PART I – THE ESSAY.
The above photo is of the television that currently resides in my home office. I inherited the cabinet from a great-grandmother. I have no idea how old it is, and I don’t care to find out, but it’s old. The smaller TV I stuffed inside of it is the first TV I ever owned. I watched Woodstock ’94 on it, and it miraculously still works. I spent an entire day retrofitting the cabinet, buying the antenna, setting up the Digital Conversion Kit and rediscovering how shitty it was to have lived in the tail-end of the Analog Era.
But I did it. It’s done. Amongst a home overflowing with 21st Century technology, I made a specific, calculated effort to resurrect an ancient technology from the grave, and make it my chief (or at least occasional) source of entertainment. But why?
First, the aesthetic is killer. Secondly (and most importantly), for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
A friend had told me that classic episodes of MST3K were airing on Comet TV, an analog channel that does not exist on DirecTV. My viewing options were to check out their online stream, or do all the wacky shit I described in the paragraph above. Admittedly, the first option was the more logical of the two, but my relationship with this show has never been logical.
The first time I saw MST3K, I was spending a Summer weekend at my cousin’s house, and I woke up to a rerun of Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. It was 1992, and I was 10 years old. I did not grow up with cable at my own home, so this was the first opportunity I had to take it in. I remember where I was sitting in the living room. I remember where exactly in the episode I had tuned in. I remember all the jokes. I had absolutely no idea what the hell was going on, but I knew it was the best thing I had ever seen on TV.
It’s become pleasant to me how many people’s first experiences with MST3K were the same. Something to remember about TV at the time was that you just sort of dropped in to whatever was showing on the channel you landed on. No Internet, no instant episode descriptions, not even a show title. For shows not blatantly obvious, you sometimes had to watch for a few minutes to even figure out what it was that you were seeing.
This seemed to work in MST3K‘s favor when it comes to nostalgia. So many people have told me the same story: They were flipping around, landed on MST3K, had no idea what was going on and instantly fell in love with it. I make the conscious decision to watch MST3K on a fuzzy analog TV now because it reminds me of how I used to watch it, and I like that feeling, even if I like the show on any conceivable medium presented to me. It’s like insisting on listening to your favorite band on vinyl when Spotify is irrefutably easier. This is all one of those rare instances where the element of certain surprise, anonymity and unexplainable surrealness benefited a television show. Well…sort of. To be more descriptive, it’s the kind of memory that creates a small, devoted cult of fans, but nowhere near enough to make the show as popular as it could have (or should have) been.
But hey, we have nothing to be sad about. It was this devoted cult of fans that saved the show from a post-Season 7 cancellation from Comedy Central and got 3 more seasons on the new (at the time) Sci-Fi Channel. We also got a feature film. It’s not unlike the audience response we saw with Community and Arrested Development years later.
Oh, and then just one other thing happened.
In 2016, the same devoted cult of fans pulled off the most successful Kickstarter campaign in the history of the Internet, raising nearly $7 million dollars and dragging MST3K back onto the air for an 11th Season, a full 18 years after it’s second cancellation.
Of the myriad reasons why an 11th Season of MST3K was enough to blow my brain clear out of my butthole, there was just as much curiosity to see how it would do after being gone from the airwaves for so long. I mean, this is a show that went off the air without a single episode airing in HD. Never mind the new host and litany of new writers and performers, how would the films look? Is this a show that could decline in quality of enjoyment as a direct result of improved quality of presentation? Would the streaming, on-demand, bingeable, commercial-free world of Netflix actually make MST3K less palatable as a result? Is that even possible?
In short, not really. By all accounts, MST3K came back with a near-perfect 11th Season, and in a twist not predicted by even its biggest fans, the show appears to be more popular in 2017 than at any point in its history. I cannot overstate how crazy that is. This was set up beautifully to fail, and it succeeded and evolved in nearly every possible facet.
I’d be honest. I’d admit that a show I loved has lost its mojo. But it didn’t happen, even though my relationship with it has changed so much. I watch the new episodes on an HD screen in my living room whenever I want. I keep Wikipedia open on my phone in case I want to reference a joke that went over my head in real time. But it’s still as fun as when I watch the reruns on the ancient office TV and remember what it was like when there was so much more…mystery.
It’s just good, and it doesn’t matter how.
PART II – THE COLLECTION.
I don’t have the largest collection of MST3K memorabilia by any stretch; it was never my intent. But I did amass some weird merch over the years, and I would hold my collection up to anyone else’s in terms of randomness. Consider this my excuse to finally show it off, and you’re more than welcome to skip this section if you’d like. I just really want people to know I have MST3K stationary.
This is a life-size, fully-working Tom Servo replica. It sits atop the retro TV, and over the years it’s become a place to hang my work credentials. It’s the only ‘unauthorized’ piece in the collection, as I bought it from a guy who makes replicas for a living. It’s a nice conversation starter.
Various books written by MST3K folk, including the much-revered Amazing Colossal Episode Guide. When the Internet was in its infancy, the ACEG was the MST3K Bible for fans. When you would quiz another MSTie in a chat room, you had to specify that they weren’t allowed to used the ACEG. I’m old; screw you.
Tin 20th Anniversary Edition DVD Box Set. The DVDs are stuffed tight into this thing, and it’s a bitch to take them out without damaging the cardboard and artwork. So I basically just bought it and never watched it.
It’s really all worth it for the moon logo on the CD. I hadn’t opened these in years until I snapped this photo, and I was like, “Wow, that looks really cool.” I have no idea when I bought these; I assumed I ordered them directly through the studio, like with everything else.
You want VHS tapes? I got VHS tapes. Here’s a truncated example of the Rhino VHS releases. I purchased nearly all of them from Suncoast Video back in the day, with the exception of a few rare ones that I got directly through Rhino. And yeah, that’s a copy of Jack Frost in the lower right-hand corner.
Here are a handful of rare, yet still ‘official’ MST3K releases. Assignment: Venezuela, Mr. B’s Lost Shorts, Poopie II, The Last Dance: Raw and the MST Scrapbook. I have no idea if these were ever available at stores; I bought them directly through the studio, and there are no bar codes or artwork.
Finally, a small piece of the shows I recorded directly from TV. Yeah, I was one of those kids. I have nearly every episode dubbed directly from television, most with the original commercials still intact. The above photo is just a handful of the entire storage bin I have full of VHS tapes that represent the entirely of the series through Season 10. Labels printed by me, of course.
I could collect more stuff. A lot more. Especially now. But- and this sounds incredibly contradictory- I don’t consider myself a collector. I don’t go on eBay and I’m not interested in what you have. I just buy what I want when I want to. Anyway, thanks for humoring me.
PART III – THE COUNTDOWN.
And now, here are my Top 10 episodes of Season 11. There are 14 total S11 episodes, but since I didn’t have a definitive ‘worst’ episode (they were all enjoyable), I just set the cut at 10 and went from there.
10. Starcrash (1106)
9. Yongary (1109)
8. Time Travelers (1103)
7. The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (1113)
6. At the Earth’s Core (1114)
5. The Beast of Hollow Mountain (1105)
4. Wizards of the Lost Kingdom (1110)
3. Carnival Magic (1112)
2. Avalanche (1104)
1. Cry Wilderness (1102)
I’ll say no more, except for this. If you have never seen MST3K, or were a casual fan that hasn’t checked out the reboot yet, do me a favor and just watch Cry Wilderness. It’ll tell you everything you need to know about whether the show is for you or not. I’d sincerely place it in the Top 5 best episodes of the entire series, hands-down.
Sound off in the comments section and enjoy your day.