Before there was YouTube, or a “Share” button on every web page, or such a concept as watching a television series anytime you wanted from pretty much any device with a screen you owned, there was this: “KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES”.
After episodes of the cable TV comedy “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” buried deep at the end credits of the show, was that line of encouragement to its incredibly loyal viewers.
I was in high school when I first saw the show, which began as a local series on a Minneapolis television station before bouncing around different cable channels including Comedy Central and The Sci-Fi Channel until its run ended in 1999 after nearly 200 episodes and a feature film.
I took the motto seriously. A kindly neighbor with a satellite dish recorded episodes for me. My local cable company didn’t offer Comedy Central (at the time “The Comedy Channel”), so I made friends on a pre-web version of Internet messages boards, USENET, and began exchanging VHS tapes through the mail, trading recordings — each tape held about three shows — with new friends as far away as Hawaii.
I never collected or traded baseball cards or ‘zines or Beanie Babies or anything else during that pre-Ebay time. The most precious currently I had in my possession were those “MST3K” videocassettes, which my geekiest friends and I would watch in groups, memorizing lines and developing relationships with hosts Joel Hodgson, Mike Nelson and their ‘bots.
In the show, a hapless guy trapped on a satellite was forced to watch the world’s worst movies, stuff like “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.” In a practice we’d come to call “Tweeting” many years later, the guy kept his sanity by making fun of the movies, inserting sly and often obscure cultural references, and engaging in silly sketches as show bumpers.
And now, after a $5.7 million Kickstarter campaign -- which I eagerly backed in late 2015 -- “Mystery Science Theater 3000” is returning with its first new season of episodes in 18 years. It will be airing on what seems like an obvious new home: Netflix. On Friday, April 14, 14 new episodes will drop, with a new cast that includes Jonah Ray, former Austinite Felicia Day and comedian Patton Oswalt.
As one of the backers of the project, I had early access to the new episodes as online streams and took a peek before their Netflix debut. Without spoiling a thing, I’ll only say that my heart leapt at the first episode’s opening sequence, and any fears I had that the tone and overall quality of the show wouldn’t measure up were quieted down a half hour into the first episode, and completely gone by the second.
With the relief that the trip back to “MST3K” has been worth the effort, I’ve slowed down my intake. I plan to savor these shows and spread them out. This isn’t something I want to binge.
Instead, I’ve been thinking about all the ways that “Mystery Science Theater 3000” was a show tailor-made for the Internet before there was even a World Wide Web. It’s not just that the show earned a fervent community of fringe fans; you could say the same about “Twin Peaks,” which is also returning with a Showtime series next month.
What “MST3K” did, pre-Internet, was encourage a culture of sharing and asynchronous, but communal watching that would come to define the YouTube era. Sure, it was a bulky, impractical thing to record television to videotape and send it by mail, but it was the shareable video of its day. For years after its cancellation, the show was kept alive by online forums, fan clubs and real-world meetups and screenings organized on the Web 1.0.
The show was also a little ungainly in its format; with commercials, the show ran two hours, the length of the movie it was mocking plus extras for every episode. While it lived on cable, it always seemed a little out of place on the TV grid amid talk shows, comedy specials and pro wrestling. Then and now, “MST3K” feels like a series made to be consumed on the Internet, whether you want it in huge chunks or to dip in and dip out at your convenience. It’s curious that the new incarnation of the show makes nods to the notion of traditional commercial breaks; it has always felt too smart and too out-there for those kinds of interruptions.
It’s taken the entire time that “MST3K” was off the air — its various creative talents have continued mocking movies as live theater or on the web — for TV to catch up with the show’s notion of off-center television.
Running times on series such as the last season of “Arrested Development” and “Fargo” on FX have routinely gone over the typical 30/60 minute allotments. Entertainment generated from crowdfunding, such as the “Veronica Mars” movie, has put fans closer to stars and showrunners. And the overall quality of the best TV on now, whether you call it a golden age of television or just “Peak TV,” means “MST3K” is a better fit now than it was back in the 1980s and 1990s. There are now plenty of shows that are as intelligent, as specific, as geeky and as crafted with obvious care as “MST3K”.
And frankly, “MST3K” has always felt like a show built by nerds to be viewed by other nerds. “Mr. Robot,” “The Big Bang Theory,” a herd of superhero-themed shows, Chris Hardwick’s empire of breathless geek-friendly aftershows and “Silicon Valley” are just a few examples of Internet and nerd culture as today’s TV.
The timing seems perfect and it feels natural that the source of its funding power and its new home are both where “Mystery Science Theater 3000” always belonged: online.
Cover photo: A new season of "Mystery Science Theater 3000" debuts on Netflix on April 14, 18 years after the series signed off from cable television. From left to right, Crow T. Robot (voiced by Hampton Yount), Gypsy (voiced by Rebecca Hanson), new host Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) and Tom Servo (voiced by Baron Vaughn). The series reboot also stars Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as a new generation of mad scientists. Darren Michaels, SMPSP / TM & Satellite of Love, LLC.