On Endings and New Beginnings: Mystery Science Theater 3000’s Three Distinct Finales

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a special show. One of the particular things that makes it great is that where lesser shows have but one finale, MST3K had three different endings, each of which told a different story about the show’s mission. Experiment 512: Mitchell, ended the Joel era, and went out in a very Joel way. Experiment 706: Laserblast, ended the show’s run on Comedy Central, and pulled off the impressive trick of being both an ending and a springboard for the show’s move to Syfy. Finally the ending ending—at least until the new season starts on Netflix later this month—Experiment 1013: Danger: Diabolik! closed out the show in a more poignant way.

Mitchell seems like an innocuous episode. It’s one of the strongest of the season, featuring a titanically unlikeable protagonist named Mitchell, played by Joe Don Baker. If this hadn’t been a finale, it would have been notable for solid riffing and a best-ever rage moment from both Tom Servo:

The episode’s riffs have two great running gags: (1) Joel and the Bots punctuate any time Mitchell has to run, climb a fence, draw his gun – basically any time he has to act like a cop – with tortured wheezing and coughing; (2) everyone mistakes Mitchell for that far superior 70s PI, Jim Rockford. However, the show is one of the most important of the series, because it marks Joel’s escape from the Satellite of Love. Personally I started watching MST3K after Mike had already taken over, but retroactively became more of a Joel fan. I was, in theory, way too old and emotionally mature to be upset by Joel’s departure.

I was, in practice, deeply upset by Joel’s departure.

In the show’s story, it’s Gypsy who (mistakenly) saves Joel by throwing him off the ship in the escape pod, she worries about this for several host segments, toiling in solitude as she knows Joel would never willingly abandon his Bots, and Crow and Tom prove to be actively unhelpful to her mission. Now, the meta-story here is upsetting, as Joel has since said he only left because of strife with his partner, Jim Mallon… the voice of Gypsy. So casting her as the lone, competent hero is an odd choice here.

Putting that aside, and looking at the episode purely as a finale, you can see that it’s a perfect capper to Joel’s tenure, and lays some interesting groundwork for the show to visit later in its Comedy Central finale. Deep 13 is being audited, so the Mads have hired a temp, played by Mike Nelson in a jumpsuit that says, “I Spell Fun W.O.R.K!” which is #tooreal to be funny. The Mads decide to kill Mike, calling him a “be-jumpsuited fool”. Gypsy overhears this—in a beautiful parody of 2001: A Space Odyssey—and mistakenly believes that the be-jumpsuited fool to who they refer is Joel.

 

 

 

 

Later Gypsy brainstorms ways to save Joel, working in front of a whiteboard that highlights the phrase “POE” which I’ve always assumed was a nod to Dr. Strangelove‘s “Purity of Essence”. Two seasons later, both 2001 and the idea of Purity of Essence will be revisited in the Comedy Central finale. They throw a few other brilliant moments out—the escape pod is called the Deus Ex Machina, and it’s hidden in a box of Hamdingers, which no one likes. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume that for many of us who didn’t grow up in the Midwest, this was our introduction to these beauties:

The episode gives us peak Joel. When Gypsy asks him how he’d leave the Satellite if he were faced with his imminent death, he scoffs and insists he’d never leave. He allows the Bots to destroy his Popsicle stick house, and he ignores the escape pod’s emergency klaxons because reading that week’s letter is more important. Best of all, though, is that once he’s safely aboard the escape pod, the Bots learned that he stashed a farewell message for them just in case, because of course he did.

Joel Robinson: Best Robot Dad.

The message is also perfect for this era of MST3K:

The whole world is a circus if you look at it the right way. Every time you pick up a handful of dust, and see not the dust, but a mystery, a marvel, there in your hand, every time you stop to think, “I’m alive, and being alive is fantastic.” Every time such a thing happens, you are part of the Circus of Dr. Lao.

The Seven Faces of Dr. Lao is a George Pal movie, full of cheesy-but-endearing effects, that features Tony Randall not just playing the 7,322 year-old Chinese mystic, but also Merlin, Pan, Medusa, and the Abominable Snowman, among others. I’ll admit I’m fond of the thing, despite its silliness and obviously problematic elements. Even as Tom Servo teases him for it—“Joel leaves, and his last words are from a George Pal movie?! I thought it would be something profound, you know, like from the Psalms, or the Upanishads, or even the Desiderata for that matter.”—the quote itself is a mix of sincerity bordering on sap and nostalgia wrapped up in an homage to a fantasy cult film, and serves as a perfect ending for Joel’s time on the SOL.

When the show was cancelled by Comedy Central they found themselves in an odd situation. Frank Conniff had already left the show, allowing TV’s Frank to ascend to Second Banana Heaven with Torgo the White. And even though there were rumors that Syfy might resurrect MST3K, Trace Beaulieu decided to leave at that point, so the show had to give the original Mad a fitting ending, while still leaving things open-ended enough that the other characters could come back.

Laserblast somehow managed to do all of that work, while also being one of the most purely “sci-fi” episodes the show ever produced. It provides a perfectly logical endpoint to the show—Dr. F’s funding has been cut, so like any good academic researcher he needs to tally up his losses, jettison the SOL, and find more lucrative work in the private sector. He does this in a typically Dr. F type of way, literally unplugging the Umbilicus and waving goodbye as Mike and the Bots float away to their doom. It gives us three fun host segments, riffing on Star Treks Original and Voyager, and mashing a nursery full of Star Babies up with the tense, brow-mopping space race science of Apollo 13. In short, it allows each of these segments to be fun.

When the SOL is threatened, Mike slowly transforms into Captain Janeway, and mostly transcends a cheap drag joke to point out that Janeway is freaking awesome. Plus in Mike’s version Janeway goes into a passionate rendition of “Proud Mary” after she saves the day. When Crow attracts the attention of a Monad, the show takes on the classic Star Trek episode “The Changeling”, along with the perennial sci-fi trope of “technology meets the Liar’s Paradox with chilling results”. Since the SOL already has resident sentient robots, they can place Crow and Tom in the position of cool kids, mocking the dweeby Monad. And when the Satellite runs across a deep space Star Baby Nursery they cast can revel in a fine piece of gross-out humor. Mike, Tom, and Crow have to coordinate to change a Star Baby’s diaper, and it’s disgusting, but they do it with all the gusto of Ed Harris saving Tom Hanks from the void of space.

 

The broadness of the humor allows the episodes left turn to really work. As the ship nears the edge of the universe, Mike and the Bots are afraid of what’s to come, but then realize that they can transform into pure consciousness and float around in space. It’s weirdly touching. And adorably handmade, as their disembodied conscious-nesses are little colored dots floating around the set! Here’s Crow as Pure Energy:

Having given our heroes a happy ending, the show cuts back to Dr. Forrester, for what becomes a two-minute-long riff on 2001. Despite Dr. F’s earlier announcement that he was moving back in with Pearl, we see him sitting alone at a dinner table in Deep 13, then dying in bed as an eerie choir chants and he gazes up at his own Monolith: THE WORST MOVIE EVER MADE.

 

And then he transforms into a baby, and Pearl, who hasn’t aged at all, rejoices in the chance to to raise him again. It’s terrifying and lonely and brilliant, especially set against the joyful ending that Mike and the Bots reached.

That was a perfect ending, and if the show had stopped there it would have been cool, in much the same way that Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s Season 5 episode, “The Gift”, could have been a stellar, if somewhat depressing, finale. But, just as Buffy lived on at UPN, MST3K did indeed find a new home on the Syfy channel, which insisted they have a more episodic, “sci-fi” plot. As a result there are long arcs that parody Planet of the Apes and sword-and-sandal epics, and Mike is put on trial for his (accidental) role as a Destroyer of Worlds. When it came time for their real, final, finale, however, they upended the formula.

Danger Diabolik is a swingin’ crime film with very little sci-fi flair to it. More importantly, Mike and the Bots final escape from Pearl’s clutches and return to earth is purely accidental. Pearl breaks her new SOL joystick controller, and the SOL begins landing procedure. Pearl tries to activate a self-destruct sequence, but it doesn’t work, so after that moment of danger everyone just gets ready to land. Possibly because the characters are simply returning to Earth, the bulk of the episode is spent preparing for reentry: Mike and Crow pack, Mike using a monogrammed suitcase he bought from a yard sale at Mojo Nixon’s and Crow in a rapidly-tearing Hefty bag.

Tom meanwhile has to destroy all the extra Servos he’s accumulated over the years, but the problem is, as with the earlier self-destruct sequence, his goes a little awry. Each new Tom that rolls into frame is convinced he’s the real one, hits the destruct button, and explodes. We end up with a disturbing Prestige scenario where we can’t be sure who the “real” original Servo is, or if it even matters.

Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy all figure out what to do with their lives now that they won’t be Mad Scientists anymore. It’s all much more earth-bound and poignant than Laserblast. After their mystical adventures in the stars, everyone is collapsing back to earth, resuming quotidian lives. The final scenes are surprisingly violent: The SOL’s entry into Earth’s atmosphere is traumatic, as deck after deck strips away and burns up. Mike calls Pearl for help, but she tells him to move on and pulls the plug on their video link, mirroring the moment when her son unplugged the Umbilicus in Laserblast.

The screen goes dark, and I remember being thrilled when I watched this episode, because I thought it would be such a bold (possibly even… extry bold?) move, to simply end the show at that moment. But then we cut back in and the Satellite that housed Mike and Joel is destroyed—which is in itself a strong choice. The show was truly over, and the Satellite was gone. Mike and the Bots survive the crash (unless this is a Lost scenario, and the last scene is in Purgatory or something, but I am not even getting into that.) and rent a crappy apartment together, while Gypsy goes on to found ConGypsCo. No longer bound to the ship, her genius can blossom. The final scene sees Mike, Crow, and Tom enacting an eternal recurrence by settling in to riff The Crawling Eye. 

There are two ways to read this: one, it’s heckin’ depressing (look at how dark the apartment is! And the rabbit ears!) and Mike has given into the entropy of that schlubbiness the Bots always teased. He’s finally home on Earth, and this is what he does? What was the point of all those escape attempts? Each of these characters is technically centuries old, and they’ve all been pure consciousness and danced at the edge of the universe, yet here they are, back in front of the TV. It’s fascinating to me that after a decade of being one of the best comedies on television, they ended on an episode that negates any possibility of growth for the characters. Where the other two endings opened into the future, this one feels to me like the characters are folding in on themselves.

You could also say, though, that this is the show turning the riffing over to us. After years in space, Mike and the Bots are on the couch again, inviting us to join them. Inviting us to take over where they’re leaving off.

Which of course is what’s happened. After many years of circulating the tapes, going to live Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic events, and perfecting our snarky commentary on various internet fora, long-time MST3K fans will now be hosting a new iteration of the show. My hope is that these guys don’t have to worry about a finale for a lonnnng time, and that a new generation will learn about pop cultural history the same way I did: looking up obscure riffs on the internet. We’ve had three touching, Cheers-style finales, each of which set the show’s fans up for new eras in their fandom. So where do you think we’re heading now, fellow MSTies? Are you excited to welcome Jonah and Bots with shiny new voices into your Netflix queue on April 14th?

Leah Schnelbach continues to ignores the show’s advice—she’ll relax when she’s dead! Come riff with her on Twitter.

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