You Are Not Alone
MST3K, LOST IN SPACE, and the Reality of Science Fiction

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Prime Times: Writers on Their Favorite TV Shows on 1 January 2004

TV isn’t just for the masses. Sure, there are those huge, national spectacle moments that stay in our individual and cultural memory as if they were implanted surgically: O.J. Simpson pretending that he couldn’t fit into his gloves. Tonya Harding whining about her improperly tied figure skates. Rhoda taking the subway to her own wedding. Nixon resigning. Radar O’Reilly saluting through tears on the last episode of M*A*S*H. Seinfeld and company in their prison cell. These moments bring us all together because we’ve all seen them–and we know that so many others watched them at the very same time.

But there’s another, even more profound way for television to nest itself into our consciousness. It can make any one of us believe we are the only person in the world who really gets what it is going on. It was during those lonely moments–when it was just me and the tube against an otherwise nonsensical world–that my real relationship with this very personal medium was forged.

It happened to a lot of us who worked as baby-sitters in the early 1970s, when we got that first glimpse of a bizarre British phenomenon called Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS, late at night (even after Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert). For a bleary-eyed fourteen-year-old sitting in some suburban couple’s idea of the fully realized American dream den, “Spam, eggs, sausage, and Spam” seemed like a personal message–an acknowledgment that life’s menu wasn’t offering any real alternatives. It was all Spam.

A few years later, those of us who responded so intensely to Monty Python had found one another, and learned we were part of what is called a “cult following.” We all bought Monty Python records and tickets for their New York appearances, and helped turn them into a national phenomenon.

The more obscure the media reference, the more profound the bond between those of us who shared it. Although it’s always tremendously gratifying to find someone else who remembers some phantom television event from my past, it’s also oddly disappointing. It feels as if the acknowledgment somehow confirms what may have been a television fantasy into a fact. No–I wasn’t dreaming that television moment. It really happened, and other people experienced it, too. The same way I did.

Maybe that’s why college, for me, was mainly an opportunity to compare and contrast television moments with people from other parts of the country. I remember there was one particular show I really wanted to know if anyone else had experienced: a short black-and-white film called The Cube.

The movie aired as part of a Sunday-morning Christian drama series in the late 1960s. In it, a man discovers himself trapped in a small, room-sized cube. The walls are white squares. He is visited by several people, including a small child on a tricycle who taunts him. When he punches his fist through the wall, a repairman enters with a new piece of wall that fits in the jagged hole perfectly.

I watched it with my father, and remember being disturbed. It depicted the archetypal alone-with-the-tube situation, for this man looked like he was literally inside the TV set. The whole piece was shot as if the cube in which he was trapped was the very box of the television. It seemed to mirror my entire childhood.

My dad didn’t seem similarly affected. I once asked him about it, and he had no memory of it at all. Who knows if he was even watching? It was Sunday morning. He was probably just sitting there asleep on the couch while his eight-year-old son got traumatized. Or maybe I was the one who had been asleep–dreaming of this strange cube while my dad sat there watching something as innocuous as F-Troop.

The program was so unsettling–nestled in my memory so precariously between fact and dream–that I didn’t bring it up to any of my college friends. Each time one of those TV conversations came around to “Did you see this?” or “Did you see that?” I always held my tongue. What was I afraid of?

It was a few years after graduation, while pretending to be successful writers and drinking six-dollar whiskey at Elaine’s, that a buddy of mine, Walter, and I happened to revisit the topic of television and those oddly personal media milestones. Walt slid his shot glass away, as if to clear the space between us, and said, “Look, I don’t know for sure the details, or if this is even real or not, but there was a program I saw when I was a kid….”

Yes, he, too, had seen the show. It must have been real. Between the two of us, we pieced together more details. More confident of the reality of our shared experience, we began to question our other friends. A few weeks later, we found a third person who had seen the same program–and likewise, felt his worldview had somehow been skewed by this single, isolated, television experience.

The Web hadn’t been invented yet, but the Internet did have a few early bulletin boards. We posted a query about The Cube, and our sense of urgency at finding out anything we could about the film, and got half a dozen responses. We had found our Cube community, and a television event that had receded so far that none of us knew if it had been real or a dream but was now a reality and a basis for connection.

Thanks to the near-infinite recesses of the cable box, TV is now a landscape to be explored in this fashion. And I suppose the Internet is really just the place to share what we’ve found.

But it’s those first moments of discovery–those jaw-dropping moments when you happen upon, say, Iron Chef in Japanese, the Robyn Byrd stripper show, or the original Colonel Bleep cartoons–that make you feel as if you are the only one in the universe who is watching. Or at least the only one who is watching it in that way.

I had such a moment in 1991, shortly after returning to New York from a rather meaningless eight-year stint in Los Angeles writing film scripts that were optioned but never made. I was feeling truly alone, again, for the first time since childhood, and spent many evenings roaming the upper reaches of the cable box. That’s when I first came upon an old black-and-white science fiction serial, Radar Men from the Moon. At the bottom of the screen, as a line in a Looney Tunes cartoon, was the black silhouette of a man sitting in a row of movie theater seats. On either side of him sat what appeared to be a gumball machine and a lacrosse stick. All three of them had voices, and made sarcastic comments about the painfully horrid film. I took it for some strange “public access” experiment, and moved on.

But I ran into them again and again over the coming months, and eventually learned that these three characters—a human and two robots–were part of a cult TV show out of Minneapolis called Mystery Science Theater 3000. The premise was, basically, that a young inventor had been launched into space by his evil boss. He would now be forced to watch terrible sci-fi B-movies, like Horrors of Spider Island, on his spaceship for the rest of his life. To keep himself from going crazy, he built two robots to keep him company while he watched the movies.

The show perfectly recapitulated my own situation. I, too, was trapped—in a New York City high-rise studio on a cold winter night. Now, instead of watching bad television alone, I had some electronic companionship—just like the guy stuck in the space station. Technology would be my friend.

So in each episode, this character sits and watches movies like Horrors of Spider Island, The Deadly Mantis, or Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, while he and his robots make wry commentary. Their comments elevate the worst backwater of television into a fresh, almost live event. A media recycling plant. I was no longer merely watching television, but watching the television. The three characters at the edge of the screen served as a bracketing devise—an almost Brechtian alienation effect—commenting on the action, and giving me permission to be entertained by a movie that I knew full well was basically crap.

What’s more, the jokes these three people—well, one person and two robots—told were very targeted. These didn’t seem like jokes everyone in the world would understand. It required a pretty good knowledge of the science fiction universe, of 1970s television, even of physics. It was a nerd’s-eye view of the mediascape.

That’s why I was so surprised when, on one episode, they took a moment to invent an “Andrew Lloyd Weber Grill” on which the composer’s overwrought show scores could be burned. They continued to make sly references to Evita and Cats, and even Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Having spent a childhood doing summer stock musicals, I knew every reference. But how were the science fiction people supposed to know all that? Was 1 the only one who got those jokes, or were many science fiction nerds also educated in the sad decline of the Broadway musical?

In another episode, in the movie the trio are watching, an arm swings through the frame. One of the robots begins humming a tune that I immediately recognize as the theme from My Three Sons. Of course, I realize—the opening credits of the old sixties TV show consisted of a cartoon arm swinging back and forth through the frame. Did everyone else get that, or just a few people? Or just me? Might they have told a joke for which I was the sole comprehending audience?

Of course not. Well, at least probably not. But that’s not as important as the fact that they re-created the Cube sensation. That lonely, late-night, Monty Python recognition. And they were using obscure media references to do it! This entire program was a litany of private media moments—spirits from television’s past, called back into the present. Thousands of childhood sensations, revived and confirmed

That’s why a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000—MST3K to its fans—is so meticulously indexed and cataloged by its many archivists online. It’s as if to prevent these insights—these acknowledgments and confirmations—from slipping back into the ether again. To enjoy MST3K is to get the media references. This is not a show based in conflict and resolution; there is no plot. The entertainment value is in making the connections. Between oneself and the tube and, eventually on-line, with others who experienced those media moments too.

The same television that isolated us for decades was now providing us with the very beginnings of a strategy through which to relate to one another, once again. True, we had all spent childhoods alone with the television—but now we could talk about those experiences, and realize we had all gone through them, together. That’s why people enjoy talking about shows as bad as Gilligan’s Island and The Brady Bunch. Because we were all experiencing something more than the programs themselves. We were all thinking about whether Greg smoked pot in that special bedroom they built for him. Or whether the Professor ever got it on with Mary Ann.

For me, this nearly obsessively self-conscious viewing style almost always happened during science fiction programs. Maybe it was the fact that TV is a technology, too, so that a program about technology viewed through a technology will always tend to take on an allegorical quality. Whatever the reason, the worlds depicted on sci-fi shows were not alien places at all—they were my home.

Lost in Space was the formative example, for sure. Because I was Will Robinson. Sure, I dreamed I was Will and on alien planets and all, but that’s not the most intense experience I had of being the young boy lost in space with his family, robot, and evil, queer psychologist.

Growing up on the suburban frontier of Larchmont, New York, felt as much like space travel as anything the Robinsons were going through. Will was a boy alone. The only potential friends he had were aliens who happened to knock on the spaceship door—creatures his parents wouldn’t or couldn’t trust, no matter how good they might be as playmates.

This was life in the suburban landscape as well, where appearances were more important than genuine connections. The maintenance of one’s patch of shrubbery or driveway far took on greater meaning than any human relationships. Each family lived alone in its own aluminum-clad fortress, coming outside only long enough to drive the kids to school, pick up the groceries, and compliment the neighbor on her good looks before retreating to the telephone and gossiping about the possibility that she’d gotten a face-lift.

We kids always wondered what was the big deal? Why were the children next door on the left okay to play with, while the ones on the right were “no good”? Like Will Robinson (or, to be fair, his sister Penny), why were we kids the only ones who knew enough to look beneath the surface, and to realize that the “Goldfaced” alien was not to be trusted, while the little ugly lizard-man had a heart of gold? What sort of value system had our parents adopted? And would we, one day, share it?

The only ones Will Robinson really had to talk to were his mechanical pal, Robot, and the strange and evil Dr. Smith. Robot was always the more interesting one to me, because he was like the TV set. Yes, everything he said was programmed, but it all seemed so much more real and relevant than anything human beings wanted to say. And, like the TV, he was always there—always aiming to please. His illuminated red breastplate, flashing while he spoke, became the screen within my own television screen. A window into the heart and soul of the TV set.

Maybe that’s why the moment I’ll always remember best—the one that led me to begin my carefully documented set of synopses and sketches for every single episode—was the one where Robot is in an accident that causes him to grow several hundred times his normal size. Will, and a reluctant Dr. Smith, must travel inside Robot to repair him. They confront Robot’s various antibodies and wind through his many passages, until they at last encounter his heart, where they make the needed repairs.

Did my television set have a heart as well?

Of course, playing to Will from the opposite end of civilization’s spectrum was Dr. Smith. We all figured he was played by an old, gay Shakespearean actor (Jonathan Harris was actually a happily married, Jewish ex-pharmacist from the Bronx), but this mythology had more to do with Smith’s role in the show, and the way he declined in stature from a conniving and dangerous villain into an effete, bumbling, and selfish clown.

Smith was everything Robot was not: disloyal, self-serving, emotionally driven, and sexually suspect. Just why was this guy spending so much time with a boy on the brink of puberty? When he wasn’t attempting to use the boy as a pawn in one of his plots, Smith was grabbing him from behind and pressing him against his chest as protection from whichever monster he had irritated this time.

Smith represented the past—the world of literature, the Cold War (he started out as a Russian agent), Freudian psychology, and profit-minded trickery. Robot, on the other hand, came from a world delightfully unencumbered by these legacies. Surely his memory banks held the facts of the Nazis and the atomic wars, but his heart bore none of the scars. Like those of us watching the show, he was an innocent—both smarter than his keepers and free of their prejudices and values. Dr. Smith would regularly risk the lives of his crew members for the chance to steal a pile of gems. What good would a chest filled with diamonds do him in outer space, anyway?

Not to mention the adults’ never-ending obsession with getting back home. Like it was really better back there or then? The one time will succeeds in getting home (using an alien device), no one believes he is really from the Robinson family at all! Like the many young nerds watching the program, he is as much an alien on earth as he is anywhere else.

Best to stick with Robot. Like the television itself, he is the ideal companion.

Science fiction programs were not a way to learn about space or aliens, but an encounter with the virtual soul of television. Only shows that imbue technology with heart, or the TV screen with the ability to see into worlds unavailable to us any other way, are capable of enacting this transubstantiation of cathode ray into social nourishment.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a TV lover’s show. Unlike the reruns on Nick at Nite, which give its viewers the thrill of pure, ignorant nostalgia under the false guise of irony, MST3K reunites us with the wise naïveté of genuine, mindful, technological engagement. It is a way to watch with awareness, to reconnect the dots, and to return to the lucid dream of television with the multiple awareness of a quantum physicist.

Most of all, it serves as a touchstone. It’s a repository of those TV moments too special to risk sharing with others—those observations we all made, but never felt confident enough to find out if everyone else had made, too.

And it proves that those of us who seemed to have nothing to comfort us in our childhood other than the TV set were never truly alone.