If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then there are certainly some sincere fans of "Mystery Science Theater 3000." Several groups of people around the country (perhaps the globe) have turned on their video cameras to re-enact the premise of the television show. The results are MST3K "fanvids." In this post-postmodernist scenario, fans recreate the Satellite of Love, where a hapless guy watches cheesy movies with his robot friends at the behest of mad scientists back on Earth.
These fanvids are a grab bag of various styles and scenarios. What they have in common is their lampooning of some terrifically awful films never featured on the official show (often due to legal or financial reasons). Some of the fans redo MST3K in front of a live studio audience (hopefully with a lot of preparation). These usually aren’t captured for posterity. The majority of MST3K fanvids recreate the "studio look" of the original series. Having gone through three television channels (KTMA, Comedy Central, the Sci-Fi channel), two hosts, and several mad scientists/arch villains, there are myriad incarnations of the show from which fans can choose.
The premise for Mystery Fandom Theater 3000 posits that "another scientistwhile doing backwater work in Deep 13discovered all of Dr. Forrester’s old experiment reports and research notes. [He] subsequently decided to complete the experiment on a new test subject: a poor young intern who gets shot up into an SOL-2." With their three high-gloss fanvids, the Mystery Fandom Theater 3000 troupe couple their laudable special effects with the key to the original show’s success: great writing. While mocking fare such as Little Red Riding Hood (1960), Invasion of the Animal People (1959), and Star Crash (1979), Mike (Mike Hagen) and the bots (Adam Riggs, Brian Underwood) manage to provide some good laughs with their clever commentary.
Where Hagen & company went with the late Comedy Central characters, Ryan K. Johnson starred in two fanvids that capture the golden Comedy Central days, with Johnson playing MST3K creator Joel Hodgeson (playing Joel Robinson). While Robinson’s "robot friends" are a little rough around the edges, the films sent up to the Satellite of Love by Doctor Forrester (Terry Wyatt) and TV’s Frank (Tony Case) are absolutely terrific choices. Johnson and company sink their teeth into William Shatner’s Star Trek V (1989) and Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander II (1991). With easy pickings for hilarity, the faux Joel and bots do an acceptable job with their commentary. However, watching three guys riff on a movieeven one as bad as Highlander IIreally makes one appreciate the quality writing of the original MST3K. There was a third episode planned for Johnson’s troupe, but they were scooped by Mystery Spatula Theater 11 when MST11 took on The Fantastic Four. MSTies try not to eat each others’ lunch.
Some fanvids opt to create their own MST3K story rather than portraying the original characters of the show. For example, the Mystery Spatula Theater 11 troupe spins its back story in this way: "Dr. Heronymous Mushmeyer and Dr. Frank Taunheiser [were] recently promoted to programming directors (B-grade) of Cambridge Community Television. [The station] plays broadcast movies [and the doctors] screen each incoming film, deciding whether or not it is fit to air. Max Dunham, a regular technician guy at the station and sous-chef for the cooking show ‘Cooking with the Cooking Guy,’ becomes their unwitting victim."
Part cooking show, part MST3K fan effort, MST11 could do better with its host segments (remember, guys, "less is more") but their choice of film makes them unable to do any wrong once they’re in the theater riffing on such a deliciously awful bit of cinematic swill. And, as an added bonus, the video quality of The Fantastic Four unearthed by Dr. Mushmeyer and Dr. Taunheiser is remarkable. The DVD versions of MST11’s Fantastic Four and Dungeons & Dragons (ilikesheep.com) come with on-screen commentary tracks that give credit to where the troupe’s references stem.
With easy access to video equipment and the luxury of youth to afford ample time, a number of the MST3K fanvids have high school and college students behind them. This is the case for Garage Productions’ fanvid for Antonio Margheriti’s Battle of the Worlds(1961). At his website (adamhill.com) co-creator Adam Hill writes, "As luck would have it, we gained access to the Lincoln High School studio. They had just built it complete with three cameras, blue screen, lights, Media 100, and several SVHS decks. Because it was so new, nobody else was using it, so we were able to leave the set standing till filming was complete." Featuring a very sharp Satellite of Love set and some of the nicest bots of the lot, the riffing on Battle of the Worldsis on par with some of the better original MST3K episodes like Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword (1962).
One of the most overlooked requisites of MST3K fanvids has to be the use of three distinct voices for the host and bots. Joel Hodgeson, Trace Beaulieu, and Kevin Murphy were recognizable even as darkened theater silhouettes. While riffing on Andrew Morgan’s Doctor Who: Time and the Rani (1987), Brian (Brian Uiga), Servo (Jeff Haut), and Crow (Mikey Mulligan) are equally distinguishable. It should be noted that this is one of the few fanvids to have a wonderfully crafted Gypsy (Jim Kaluger) to boot. Produced and directed by Uiga, this has some good chuckles and some great production values.
MST3K fanvids can fail for a few reasons. Common causes include bad audio (for a show that relies on commentary, being inaudible is unacceptable), unfunny commentary, and poor movie choice (even Joel and the bots couldn’t win when it came to SideHackers).
The folks behind Mystery Science Theater 3000: Season 11 are three for three. Worse, they couldn’t even bother to come up with a decent copy of Robert Wise’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979). Instead, they utilize a copy taped off of AMC. With long gaps of silence between some cringe-inducing "jokes," Lewis (Lewis Lovhaug) and his botsPollo (Adam Smith) and Tony (Anthony Nowatzki)make watching this first filmic voyage of the Enterprise even more excruciating than usual.
Mystery Science Tulsa 3000 also meets two of the three criteria, with their lame attempt at skewering Peter Hyams’s Timecop (1994). Named one of the top-ten time travel movies of all time by Cashiers du Cinemart, Timecop is a solid sci-fi actioner. Easier pickings would have been Geoff Murphy’s Freejack (1992) or William Dear’s Timerider (1982). Even with an unobjectionable film, the Mystery Science Tulsa crew could have done a good job, if only their commentary were the slightest bit humorous (seeing Largo Entertainment in the credits one of the hosts says, "Hey, I’ve got a key to that place!"). And to think that it took over five years to come up with such a stunning piece of entertainment.
This version of Mike (Randy Northcut) and his bots (Drew Rees and Dan Bridgwater) come off as chatty assholes who you’d want to peg Milk Duds off of if you were trapped behind them in a theater.
"Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax,’" went the old theme song to MST3K. It seems that the makers of the fanvid for Gymkata should have taken this advice. Using their fanvid as a platform to critique the 1995 state of MST3K, the opening credits give a brief history of the show, along with camcorder shots of original actors Trace Beaulieu, Kevin Murphy, et cetera. The initial segment has Mike Nelson (John Warton) and his bizarre-looking bots mourning the death of TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff has just left the show).
The self-reflexive fanvid does well to mock Robert Clouse’s Gymkata (1985). This is one film to which Joel and the bots often referred (randomly shouting out "Gymkata!" after slick martial arts moves during movies like Godzilla Vs Megalon. With such an amazingly cheesy film, the commentary can only add to hilarity. With Warton tripping over his lines during the host sequences, it’s a good thing that once he and the bots get in front of Gymkata they stay there until the movie’s over.