Whenever a beloved project like Mystery Science Theater 3000 returns to life, there’s always the danger that it’s going to be a pale simulacrum of the original. Or so awful that it tarnishes the original version. But the new MST3K is uniquely positioned to avoid these pitfalls—not just because of what it was, but how creator Joel Hodgson has already visualized its triumphant return.
Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Kickstarter has reached its first goal, ensuring that at least three new episodes of the cult favorite show about a man trapped in space making fun of crappy movies with a pair of robot puppets will be made.
To say I’m excited would be an understatement. Back when the show aired on Comedy Channel and then Syfy, I managed to tape about 170 installments of the 178-episode series on VHS, and have watched them all a minimum of three times each. I went without cable for two years in college, and survived by watching multiple episodes of MST every night.
But I’m also excited, because the rebirth of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is the perfect roadmap on how to relaunch a beloved property… as well as an excellent litmus test for whether you should even bother. Kickstarter is a fantastic method for fans to speak with their money, which is really the only effective way of proving to studios, networks and creators how much you desire a certain series/project/product. And the nature of the original concept, along with Hodgson’s willingness to update certain aspects of the show, has me feeling optimistic that this is going to work.
The original concept
First and foremost, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a simple concept that unlike virtually any other series, is practically timeless. At its core, the show is merely some very funny people making fun of bad movies. That’s it. It’s a concept that has existed since movies came into existence, and started being bad. Making fun of bad movies is something virtually everyone has done with their friends—the difference with MST is that the “friends” involved are hilariously, professionally funny.
Yes, there’s the conceit of a man being shot into space, having robot-puppet friends and it all being a mad science experiment, but all this is really just trappings for the movie-mocking. It’s fun, but it’s also unnecessary. There’s a reason MST3K stayed on TV for 10 years, and it’s the same reason why various MST alums have been able to continue doing the same thing in one format or another—Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett have been releasing Rifftrax, downloadable mp3s that can be played along with bad, big-budget motion pictures—while Joel Hodgson and most of the rest of the original MST crew did live show mocking B-movies as Cinematic Titanic. No robot puppets have been involved, and both were and are immensely popular.
Of course, while the core concept of MST3K is timeless, there’s still much to be said about the trappings. Joel, Mike and the ‘Bots are beloved and iconic, and it wouldn’t be Mystery Science Theater if those two familiar silhouettes weren’t in the lower right-hand corner of our TV screens.
But unlike all the other shows and series looking for a modern resurrection, MST has two unique advantages, and the first is this: It was already an anthology show. Here’s how Hodgson explains it on the MST3K Kickstarter:
When we first imagined Mystery Science Theater 3000 back in 1988, my hope was to launch a show that, in success, could be as enduring as Saturday Night Live. We had a simple format that could evolve over time, with each new generation of actors and writers finding their own take on the basic concept.
If MST3K hadn’t gotten canceled fifteen years ago, it’s possible we could have had 4 or 5 hosts by now, and it would be just like Doctor Who: even if you had “your Doctor,” you’d still be able to appreciate the different flavors that each new Host or Mad or robot added to the show. It’s part of what makes a show like Doctor Who or SNL last. I’m a Tom Baker fan myself, and no one is funnier than Dan Aykroyd. (To me.)
The problem is that MST3K got canceled after just two hosts, and instead of becoming a proud tradition, some audiences started to see it as a competition between “Team Joel” and “Team Mike.” I think that if MST3K had lasted long enough to have a third host, this wouldn’t have happened. It makes me sad that it did.
Having already had two hosts and several different robot voices, MST fans are already prepared to accept a new host—specifically, The Nerdist’s Jonah Ray. Sure, there will be plenty of fans sad that neither Joel nor Mike are putting their jumpsuits back on (I think more fans will be upset abut the new Tom Servo and Crow voices), but even those few people who have defiantly refused to pledge their money to the Kickstarter are more likely to come around than they may think. When Joel left the show to be replaced by Mike, it was the end of the world for many MST fans; they all invariably got over it. A third host should be easier still.
Change Is Good
Which brings me to MST’s second distinct advantage: It needs a new host anyway. I love that Hodgson knows this, that he didn’t feel compelled to return to his most iconic role in hopes of recreating his former success, or out of vanity. Aping the original is always, always a surefire way to make something not quite as good. As much as fans think they want to see the 55-year-old Hodgson back on the Satellite of Love, they really don’t.
Again, Hodgson knows the score:
As much as I love the old seasons, we’re not just trying to make an “MST3K reunion episode.” Even if we do get our entire old cast and staff to come help out, I think it’s important – essential– that we bring in new talent to keep the show fresh, and to help it evolve.
To do that, it’s important that we bring in the next Host, the next Mad, and the next robot voices. And if everything goes well, there’ll be a dozen more after them. …
[...] Even if everyone [came] back, we’[d] never be able to reproduce the magic of how those old episodes feel to you. No one ever could. People usually think that the “best year in music” was they year they turned eighteen. In the same way, the “best year of MST3K” – for you – will probably always be the year you turned 13, or 16, or 18, and your parents finally sprung for the good cable package. To misquote Rick James, nostalgia is a helluva drug. We can’t compete with your memories, and it would be kind of silly to try.
He’s 100% correct. And there’s something else I believe Hodgson is completely correct on, an example that could serve all future crowdfunded projects well.
When the MST3K Kickstarter debuted, Joel was asking for $2 million—an exceptional amount of money for what was essentially a show starring one guy, two puppets, and a giant green-screen. It was even more boggling to realize that in order to get the 12 hoped-for new episodes, the Kickstarter would—and will—have to reach $5.5 million. Again, I am about as hardcore an MST fan as there is, and while I had no problem giving my money, I was still perplexed at how it cost so damn much to make.
Unlike too many people asking for fan money and support, once Hodgson sensed the confusion, he answered with total transparency. You can see how the MST3K budgets break down here—and if you have any concerns about donating, you should—or if you have any plans to crowdfund your own project. Hodgson understands that if the fans are giving their money, they deserve to know how it’s being spent. He’s obviously not the only Kickstarter project leader to come to this realization, but his candor has made even this incredibly high price tag palatable to the fans who previously were taken aback.
Even if the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Kickstarter doesn’t reach its $5.5 million goal, it’s still a success story—and not just because three new episodes are definitely on the way. Its format and conceit are uniquely suited to being resurrected, more than 15 years after it went off the air. More importantly, when MST3K returns, it’s not just going to be a nostalgic retread of the old series, but rather something that takes the framework of the old and truly modernizes it without losing what made it so special in the first place. Few other series, no matter how beloved, have this capability, or have someone as perceptive as Hodgson has been in asking fans for their help.
That’s what’s going to give Mystery Science Theater 3000 its truest shot at resurrection—a return to cable TV. With a modern host and modern sensibilities, a network will be able to see if this new MST3K can attract a new audience beyond its fanbase, which would be absolutely necessary to bringing back on the air. This is by no means definite, but I do know that Hodgson has given my favorite TV series the best chance possible at returning not just for one season, but maybe even another 10.
As a devout MSTie, I know the theme song by heart, and its penultimate line “You should really just relax.” But I can’t relax. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is back—and maybe for a long, long time. Hi-keeba.
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