Picks and Pans Main: Tube

updated 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/19/1996 AT 01:00 AM EST

LIKE HAL, THE INSANE COMPUTER IN 2001: A Space Odyssey, Comedy Central's equally demented Mystery Science Theater 3000 is in danger of un-spooling. Officials at the channel insist that the elaborately conceived cult hit, in which a run-of-the-mill guy (Michael J. Nelson) and two junk-assembly robots ridicule vintage schlock movies they watch in outer space, isn't canceled. But producer Jim Mallon isn't encouraged by the fact that no new episodes have been ordered, and none taped since Dec. 22. "A rose by any other name," muses Mallon. "That sounds like cancellation!"

The show's fans, who have already given MST3K the greatest pledge of fealty a series can ask for—they attend conventions—are determined to keep it in orbit. They've even taken to the Internet. The "Save Mystery Science Theater 3000" site, launched by Jamie Plummer, 19, in his second year at the University of Virginia, has recorded 13,000 visits in two months.

Boldly going onto the Net, I asked Plummer (http://fermi.clas.virginia.edu/~jcp9j/canceled.html) to discuss the show's appeal. MST3K, he replied, challenges its audience. "The broad range of jokes asks us to be familiar with everything from Shakespeare to Citizen Kane to Dr. Bronner's Peppermint Soap to old beer commercials." (Watching a clumsy pas de deux in an atrocious musical fantasy, Once Upon a Honeymoon, robot Crow does a flawless Lawrence Welk impersonation: "Bobby and Sissy! Are-en't they wonderful-em, em, em!") The loss of MST3K "would leave a large void in intelligent programming," Plummer adds. "America needs another Tony Danza sitcom like a hole in the head."

Plummer is right. MST3K is a bright attempt to create something pleasurable out of the nonbiodegradable pop-cult landfill. If you're a young comic talent, as are Nelson (who's also head writer) and his predecessor, Joel Hodgson, and you have a needling wit looking for something to prick, trash movies like Killer Shrews and Hercules Unchained are a fine place to start. As a boy, I watched Killer Shrews one Saturday in the rec room. Its awfulness scarred me for life.

Let's hope the crew lives, on one channel or another. In any event, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is due at the multiplex in April.

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