Satellite News - The Almost But Not Quite Complete History of MST3K - Part 9


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Part 9: Schism (1993)

The next weekend, costume-clad party-goers and network cameras all converged on Tobin's modest Edina, MN, home to film the Turkey Day bumpers, causing quite a circus for her neighbors to gawk at. The channel plopped a giant inflatable Comedy Central logo on her front lawn, and network-hired caterers arrived to prepare a beautiful turkey dinner. Unfortunately, the crew spent so much time filming the spread that it spoiled under the hot lights and very little of it could be eaten by the party-goers. Tobin was compensated for her appearance, but all the other party-goers performed for free. The filming finished up at just a few minutes before 6 p.m., at which point the 30-or-so party-goers shouted "movie sign!!!" and scrambled to find places at TV sets scattered around the house to watch the first episode hosted by Mike Nelson.

What they, and the rest of the country, saw was a TV show that was, quite clearly, in the midst of reinventing itself...again. The show boasted a new version of the theme song and a new door sequence -- and those weren't the only changes. Nelson and the writing staff, seeking to explore fresh comedic territory after more than 70 two-hour episodes (in other words, some 350 separate comedy sketches), saw no choice but to begin tinkering with the show's well-worn premise. Nelson's relationship with the robots was one noticeable change: It was one of uneasy co-existence, very different from the familial intimacy Joel and the bots had enjoyed. Mike's relationship with the Mads was different as well. Rather than submitting passively to his fate as Joel had done, Nelson was forever hatching schemes, either to escape the SOL or to humiliate the Mads. In Deep 13, Beaulieu and Conniff were also shaking things up: Strangers were popping up in the lab, the "invention exchange" (a staple of every episode since early in the series) was abandoned, and in one late-season plot arc, Frank was actually laid off from his job (though he got it back before the episode ended).

That the series was evolving was unquestionable. Whether the changes were positive or negative depended on whom you asked -- and, often, how one felt about change. Thus began the great dichotomy among MSTies.

Some viewers, though sorry to see Joel go, recognized that after five seasons, much of the comic potential of the old premise had been thoroughly mined, and that the writers were wise to go in fresh directions. As for Mike, they found him a delightful breath of fresh air. Others, especially admirers of Hodgson specifically (or at least more so than the series in general), deemed the premise he created inviolable, and decried the changes as a betrayal of Hodgson's vision. After watching one or two episodes, it became increasingly clear to these people that Joel had been the primary reason they'd enjoyed the series; Nelson seemed a hollow imitation of the genuine article.

In the real world, the former group continued to watch the series; and the latter abandoned the series as no longer of interest. And that was the end of it. But, on the internet, it was only the beginning. The online communities created around the series now had two factions, one cheerfully celebrating it, the other dolefully condemning it. It was clear that both sides were not prepared to tolerate the presence of the other, and neither faction felt in any way disposed to depart a community they felt was their "home" in the online world. It was a recipe for disaster.

The two factions began to argue, and in short order these arguments escalated into The Great Joel vs. Mike Flamewar of 1993, which raged, to varying degrees, everywhere in MSTie cyberspace. In each place, pretty much independently of one another, the same thing happened: Polite discussions and reasonable critiques turned into angry exchanges, and angry exchanges evolved into personal attacks. Because so many close friendships had evolved in the communities, friends rushed to the defense of friends and attacked those doing the attacking, without really considering the merits of the argument.

The rumors of a year earlier, concerning strife between Hodgson and Mallon, were revived, amplified, and used as evidence to support the claim that Joel had "really" been fired. The flamewar intensified.

Harsh and angry words were exchanged and almost everywhere things got very personal and very mean, each side accusing the other of intolerance and much worse. Pretty soon, the TV show that had started the arguments faded into the background as petty personal feuds were brought into the open, and a broader and extremely bitter debate about censorship and free speech and rights vs. responsibilities in the on-line world raged. The flames of dispute were further fanned by newcomers who were not fans of the show but who simply enjoyed provoking others. (On one forum, Hodgson laughingly admitted years later, he himself, as a lark, posted under an assumed name and revived an angry argument that had almost subsided.)

The shouting did not subside for months. For many, in these early days of the internet boom, it was the first "flame war" they'd ever encountered or participated in. Years later, the savagery of it, and the shattering of a once-peaceful community that resulted, is remembered with indescribable sadness.

Mike Nelson knew nothing about the depredations and death threats that appeared in some forums. "People here were shielding me from it, I guess," he said later. In retrospect it seems to have been the right choice: There was never any evidence that the turmoil on the internet was at all representative of the general viewing audience. The rate of new memberships in the Info Club never slowed and ratings for the show did not change. It soon became apparent, both at BBI and CC, that disgruntled Joel loyalists, while making a very loud online noise, were only a tiny fraction of the viewership.

And, though the online fighting roared on, the second half of the season, with Nelson now installed as host, continued. The movies featured in the second half of the season seemed to return to the more expected fare. Dubious sci-fi and horror outings such as THE ATOMIC BRAIN and BEGINNING OF THE END were combined with more recent dreck like Kathy Ireland's ALIEN FROM L.A. and Jack Palance's regrettable OUTLAW OF GOR.

Why Don't They Look?Shorts included the well-remembered Cheating and Is This Love scholastic adventures, but none topped the hilarity of the railroad safety film Last Clear Chance, which would give fans the catchphrase "Why don't they look?" and would convince many hesitant fans that the series had not been ruined after all.

As all this was going, Thanksgiving Day arrived. In past years, Thanksgiving had been a sort of MSTie High Holiday. But the absence of BBI-made bumpers, along with the uproar surrounding the change in hosts, dimmed the pleasure of the day for many MSTies. The Turkey Day spots filmed at Tobin's house were roundly mocked in many online forums (though they were delightedly celebrated on Prodigy). BBI and CC were not cheered either: Ratings for the first Turkey Day in the Mike era were as dismal as they had been the previous year, Joel's last.

The only good news was that, despite all this, CC signed BBI to another 24-episode season.

| Welcome! | 1984-87 | 1988 | 1988-89 | 1989-90 | 1990-91 |
1991-92 | 1992-93 | 1993, part 1 | 1993, part 2 | 1994, part 1 |
1994, part 2 | 1995, part 1 | 1995, part 2 | 1996, part 1 |
1996, part 2 | 1996-97 | 1997 | 1997-98 | 1999 | 2000 | Epilogue |