Sci-Fi fans are in luck:’more awful, old movies’

EDEN PRAIRIE, Minn. (AP) — There’s still a pink plastic flamingo outside Best Brains Inc. The mailbox reads, simply, “BRAINS.”
Inside the bland, light-industrial suburban building, the walls are adorned with posters from cheesy movies: “Godzilla on Monster Island” and 1987’s “Mannequin,” autographed by star Kim Cattrall.
Props are everywhere — an electric chair, the giant head of Japanese creature-feature star Mothra, a syringe the size of Shaquille O’Neal.
This is the home of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” the television show with fans as devoted as any Trekkie. This is where schlock cinema is transformed by BBI’s writers into witty, hip takes on pop culture.
But the lights nearly went out at “MST3K,” as fans call it. Citing low ratings, Comedy Central decided not to renew the Peabody Award-winning show. Distraught fans deluged the cable network with pleas and protests, all to no avail.
Enter the Sci-Fi Channel, which picked up the show for 13 new episodes, with an option for nine more. “Mystery Science Theater” debuts on Sci-Fi on Feb. 1.
For the staff at “MST3K,” which began on a Twin Cities UHF station in 1988, it’s like having a new mom and dad.
“The house smells really different,” says head writer Michael J. Nelson, with a mock look of disgust.
Nelson, 32, plays a lowly temp shot into space and forced to watch horribly bad movies such as “Kitten With a Whip” and “The Creeping Terror” as part of a mad scientist’s fiendish experiment.
To cope, Nelson and his homemade robots — Crow and Tom Servo — heckle the movies at the rate of 700 quips per show. The TV audience sees the movie with the silhouettes of Mike, Crow and Servo superimposed on the corner.
Things looked grim last December when Comedy Central decided not to bring “Mystery Science Theater” back for an eighth season. (Reruns will continue on the channel through the end of 1996.)
“I was hauling stuff out of there so fast,” writer Mary Jo Pehl recalls. “It was very awkward when we got picked up for another season. I had to bring all the computers back.”
“There was a family of raccoons in the writing room here,” adds co-worker Paul Chaplin.
Another blow came in July, after the Sci-Fi Channel announced it was picking up “MST3K.” Trace Beaulieu, who played the mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and worked the Crow puppet, decided to leave.
It’s not the first cast change at “Mystery Science Theater.” Joel Hodgson, the comedian who created the show, left in 1993 and was replaced by Nelson as host. And Frank Conniff, who played Dr. Forrester’s flunky TV’s Frank, left after the sixth season.
The new Crow will be handled by writer Bill Corbett, who admits to waging a “shameless campaign” to take over as the voice of the wisecracking, bird-like puppet.
Corbett says he’ll try to capture the spirit of Crow without doing “a warmed-over Rich Little” impersonation.
“I think it’s easy to underestimate how much the writing just pulls forward anybody in the character. It’s the same sensibility, the same writing,” he says.
Pehl also will have an expanded role in the new season as Dr. Forrester’s overbearing mother, Pearl, and she’s glad to be back.
“I wanted to do more. I wanted to watch more awful, old movies. You can’t get enough, as far as I’m concerned,” she says.
“MST3K” will be able to draw from Sci-Fi’s library of films, but it also means the show will be limited to science fiction — no more spy thrillers or teenage hot-rodder flicks.
Kevin Murphy, the voice of Tom Servo, doesn’t see that as a problem.
“First of all, the quality of the films that we’re looking at this year is fantastic. They’re just a better grade of bad film,” he says.