And, like everything else during the Gordon Gecko decade, takeovers, mergers, and just plain business-world gobbling-up resulted in the two networks merging to form The Comedy Network, later known as Comedy Central, a TV channel created so that for years Penn Jillette would have a voiceover job. It was still early: these were heady vintage days of The Higgins Boys and Gruber and Short Attention Span Theater, of the pre-Bill Nye the Science Guy sketch show Almost Live and my own personal favorite cartoon periodically starring a little stuffed bull, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.
The Comedy Channel was not only the first national venue for Mystery Science Theater 3000 but also its flagship show of its earliest days, one of the first shows picked up by the network following a pitch tape sent by Best Brains to the channel. As truckloads of HBO money rolled into the Brains studios, they revamped and improved the look of the sets, the effects, the robots, and a new opening sequence:
MST3K also introduced two new performers to the show: Kevin Murphy as the new voice of Tom Servo and Frank Conniff as Frank, replacing Josh Weinstein as Dr. Forrester's assistant. With only a few tweaks and tightenings of the concept to be made in future seasons, MST3K had evolved into its next and nearly-ultimate form: tighter scripting, more and faster-paced riffing on the movies, and a more consistent backstory. Though for many years Best Brains kept the Season One shows off the rerun circuit, declaring that they seemed rough and unpolished by later seasons' standards (and to be fair, they were), there's still some great classic episodes among the first season's 13 shows.
Right now I'm scoping out, via future-screen, episode 111, Moon Zero Two, which is among the swingingest, grooviest, gear-and-fabbest sci-fi fly-sci motion picture of the late 1960s. How can you tell it's science fiction? It's about British people on the moon. How can you tell it's swingin' and groovy and all those other paisley-tinted adjectives I mentioned above? Why, just check out the movie's original animated opening sequence, which looks like the opening to a Pink Panther flick (or MST3K's later Catalina Caper).
How sixties was that, huh? The go-go grooves of that theme song even had Joel up and out of his seat, a-rockin' and a-boppin'.
Didja notice how the song speeded up towards the end of the credits? It doesn't look like the directors timed out the animation length against the song!
For all its wacky opening, Moon Zero Two is no Austin Powers in Space but a fairly dry-humored tale of claim-jumping and high-tech heists...on the moooooon!. In my book, this would have been a fantastic vehicle for 1960s superstar Michael Caine, who could then utter the phrase "You were only supposed to blow the bloody airlock doors off!" Alas, it must only star Michael Caine in my dreams, instead actually featuring British midlist actors like James Olson from The Andromeda Strain and Catherine von Schell (later of TV's Space: 1999). The Space: 1999 comparison is an apt one: the effects, sets, and models are reminiscent of the later work of Gerry Anderson: well-designed spaceships and candy-colored spacesuits add to the visual effervescences of the film, but the script can't quite make up its mind whether it's a gritty "western on the moon" or a light, roguish "bank robbery on the moon" movie. Whichever it is, I think we can agree on one thing: it was on the moon. Sure, it might be overshadowed by its big brother, 1969 SF classic 2001. But did 2001 ever have spandex-clad tassel-bottomed go-go dancers in a moon bar? No. No, it did not.
The movie's actually quite fun on its own, but not such a classic that I mind Joel and the bots riffing throughout it. A supporting cast of familiar faces in bit parts adds to the fun (Monty Python's Carol Cleveland, Passport to Pimlico's Sam Kydd), and cult director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, Quatermass and the Pit, several Hammer Horror flicks and episodes of The Saint and The Avengers) brought a good pedigree and a light, irreverent touch to the adventure. It's worth seeking out both in its MSTed and original versions, but if you only watch the original, you're going to miss Joel turning the bots into "real-life" Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.
So, don't forget to belly up to the Lazy B Saloon space bar...on the moooooon!...and order yourself a Double Moonflower "in a dirty space tumbler!" See you in two hours...on the moooo...oh, wait, we won't be there anymore.