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Does altering the silhouettes alter Mystery Science Theater 3000?

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. The theme for this readers’ choice installment is “interlopers.”

Mystery Science Theater 3000 Show 821: Time Chasers (season eight, episode 21; originally aired 11/22/1997)

In which Mike Nelson escapes the Satellite Of Love via the time-space continuum…

(Available on YouTube.)

Erik Adams: The routine and ritual of Mystery Science Theater 3000 are big parts of the film-mocking series’ appeal. Tuning into the show every week—or every night, during the period when MST3K was the cowtown-puppet-show jewel in Comedy Central’s crown—viewers knew what to expect: Man and robots make fun of movies, with regularly scheduled breaks for comedic interludes. The show ran for almost 11 years and 198 episodes, and that formula stayed the same throughout.

There’s a downside to that consistency, however. The show’s fan base, affectionately referred to as MSTies, went apeshit over the slightest change to the program. And there were a lot of slight changes over 11 years and 198 episodes; no member of the cast that appeared in the first episode—a riffing of the Gerry and Sylvia Anderson supermarionation compilation Invaders From The Deep—was still around when the erstwhile Sci-Fi Channel aired the series finale in 1999. Along the way, MSTies drew plenty of lines in the sand: between original host Joel Hodgson and his replacement, Michael J. Nelson; between episodes where mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) is assisted by TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff) and ones where he’s smothered by his mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl); between the show’s heyday on Comedy Central and its resurrection by the network we now call Syfy. In The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, performer-writer-producer Kevin Murphy recalls the mail that came in after he and Conniff stepped into the roles vacated by J. Elvis Weinstein between the show’s first and second cable seasons:

“Most of the mail was positive for Frank and me in our new roles, but I still fondly remember one particular piece of negative mail. Someone worked really hard to print out a huge banner, about ten feet long, which read in big block letters I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE!!!”

But the discomfort of hearing strange voices over the movies screened on the Satellite Of Love was also a source of fun for MST3K’s writers and performers, who were never averse to playing games of musical chairs with the Shadowrama tableau. Gypsy joined Joel and the other bots for the first five minutes of Hercules And The Captive Women; a riff on Star Trek’s “Mirror, Mirror” put Dr. Forrester and Frank in front of Last Of The Wild Horses; and Pearl evaluated the effectiveness of the Forresters’ one-bad-movie-to-rule-them-all experiment over the first 20 minutes of Quest Of The Delta Knights.

Unfortunately, none of the episodes above qualify for the purposes of this Roundtable theme, because they’re all regular characters in unexpected places. Fortunately, Show 821: Time Chasers does qualify—doubly fortunate, as this episode is a highlight from the series’ eighth-season creative resurgence.

Reluctance to approach the Sci-Fi seasons has always bewildered me. Sure, it’s jarring to hear someone other than Beaulieu voicing Crow T. Robot, and the show didn’t do itself any favors by kicking off its new incarnation with five leaden monster movies from the Universal archives. So, yes, it felt like interlopers of a different kind were messing with the show—Sci-Fi infamously enforced a greater sense of continuity on the between-movie segments and restricted the movie picks to more science-fiction and horror fare—but by the, er, time of Time Chasers, the show was back in its groove. And that made for the perfect opportunity to temporarily introduce Eddie Nelson, the chain-smoking, beer-swilling lout who ends up on the SOL after this week’s experiment inspires Crow to try out some time-traveling high jinks of his own.

The real-life Nelson portrayed a litany of characters during MST3K’s run—including big-kneed B-movie lackey Torgo and a hysterically morose caricature of Morrissey—but when this episode rolled around, he’d been more or less restricted to playing a good-naturedly lunkheaded version of himself for nearly four years. He clearly relishes the chance to toss beer cans around the theater and take a smoke break during Time Chasers, which is one of those MST3K selections that isn’t a cinematic disaster as much as it is a half-formed idea hamstrung by a lack of resources. Even with Eddie’s intrusion, this episode is an ideal introduction to MST3K, packed with great jokes at the expense of the show’s weenie of a leading man—Crow spends much of the first act incredulous with Matthew Bruch’s mulleted movie-hero bona fides—and its cut-rate, community-college-campus-esque vision of the future.

Since the show wasn’t one to tinker with a winning formula when it didn’t have to, Eddie’s in and out within half of an hour. (Considering the number of sitcom episodes we’ve watched for this Roundtable theme, that’s an appropriate amount of time.) And even when he’s in the theater, the effect he has on the episode is only perceptible when the script calls attention to it. Eddie’s jokes are consciously bluer and meaner than the type Mike would tell, and they prompt sycophantic chuckling from Servo—who, in this alternate reality, functions as a combination flunky/ashtray. In spite of the interloper, Show 821 is consistent with the general tone of MST3K—all the better not to rile the faithful.

Here’s my main question to the rest of the Roundtable: Is Eddie an effective interloper if his presence merely alters the silhouettes superimposed over the movie? I know we have several MSTies among our ranks, so I’d also love to hear if this is your first experience with a Sci-Fi-era episode—or, hell, even your first experience with a Mike-era episode. And if this is your first time watching MST3K, how does Time Chasers serve as an introduction to the series? Also: You’re welcome.

Ryan McGee: I slot somewhere comfortably between you, Erik, and any novice among us coming to MST3K for the first time. I remember first renting individual episodes from Blockbuster on Two-For-Tuesday nights as a low-risk investment: Even if this show I had never heard of wasn’t actually funny, as least it wasn’t costing me anything. And now that I’ve severely dated myself with that bit of biographical information, I’ll continue.

I’m not sure Eddie functions as a successful interloper—even if he serves a comedic purpose—in his half-hour presence. Throughout this phase of the Roundtable, we’ve looked at interlopers as people who force our normal characters to re-evaluate their status quo or who overtly comment on the madness that audience members take for granted. Eddie’s presence gives the episode a slightly different vibe, but doesn’t fundamentally push the episode to the point of teetering off its own axis. I was curious to see if the movie commentary would devolve into anarchy, but other than Eddie walking to the side to smoke a cigarette, viewers would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between him and Mike without paying close attention.

Maybe the challenge of coming up with material for a new character played by the same actor was too much. Or maybe the problem is Eddie’s cynical point of view, which is in turn antithetical to the humor that makes the show work. Tom, Crow, and Mike/Joel mock every film, but do so in a way that is rarely overtly mean. It’s a badge of honor to have Tom Servo throwing down on you. But if Eddie mocks you, it’s time to stick your head in the oven. Right?

As I type all this out, I am starting to wonder myself how true this actually is. Couching all of the show’s normal quips in irony and glib superiority makes MST3K easier to enjoy, but it may mask something slightly more sinister. I guess this is my question to those yet to respond: Is Eddie’s strain of humor fundamentally different from the humor that’s normally on display in MST3K, or is it simply that his tone reveals the cruel heart lying just beneath the surface of this show?

Todd VanDerWerff: “Trumpy! You can do stupid things!” Oh, and, “Watch out for snakes!” I say these at least once per week.

Sorry. That has nothing to do with anything, but I wanted to prove my bona fides. MST3K was the shit when I was in junior high and high school, to the degree that I endlessly bugged my parents about upgrading to a more expensive satellite package when Comedy Central got bumped out of the package we had. When we finally did, I taped the overnight airings until I had a rather massive (well, for me) collection of tapes that I went back to time and time again, leaving my parents confused as to how I’d even found this thing.

Yet from the start, when I first read about the show in our weekly satellite-programming guide, I knew MST3K was for me. I was fascinated with entertainment, but I was also fascinated with poking at it and picking it apart, and this fed my burgeoning love of television and movies as well as my burgeoning desire to criticize them. (I was 9 when this show started airing on The Comedy Channel, and I was already going by what critics said. I was an insufferable little kid.) And the more I got to know MST3K, the more I loved it, both because it was funny and because it made me feel smart in its wide range of references. If I didn’t get a joke, I could look it up, or I could laugh along because I knew I was supposed to. I learned more about pop culture from this show than any other one; I filled in gaps in the gags I didn’t understand via contextual clues.

Above, Erik states that the fan base tended to go apeshit when changes were made to the program. While I suppose that’s true (and I’ll always prefer Joel ever so slightly to Mike, though I love them both), I also tend to really love the episodes where the show takes chances with its ironclad format. The one where Gypsy enters the theater and brings a weird, new energy to the proceedings is one of my favorites, and I like how Eddie intrudes here as well, knocking Crow around, smoking cigarettes, and making lewd jokes about girls’ pants coming off. (Well, “lewd” is too strong a word, since this is, after all, a basic cable show from the late ’90s.) In the eighth season of any show, the writers are inevitably casting about for new challenges. If I think the host segments in the Sci-Fi Channel years have a bit too much of this particular strain (network-dictated though it may have been), Eddie’s arrival is just the right kind of experimentation. It tweaks the format and characters in subtle ways, and it provides a fun jolt to a show that could feel ossified at this late date.

I have to hasten to add that I’m not as familiar with the Sci-Fi Channel years as the Comedy Central years. I don’t know that the last three seasons are bad, but I think they did lose a step from the earlier days, probably just because so much of the show’s creative team had moved on and the host segments seemed to take up more and more time on each show. (I haven’t timed them; it’s possible they ran about the same amount of time and just felt like more because they became weirdly Byzantine for this series.) Yet there’s still plenty of great stuff in every episode of this era and, really, I should probably give it another shot someday. The real reason I’m less connected to this era is because these episodes aired when I was becoming an older teenager, and I simply had less time to watch TV. Where I’ve seen every Comedy Central episode multiple times, I’d wager I’ve only seen most of the Sci-Fi episodes once or maybe twice, and the lack of familiarity may be coloring my judgment somewhat. All of which is a way of saying: Can my own real life be considered an interloper?

Donna Bowman: I guess we’re all sharing personal MSTie histories, huh? Okay, bullet-point version: sheltered no-cable upbringing + huuuuge nerd = appointment-television status for MST3K on Comedy Central in the mid-’90s. We may have missed the show’s earliest glory days (although we did devour any tapes we could find), but Noel and I religiously followed the series to the Sci-Fi Channel and all the way to the bitter end. We even watched The Mystery Science Theater Hour, the syndication ploy that cut episodes in half and added new A&E-style wrappers.

So I come from a place of both knowledge and deep fandom when I say that the various in-theater, silhouette-altering experiments the show attempted over the years are admirable efforts to take advantage of their format, even if they weren’t always hilarious. It was usually a way of extending a joke from the host segments into the movie segments—e.g., Servo or Crow decked out with some sort of accessory—but I remember one adorable bit where one of the robots retreats to the left side of the screen to mope and has to be coaxed back into the proper seat. Maybe that comes to mind because Eddie goes over there to smoke in this episode. Frankly, though, I find it hard to focus on silhouette shenanigans if there’s little or no dialogue specifically associated with them. It’s like an illustration of the limits of multitasking for me: I can watch the movie and listen to the riffing, but I can’t do that while at the same time watching a separate drama play out in the silhouettes. The theater set disappears for me unless I remind myself to look at it.

Unless, of course, a riff-specific visual happens in the silhouettes, like the frequent occasions when Joel or Mike would reach up to touch, tickle, or point at something onscreen. My all-time favorite of these was in the beloved City Limits, when Joel decides to open an umbrella in the theater and conveniently obscures a moment of nudity, to the vocal displeasure of the bots. I’d love to hear the rest of the Roundtable riff on their favorite examples.

Genevieve Koski: Man, so I guess I have to be the one to out myself as a MST3K novice, huh? Don’t get me wrong, I have a fair share of experience with the show from both childhood—we had family friends who were big fans—and adulthood. (You don’t work at The A.V. Club for six years without getting some exposure to the show; fact-checking Erik’s TV Club 10 on the show alone ensured I can fake my way through most MST3K discussions.) But the show’s heyday overlapped with the dark period of my adolescence when my mom decided we didn’t need cable in the house anymore—for which I will never forgive her—so I never got a chance to discover it on my own. As I got older, it became harder and harder to find an entry point into the cult of the show. I realize that sounds like a B.S. excuse, and maybe it is, but hey, everyone can’t love everything!

The thing is, I have liked the few experiences I’ve had with the series, and I’ve consumed a fair number of RiffTrax, the audio-based MST3K spin-off, over the years. And it’s not like the show is especially hard to jump into; the premise is dirt-simple (and helpfully summarized in the opening credits), and most of the humor is isolated within the scope of the movie being watched, making each episode a fairly standalone proposition. Maybe that’s why it’s hard for me to view Eddie as an interloper within the context of just this episode; technically, yes, he’s a new person in a place he’s not supposed to be, but the show’s character dynamics are so directly tied to its premise that it’s hard to see him as anything but a slightly different shadow doing a slightly different take on the usual routine.  

But as Erik’s history of the show up top evidences, Eddie’s interloper status is a lot stronger within the context of the series as a whole. For one thing, the meta aspect of having Eddie take Mike’s place is sort of lost if you’re not familiar with—or, rather, invested in—all those slight changes over the years. More significantly, it’s harder for those without a firm grounding in the show to gauge the nuances between Eddie’s presence and Mike’s in the theater. I watched this episode before reading the rest of your responses, and I didn’t really register Eddie’s cynicism as a major difference in the film-mocking M.O., nor did I pick up on Servo’s newly sycophantic attitude. With that context, it’s easier to see how Eddie functions as an interloper, rather than just a temporary blip.

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I’m not sure what it is about this show that makes any group discussion of it sound like a introductions at an AA meeting. (“Hi, I’m Phil, and thanks to this snarky little puppet show, I can tell one Gamera movie from another.”) I do remember that the first episode I ever saw was Stranded In Space, which I just came across while channel surfing. I also remember the first joke: Cameron Mitchell walks stiffly into this big, futuristic room for his dressing-down by the members of a sinister tribunal, and one of the bots intones, “You’re late, No. 2.” (I’m not sure how much of this comes across in cold print, but it’s a reference to The Prisoner.) That was when I noticed the weird shapes at the bottom of the screen, though it took me a while longer to put all the pieces together. For a long time, I thought this was really the only way anyone should discover the show, helpful-expository-theme-song be damned. But obviously, a lot of people have sought it out, knowing what to expect, and that’s worked out just fine for them. The show actually got me through a bad depression in the early ’90s, when watching it was the only thing that helped center me. It’s not a fantasy I would have ever come up with for myself—drifting through space with my talking toys, watching crap and talking back to the screen—but something about it really pushed all my buttons.

For me, there’s a poignant, ironic aspect to the idea of Mike Nelson playing an interloper on the show during the Mike Nelson era, because I’m one of those assholes who always felt that something irreplaceable was lost when the sleepy-eyed guy left. I didn’t immediately abandon the show—though my addiction to it had tapered off by the time it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, and after that I only tuned in for special occasions like Joel Hodgson’s guest appearance and the series finale—and I didn’t send in hate mail or anything. But the chemistry of the show’s early years appealed to me, and a lot of that came from Hodgson’s special, zonked whimsicality and the way he acted like a cool dad to the bots. There was a sweetness to it, and that balanced out the barbed edge of the show’s premise and allowed it to get away with some pretty mean jokes.

I always liked Nelson in the skits during the Hodgson era, and I was looking forward to seeing him stretch out. But when he took over, he came across like a frat brother, and he seemed to be sitting on a much deeper reserve of hostility than Hodgson ever had. It made for a sensibility that—especially when combined with a crass, ugly movie that wasn’t old enough to have any vintage camp charm, like the Cannon productions Outlaw Of Gor or Alien From L.A.—could an atmosphere smelling faintly of used gym socks. The show could still be funny, especially when it got its hands on something truly jaw-dropping that I’d never even heard whispered about before, like the oeuvre of Coleman Francis. But I never daydreamed about actually visiting the Satellite Of Love again, and the sad fact is that, in the early years, I did. (Okay, everybody now: “You should really just relax!”)

David Sims: I think I’m even more of a novice to this show than Genevieve, in that when I loaded this episode up, I was shocked to realize there are actually scenes that happen before they watch the movie! You see the robots and stuff in person! I feel like I’m shredding my hard-earned geek cred by saying this, but honestly, all I knew of MST3K before watching this episode was the classic image of a dude and two robots watching a bad movie in silhouette. I got that, but I honestly thought every episode just opened on the bad movie, with no real explanation about why it’s being watched by a dude and his two sarcastic robots. But there’s a whole plot going on, which requires an explanatory opening song! There’s enough going on that we can have a new character who’s considered an interloper drop by! Who knew?

So yes, I am also pretty unqualified to remark on the whole “outsider” aspect of this episode, since I could barely wrap my head around the show’s whole concept being dumped on me in the opening two minutes. I had to pause the episode and start Googling MST3K (and read Erik’s intro) just to clear up my baffled brain. I’m fascinated enough to consider delving into the show’s archives and catch up, but this also strikes me as a show that’s best to discover at a younger age, when you’re still building out your snarky self-awareness. I’m somewhat abashed, but mostly I just feel melancholy for having missed out because, given the number of episodes and the depth of nerdery that exists for MST3K, I’m sure I would have been thrilled to immerse myself in this universe when I was younger.

I don’t know why MST3K passed me by—it’s definitely less of a thing in Britain, where I grew up, and I had no Comedy Channel/Comedy Central as a kid. But it’s not that a show where bad films are gently mocked doesn’t exactly fit with British sensibilities, so maybe I was just hanging with the wrong crowd. 

Stray observations:

In the spirit of the tape-trading communities that spread word of the show in the days before Comedy Central was readily available from most cable providers, YouTube now hosts full-episode videos of most of MST3K episodes. This is the ideal end result of the Internet’s democratization of information. [EA]

Remember: Only you can prevent Joel vs. Mike flame wars in the comments. [EA]

After two seasons of reviewing New Girl, it only just now dawned on me that Jake Johnson’s character shares his name with the protagonist of Time Chasers. [EA]

I suspect the comments will explode with favorite lines and riffs from this episode, but I’ll get things started with one that shaped my understanding of sartorial faux pas for years: “Whoa, two different plaids? I’m a naked robot, and even I know that’s a fashion no-no.” [EA]

I’m also a big fan of all the businessman jargon Mike and the bots throw at tycoon villain J.K. “Bob Evil” Robertson: “My God—ISO 9001 certification is a license to kill!” [EA]

Anyone else think that the mustached corporate stooge looks like a combination of Bobby Moynihan and Matthew Weiner’s son? [RM]

I actually found myself trying to follow this movie’s time-travel logic, then slapped myself silly before moving on with my life. [RM]

Favorite personal MST3K episodes: Cave Dwellers, Pod People, and the short “Hired! Part II.” I quote “Hired!” more than probably any other piece of pop culture I’ve ever consumed. (“Flying elves are back!” gets uttered once every other day.) [RM]

We should do an inventory of MST3K Quotes For Everyday Use (on the model of the monumental Simpsons list from seven years ago). You can’t get more useful in today’s futuristic-film saturated market than “So, 50 years from now it will be three years from now.” [DB]

On the DVD version, Mike relates in an intro that the filmmakers of Time Chasers were huge fans of the show and threw a big viewing party for the airing of the episode, only to be brought low by the vitriol the MST3K crew heaps upon star Matthew Bruch. (Sample: “Maybe he’s going into the house to meet the real hero of the film!”) [DB]

The enduring message of MST3K: If you have access to a Cessna, you have what it takes to make a feature film. (See also: Skydivers, The.) [DB]

When the bad guy in the movie says that time travel could be used to change the future, Crow grunts something about how you could prevent Newt Gingrich, Jim Carrey, and Smashing Pumpkins. Somehow, nothing gives you as strong a flashback to having lived through the recent past as being reminded of what everyone was bitching about being sick of 15 or so years ago. Who at the time would have guessed that, all these years later, Gingrich would be the one who now still looked the most like a menace? (Unless you’re Emma Stone, in which case you might throw your vote Jim Carrey’s way.) [PDN]

Having knocked the Outlaw episode of MST3K, I should admit that, almost 20 years after seeing it for the first and only time, I do still remember one line as fondly as anything from the Joel era. As I recall, there’s a mine cave-in, and the villainess callously barks, “Have the living carry out the dead!” Then she sees her henchman, Jack Palance, giving her a look, and asks, “Am I not right?” Tom Servo: “Only way to work it.” [PDN]

Next time: The Roundtable takes a well-deserved break, then it’s back to business as Phil Dyess-Nugent gets countercultural with The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. After that, David Sims presents an episode of Brass Eye that the typically reserved British press decried as “unspeakably sick.”