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Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable)

October 30, 2009 at 8:40 pm

Since I spend the vast majority of my time either working at my day job or writing, and since I'll  have even less free time as the holidays approach, it seemed like a good idea to take on a brand new, time-intensive project at home.

It involves robots.

Well, puppets, if we must be technical about it.  But they're puppets OF robots.  So that's pretty close, right?

I'm talking about my old friends Crow T. Robot, Tom Servo, Gypsy, and Cambot.

I've been a devoted fan of Mystery Science Theater 3000 since its very earliest days on a UHF station (KTMA 23!) in the Twin Cities, where I grew up.  Well, no, that's not true.  I watched it back in the KTMA days, but I became a devoted fan after it hopped to the Comedy Channel (which I think became  Comedy Central a year or two later).  If only I'd started taping MST3K from the very beginning.  Or taped it consistently, once I did start....  Sigh.

I did manage to get about a 100 episodes on tape over the years, thanks in large part to those wonderful Turkey Day marathons they used to run.  My collection consists mostly of Joel episodes, since the transition from Joel Hodgson to Mike Nelson occurred right around the time it got harder for me to consistently tape the show.  I do have a smattering of Mike episodes, and they're all  great.  But to me, the Golden Years of MST3K will always be seasons 2-5.  (Fugitive Alien, anyone?  Mighty JackGodzillaGameraMr. B Natural?)

Mike had been the head writer for MST3K long before he took over for Joel, so much of the humor remained the same  immediately after the transition because the mix in the writers' room hadn't changed a great deal.   But if you knew the show well enough, you could see a certain kind of quirkiness missing after Joel's departure.  I was very sad to see him go.  The next blow, in my not-at-all humble opinion, was Frank Conniff's departure (though they did give TV's Frank a great sendoff).  The Dr. Forrester/Mrs. Forrester interplay just never worked for me personally.  And when Trace Beaulieu left -- taking with him both Dr. Forrester and the original the voice of Crow -- well...  Bill Corbett did a fine job when he took over Crow, and he made me laugh in his role as Observer, but the chemistry of the original show was forever lost.  (Well, I  suppose the original original chemistry was gone when Josh Weinstein left at the end of season 1.)  By the end  of the SciFi days, I think the indomitable Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo, and, later, Professor Bobo) was the only original on-camera cast member remaining.

I would have been delighted if the show could have continued for another 10 years past the decade of life it did get.  But, like I said, in my mind, seasons 2-5 will always be the Golden Years.  Though, with projects like RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic, maybe the show has found a second life after all.  And hooray for that!  (Both RiffTrax and CT are well worth your time, if you like MST3K.)

MST3K is something guaranteed to cheer me up when I'm feeling under the weather.  It's very dear to me (and countless others, I'm sure).  I have so many fond memories of watching this show with friends.  In college, I was lucky to find a good group of people who were also fans.  Around the same time, the good folks at Best Brains did a couple of screenings at the U of MN (and elsewhere, I'm sure), both of which were a huge blast (especially when the cast showed up for a Q & A after one of the showings).  I also attended a couple of "live" showings of MST3K back in the day, once in 1992 and again, I think, in 1994.

One of my greatest regrets in life is that I never went on a tour of the Best Brains studios.  And I wasn't living more than 20 minutes away during most of the years when they were giving tours.  Oh, to have had my photograph taken with Crow T. Robot!  I really do regret that.

That collection of MST3K episodes is probably one of my most prized possessions.  There have been quite a few moves through 4 different states during the intervening years, and MST3K has always come with me.  Purely for sentimental reasons, I guess.  But my house doesn't feature a climate-controlled vault suitable for storing such a treasure.  Heck, I've never lived anywhere with a climate-controlled vault.  For the past few years, I've become more and more aware of the fact that  the tapes won't last forever.  Especially not given the way they've been stored for most of those  years.  (Nor will VCRs be around forever.)  I've wanted to do a format converstion on the collection for quite some time, but never got around to starting it until last weekend.  I was feeling a little  blue, so I cheered myself up with some retail therapy by buying a DVD burner.  Since then, I've been  slooowly working through my collection of episodes, making DVD copies of my VHS tapes.  It's going to  take 5 or 6 weeks to do them all, but I'm having fun in the meantime. 

If only I had the time to watch each episode in its entierety during the conversion-- instead I'm usually up in my office, working on the current novel, and running downstairs every couple of hours to swap out tapes and DVDs.  I suppose a more hardcore fan really would watch each episode during the conversion in order to keep from unnecessarily burning the old commercials onto the new DVD copies.  (On second thought, I don't know that I could ever sit through yet another showing of Manos: The Hands of Fate or Monster A-Go-Go.  I've seen both more than enough for one lifetime, thank you. Even Joel and the bots can't take away all the pain of watching those train wrecks.  Manos has such a reputation as one of the worst films in history -- largely if not entirely due to MST3K -- that it's often the one people request when they want to borrow or watch a tape.)  But the commercials are half  the fun!  They make the episodes an even stronger exercise in nostalgia, which I happen to enjoy.  (But I do tend to be more sentimental than is good for me.) 

Some observations:

Wow.  1992 was a long time ago.

I had a terrible cable TV connection in 1993.  Probably because I was using a coaxial cable I'd made myself.  If only I'd had the foresight to make a trip to Radio Shack.  If only I'd appreciated the  great weight of posterity that would someday rest on these tapes.

Wow.  The early 90s looked a LOT like the late 80s.  I don't remember it like that at all, but 17-year-old commercials don't lie.  Do they?

Hairstyles and clothes didn't entirely break free of the influence of the 80s until 92/93, if one can judge these things accurately on the basis of a single Pringles commercial.

Ditto cars-- still boxy in 1992.  Again, I don't remember it that way, but there's the 1992 VW Golf looking, well, like an 80s car.

You couldn't swing a dead cat in 1993 without hitting a spokesperson for AT&T, or Sprint, or MCI.  Choosing the right landline telephone service provider for your telecommunication needs was a BIG DEAL in 1993.  Like, huge.  Finding the best rates for long distance and collect calls was the single most important issue on the national consciousness in the early 90s.

Mrs. Doubtfire is simultaneously older and yet newer than I remembered. I've never felt any desire to see it, and even today the commercials still don't change that.

I remember a flap -- back in the Usenet days -- when people complained about Comedy Central's voiceover announcements (voiced by Penn Jillett) during the MST3K closing credits.  The complaint was that it made it hard to get a clean recording of the MST3K "love theme".  I even distinctly remember one episode (haven't found it yet as I work through my collection) wherein Penn actually referred to this directly while he was doing the voiceover.  And yet, I'm finding that -- so far -- many of my taped episodes have "pristine"  closing credits.  I wonder if those are episodes that weren't taped during their premiere broadcast, but during Turkey Day marathons? I remember those voiceovers so clearly.  Or... do I?

Crow T. Robot is just as awesome as I remember.  Ditto Tom Servo.  And Joel.  And Mike.  And the Mads.

Update, 31 October 2009:

Total episodes: 106

Successful conversions: 18

Failed conversions: 2

Remaining episodes: 86


Richard October 31, 2009 at 8:28 am
I've heard that DVDs won't last forever either, so be sure to keep a digital copy on a giant USB hard drive and stick that in a closet too. Then upload the digital files into the cloud. Redundancy is key to archiving digital media.
Ian October 31, 2009 at 9:35 am
The only storage medium proven to last for centuries is paper. The only storage medium proven to last for millenia (which is, of course, my eventual goal, so that the Morlocks and Eloi can enjoy MST3K just as much as we did) is stone tablets. But I've looked into that, and stone tablets aren't compatible with the NTSC standard. So, yep, the DVD conversion is itself a temporary solution (on the scale of at least a decade, I'd like to hope). My plan for the next 40 years is to keep jumping from format to format as each one either: (a) reaches a point of potential unreliability, through regular degradation owing to aging and wear & tear, or (b) threatens to become no longer viable as the relevant technology becomes outdated. The VHS tapes (which I'm planning to hold on to anyway) were reaching a point where both (a) and (b) were looming. Although, actually, with a few exceptions (the tapes that received particularly poor treatment over the years), most of them have held up better than I'd hoped. And you can still buy VCRs-- but that won't be the case forever. As for my DVD copies, I'm already behind the technology curve there, too, because I could be burning these to blue-ray discs. But that would be much pricier than going to straight DVD at the moment. Ten years from now it will be viable. (Also, talk about overkill. The original VHS copies are of sufficiently low quality that all future format upgrades can only offer stability and longevity, but not clarity or fidelity. Short of forensic reconstruction of the source material, I guess.) Anyway, yeah, I've heard the same thing about DVDs. Though I'm not aware of any good, reliable numbers on how quickly they deteriorate. And that's for commercially-produced DVDs... who knows how long my particular DVD-Rs produced in my particular burner will last. So, I'm bootstrapping. The main thing this VHS-to-DVD conversion achieves is getting the source material out of an analog format. All future format upgrades can, in theory, be exact and lossless.
Sara G. October 31, 2009 at 1:57 pm
I totally remember that Penn Jillette comment during his voice over! Manos Hands of Fate IS the worst movie ever! However a theatre company here in Chicago made it into a rock musical, which was hilarious. My favorite episode (and I think the first one I ever saw) was Rocketship X-M w/Lloyd 'By this time my lungs were ACHING for air!" Bridges and of course "Valderi! Valdera! Valder ah ha ha ha!" Thanks for the stroll down memory lane.
Victor Milán November 1, 2009 at 1:48 am
For me the Joel shows were the best. I enjoyed Mike well enough (and as you say he'd been head writer for a long time.) But part of the show died for me when Joel departed.
Ian November 1, 2009 at 1:49 pm
I totally remember that Penn Jillett comment during his voice over!
Thank you! I was beginning to doubt my sanity. I still haven't found it but I'm sure it's in my collection somewhere. Rocketship X-M is one of the truly great episodes. Alongside Teenagers from Outer Space ("student council from outer space"). Good times. Good times.
Ian November 1, 2009 at 1:53 pm
You, sir, are a man of excellent tastes. But we already knew that.
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