Fair warning: I can’t really talk about this without one minor spoiler, the title of the movie featured in the first episode, also revealed in the teaser trailer below. If you truly desire a blind first look on Friday, I’d skip this and go play outside. Get some fresh air and exercise, why don’t you? You know, before you binge watch the whole season next weekend.
So as one of the Kickstarter backers for the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which premieres on Netflix this Friday, 14 April, I was privileged to get a 24 hour sneak preview window in order to check out the first episode of the new series ahead of the general release. Yes, even in Undisclosed Desert Location™ I occasionally get cool things before you do. All I can say is that this is a worthy successor to the original Comedy Central run.
For those not in the know, (and given the it went off the air 18! years ago, that’s probably at least three of you) Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K for short), although originally developed for a local UHF channel in Minnesota, quickly became a staple of the early days of Comedy Central. It allowed them to fill a two-hour programming block cheaply with old B-Movies, made fun of in real time by a kidnapped janitor (trapped on a satellite by a mad scientist, natch) and the two robots he built to keep him company. Look, don’t think about it too hard, as the song says, “Repeat to yourself, ‘It’s just a show.’ I should really just relax.”
The important thing to know is that it managed to be both charming in its low-budget puppeteering roots, and very, very funny. It developed a decent enough cult following to spin off a movie and a convention or two, before being bumped for, um, I actually have no idea what, but I’m sure it fit in a 30 minute slot and involved a lot more dirty jokes. It got a retooled second life of sorts on the Sci-Fi Channel, (before they renamed themselves for a venereal disease) then quietly faded away after a respectable 10 season run. Like all good things geeky these days, new life has been breathed into it via Kickstarter, the original creator is back on board, (though not in front of the camera) and Netflix has picked it up for an 11th season.
I would not call this a reboot, it is really just a continuation, acknowledging the long hiatus since last a Forrester tormented a man and his robot friends, but leaving all the handmade charm of the original intact. In fact, in my opinion, it does a better job of feeling like “real” MST3K than any episode made in the Sci-Fi era.
First on the block for merciless abuse, is Danish giant monster flick Reptilicus. It is a great choice. For one it is an actual honest-to-Odin B-Movie, co-produced by infamous (and profitable) low-budget stalwarts American International Pictures. It’s goofy as hell with one of the stupidest looking monsters ever committed to celluloid (and as a B-Movie nut, I’ve seen some really dire monsters). This one doesn’t quite sink to the level of The Giant Claw, but then again, that monster didn’t kill its victims by spitting cartoon slime at them. Despite that pedigree, this movie actually cost enough to be filmed in color, making it more accessible to folks that haven’t gotten the joke yet, and wouldn’t watch a black and white movie right off the bat. A solid production choice, although many of my favorite MST3Ks of the original run are monochrome.
As far as the aspects that make this MST3K go, the new version appears solid. They have maintained the backyard-built aesthetic of the original, even while going to HD and widescreen. Jonah Day does a nice job stepping into the famed Gizmonic Institute jumpsuit as Jonah Heston, the latest hapless subject of mad scientist experimentation. Felicia Day as Dr. Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (I refuse to call him “Max”) are spot on as the latest incarnation of the Mads, although they appear to have recruited a whole slew of out of work hench-skeletons from Inframan sometime during the hiatus.
Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn turn in perfectly respectable voice work as Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo, although their puppeteering is still a bit unfluid and, in the end, they left the character designs alone. As I suspect that a completely changed Tom, Crow or Gypsy would have made this a tougher sell as continuation versus reboot, this seems like a smart choice. And both the theater doors and the latest version of the Love Theme From Mystery Science Theater remain intact, while appropriately updated. Fans will find that this is absolutely and recognizably the same show they know and remember fondly. Even the old 90 minute format and four act structure, with bumpers built in for the commercial breaks, remain intact, so that the episodes can transfer seamlessly back to broadcast television, should it make the switch or be picked up in syndication at a later date. While that obviously is a commercial consideration versus an audience one, it nevertheless adds to the atmosphere of familiarity.
Other aspects seem chosen to ensure a bit wider appeal than the original. The pacing is a bit slower than the old series, closer to that used in the movie, which allows a bit more opportunity to digest and react to the jokes. This is not a bad thing. The references, while often still geeky, are less likely to delve into the truly obscure (although I did catch a reference to Xavier Cugat, which made me feel really bad for knowing that he was Charo’s ex-husband. What do you mean, “Who’s Charo?” Go watch some Love Boat, you whippersnappers!). The downside is that the writing occasionally delves into the level of a Freidberg and Seltzer “comedy” where, simply making a reference to something and hoping you recognize it is treated the same as actually going to the trouble of making a joke. Still, overall the humor is solid. It also (like the original) remains both fairly family-friendly and blissfully apolitical, which is much needed right now.
They also felt the need to give a brief, and unnecessary origin story at the beginning. I guess they felt the audience wouldn’t know what was going on if they didn’t, even though it is all right there in the theme song! That or they just wanted to make sure they got a couple of geeky cameos in for a couple of Day’s The Guild co-conspirators. I do hope that doesn’t become a weekly thing as it took up enough time to cut into the host segments. Which made me sad as Day and Oswalt are so freaking good as the Mads that I wanted to see a bit more of them. Of course, they probably cost more than the rest of the cast put together, given that they are almost real celebrities, so it is possible that we won’t see more of them with or without extended opening expositories. I also didn’t care for the sight gags with flying Tom Servo around the theater or having the cast otherwise interact with the shenanigans on-screen. Oddly, that harks back to some of the earliest episodes of the original where they tried some similar bits before deciding that they just didn’t work. We will see if the same thing happens this time around.
But those are quibbles, and small potatoes compared to the fact that MST3K is back and as funny as ever. Check out the full season on Netflix this Friday. Please? I really want this to stick around for at least another 10 years!