Mystery Science Theater 3000 came to Netflix last week with a batch of new episodes, initially backed by a massively successful Kickstarter effort. This is very exciting, but there was also some trepidation on my part. Is new Mystery Science Theater still Mystery Science Theater? And does MST3K even make sense in the year 2017 when every butt with a Twitter account fancies themselves an Algonquin-level wit.
First, and to get really granular, it kind of bothered me that the Kickstarter came from series creator and Joel Hodgson but left out everybody else who was part of the show. It was not a one-man operation, after all. Some early talk left me with the impression that this was going to be a sore spot with folks like Mike Nelson and Bill Corbett, and that made things less interesting to me. I need everybody to get along! (Also? Let’s not get into the Mike vs. Joel debate. I’ve never understood people who are ridiculously partisan about the two hosts. Nerd binary bugs me more and more as I get older. They’re both great. Shut up.) As things went on, it certainly seemed that any issues there were resolved with most of the original cast and crew endorsing or supporting the new episodes. And though I haven’t seen all of the new episodes, I’ve already seen several guest appearances from the old crew. Point is, I don’t have to choose sides.
And now for some background. It will probably not come as a surprise that I lived for MST3K in the early-to-mid nineties. For the uninitiated, it’s a show about a man trapped on a satellite with two robots, forced to watch bad movies. They make jokes as the movie plays and in between there are weird interstitial sketches. It’s great fun. And I feel like I should note that these are not just “Look at these old special effects!” jokes. They’re clever, literate, referential. They can zip from Green Acres to Buckminster Fuller in the same scene. Sometimes they create an alternate narrative that continues for long stretches, sometimes they fixate on weird props or strange costuming choices. Back then, it was some of the best joke writing around.
I loved it. I taped every episode on VHS and once I started getting particular about recording quality, I had to start recording in SP which meant I got one two-hour episode per tape and that got expensive in a hurry. There is a box of easily one hundred MST3K tapes in my house and they will all probably break if I look at them too hard. I mention this a lot, but TV in the nineties was not TV now. If you were a weird young man, you had The Simpsons, Get a Life, NewsRadio, and MST3K. And probably some stuff on MTV, but in my experience most of the nineties was occupied by a single airing of the “November Rain” video which is maybe still going on. It’s very long.
One of the first real things I did once I had Internet access was exhaustively research MST3K. I learned the whole history, cracked some in-jokes that never made sense to me, and connected with other fans. I think it was maybe the only time I contributed regularly to a message board. (Oh, also when Monty Python first got a website and Eric Idle was the moderator.) I was a literal card-carrying member of the fan club. It meant so much to me – it wasn’t easy to find something weird and funny and dense on TV and when you did, you had to keep it close to your heart.
And I think those of us who spent those years with MST3K maybe learned some lessons about entertainment consumption. Now, over here at Spunkybean, we try to focus on the positive. (Other than Celebrity Apprentice recaps.) We write about what we like rather than crapping on things we don’t. Admittedly, I wrote some bile-filled reviews of, say, The Spirit and the first G.I. Joe movie. But for the most part, I write about what I like. Partly because there are a million things to watch and unless something is harmfully bad, I don’t need to cover things I don’t like. But also, well, there was a recent show I hatewatched for an entire season (though I really liked one performance and felt like I was supporting that person) and I never talked about it because what purpose would that serve? And people worked hard making it so why poop on them? That’s kind of my stance here, which might seem like it’s not in line with the MST3K remit.
But it’s not like the movies they watch are passion projects – most of them are cynically produced ripoffs or desperate attempts to cling to a currently popular genre. The first episode of the new series features the giant monster movie Reptilicus, and that movie so clearly comes from somebody realizing Godzilla did well and trying to do the same thing. Watch the all-time favorite episode Manos, The Hands of Fate to see a movie that nobody ever thought was going to be good. And at its best, the jokes aren’t about the dated effects in Amazing Colossal Man, but rather the bizarre (and key to the plot) assertion that the human heart is made up of only a single cell. There was never a time people thought that was true.
What MST3K did was make me think about what didn’t work and also introduce me (by way of counterexample) to people like Preston Sturges or Peter Sellers. And I think it made it OK to acknowledge that some things are bad and often they’re bad because nobody cared. Like Attack of the Eye Creatures where the title card actually reads Attack of the the Eye Creatures. And, frankly, just about every movie they’ve ever covered would have disappeared down the memory hole forty or fifty years ago. But none of this really matters anyway. It’s just me reconciling my own approach to pop culture coverage with that of one of the key shows of my life.
My brother and I watched Santa Claus Conquers the Martians every year on Christmas. (“Droppo, you’re the laziest man on Mars!”) I knew for sure that my friend Lana was going to be my friend forever when she dropped an out of the blue MST3K reference on me and later showed me a picture where she posed with Tom Servo and Crow. (There is a small part of me that wants to believe she’s friends with the real Servo and Crow because I am basically a child.) Sam and I bring up MST3K gags almost as often as The Simpsons and every time we decide to watch some of the DVDs, we end up watching Skydivers because it is amazing. It’s not an episode that comes up very often, but it might be my actual favorite episode. Between incompetent stating, a nonsensical plot, surprising outbursts of violence, casual misogyny and racism, a plane that looks like it has a face, and an out-of-nowhere climax, its very existence is jaw-droppingly weird and Mike and the ‘bots do some of their finest work here. (If I ever don’t laugh at the “Sex for sundries is fun” but, you will know I’ve been replaced by a malicious duplicate.)
I love Mystery Science Theater 3000, but I was worried that maybe it wouldn’t make sense in 2017. That sort of pop culture excoriation is common today, with every dip on YouTube doing a dumber version of the show. The most unbearable person you know livetweeted the Presidential debates and thought they were hilarious. I didn’t want MST3K to turn into a televised version of social media.
But now that I’ve seen some of the new episodes (I’m parceling them out instead of bingeing. Self-control!), there’s nothing to fear. The writing is as on-point as ever. Like the best of the show, the jokes come from a place of goofiness rather than superiority. And even if it’s disconcerting to hear current references on MST3K (there is a great Game of Thrones bit and a reference to My Brother, My Brother and Me) after its cancellation froze all of the old episodes in amber and the references just got older and older, the writers are still sure hands with references that are just a bit too old. You know, those jokes that have you wondering if they grew up in the Fifties, when they clearly didn’t. I always loved that aspect of MST3K.
I’ve liked new host Jonah Ray for a long time – his Hidden America is a gem and he’s been consistently funny in various venues. Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount have the vibe of Servo and Crow, respectively. The voices are a little different, but they feel like the ‘bots I know and love. Gypsy is a more active part of the show and now voiced by an actual woman (improviser Rebecca Hanson) rather than Jim Mallon in a Muppet falsetto. The new mad scientists are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester (daughter of the original Dr. Clayton) and Patton Oswalt as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank and it’s freaky how much he looks like he could be Frank Conniff’s son. The new cast works.
If I’m picking nits, the production values are almost too high. Crow has articulated arms and Crow can fly, and that feels weird. But I’m old and things change. It picks up on some continuity of the Sci-Fi channel incarnation, and I never loved that setting as much as I did Deep 13. And despite a lengthy sequence explaining why Jonah is on the Satellite of Love, there’s no reason given why the ‘bots are there even though they safely returned to Earth with Mike after a showing of Diabolik. This matters not a whit, because, as the theme song reminds us “Just repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show, I should really just relax’.” None of this affects my enjoyment of the show, it’s just an adjustment.
I still have plenty of episodes to go, but I’m so happy with what this new show is. I worried that it would feel irrelevant or that maybe I just got too old to watch robots talk about giant monsters, but it’s great to turn on Netflix and really just laugh at weird, sometimes beautifully constructed jokes. Even now, when every dope is doing their own one-man MST3K 24 hours a day, the real thing stands out. It’s still good and it still works. There’s a powerful kick of nostalgia, but once that wears off, it works on its own. I’m never again going to rewatch anything as much as I’ve rewatched Manos or Skydivers, but darned if I don’t want to get on a message board and talk to strangers about how that one guy in Cry Wilderness looks like he’d never seen a person eat before and was trying to approximate how he thought it looked. For the first time in almost eighteen years…. it’s Movie Sign!