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‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ Returns As Funny As Ever

“Cry Wilderness? If you insist…WILDERNESSSS!!!!”

In 1988, permanently sleepy comedian Joel Hodgson had a fun idea for a little basic cable TV show where he, along side two puppets, would mock Z-grade public domain monster flicks for the entertainment of the greater Minnesota masses. He decided to call it Mystery Science Theater 3000, since at the time, there were many programs that added “2000” on the end of their titles, since that was still a spooky, far off destination. After a successful “season 0” on KTMA-TV, Comedy Central (and later, Sci-Fi) would take notice and, between the two networks, keep the show on the air for ten more seasons. MST3K was eventually canceled in 1999.

The show had developed a rabid fan base of basement dwellers, nerds, and geeks. Those dwellers, nerds, and geeks would all grow up, make money, and keep the spirit of the show alive, showing mystic VHS tapes around, constantly indoctrinating new generations of fans. On top of that, there was an archival effort launched on YouTube to preserve all 197 episodes online for forever!

However, the fans grew restless, soon becoming sick of the same 197 episodes over and over again. They clamored for new bits and material, newer movies, but the same ‘bots! Joel heard the fans, and proposed a reboot on Kickstarter last year and, boy, did the fans respond. All that money the fans had earned went right into Joel’s revival. The Kickstarter for the new season of MST3K set a new record for the site, taking in just under $6 Million. Now the new season, new host, new writers, new sets, new locations, new framing devices, new backstories, new in-jokes, new baddies, new maddies, new buddies, and a new number sequence has finally arrived. How is it? Was the wait worth it? Did you waste your Kickstarter dollars on absolutely nothing?

You’ll be happy to know that this new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is dandy thus far. I did only get the first two of the 14 new episodes, but I can’t imagine consistency being that varied between the episodes. While almost everything is different in some way, it all still feels warm and familiar. This is one of the least cynical reboots or continuations of a long-dormant franchise that I have seen in quite some time. There isn’t even a speck of gritty gray grime to be seen, which makes my Batman v. Superman-afflicted heart just swell with hope. It feels like this was made by fans of the show for fans of the show without being just constant fan service like most other reboots. It feels like…Mystery Science Theater 3000.

What still works is the aesthetic. While before it was a genuine low-budget affair with garage-made effects, the combo of Netflix and the Kickstarter make this more of a high-budget low-budget affair. Things are sleeker, higher quality material was used to make all the miniatures, and they could afford stop-motion animation for movement. It looks fantastic, though. The sets, both the Forrester Moon 13 Base Lab and the Satellite of Love, look lovely and very much so like the older areas from years past. The ‘bots themselves got some upgrades, with Gypsy now hanging from the ceiling, Crow got himself some more fully realized arms and glimpses of legs, and Servo can float now (but only in the theater). The new number sequence, as well, gives us a glimpse into how Jonah goes about his day-to-day activities like eating and sleeping and making all of his inventions. I had to pause a few times to look at all the intricate model work put into the sequence.

mst3k-netflix-season-11-cast

Jonah, as well, makes for a swell host. I won’t get into the whole Joel v. Mike debate (Mike all the way, baby!), because I’m pretty sure those conversations are still banned on numerous message boards. Jonah seems to be, at least in these first two, an amalgamation of the previous two hosts. He’s got Joel’s laid-back demeanor, the affable slacker aura, and the geeky references combined with Mike’s acerbic wit, go-getter attitude, and a more energetic approach to his riffs. I like Jonah’s work on The Meltdown (RIP), and while he had to clean it up a bit for Mystery Science Theater 3000, I can tell that he’s bringing his own flavor to the Satellite of Love, while still maintaining the spirit of the show’s creator (and producer/director). I especially enjoyed the rap interstitial during the second episode about the world’s monsters. It felt like a vintage MST3K, and it’s really catchy and well done, too!

There’s nothing in this season I can say I hate. However, there are a few things I’m not super sold on. The first and most glaring issue is Tom Servo’s new voice and character. I didn’t get as good of a feel for Servo’s personality here as I did for Jonah and Crow. He seems to have regressed a bit and become more immature, and he’s started to throw his voice to sound like a whole cavalcade of characters, instead of being the big, booming voice to drown out the stink happening on screen we’re used to. There’s no consistency in new performer Baron Vaughn’s approach. It’s splattered all over the place. It’s hard to tell him apart from Jonah at times, too, making the riffs a little muddier for Servo.

Also, now that he can fly in the theater, they do this gag three times during the first episode where Servo flies up and touches or rubs or pretends to eat something on screen. Now the gang has done jokes like that before, but without the mediocrely green-screened Servo appearing all over the screen. I thought it was obnoxious. There’s more movement here in general just thanks to technology and all it’s advancements, but I personally didn’t find it super appealing.

Speaking of not finding something super appealing, Felicia Day seems like an uninspired choice for a villain. Maybe not uninspired so much as ill-fitting? Whatever it is, Kinga Forrester doesn’t have the same charm either Pearl (who does make a few cameo appearances) nor the sorely missed Dr. Clayton Forrester did. Her Moon Base 13’s aesthetic is fun with the Skeleton Crew and the base’s idea of “liquid technology” makes for fun props and set design, but, oh man, I really wish Patton was the only Mad on the show. He’s written two whole books on why movies mess with his life. His self-deprecatingly sweet and innocent performance as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank blows Felicia’s phoned-in faux-Madsformance out of the water-based screen.

Actually, I thought of something else I didn’t like. I don’t like the backdrop story of this one as much. I don’t like…wait. Wait a gosh darn second. How does the theme song go? In the year—no, later. Gypsy, Tom Ser—NO! Later, damnit! If you’re wondering how he eats and breathes, and other science facts (la la land), I should repeat to myself ‘It’s just a show, I should probably just relax.’ So…is even talking about all of the above worth it? Nobody has ever judged an episode of MST3K as hard as I have been with last two, you know? None of that other stuff really matters. All that matters in this show about riffing over bad movies is the riffing itself, right? Right!? A good riff is worth it’s weight in gold, as they say in the commentary business. So, is the show funny? Does it accomplish it’s primary goal?

Yes.

Aside from my problem with Servo’s delivery, both episodes delivered on the funny almost effortlessly. Every episode now has an entire slew of writers, with many special guests including Matt Oswalt (Patton’s very funny brother), Justin Roiland (Rick and Morty), and the man who I wish was my dad, Dan Harmon (Community). They’re lead by Eliot Kalan, head writer during the Jon Stewart years of The Daily Show, and host of The Flop House, a podcast about bad movies. How fitting, huh?

The jokes are updated for the modern era, with Jonah being asked to describe a radio and his response being “They’re like podcasts you can’t control.” Otherwise, we do get some callbacks, like the trio yelling “Focus!” in unison when a shot becomes unfocused, and a Rowsdower 1-2 knockout not too long into the second episode. It feels right at home. They even make a bunch of jokes of a musical inclination that I don’t particularly get, a staple of the series! They’re a little more blunt with their drug references and Jonah accomplished his stated goal of incorporating more video game jokes into the show, but I only noticed it because I was looking for it. It’s great. The riffing is the only part of the show that matters at the end of the day, and they nailed it. Characters and sets and hosts can change and be weathered, but a change in the style of humor would have been a dire mistake. I’m just real glad they didn’t goof that part up, you know?

I think my favorite thing that wasn’t lost in the translation is the sense of time just dragging on as we, as an audience/tv show protagonist group, have to just trudge through these cinematic piles of hippopotamus vomit. I’m glad the show didn’t devolve into a half-hour nugget of constant, super quick, digestible sound bites of quippy quips for these teens who are able to ingest 22 minutes of comedy through a four-minute YouTube video, you know? The episodes are all going to be an even hour-in-a-half long, complete with brief “commercial breaks” narrated by Patton which are cues for you to pause and go freshen up or get snacks or whatever. Even with the film’s breaks and bits paced out to keep the audience from getting bored, I got really bored during the second episode, Cry Wilderness. Not MST3K’s fault, but the movie itself has no plot and just hangs on every little moment. It’s great. It makes the jokes better because the film has earned it’s lashing, you know? I like that they didn’t lose that.

This could have been a quick, cheap cash grab. It could have been dark or mature or done something to violate it’s own soul. But it didn’t! It’s still the same good old Turkey Day Marathon-worthy MST3K you grew up with/discovered in high school/got high to in college. The three hours I got to spend with season 11 were all I could have realistically asked for (which is nothing, because fans don’t “deserve” anything from artists). Hey, I think I see you’ve got movie sign! Go check it out before Kinga pokes you with a cattle prod.

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Josh Heath is a staff writer for Cut Print Film. He wants you to know how much he truly enjoys terrible movies.

  • Cärlös Dängër ✓certifiable

    I find myself in nigh complete agreement with your analysis. Floating Tom does nothing for me (well, maybe I enjoyed him pushing up the rocket a little bit in The Time Travelers). Felicia is a bland Mad, and could be replaced by pretty much anyone at this point; it would be hard for me to overemphasize this. I don’t dislike Oswalt nearly as much as I thought I would. The theme sequence is overlong and not particularly good. The Invention Exchange is a purely mechanical affair, and could go back into oblivion as far as I’m concerned.

    I actually prefer Gypsy to be a little off her nut a little bit. She’s almost the straight (wo)man now, and I don’t care for her in that capacity. She’s essentially Magic Voice now.

    My biggest question (…and I suppose this is really where I should just relax) is: Just who are these robots Tom and Crow? Last I knew, they were back at Mike’s watching bad movies under their own volition. Did they get kidnapped? Did Jonah find old robot plans and build them himself as replicas? I would actually prefer a tiny piece of continuity here. I would have been content with new robots, since they really aren’t the same at all anyway.