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Surfin’: Post-Apocalyptic Hamming

11/19/2010

By Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU
Contributing Editor

This week, Surfin’ discovers ham radio in the post-apocalyptic world of Robot Monster.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) was a television series that basically made fun of bad movies. The series featured a man named Joel Hodgson (and was replaced by Mike Nelson a few years later) and his robot sidekicks -- Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy -- who are trapped on a space station by evil scientist Dr Clayton Forrester and his sidekick TV’s Frank, and forced to watch a selection of bad movies, initially (but not specifically limited to) science fiction B-movies. Many of these movies are preceded by “shorts,” those wonky educational films that you probably remember watching back in grade school.

To keep sane, Joel and the ’bots provide a running commentary on each film, making fun of its flaws and wisecracking (or “riffing”) their way through each reel in the style of a movie-theater peanut gallery. Each film is presented with a superimposition of Joel and the ’bots’ silhouettes along the bottom of the screen.

The series ran from 1988 to 1999, but reruns ran forever. Sister Gigi alerted me about the show during its re-run era and I became a fan. The re-runs ended a few years ago, but Blockbuster carries DVDs of the series and I have been renting the episodes I missed.

Tuesday night, I watched what many consider the worst motion picture in the history of motion pictures. Titled Robot Monster and starring no one of any repute, it was so bad that even the riffing of the MSTK3 crew did not make it any more bearable and I fast-forwarded through the last 20 minutes or so. But wait! There were some ham radio moments in Robot Monster!

In one scene, the monster is manipulating a stack of electronic hardware inside his cavern lair. One of the MST3K crew remarks that the hardware “looks like a ham radio.” Another member of the peanut gallery adds that it “looks like a "lunchbox.”

As the former owner of a 144 MHz Heathkit Benton Harbor Lunchbox, I wondered if the ham radio/lunchbox reference was intentional or coincidental.

The other ham radio moment occurred repeatedly throughout the film: Whenever the monster turned on the death ray, everything went haywire. Lightning flashed, the Earth quaked, triceratops wrestled and the soundtrack played what sounded to me like very distorted Morse code emanating from a spark-gap transmitter. I definitely detected dots and dashes and I managed to translate some of the noise into alphanumerics, but the code snippets were too short to form whole words.

Robot Monster was a real turkey (that’s my Thanksgiving reference this week), but the ham radio finds in the film were entertaining.

Until next time, don’t eat too much and keep on surfin’!

Editor’s note: Stan Horzepa, WA1LOU, writes Surfin’ 52 times a year. His editor, S. Khrystyne Keane, K1SFA (originally from Texas), is also a humongous MST3K fan -- her favorite MST3K movie is Rocketship X-M, where the question “Are there rocks that big in Texas?” is uttered. Even today, she repeats lines from two of her favorite shorts -- Mr B Natural (parts one and two) and The Truck Farmer. To contact Stan, send him e-mail or add comments to his blog, which has now been visited by a black bear four times and counting.



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