I remember coming home early from school one afternoon, back in 1990. I forget the reason why I was home early. I think one of my professors wasn’t feeling well, so class was canceled. What I DO remember is being overjoyed that I had arrived home just in time for an episode of my favorite show, Mystery Science Theater 3000, to start on the Comedy Channel. I was finally going to be able to watch the show during a broadcast!
Back in those days, you either watched a program while it was being run by the network, or, if you were lucky, you had a VCR so you could tape your show and watch it later. If you missed the initial broadcast, hopefully the channel would rerun the program you wanted to see. If it wasn’t scheduled to be re-broadcast any time soon, you were out of luck. I didn’t own a VCR back then, so if the show was on the air when I was busy, I missed it. But that afternoon I was in the right place at the right time to watch Mystery Science Theater 3000’s treatment of… “First Spaceship on Venus”! I had seen parts of an MST3K episode previously, but this movie was my first full episode, and I was hooked- for life.
Re-watching this movie recently, I noticed the slow nature of its pacing in comparison to the brisk rate at which modern films zip along. I didn’t mind this; in fact, I found it relaxing. I appreciated the time being taken to really develop the characters, and having their backstories presented in a fashion that didn’t feel like a spat out, staccato paragraph.
First Spaceship on Venus contains a warning about ensuring the preservation of peace between worlds (and nations.) According to Wikipedia, the movie originally had references to the Hiroshima bombing. These were edited out. (There is a shot of the Venusian’s “shadows” that were created when they were vaporized during the blast.). The cautionary message is clear; the Venusians, despite their highly advanced civilization, had destroyed themselves via nuclear catastrophe. Caveat emptor.
The made-up movie science in First Spaceship on Venus is sometimes kind of cool. The “spool” that is found in the Gobi (“Goofy”) Desert, which contains the encoded information from Venus, is obviously a big irregular chunk of scrap glass. But it’s an intriguing idea- that information could be stored within that type of crystalline structure.
Tom has quite the crush on the glamorous blonde television announcer. It’s not quite as all-consuming as his love for the Creepy Girl, but he is obviously attracted. He keeps leaping up when she is onscreen to give her little kisses, and gently “touches up” her red lipstick. Very cute.
There are some dated references in this episode: mentions of Two Live Crew, Rosanne singing the National Anthem at a ball game, Gallagher, Dan Quayle. These types of riffs are of course in every episode. Another reminder of the past- the scene where the alien “telephones” are swinging back and forth. I was transported back to the once real life experience of passing a public pay phone booth and seeing the receiver dangling on its silver cord. If you picked up the handset and listened to see if anyone was there, you’d hear a recorded voice repeatedly intoning “If you would like to make a call, please hang up, and try your call again” followed by some beeps- exactly the way Joel and the ‘Bots portray it.
Remembering the way we once made phone calls was jarring. Did we really use phone booths, putting our fingers and faces all over a chunk of plastic that sat out unattended day and night, with hundreds of strangers talking and sneezing and coughing all over it? The thought of even entering a phone booth now, let alone making a call on one, seems frighteningly unsanitary. To add to the awfulness of pay phones, in the city I grew up in, phone booths were regularly used as urinals. Yet another reason to be glad we don’t have to deal with pay phones any longer! (Although I admit- I kind of do miss seeing them. I chanced upon one- it was intact and working, and it was even clean- some years ago. It was like coming across a fully functional Victrola, with a pile of 78s sitting next to it.)
The special effects in First Spaceship On Venus aren’t horrible. Robot Omega’s name is pronounced “oh-ME-gah” by the Kosmoskrator astronauts, which is confusing to the SOL crew, so a running bit is their guessing what his name really is. Omega resembles one of those high-end electric razors given as Christmas presents in commercials from the 50s and 60s. One thing that struck me about this prop robot is that he moves around fairly competently. Watching him scooting around the sets, I contrasted his relative ease of movement with the problems reportedly experienced by the crew working with the motorized model of R2D2, throughout the first Star Wars film. Despite predating his existence by 17 years, Omega appears to be running rings around R2.
The nuked surface of Venus does resemble “a crunchy cookie” as Joel describes it- perhaps a layer of tons of crushed Oreos. Although rudimentary, the alien-built partially melted structures on Venus’ surface effectively convey a destroyed civilization. The constructions also bring to mind Mid-Century Modern abstract sculpture, which makes sense, as this art form was popular when the movie was made.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when astronaut Brinkman falls through the planet’s crust (you can see the foam core board “planet’s surface” tilting up as he falls) and he encounters the tiny devices bobbing up and down in the chamber he has dropped into. These toy-like objects, other than the melted buildings and automated machines (and shadows), are all that is left of the Venusians. An entire huge, fantastically advanced alien civilization has been reduced to a few leaping trinkets swinging around on fishing line. Joel’s little voice while portraying these tiny “librarians” is so funny. The critters have a lot to say: “We are the planet of novelty items! You will come to know this in time!” “Come on, smart boy- try your hand! Come on! Go ahead! I sit on the right hand of the devil incarnate! Hey- I’m tougher than you!” “Come back! We have yet to taunt you. We are the planet of novelty items!” “I’m glad you are back. We make excellent stocking stuffers- you will come to know that in time!” When the nature of the metal “insects’’ is discussed in the movie, Joel quips “it’s art. You bring your preconceptions to it.”
While watching the animated depiction of the Venusian “nerve center,” which reminds me of one of the attractions in the long-vanished “Adventure Through Inner Space” ride at Disneyland, Tom mentions Alexander Calder. This comment, along with Joel’s statement about art, are one of the (many) reasons I fell in love with this show. It’s such a smart show, and it assumes its audience is as intelligent as it is. I remember as a kid watching Looney Tunes and Rocky and Bullwinkle etc., and there were a lot of jokes I didn’t get. But I knew that whatever they were talking about that was over my head at the time wouldn’t always be a mystery. And when I found out what they were talking about, it was funny. MST3K was, and is, like this. You might not understand some of the riffs, but after you look up the reference, you appreciate that you aren’t being talked down to.
This sketch is a great encapsulation of the genius of everyone involved with this amazing show. The “Klack” segment is a spot-on parody of the Kraft commercials that were broadcast incessantly back in the day. The commercials showcased Kraft’s “easy” recipes, made with their totally yummy and ever-so-handy products. The announcer made the recipes sound delicious, but they looked pretty bad. The food portrayed in Kraft commercials was forbidden in my house when I was growing up, so I don’t know what it all tasted like. My mother had banned any kind of “Midwest food” as she put it, so the ambrosia salads and macaroni and cheese casseroles and broccoli swimming in giant puddles of melted orange “cheese food” et al were off of the menu.
A lot of the recipes seemed to involve folding a cup of Kraft Miracle Whip and half of a bag of Kraft mini marshmallows plus something else into something else, to make a chunky slurry that was then chilled, and served on a bed of iceberg lettuce leaves. Smiling, fashionable people were shown enjoying the Kraft goodness, snacking on cocktail weenies that had been soaked in Kraft barbecue sauce and grape jelly, or happily biting into huge chunks of cheese impaled on toothpicks. The eyes of little children lit up at the mere possibility of consuming those Kraft Miracle Whipped canned fruit and gelatin “salads.”
At Christmastime- as in the skit- Kraft really pulled out all the stops. The soft focus- the exaggerated “Yum, yum!” expressions- the twinkly music- and the gooey, multi-layered concoctions themselves are parodied to perfection, accurately capturing Kraft’s carefully forged “awww shucks- they’re just simple homespun goodies” atmosphere. What was really happening, of course, is that you were being sold as many Kraft products as possible.
Kraft products contain a lot of substances. After Googling “ingredient list- Velveeta” I found a site called “Ingredient Inspector” that noted that at one time in the past, Velveeta contained 8 ingredients, and “needed to be refrigerated.” Now, Velveeta contains 21 ingredients, and does not require refrigeration- though it is kept in the refrigerated section at the supermarket. At least that’s what the article claims. I don’t buy Velveeta, so I don’t know. I will admit that I love Velveeta-type cheez melted and poured on top of tortilla chips, a la convenience store nachos. However, I only eat the stuff about once a year. (But yes- I admit it. It’s tasty.)
My parents were Depression babies, and had also been through World War ll. So they absolutely refused to buy butter. I guess in the back of their minds, butter was still being rationed, despite me gesturing at the shelves bulging with boxes of (affordable!) butter in the grocery store. Nope: only margarine. Which I detested. Pale yellow blocks of slimy, greasy in the mouth, weird tasting, Kraft Parkay margarine. If it was on sale, my mother would stockpile the stuff. Yuck.
No more margarine in my house. Butter- all the way!
Ok- yes. I apologize. I know this is a lot about Kraft. All I can say is I am from a generation that sustained “Kraft damage” from all those damn commercials, and the Klack skit brought it all back. Regardless- I had to include this last Kraft thing. It’s even more icky than Coco Stumps- Creamy clotted palm spread- Sir Cheddar Snack-A-Lots- Creamy Crust Puppies- Taco Mincemeat Relish Parfaits- Skin Mittens- Gut Loaf Whistle Pie- or creamy Choad Balls.
In the search for vintage recipes, a Kraft product called “Potato Fudge” turned up. The ad shows two children gazing with hysterical delight at a giant split baked potato on a blue plate. There is a brown, gravy-like substance being poured onto the potato. Only- it isn’t gravy. It’s “Potato Fudge:”
“Into the heart of a split, hot baked potato spoon a big swirl of Kraft’s Potato Fudge. That chocolatey, gooey goodness your kids crave will melt right in…” Below the hovering potato is a recipe for “Fudge Nugglets.” “Boil and dice potatoes, and pour melted Potato Fudge on top. Mix well until potatoes are well coated, sprinkle with cocoa, and serve hot.” There’s more. Here is a recipe for “The Sow Trough.” “Beat in plenty of tantalizing brown Potato Fudge when you mash your hot potatoes. Add a few more spoonfuls in the center of the serving dish. Your kids will snort, wallow, and roll in the rich, chocolatey flavor.” Potato Fudge also came in “Butterscotch Fudge” flavor.
I had no idea that Kraft Potato Fudge existed. Someone, in a long-ago board meeting, convinced Kraft management that combining chocolate with potatoes was a good idea. Just think: there are people alive, right now, out there somewhere who, long ago, consumed potatoes that had been slathered with either chocolate or butterscotch-flavored Potato Fudge.
And that’s pure Klack.
It’s very sad when Brinkman, Tschen Yu, and Talua get left behind. At least Tschen Yu learned that the seeds he had found on the Venusian surface had begun to grow. Talua’s marooning is heart-wrenching. He risked his life to neutralize the Venusian weapon so his fellow astronauts could depart- and he got left behind. Yikes. Marooned on a strange planet… I can’t imagine. I lost my keys earlier this year, and thought that was a trauma.
Some impressive pyrotechnics appear at the end of the episode, when Tom Servo’s excessive sarcasm causes his head to explode. Every single time I watch this, even though I know that Joel has made sure his face is turned away at the moment whatever is in Tom’s dome combusts, I worry about him. I have to stifle a cry of “Joel- watch out!” It’s like when you re-watch a favorite baseball game. Even though you know the walk-off home run is coming, you cringe through every strike during that last at bat.
At the end of the movie, TV’s Frank indulges in a lengthy session of chin rascalling. Dr. Forrester retches continuously off-camera in disgust through the end credits.
Classic line: “You look at ‘em. I’m bitter.”
Stray thought: Maybe the space suits of the crew headed to Venus had those cute little costume-y ear pads because the pads contained unseen ear buds?
Classic movie archetype: the super cranky, know-it-all old guy scientist, who has no time for human trivialities, like food. He’s also got an answer to your (stupid) science question before you’ve finished asking it.
First Spaceship on Venus isn’t the most action packed episode, but it’s full of nicely developed characters and some great visuals. I like the message of embracing science, but also to keep in mind that sometimes, technology’s forces can get out of control. To me, this is a good “background” episode. If I have a lot of paperwork or housework to do, this is one of the episodes I put on for some pleasant MST3K companionship.
And- hey— what’s a herringway?
About a pound!