So what to do after finally seeing, and getting into, Mystery Science Theater 3000? It being 1996, the answer was: Usenet. The medium is all but dead now, but attempts to reinvent what was great about it continue, without success. I suppose the nearest analogue is Reddit. Or if you imagine the web forum for whatever your favorite subject is. Or the Facebook chat group for your favorite podcast. There’s big technical differences in how they’re organized and administrated. But the important social thing was: here was a way to find and talk with people about stuff you liked. So I got to the newsgroup called rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc. The name meant it was part of the big group about recreational topics; then the subsection of recreational topics that are about the arts; the subsection of the arts known as TV; the subsection of TV known as MST3K; and then … uhm … miscellaneous. Well, there was a rec.arts.tv.mst3k.admin that just posted “administrative” stuff like show schedules.
It was, like many newsgroups in the mid-to-late 90s, a lively place. Hundreds of people delighting in how they liked something, and how much they liked something, and how they liked it more than other people, and how other people didn’t like the right stuff about it, and how other people should stop liking the wrong stuff about it. You know, like people do. This sounds bog-standard now, but it was new to us all back then.
Some of the most fascinating stuff going on back then was a kind of flame war with a Star Trek fanfic writer. The fellow was named Stephen Ratliff. So far as I know he still is. You remember that episode where the Enterprise crashed into an Irwin Allen Disaster Movie, and the crew has to endure adventures like Worf helping O’Brien deliver her baby and Data popping his head off and Picard getting some kids to climb out of a stuck elevator? Stephen Ratliff was inspired by the kids of that episode and wrote some fan fiction. It has the kids start playing Star Fleet Officer on the holodecks and all that and forming their own little Kids Crew of under-twelve-year-olds. Anyone could have that idea. Ratliff had an idea of pure genius. He came up with some reason to put these kids in charge of the actual starship Enterprise. And then do it again, in more fan fiction.
There had been Mystery Science Theater 3000 fanfiction — taking the text of something and inserting jokes, using the characters from the show — for a couple years even then. But when one MiSTer (get it?) discovered Stephen Ratliff the genre was made. The stories had this magnificent natural absurdity told, in the earliest stories, with remarkable ineptitude. These flame wars on rec.arts.tv.mst3k.misc amounted to people decrying the offensiveness of the Kids Crew premise — ten-year-olds put in command of starships, even Next Generation starships where nothing all that bad ever really happens? — and Stephen Ratliff defending his premise with remarkable patience and grace and the not-quite-off-point argument that kids used to be inducted into the Royal Navy so why not have that happen again?
Sure, even without Stephen Ratliff there’d probably be a good MiSTing genre. The idea is too good. But he made it part of the fandom. Partly by writing stuff that was so joyous to read, and to riff on. Partly by being so interesting to talk about. Marissa, the girl from the elevator, gets adopted by Picard and becomes Princess of Deep Space England and travels in time to hook up Wesley Crusher and Chelsea Clinton before sending a space shuttle to Mars and becomes Lord High Admiral of the Federation and all that? (I swear.) How do you not want in on that?
So I got in, despite having — then — only seen a handful of episodes. I had a good source text. There was this cartoon series based on Sonic the Hedgehog, the video game character. In it he and the gang are rebels trying to save the world from the evil Doctor Robotnik and his robots — you know what? Doesn’t matter. It was popular in the 90s, and a lot of people wrote fan fiction. I found a piece and asked the author for permission to riff it. Asking permission was an important part of MiSTing culture. I mean, we didn’t ask for permission to riff spam. But if it was something someone identifiable wrote, it was at least bad form not to ask permission, and to give the author the chance to veto any truly unfair lines — or, in principle, the whole thing — before publishing. No sense being a cad.
It was well-received. One of my friends who’d written his own Sonic the Hedgehog fanfictions asked me to riff his. Other people in the group started looking to Sonic fandom and finding volunteers. There was much more to the MiSTing community than Stephen Ratliff and Sonic the Hedgehog, of course. There was a lot of fanfiction. There were the bizarre rants and conspiracy theories that people published on Usenet without regard for whether that made any sense. My favorite was someone accusing the English department of my grad school, an engineering school, with working to bring down civilization. (Did we even have an English department?) There was spam. So much spam. There was more normal yet poorly-targeted commercial messages. Someone did a whole Tom Swift novel. We did a lot of writing. I learned from it, a good bit about timing and pacing and how to write host sketches that could plausibly be done on the actual show. (Two or three minutes at most, few characters, few entrances and exits, as little editing as possible. This was my taste. Others wrote sketches that could only be done in fan fiction, where budgets and staging action and all aren’t issues. Their tastes.) Stephen Ratliff continued writing Marissa Picard stories that were gradually getting better, in internal logic and in fundamental writing technique. And sending out announcements so people could organize who’d get to riff his newest work.
He won us over. How can you not like someone who listens to you telling him why his stories suck, and thanks you, and writes stories that stop sucking those ways? We won him over. How can you not like an alert and obsessively responsive set of readers for your every word?
There was a lot that was great in the 90s. Mystery Science Theater 3000, Usenet, and MiSTing, were big parts of my great 90s.
Friday: I bet I have some more of this talk in me.