Some notes on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Revival

by Michael Henley

Well, I’ll be darned. They got it right.

That’s the subtext underneath the collective sigh of relief you might have heard throughout nerd-dom this past weekend. As befitting for the Easter Holiday, this past Friday saw the Netflix release of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Revival, the new continuation of the long-running, widely-celebrated cult comedy series (“MST3K,” for short) that vanished from the airwaves in 1999 after 10 seasons on Comedy Central and, later, Sci-Fi Channel.

In the intervening years, MST3K, which elevated to an art form the practice of talking back to the screen during bad movies, survived in the hearts and minds of fans, buoyed by DVD sales and also spinoff franchises (Cinematic Titanic, Rifftrax) that retained some of the MST3K spirit and most of the revolving door MST cast. But there’s something pure about the original Mystery Science, as millions of Kickstarter patrons would surely tell you. In 2015, series creator Joel Hodgson spearheaded a campaign on the webservice to bring back MST3K, one that eventually cleared its goals and racked up over 48,000 backers and over $6 in funding. As any fan will tell you, there ain’t nothing like the real thing.

Provided you truly have your finger on the what the real thing stands for, that is.

And so the new Mystery Science, right from the start, walks the fine line of brushing up an icon without twisting it out shape. The setup (regular schmoe gets kindapped and forced to watch cheesy movies with wisecracking robot pals, their live silhouettes plastered over the action) wasn’t broken and remains steadfastly un-fixed (although a stiff opening sequence in episode #1 sets the table but understands the need to be blessedly brief). The returning characters are unchanged (to the left, the unctuous and dry automaton Tom Servo, and to the right the gold-painted cackling id-bot, Crow). The structure of movie-watching peppered with occasional sketch breaks is as tried-and-true as ever. And while there are upgrades (HD! More theater seats! Better lighting!), the aesthetic changes are minor, and even the special effects, while slightly spiffier, still look charmingly zero-grade and uncannily resemble the work of precocious kids tinkering on a workbench with models and cardboard.

And the spirit remains charmingly daffy and good-natured. As the new designated hero, Jonah Ray (following in the footsteps of Hodgson himself, and later Mike Nelson) is an affable presence, taking his space marooning in stride and seizing the opportunities. The new robot voices (Baron Vaughn as Tom, Hampton Yount as Crow) take a little while to get used to, but very quickly find a specific energy that meshes well with Jonah’s persona (in short: not as sleepy as Joel, not as mean-spirited as Mike). And down below on a moonbase, Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are clearly having great fun as Jonah and the bots’ arch tormentors, Kinga Forrster and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, respectively, who every episode send them a fresh movie and force them to watch—hoping to break their spirit.

Of course they fail, time and again. It wouldn’t be much of a show otherwise, and I think there are multiple levels of meaning in such a statement. In this day and age, it might be hard to exactly peg the need for more MST3K. It’s just making fun of bad things, after all. Isn’t that what the internet now does, all day, every day?

Yes and no. There’s little doubt that the snarky age we live in, where everything can be reduced to sneering bulletpoints and nitpicking, which feed directly into the “I’m a fan of this, now I must find a reason to hate it” circle of internet posturing, is highly indebted to the sarcastic, anti-authoritarian bent of classic recipe Mystery Science. But I’d wager the net, like it often does, learned the wrong lessons from the program, which was never about destroying the work of others, but kidding it right up to the line. There’s an undercurrent of lovable mischief, not sadism, at play here. It’s constructive, really: the idea that, like other forms of found art, you can take something, poke it, satirize it, and just plain try to make it a little bit better. Certainly more watchable, at least. It’s a telling detail that Hodgson started as a comedian prop comic, because that helpful-scavenger sensibility permeates throughout MST3K. It’s the idea of “Eh, what the hell. Let’s use this. We can have fun with this.”

And at its best, Mystery Science serves as an anti-authoritarian raspberry against the lackluster, which has always been just as enthusiastically commodified for a profit as quality is. It’s a show that asks you to pay attention to the details as if to prove that they matter, to note the lack of care within something you’ve been sold, and to be a companion urging you to always think critically about what you’re watching rather than mindlessly swallowing it. In the mid-90’s, when TV was still shaking off its idiot-box reputation, Mystery Science was ahead of its time in championing watching and thinking about what’s on screen. Today, in an era of peak television, the return of MST isn’t a victory lap or an embarrassed cough of a reboot. It’s a “you were right, and we missed you” glorious homecoming.

I’ll be keeping this article as a journal as I progress through the season. Mystery Science Theater 3000 is not a bingeable show…not in the same way that, say, Stranger Things is (but then, it took me six months to finish Stranger Things, so your mileage may vary). This weekend I watched the first two, and plan to stretch the rest out over the next several weeks. Here’s the story so far.

 

Episode 1: Reptilicus (1961)

Nothing is more at home at Club MST3K like a foreign monster movie, but with the Godzillas and Gameras all played out (check those eps out, btw), it’s time to turn to…Denmark, in this truly bizarre movie that reportedly began life as a comedy…and now finds a new life as one. This is the English-language version (both were shot simultaneously, with minimal cast changes) of a truly cheap-looking monster flick, where miners find a frozen fossil of a tail, which soon regenerates into a full-blown acid-spitting giant lizard when scientists accidentally let the specimen thaw (this is the only monster movie I’ve ever seen where major plot points include a tired scientist and a defective freezer door latch).

This film is baffling for several reasons, not least of which the amount of things it throws at the audience in the first half hour which never play a part in the larger narrative once the monster escapes. (The love triangle between heroic Dane Svend and two different daughters of the same scientist? Dropped. The burly oaf Peterson who gets several scenes devoted to his broad comic antics? Eventually he disappears entirely.) You’d think it’s because the beginning is just marking time to get to the monster footage, but the model work is so poor and sparse. Reptilicus, when he’s eventually seen, is a paper mache marionette slithering across a fakey model countryside, sometimes chomping on cartoons made to resemble people (“The effect is seamless,” says Crow at one point, in a mock-up of the director’s Danish accent). By the time we get to the standard-issue military vs. monster ending in downtown Copenhagen, Reptilicus is defeated (“I never got a chance to befriend a little kid!”)

Reptilicus is a lovely nu-MST starter pack. The riffs come fast and furious (an early credit mentions producer Sidney Pink, to which Jonah laments “Poor Sidney Pink. He was blacklisted, of course.”) and superbly mines the standard MST3K treasure troves of movies, TV, music, history, general pop culture, just plain silly jokes or the for-nerds-only references (this is probably the only show in existence that can drop a joke about farts five minutes before name-checking Jacques Tati). Combine that with a mid-movie sketch where the crew drops a Hamiltonian rap about the monsters of the world (in one unbroken take) and you have an episode that right out of the box smuggles in some choice entries in the MST hall of fame (seriously…that rap song is, like, insanely catchy and maybe one of the best songs the series has ever done).

Rating: **** (out of 5)

Favorite Riff: When a scientist pensively grabs the wheeled door handle of the freezer keeping Reptilicus on ice: “Vroom vroom! I’m driving the freezer!”

Episode 2: Cry Wilderness (1987)

Ask many successful screenwriters and they’ll tell you to always start a story at the very last possible moment. It’s a strategy that’s meant to cut down on flab. Well, whoever made this took it to heart a little too much, because this is a magical, Amblin-rip-off movie of a little boy who befriends Bigfoot, and the movie begins a year after it has actually happened. Bigfoot, apparently, is a mystical creature, who has formed a bond with a young boy named Paul, and  somehow knows to appear at the dormitory of Paul’s boarding school and shout to him vague warnings (“I’ve been doing this tonight at three different schools! Is this the right Paul?”)

Paul escapes from school and, with a minimum of fuss, tracks across the countryside and multiple seasons (the continuity is dreadful) to find his dad, who is in grave danger, apparently. Eventually they meet up with an evil poacher and dad’s Native American sidekick, who loves to laugh at inappropriate times and rassle bears like Davy Crockett. Paul tries to protect his friend Bigfoot from the poacher while at the same time protecting his dad from a mysterious threat, and that’s basically the plot, aside from lots of running around the forest escaping wolves, cougars and other predators while also picking on defenseless creatures (one raccoon is strangled onscreen in a deeply disturbing moment). Also there’s some stereotypical Native American mysticism.

This never-seen 1987 cheapie is a little bit crazy in classic Mystery Science tradition, relying on bizarre editing to pump up the mystery and wonder, a cheap Bigfoot costume if there ever was one, and so many confrontations between people with loaded guns that only through the power of screenwriting does no one end up getting hurt (“BANG!” the bots say time and again as characters are startled while holding their weapons). Throw in some fun references to MST past and a general vibe of “No, really, what the hell is going on?!” and this is maybe something close to an instant classic.

Rating: ****

Favorite Riff: “You died thirteen years ago! I saw you sealed up in a cave!” “Well, happy Easter.”

Episode 3: The Time Travelers (1964)

An agreeable slice of gee-whiz-60s sci-fi hokum, The Time Travelers is actually…not that bad a movie. I mean, it’s kinda ok? It’s cheesy and low-budget as all heck, but…I mean… at times it has the trying-to-be-serious-60’s-sci-fi charm of an original Star Trek episode. Basically, a bunch of scientists accidentally create an unstable portal in time and end up trapped in the future, where (stop me if you’ve heard this one) nuclear war has devastated most of the earth and divided the survivors into camps of either supercilious shelter survivors or nasty cannibals. What follows is a very stagebound and corny but still-sorta-enjoyable sci-fi potboiler about time travel and paradoxes and futuristic androids and stuff. Some of the effects are kinda neat (leading to one funny bit where Jonah tries to impress upon the bots how nifty some of the sleight-of-hand is during a bit where an android lies himself down on a slab and gets his head replaced). It’s awfully talky, but in that earnest 60’s sci-fi kind of way, but to be honest I’m a sucker for this kind of thing. Maybe it’s actually horrible. I dunno.

Rating: *** 1/2

Favorite Riff: During a naughty scene at the futuristic spa where scientist Carol gets to shed her lab coat and wander around a walk-in tanning booth (with strategically-placed plastic strips covering the stall, for our benefit), she and one of the futuristic dunderheads start talking about the men in her lives. Jonah: “Bechdel Test Score? Zero.” Either that or a killer blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Hot Fuzz reference.

Episode 4: Avalanche (1978)

Rock Hudson, Mia Farrow and Robert Forster star in this Roger Corman-produced disaster flick. Thrill! At the juvenile soap opera theatrics and love triangles and drunkenness and general debauchery that occurs when a bunch of horny people visit a winter resort owned by a sleazy big shot (Hudson). Count! The number of subplots and characters and relationships that DO NOT PAY OFF! AT ALL! (In fact, not even the foreshadowed cause of the upcoming avalanche turns out to be relevant). Shiver! At the creepy sexual politics of a handsy Rock Hudson continually pursuing his ex, the I’m-so-over-you-and-you’re-really-making-me-uncomfortable Mia Farrow, leading to a hilarious moment where she asks for space and he bellows “I don’t want to leave you alone!” Yawn! As these subplots and general pacing issues are so flabby that the titular event doesn’t even appear until an hour into the film! Wonder! At some of the bizarre things that happen after it (finally) does, like a sequence where rescue workers careen through a city street like idiots, or the sudden and inexplicable appearance of a cheerleader, or how a man getting electrocuted can alter the laws of physics! There’s also some censored nudity and and bizarre editing choices. This one is a prime cut of Mystery Science, where the rapid-fire nature of the new season fits the slow pace of the movie perfectly. The jokes are top-to-bottom hilarious, especially once the avalanche hits and people are leaping out of windows and getting impaled by rescue workers with sharp poles.

Rating: ***** INSTANT CLASSIC.

Favorite Riff: A tie between a well-time Simpsons quote and a whole bit at the end where they read fictional TripAdvisor scores on the deadly winter destination. Either that or when Hudson’s character is said to be up to “the usual. Up to his ass in celebrities.” Jonah, quietly: “Let’s just let that one go, guys.”