How We Do It
 A detailed description of the MT337 creation process

By Steven Hill

IMPORTANT NOTE: This was written at least 10 years ago, and the process is continually evolving. One day soon I hope to bring this up to date with our latest methods. But for now, this is how we used to do it, and a lot of it is still the same...

Step One - Story selection

The first thing I do is decide which Doctor Who story will be riffed. I take many factors into account. One consideration is the venue for the show - who are the convention guests, and can we make our selection relate to the convention? When we were still doing our earliest shows, we chose stories that did NOT feature the convention guests, because we wanted to avoid any possibility of ridiculing their work. Now we just don't care. No, actually, we do care, we just keep that in mind. It simply makes more sense to do a story that features one of the guests. Also, Gallifrey One at least has a different convention theme each year, and we also take that into consideration.

Another consideration: black and white, or color? If we don't do black and white stories, we eliminate two whole Doctors. As it happens, we haven't done a black and white story yet. But there's no real conscious avoidance of it. You might also notice we haven't done a Sylvester McCoy story yet. Why is that? Because the later stories (starting around 1985 or 1986) are paced much faster than older stories, and filled with far more incidental music and sound effects. Believe me, it's hard to work jokes in between that stuff when there isn't much of an opportunity presented! This was the big problem with our Twin Dilemma show, and we learned from that. On the other hand, the very early stories actually have too much dead space that would require twice the amount of material we've done for other shows.

I don't like to choose the obvious stories, the ones that almost every fan dislikes, because when something is already laughable it makes it more difficult to enjoy, in my opinion. We want to choose a story that's not necessarily bad, rather one that is ripe for jokes. Our most successful show to date is The Five Doctors, which supports that theory quite well, I think.

The stories that have come closest without actually being selected have been Planet of Giants and Nightmare of Eden. The first was abandoned when we suffered from a creative block and couldn't come up with anything funny for it (besides, it was a three part story, and the whole thing works best with four parters). The second was abandoned by request when one of the story's stars was to be a guest at the convention for which it was being planned. That one was already half-way through Step Two before abandonment.

Step Two - Transcription

Once the story has been selected, the next and most tedious step begins. In order to have a script to work with, it is necessary to transcribe the entire story to paper. It is also important to have the dialogue be 100% accurate, or our places might be lost during the performance. I have a Word template I developed that has linked text boxes so we can have independent text side by side; the transcription of the episode goes in the left box and our own lines go in the right box. Word only allows 32 linked boxes, so we have to break the script into two separate files. (Our first show was done with columns, but became a nightmare of spacing! Any time we'd add a line to one side, it would throw off the entire document's spacing.)

So anyway... one of us (me, or occasionally Rick Kellerman) sits with a VCR, tape, cast list and novelisation, and types in every word spoken, types in a description of scenes where there is no dialogue (because we have lines during those scenes too, of course), and figures out who is saying what line and what their character name is (more of a challenge than you'd think, sometimes). This means a LOT of rewinding. A LOT. Doing one 25 minute episode generally takes me about three hours, and I sometimes can't take it for more than a half hour at a time. Therefore, the transcription process can often take several months to complete. Since I'm a stickler for accuracy, I also want to make the transcription perfect. This means including "well" and "ah" and "oh" and just every single utterance on screen. It's amazing how many lines are delivered starting with "Well," especially by Jon Pertwee, I've discovered.

Because transcribing is something you do as fast as you can, you're normally just typing the dialogue. That's fine, but it needs to be formatted too, and each line has to have the name of the speaking character too, and sometimes you can forget who said what line when you wrote it down an hour earlier. That means even more rewinding. Verification of some lines of unintelligible dialogue often comes from the novelisation. There have been very few cases of lines that are completely impossible to understand, and they get left in the script as phonetics in italics. Also, yes we have tried capturing the closed-captions from the videos, but it's almost entirely useless due to paraphrasing, spelling errors and no way of knowing who is delivering which line.

Step Three - Writing

Usually the completion of the transcript comes a few weeks before showtime. That doesn't leave too much time for writing. I distribute copies of the transcription to the regular writers, and schedule the first of two or three writing sessions. We don't work from time code like Best Brains did, we just go off the transcription. Our writing sessions are held wherever possible, but lately most often they've been in a computer lab with a video projector, with me typing in all the comments I can hear from those in the room. We've tried audio-taping the sessions - it works, but it takes far too much time to go through tapes like that and it becomes unwieldy. So we sit and watch, any given person says something, I write it down in the right side text box next to its corresponding action or dialogue in the transcription.

People send in single jokes, or batches, or sometimes a whole story worth of lines. My writers send in their DOC files with their own comments, and I combine everything into the final draft copy of the script. This usually brings us up to the week of the show.

Step Four - Line attribution

Now I've got all these jokes in the script, all these lines, but one major component is missing - we have to know who is supposed to say which lines. Line attribution actually takes a few hours even though I've got macros to drop in an attribution at a keystroke (Alt-S adds a bold Steve: to the start of the line, for example). I try to give lines to those who came up with them in the first place. Sometimes lines are supposed to be read in a certain voice, and some people can't "do" voices so they can't have those lines. I have to be honest, I do often give myself the best lines. I can't help it. It's my show. :)

I also try to spread the lines out, so that if we have four performers, nobody is waiting more than, say, five lines to have one for their own. It's difficult sometimes, though. I try to "hear" the line as said by each of my performers, and usually give it to the one who'd deliver it best.

Step Five - Rehearsal

With all those lines typed in from various sessions and sources, we've now got a mess of dialogue - and often we find that there's only two seconds of space in which we've got five lines crammed! This is where we iron all that out. Rehearsals have typically been the day before or the day of the show. By this time we generally have our own copies of each script, highlighted for each performer. We delete lines, shuffle lines around, relocate them, and sometimes go through a scene four or five times in a row before we're satisfied with the timing. Occasionally we'll still be off on the timing during the show, which is an unfortunate result of working from a transcription rather than a precise time coded videotape.

We also tend to come up with a lot of new lines during rehearsal, so those get written in by hand (and are subsequently not included in the scripts that are/will be available for download on the website). We also trade lines - "I don't want to say that line, you say it." Then, when the end credits roll, we're as ready as we're gonna be.

Step Six - Performance

It all comes down to this. When we started, we had character names and personality profiles for them - Robert Warnock was Glum, the cynical one; Dave Broucek was Tycho, the enthusiastic kid; Rick Kellerman was Yads, the grumpy one; and I was Wilsen, the one who kept everyone else in check. We've pretty much stopped using those characters. Our original concept included the possibility of doing what Mystery Science Theater 3000 calls "host segments" where we would leave the episode breaks in, then do a brief skit before going to the next episode. We've never done that and it looks like we never will (probably very wisely). And I long ago dropped the whiny "gosh I'm so shy and nervous" act during the introductions too. So now all we do is say hello, sit down and start the story.

Chicago TARDIS now has the added performance enhancer of rear projection - this means we can sit unseen behind the screen, only our dark shadows showing to the audience. It also helps us interact with the screen, because your hand is in the same position no matter where the viewer is. When sitting in front of the screen, a person on the right side of the room has a different angle on your hand than someone on the left side of the room, and a visual gag would only work for some people depending on where they are seated. But that doesn't mean we don't like sitting in front of the screen! The only thing we can't do is turn the room lights down, because we have to see our scripts.

Crowd feedback is invaluable. An enthusiastic crowd makes the show a breeze and a joy. A lifeless crowd (probably our fault) makes us wonder if there's really anyone sitting in the audience, or if they all sneaked out after we turned our backs to them. But my rule of thumb for jokes is "if even only one person might 'get' it, it can go in". It's always a pleasure to deliver a line with an obscure reference, and hear one person at the back laughing at it. Then again, we also have times such as during The Five Doctors when one of the characters says something like "They have been here", to which I responded "They have Rowan Atkinson there?", and Scott said into the microphone "I finally just got that joke." (The word 'been' was pronounced 'bean' of course.) It's always good to crack up the other performers with something unexpected.

So what about ad-libbing? We do it, certainly. Too many wide, white blank spaces loom up at us from our script pages. Sometimes we come up with some great ones (like "Where's Chad?" during Full Circle, and the "My name is Yeti Montoya..." bit from The Five Doctors). That's all good, but by doing so we often accidentally step on scripted lines. Poor Robert Warnock had far too many of his lines rendered undeliverable during The Five Doctors. So we try to be careful about it. And audience call-outs? We do make it clear through con program listings (and sometimes during the introduction) that we prefer the audience stays silent, but it's not like we break knuckles about it. Oftentimes the audience has some good gags. What really sucks, though, is when someone in the audience spoils a joke that's written in the script for delivery twenty seconds later. Oh well - if we say it anyway, they'll think we liked it enough to repeat it, and it'll make them feel good, I guess. :)


"Mysterious Theatre 337" is not associated with Mystery Science Theater 3000, Best Brains, BBC Worldwide or any other entity.
Shows are live and are not presented for profit. We do it for fun and 'cuz we're "just big geeks!"
this web page has been a presentation