Over the years many television series and feature films have paid tribute to the Gerry Anderson shows in a variety of ways, with Stingray recently making a brief appearance on the big screen in Aquaman. One show that made frequent mention of the Anderson universe will likely not be familiar to as many British and European fans as it is to American ones, even if they might not even know its name; Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K)’s connection with Gerry Anderson goes right back to its very beginnings in 1988, and to a local television station in the Minneapolis and St Paul area named KTMA TV 23 where comedian Joel Hodgson had gathered together a small group of writer-performers with an idea for a television series. Inspired by various celebrity-hosted monster movie shows of that era, he proposed to leave the host in the movie to make comments and jokes throughout. Joel and his two robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T Robot on the Satellite of Love would appear in the bottom third of the frame as silhouettes seated in front of the movie screen, throwing out ad-libbed comments on whatever they were watching.
Raiding the KTMA library for suitable films to air on the show yielded several Anderson titles from the Super Space Theater range. These were compilation movies made in the early 1980s which compiled episodes from various Anderson series into ninety-minute features, albeit with varying degrees of success. Although Thunderbirds to the Rescue and Thunderbirds in Outer Space both appear to have been considered for MST3K (an early promo mentions To The Rescue over footage from In Outer Space) neither would ultimately appear, but when the show first aired on Thanksgiving 1988 it was with a double bill of Supermarionation features; Invaders from the Deep (Stingray’s Hostages of the Deep, Emergency Marineville, The Big Gun and Deep Heat) followed by Revenge of the Mysterons from Mars (Captain Scarlet’s Shadow of Fear, Lunarville 7, Crater 101 and Dangerous Rendezvous). Later in the season Space:1999’s Cosmic Princess (season two’s The Metamorph and Space Warp) also received the MST3K treatment but this was to be the final Anderson production aired on the show, although a shot of Mauritimus in his ‘Big Gun’ would remain part of the opening titles sequence for the rest of the season.
While the series is best known today for making fun of bad movies the format was more loose and relaxed in its earliest days, often with minutes passing by between jokes, and the inclusion of the Anderson features comes across more as an affectionate nod by those involved to shows that they remembered fondly from their childhoods rather than any genuinely critical feeling towards them. That, and the simple fact that there was probably little else in the KTMA library worth bothering with!
The following year MST3K was picked up for national broadcast by the Comedy Channel (shortly before it became Comedy Central), and remained there for seven seasons before transferring to the Sci Fi Channel for three more. The show was gradually overhauled, most notably with regard to how the movies were handled; gone was the laid-back ad-lib style of the KTMA season, replaced with a full script of jokes at the movie’s expense eventually numbering into the hundreds. Although no further Anderson productions appeared on the show they were regularly mentioned among the wide variety of pop culture references that formed an essential component of the show’s humor; not as often as the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars or others, but usually once every two or three episodes.
Three Anderson series in particular were regularly mentioned; exploding models in various Japanese giant monster movies were often compared to those of Thunderbirds, vehicles shot against back-projection screens sometimes prompted a brief rendition of the Supercar theme, and the words “for action!” were frequently added whenever a movie character ordered someone to “stand by”. (See also the Rex Dart – Eskimo Spy! skit for a spoof of the Stingray intro). It also wasn’t uncommon for a particularly wooden actor to be compared to a Supermarionation character, with 1950s sci-fi hero Rocky Jones Space Ranger once being described as having “all the facial expressions of Troy Tempest”. Occasionally these references would be slightly off-point, perhaps reflecting the shows being a fond but distant memory to the writers, but occasionally they were insanely specific.
Outside of the theater could also be found occasional other Anderson references; UFO received a nod during the opening titles of the show from season two to mid-season five, as Joel is seen entering the theater via a slide similar to the launch chutes in the interceptor pilots sphere on Moonbase.
Most notably throughout seasons two and three the show’s ‘villains’ Doctor Forrester and TV’s Frank were assisted by a pair of silent Mole People, characters based on the 1956 movie of the same name which the show itself would eventually mock in 1997. In a nod to the show’s KTMA origins these Mole People were named Gerry and Sylvia, although the uncomfortable nature of the costumes soon led to the characters being phased out.
Despite many of the MST3K cast and crew having at least a passing knowledge of the Anderson shows (particularly Thunderbirds) series creator and original host Joel Hodgson seems to have been the source of many of the references made to them, even once saying in an interview that the show was called Mystery Science Theater 3000 because he was “always fond of science fiction shows with numbers attached to their titles, like Space: 1999 and Sealab 2020“. When he departed the show midway through season five all references to the Supermarionation shows suddenly ceased and the only reference to any Anderson production in the post-Joel era came in season 8’s Time Chasers, as Crow travels back in time to warn a young Mike Nelson (Hodgson’s successor on the Satellite of Love) against taking the temp job that will eventually lead to him being shot up into space to watch bad movies. Mike doesn’t take the warning seriously; “that’d be outrageous, it’d be like Space:1999 or something!” Meanwhile, Joel’s post-MST3K work occasionally gave him further opportunities to homage the Anderson shows, including a Thunderbirds parody (“The Power Kings, filmed in Superpuppettricity!”) in his 1995 puppet-packed pilot TV Wheel.
The original Mystery Science Theater 3000 came to an end on the Sci Fi Channel in 1999 after ten seasons, and the various creative forces behind it moved onto other projects. Many of these included similar movie-riffing ventures, including Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax, where the occasional Anderson reference still slips through to this day. Perhaps the most notable can be heard at the conclusion of Rifftrax’s version of 1980’s pop flop The Apple, in which Joss Ackland’s God comes down from Heaven in his flying Rolls Royce to save all good people from Vladek Sheybal’s Satan, prompting a rendition of the Supercar theme that only earns the response “you’re ten thousand years old, aren’t you?”
In 2016, as the result of the most successful TV-related Kickstarter campaign of all time, Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned for 14 brand new episodes with the additional help of Shout Factory and Netflix. Joel Hodgson was back at the creative helm – and, sure enough, South Korean giant monster movie Yongary – Monster from the Deep featured a Thunderbirds joke in among all the exploding models. An additional surprise was in store for Kickstarter supporters who had backed above a certain level; MST3K’s versions of Invaders from the Deep and Revenge of the Mysterons from Mars, which had never been seen by any fans who weren’t watching their initial 1988 broadcast, were released as digital downloads. These were extremely gratefully received, with many fans also being pleasantly surprised at how well both Stingray and Captain Scarlet held up compared to the standard MST3K fare and several even being inspired to purchase the Shout Factory DVD sets by way of thanks. In an update email released to backers Joel commented on these early episodes, and said of the Anderson shows specifically;
“I was thrilled to be working with Invaders from the Deep because, like many people my age, I grew up loving the work of Gerry and Sylvia Anderson. But obviously, these types of films were pretty hard to riff on. I think mostly there are no expressions for the puppets on screen, and it’s really hard to say anything other than, “Hey, that puppet does his own stunts.” I remember we had a chance to re-riff this film and Mysterons later in the Comedy Channel days but I decided against it. Also, these two films are spellbinding and intensely interesting, mostly because of the brilliant model work by the great Derek Meddings.”
If you’re unfamiliar with MST3K but tempted to check it out I would recommend steering well clear of the three Anderson episodes until you’ve given the show’s later seasons a look and have a greater understanding of the series it eventually became. The KTMA episodes represent the show in its earliest form, a rough draft that was never meant to be seen outside of Minneapolis and which is unlikely to bring many laughs. It may even be that even the best episodes of the show fail to amuse you, or that the very idea of the show turns you off entirely, and that’s okay. Humor is extremely subjective after all. Personally MST3K has brought me nothing but joy for nearly twenty years now and has been a huge influence on my sense of humor, with my Randomiser segment on the Gerry Anderson Podcast being something of a tribute to the show.
Whatever your thoughts on MST3K there’s no denying the people behind it often exhibited genuine nostalgia for the Gerry Anderson shows, highlighting the way his works can linger in the minds of those who first saw them as kids long into adulthood. We often assume that ITC’s failure to get many of the Anderson shows onto a major U.S. network meant they didn’t find much of an audience stateside, but the story of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s thirty year relationship with them proves that if a show is good it will always find some kind of audience; that is in itself one of the core philosophies of MST3K, in fact. Sometimes it’s not about how many people saw the shows, but how long they remember them.