After a close brush with the Black Hole of Lost Series a few years ago, "Mystery Science Theater 3000" is speeding into its ninth season at full warp drive - and even tweaking the Oscars.
Fans of the cult TV show, which features silhouettes of puppets making fun of really bad movies, can resume their habit on the Sci-Fi Channel.Sci-Fi has ordered 13 new episodes, with an option for nine more. A half-hour Academy Award preview, in which "Titanic" and other big-name Oscar nominees get the "MST3K" treatment, airs Thursday at 5:30 p.m. MST, with a repeat at 9:30 p.m.
"It's a blast," said writer-producer-director Kevin Murphy, 41, who operates the Tom Servo puppet and appears as Professor Bobo, an intelligent gorilla.
"You get to make fun of Hollywood Today rather than Hollywood Yesterday. It kind of gets old, sometimes, to just make fun of people who are either dead or don't care."
While ratings have improved since "MST3K" left Comedy Central two seasons ago, the show - written and produced in a suburban Minneapolis industrial park - has never been a mega-hit.
That's fine with Jim Mallon, the show's executive director.
"We know we're entertaining a lot of people," Mallon said, "and we don't have the pressure that being an enormous success brings, so we can kind of stay relaxed in what we do."
Here's the "MST3K" premise: office temp Mike Nelson (head writer Michael J. Nelson) is stranded in space with his homemade robots (Tom Servo and Crow) and forced to watch such execrable films as "The Thing That Couldn't Die."
Nelson and his robot buddies subject the movies to a torrent of heckling. Viewers get to see the awful flicks, with images of Nelson and the robots superimposed on the lower right corner, and laugh along with the wisecracks.
Turkeys scheduled for skewering this season include "The Phantom Planet," "Werewolf" and "The Deadly Bees." The show airs at 3 p.m. MST on Saturdays, with a repeat at 9 p.m.
For Nelson, 33, mocking bad movies is not a life-and-death proposition.
"People don't really screw up in this job," he said. "What can you do? You're just sitting down, making fun of a movie. It's not `You blew the Johnson account!"'
The show has survived major cast changes since its debut on a Twin Cities UHF station in 1988. Comedian Joel Hodgson, who created the show and was the original host, left in 1993.
Another shakeup came two years ago, when writer Trace Beaulieu quit. Beaulieu had a dual role as the robot Crow and as the evil Dr. Clayton Forrester, who hoped for world domination through bad movies.
It took two people to replace Beaulieu. Writer Mary Jo Pehl, 38, stepped in as Forrester's domineering mother, Pearl, while actor and novice puppeteer Bill Corbett took over as Crow.
"All I was worried about at first was memorizing lines and being able to utter them without screwing up," Pehl says. "And now I can memorize the lines AND I can move AND I can do actions, so I'm just having a lot more fun with it."
The writers have cut down on their Quips Per Minute.
The show was averaging 700 jokes per episode, but cramming in that many can seem "kind of sad and desperate," said writer Paul Chaplin - "like we're trying to prove to the world that we actually are as funny as people say we are."