Imagine a TV show that takes place in outer space. It involves robots, and mad scientists and, on occasion, aliens, and time travel and the like. On the surface, it sounds like the epitome of a sci-fi show—because it is. In fact, this brilliant show—Mystery Science Theater 3000—is easily the greatest sci-fi show of all time.
MST3K is most well-known as that show where people make fun of bad movies—at least by those who only have a passing knowledge of it. Indeed, the fact that the bulk of the show is given over to characters cracking wise, while watching a cheesy movie is the unique, memorable thing about the series, but on top of this are all of the sci-fi elements that give the series its depth
For those unfamiliar, the premise of MST3K is as follows. A mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester, has sent a man into space, originally Joel Robinson (played by show creator Joel Hodgson), in order to monitor the impact that forcing him to watch bad movies has on his psyche. To stave off insanity, Joel built a few robots, and two of them, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, join him in the theater where the wise-cracking ensues. Later, Joel would be replaced by Mike, and Dr. Forrester would be replaced by his mother Pearl, but the overall show remained roughly the same.
This is a show that takes place almost entirely on a spaceship, the Satellite of Love, and three of the main characters, Tom, Crow, and Gypsy, are intelligent, talking robots. The villains are the quintessential bad guys of sci-fi—mad scientists. It’s also significant that many of the movies viewed in the theatre are of the science fiction variety (this was especially true when the show moved over to the Sci-Fi Channel). The bulk of them involve aliens, monsters, or space travel in some way. (okay, and then those two movies about Santa Claus—but in one of those he battles Martians, so it counts). Even still, the sci-fi aspects of the show go well beyond movies about creeping terrors and princes of space.
Take, for example, the final episode of Season Seven, which features the movie Laserblast. As the show was approaching the end of its run on Comedy Central, and did not know what the (not too distant) future had in store, they decided to have the beloved ship hit the edge of the universe, at which point everybody aboard the Satellite of Love turned into beings of pure consciousness. Then, Dr. Forrester lived out the end of the iconic sci-fi movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. When the show returned for Season Eight, not only was Crow different, but they were traveling through time and space. During this time, Pearl picked up her two sidekicks, Professor Bobo and Observer AKA Brain Guy, both of whom were inspired by Planet of the Apes and an episode of Star Trek.
Many of MST3K’s most memorable moments came in the form of parodies of and homages to classic sci-fi. This is partly because the meat of this show consists of commenting on, and living in the world of pop culture. When the team watched the time travel movie Time Chasers, Crow travels back in time, changes history, and suddenly it’s Mike’s brother Eddie who is stuck up on the Satellite of Love. During Last of the Wild Horses, they riff on the classic “Mirror, Mirror” episode of Star Trek (AKA the “evil twin” episode), which also features Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank in the theater riffing the movie.
But this piece presupposes that MST3K is the best sci-fi show, which means the matter of quality—not just quantity of sci-fi material—is also important. This is where the comedy elements of the series come into play. MST3K is a great show, largely due to the fact that it is also a hilarious show—as funny as any show in the history of television. Due to its premise, it lacks the narrative element of most shows. But there was enough room for some characterization, and some storylines as well, most of which were amusing. The jokes flew fast and furious in the theater, which meant that if you didn’t like one, there were five more on the way in short order. Smart jokes, dumb jokes, esoteric jokes that appealed to one percent of the audience—it was all there.
And things were funny outside of the theater, too. The “host segments” were often very inspired, and made it possible for the show to do more than provide commentary and reference humor. It was almost always a delight to watch the folks on the Satellite of Love interact with the varied mad scientists down on Earth, or in a rocket bus, depending on the situation. This comedy played perfectly against the inherent humor of the sci-fi universe at the core of the stories, and played a huge role in what made the show so epic and enjoyable.
If you prefer a darker, more intense or horror-infused science fiction, then Mystery Science Theater 3000 may not be for you. It’s a show that treads on the lighter side, embracing the comedy in the presentation and plots of all these bad movies and bizarre short films. However, it is decidedly a sci-fi show, and based on the genius level of its humor, I maintain it is the best sci-fi show of all time.
What do you think, sirs?