Celebrate Awards Season ’98 with ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’

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We are once again firmly entrenched in Hollywood’s favorite time of year: award season. As a nation we will thrill and speculate who will get the gold and whose hands will be left cold©. Well, a mere 19 years ago in March of 1998, Oscar fever hadn’t just swept America, it had seeped into outer space as well, as Mike and his robot pals on the Satellite of Love gave their take on the Academy Awards for that year. Today we look at Mystery Science Theater 3000 as they broke out of their usual format and presented the Academy of Robots’ Choice Award Special.

Now, let’s pretend for a moment that you’ve never heard of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Here’s the short version: a human host (originally Joel, then Mike, and in the upcoming season, Jonah) and his robots (Tom Servo and Crow, primarily) are being forced to watch bad movies after having been shot into space. Rather than go insane watching this awful fare, they decide to quip their way through, for our amusement. This premise may not feel as innovative today since a quarter of YouTube is now made up of people redubbing anime, or reediting stuff, or commenting on baffling old video games, but in 1989 when the show premiered, there was nothing like it. Sure, there had been people hosting old movie TV programs, but never before had the host stayed with the film the whole time and then just talked over it, visible on the screen in the form of silhouettes, sitting in theater seats.

Because the show had it’s roots in local television, and then hit a national stage on a very early version of Comedy Central, MST3k was always a bit of a special animal. The show always felt like it was outside the mainstream (and it was), and the show was always able to get away with nerdy, obscure references that wouldn’t be understood by every single viewer out there. The show’s creator, Joel Hodgson, used to say that “the right people would get it,” and a passionate and loyal fanbase did indeed find the show.

Within the special half-hour Oscar episode, as opposed to the usual two-hour slot it would occupy, Mike and the robots are removed from the world of Variety and Hollywood premieres because they’re trapped in outer space. This feeling could also stem from the fact that the writers and other crew for the show were also pretty removed from Hollywood, as the show was produced entirely in Minnesota. This is not a show in which industry hacks pat each other on the back. The wise cracking robots can say whatever they want about Hollywood A-listers as there is very little chance they’ll be rubbing elbows with them in Eden Prairie, Minnesota.

Things are a little different when the crew is riffing on top of clips from current movies, rather than full films. (It’s worth noting that though there were a few different folks who sat in those fake theater seats throughout the show’s history, but this particular configuration would later go on to create RiffTrax, a company that sells audio tracks that can be played over current films, turning them into your own mini-MST3k’s.) One major difference is that for each new movie clip that appears on the show, context is given about the plot of the film. What results is a fairly disjointed effort as the show is constantly shifting from film to film, straining to create any kind of momentum as the clips start and stop.

Just as it was surely challenging to break the usual format and create mini-segments on each of the nominated films, so too is it challenging to convey the movie riffs in writing without explaining exactly what’s happening in the scene and then transcribing what Mike and the ‘bots said. One easy example comes from Titanic, as Jack and Rose dance in the steerage with the other lower-class passengers. As everyone dances and has a grand time, Crow in the front row exclaims, “Hooray! We welcome the rich people into our midst, even as they do not welcome us! And this is a strong message that we need to convey!”

I found that the more I knew the original movie, the better that part of the episode worked for me. As Good As It Gets and Titanic jokes still landed 19 years later, but clips from Queen Victoria biopic Mrs. Brown and Wings From a Dove that I had completely forgotten about/never heard of I found harder to get into. Does this show that a timeless movie creates timeless quips about the movie, or does it just demonstrate my own personal biases? Who knows!

If this is your first journey into space to visit the Satellite of Love, I would recommend you seek out a full episode of the show proper, but if your interest is piqued, lucky you! It’s right below this paragraph. Ultimately, I feel as though the usually timeless Mystery Science Theater 3000 inadvertently dates itself by making itself timely, but if you do decide to watch, there’s still plenty to enjoy.

Ramsey Ess is a freelance writer for television, podcaster and a guy on Twitter. Check out his web series Ramsey Has a Time Machine featuring Chris Elliott!

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