Plagiarism In Pop Culture: Mystery Science Theater 3000

You should really just relax...

mst3k-logoMystery Science Theater 3000, commonly shortened to just MST3K, is the quintessential show focused on making fun of bad movies.

During it’s initial run, the show enjoyed some 10 seasons and 197 episodes. It also was the subject of one feature film, appropriately entitled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie and enjoyed a huge cult following.

Currently, the show is undergoing something of a revival, having been through a successful Kickstarter to produce new episodes and recent news that Netflix is picking up the series for a new season to be released sometime soon.

The “plot” to MST3K is as simple as it is convoluted. The protagonist of the show, either Mike or Joel (to date), is launched into space onto the Satelliate of Love by the show’s antagonist, one of the Forrester clan, who attempts to drive him insane by forcing him to watch terrible films.

However, our hero has allies in his fight, having built a series of robots (Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy) that not only keep him company, but watch the films with him and help him make jokes. Together, they help Joel (or Mike) keep his sanity and make wisecracking comedy for those of us on earth to enjoy.

While the group on the Satellite of Love is largely a peaceful and cooperative group, during experiment 515, or episode 15 of the 5th season if you prefer, the dark cloud of plagiarism loomed over them. One of their own was accused of the dastardly act of cheating and nearly lost his robotic head for his crimes.

Here is how it all went down.

Disclosure: MST3K is one of my favorite TV shows of all time. My views on this show will not be unbiased and, if that upsets you, just repeat to yourself, “It’s just a show. I should really just relax.”

The Plot

mst3k1-imageThe episode is entitled The Wild World of Batwoman and most of it features a 1966 B-film of the same name.

Fortunately for us, the film is not integral to our discussion as the episode. Instead, our attention focuses on the film’s short, Cheating, which was presented immediately following the “invention exchange” between Mike and Dr. Forrester.

The short focused on John Taylor, a high school student who is struggling in his Algebra class. However, rather than taking on a tutor or simply studying harder, he gets his friend Mary to help him cheat on tests. Though, initially, his misdeeds go unnoticed, they are eventually caught by the teacher and they both are punished with a zero for the test.

However, John’s cheating creates a scandal at the school and the student council, of which he was a member, chooses to hold a special meeting to which he is specifically disinvited. There, they decide his fate and elect to vote him out of his position, only calling him after the meeting is over. Furthermore, John is shunned and despised by his classmates, who ostracize him following the revelation of his cheating.

The short ends with a series of questions from the narrator including:

  1. Did John really intend to be dishonest?
  2. Should Mary share any of the blame?
  3. Was it fair for John to use Mary?
  4. Did John’s cheating hurt his classmates?

Even as the feature film started, those questions stuck with Mike who, during a break from the movie, posed them to his robot friends. As a foursome, they agreed to write essays about those questions with the bribe of snowballs to get Crow to participate.

When the four return, Tom Servo is waxing poetic and reading from his multi-volume essay about the short. The others, bored by his pontification, hurry him to a conclusion (which was “no”) and then encourage Gypsy to speak.

Gypsy then read her work, which simply read, “Cheating: By me. Cheating is bad. Richard Basehart is good.”

Crow was then prompted to read his, to which he said, “Cheating is bad. Richard Basehart is good.”

Mike immediately recognized that Crow’s paper was “word for word” the same as Gypsy’s. Crow protested, saying that the “read” was totally different. Meanwhile, Servo cried out “Stone Him!” as Mike appealed for calm.

mst3k2-imageThe movie sign interrupted the group but, when they returned, Mike, Gypsy and Tom were scheduling a meeting to discuss Crow in a scene that parodied the Cheating short. Crow tried to interject, even lampooning a scene from the feature film to do so, but was denied.

In the meeting Gypsy initially called for compassion but, after being reminded it was her essay that Crow plagiarized, called for the crew to “fry him”, a sentiment echoed by Tom. Mike, however, called for a more moderate answer, namely not giving him any snowballs.

After the feature film ends, the crew decides to give Crow a chance to present his side of the story. Tom, who is wearing an executioner’s hood and carrying an axe) says that it will give him hope and make it a richer experience when it comes to killing him.

Crow gives his testimony, discussing his life in full but never offering an apology. Mike, after Crow was finished, reminded him to apologize and Crow admitted to cheating saying that he made a “C and H out of EAT”.

Mike and the other bots then found him guilty but, finding that he was an overall good bot, decided to sentence him to eating snowballs and reading a letter from a fan…

Understanding the Plagiarism

mst3k3-imageThe plagiarism in this episode was fairly straightforward. Though the word count was low, only seven words in length, the nature of the copying made it pretty clear that Crow did indeed copy Gypsy in an effort to avoid writing his own paper.

But it’s in the reactions to this episode that are much more interesting. Tom Servo, though not even the infringed party, was eager “hang” Crow for his crime and even donned an executioner’s hood to make the point. Gypsy, though the one plagiarized, called for calm and sought fairness for Crow. That is, until she was reminded it was her essay that was plagiarized from, at which point she joined the chorus seeking to harm Crow.

However, in the end, Gypsy seemed the most confused by the punishment of Crow. Though Servo widely supported “shunning” Crow, she claimed it was hard and seemed confused by the act.

This, in a very bizarre way, mirrors my own experience. Tom Servo, like many other outside observers of plagiarism, was the most offended while Gypsy, like many victims, seemed conflicted and unsure about what to do. Meanwhile, Crow, like many plagiarists, seemed oblivious to what he had done wrong (though Crow usually doesn’t see fault in his misdeeds).

This, strangely, is a very common experience. Often times those who are not directly harmed often seeking the harshest punishments while those at the core of the controversy seek to strike some sort of middle ground.

In the end though, it was Mike who won the day, bringing an end to the dispute by forgiving Crow and sentencing him to eat snowballs. While not a fitting punishment for plagiarism, it brought an end to the threats of violence and the anger, bringing peace once again to the Satellite of Love.

While it may be an approach us plagiarism-hawk types can learn from, it does remain to be seen if Crow learned his lesson or not.

However, considering his apathy toward the act and continuing belittlement of his wrongdoings, it seems unlikely that he did.

Bottom Line

MST3K is a comedy show. I expect it to lampoon the issue and to use exaggeration as a means to humor. However, in some ways, it’s one of the more on-point examples of plagiarism and the response to it.

Tom Servo’s anger is a stark contrast to Mike’s calls for peace and that, for the most part, summarizes my experience with many plagiarism cases. One side wants to run the accused out of town while the other wants to make amends and allow peace to flourish.

But here is the truth: Neither Tom nor Mike are wrong.

Plagiarism does deserve our condemnation and anger but, at the same time, forgiveness and education can be a powerful approach in some circumstanes. Balance between the two is often key, even if it leaves no one satisfied.

When it comes to plagiarism, Servo plays the part of the Id and Mike the part of the Sperego. Gypsy, the victim, is more akin to the Ego, torn between the two worlds and is struggling to decide what to do.

While one doesn’t expect a deep interpretation of plagiarism from MST3K, they get one (at least in their own way).

Though there is no doubt that Crow is a plagiarist, the reaction of Mike and the bots is strangely representative of the reactions of the public, albeit in a comical and exaggerated fashion.

The truth is that neither Mike nor the bots responded to this case well, but that’s the point of the show. They responded to it the way similar to how many in the real world do. While that’s identifiable, it’s not exactly a role model for others to follow.

Instead, it’s a model for what sometimes happens in reality.

While it’s exaggerated, its point is clear.

Further Reading

Want more plagiarism in pop culture? Check out the other installments in this series below:

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