from one part of the helmet to another are the sort of flexible gas hoses one can get in the plumbing section of a hardware store for hooking up natural gas appliances. The helmets also have antennae, for some reason. Oh, and here’s their mighty robot, Torg:

(In another scene you can see that his arms and legs are just plastic dryer hoses, painted silver, and stuffed into a carboard box painted the same color.)

Of course, a movie about how Martians abduct Santa Claus because their children aren’t happy and a thousand-year-old sage tells them that they need a Santa Claus of their own to cheer up their children doesn’t sound likely to be serious.

On the other hand, the Martians do this, and Santa Claus does in fact cheer up their children. In the end a jolly Martian who wasn’t much good at being a serious Martian puts on one of Santa Claus’ spare red suits and ends up being Mars’ Santa Claus while the Martians, having learned the true meaning of Christmas, return Santa Claus to earth in time for Christmas Eve. The sci-fi element aside, it’s as serious as any other Christmas movie, which in their own way are about the most serious movies that exist. Even if they don’t explicitly mention Christ, they do all have the message that life, at its core, is about love and generosity, not power, pleasure, wealth, or honor. That message cannot stand on its own, but if you give people a little bit of credit for the ability to think minimally logically, if life is about generosity and not power, pleasure, wealth, or honor, then life is about God. That’s certainly not all of Christianity, but no movie can be.

Time Chasers

I recently came across a fascinating interview with David Giancola, director of the movie Time Chasers. A cult classic after it was aired on Mystery Science Theater 3000, Time Chasers is connected in my mind to Hobgoblins which was also an early movie from an independent director which became far more famous and made vastly more money than anyone expected once it was featured on MST3K. They’re also two of my favorite MST3K episodes.

About a year ago I started doing some research into Hobgoblins. Like all low-budget films, it made extensive use of a few locations. Then when re-watching Time Chasers, I realized how much bigger a film Time Chasers was. It had far more locations, more props, flying planes, a crashed car. The thing which really made me notice, though, was the fight scene on the wing of a flying airplane. It’s not brilliant, but all things considered it actually looks decent.

That’s hard. And not cheap.

That’s when I looked up the budgets for the movies. Hobgoblins had a budget of $15,000 while Time Chasers had a budget ten times that—exactly; it’s budget was $150,000. Though I discovered reading the interview that that’s not entirely accurate. Time Chasers originally had a $40,000 budget but then secured additional funding as it was going over budget (it took three years between the beginning of the project and the end of post-production). Still, a budget ten times as large shows.

In the interview David Giancola mentions that they get compared to movies where the catering budget was larger than the entire budget for Time Chasers. I think it’s worth noting that the reason it gets compared to big budget movies is that while it’s not nearly as good as a big budget movie, it’s comparable. Hobgoblins is not. And I think it’s impressive that David Giancola managed to accomplish that at the age of twenty (to twenty three) on such a small budget.

I’ve said before (though I forget whether I said it on this blog) that the biggest fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are probably people who would love to be part of making a movie. There’s a magic to movies. We enjoy MST3K so much because we know that we’d happily make a cheesy movie if that’s all we had the budget for. We’re really laughing at ourselves.

Though we also enjoy thinking about what we’d do better. For example, I wouldn’t name the main villain Generic Corporation. (It took me something like ten viewings to realize that’s what Gen Corp. stood for.)

But ultimately I think this is why Time Chasers works so well for Mystery Science Theater 3000. It feels like it’s within reach, but it’s pretty good for something that’s within reach. So, hat’s off to David Giancola. He made a much better movie than most people would have on such a small budget.

And watching it with Mike, Crow, and Tom Servo has given me many hours of enjoyment.

MST3K’s Complaints About the 80s

I was just watching one of my favorite Mystery Science Theater 3000 episodes, Space Mutiny. During the end credits, Mike and the bots are complaining about the 1980s. Actually, I’ll just quote it since the people at the MST3K wikia kindly typed it up:

Crow: You and your ’80s!
Servo: Your precious ’80s!
Crow: You know it would’ve continued to be the ’70s if not for you!
Servo: Yeah!
Mike: All right, all right, that’s it, that tears it!
[Mike attacks Crow and the three begin fighting on the floor]
Crow: You want a piece of me! It’s go time, ’80s man!
Servo: Come on cool-breeze! Ow owie ow don’t!
[After a while Mike sits up]
Mike: Wait, wait you guys, wait, this isn’t us man.
[Pause of a second]
Servo: Yes it is, you hair-feathering freak! Get him!
Crow: No, no, Servo, he’s right, he’s right. This movie has us turning on each other! It won’t end! These credits just won’t end! [sobbing]
Servo: [sobbing] It’s just like the stupid ’80s, they never ended either!
Mike: No no, actually they did end Tom, there there, it’s okay. See, see there’s the copyright, that means it’s over.
Servo: [sobbing] I’m sorry, Mike!
Crow: [sobbing] Sorry, Mike!
Mike: It’s all over, you guys. I’m sorry too.

I’ve never blinked at that, but here I am watching this in the year of our Lord’s incarnation 2018, where the 1980s are a distant memory of my childhood. And of course tons of material from the time like movies and songs and such. But MST3K has been off the air for quite some time, and it occurred to me to wonder when this episode was first aired. It turns out that it was aired in 1998. That’s just 8 years after the 80s came to a close. The 1990s weren’t the same as the 1980s, to be sure, but my recollection is that they weren’t nearly as different as the 1980s were from the 1970s.

Granted the above interaction was exaggerated for comedic effect, but it’s curious to see a perspective on the 1980s from relatively close to it.

Incidentally, my recollection of the 2000s is that, culturally, they weren’t all that different from the 1990s and that the 2010s are even less different from the 2000s. Certainly things changed, of course. People do dress somewhat differently, though among the mainstream (rather that people who live and breathe fashion) not *that* differently. And of course streaming is a huge thing these days. But at the same time I wonder if the prevalence of recorded media, both VHS/DVDs/Blu-Ray and streaming, will act to be something of a break on cultural change. There’s money to be made in back-catalogs, and new stuff tends to be more expensive. Plus most new stuff is garbage—in comparison to the best stuff of the last 50 years. (And atheists can’t tell decent stories.) This may partially be why so much of what’s made these days is remakes. This isn’t a well developed thought, just something that occurred to me.

Movie Magic

When I was a kid, there was a TV show on the discovery channel called Movie Magic. It was about special effects, I believe. I never watched it that I can recall. But its title has stuck with me all these years later. It strikes me that its title captures something fundamental about movies: movies are magic. Even bad movies. I’ve been reminded of this as I’ve been watching Hobgoblins.

hobgoblins

It was Rick Sloane’s third movie and had a budget of $15,000. According to an inflation calculator I tried, that’s the equivalent of $31,337 today. And they didn’t have digital photography or editing back then. It’s not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but the acting, camera work, editing, and so on were… competent. Not compared to big budget movies, but compared to other tiny-budget movies. There were characters who were written and played consistently from start to finish. And the result was that this movie—bad as it was—had that movie magic.

Movie Magic is, specifically, the creation of a world. Not merely a temporary world, but a world which lasts in the imagination of those who watched it. As cheesey as the scenes between Macready and his boss were, in some sense they happened. In some sense this was a movie studio boss’s office:

hobgoblins-boss

It doesn’t make much intuitive sense, and yet it’s true.

And I think that it’s the people who have that sense of movie magic who are the primary fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000. We’re fans of it because it’s an opportunity to laugh at ourselves. Because every one of us would jump at the chance to be part of movie magic. Every one of us would make the compromises which are unavoidable when you have a budget of $31,338. But for all those tradeoffs, the movie would still be a movie. It would still be a bit of reality with places and people we made out of thin air. Maybe we’d write better dialog, but even if we didn’t it sure would be something to be part of making a movie. And I think that we all know that on some level that’s ridiculous, which is why we enjoy laughing at ourselves so much.

Time Chasers

One of my favorite episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is Time Chasers. It’s not my favorite—that’s Overdrawn at the Memory Bank—but it’s up there. I was recently reminded of the scene where Bob Evil (actual name: J.K. Robertson; President of Gencorp) quotes a clause in the contract his company has with Nick Miller (the main character) saying that if anything in the time transport project is deemed of value or a threat to national safety, the government will appoint a project supervisor, and that supervisor will have total control overriding any previous agreements established within the contract. Bob evil then goes on to say, with impressive defensiveness, “That’s a government law, not a Gencorp one.” As opposed to all those other Gencorp laws, I assume. I don’t think that was intentional self-parody; I think it really was an impressively fiction-based understanding of reality. If you like MST3K and haven’t seen this episode, I highly recommend it, it’s a huge amount of fun.