Cult comedy show Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned this past Thursday with a new season, their twelfth overall and their second on Netflix. The Thanksgiving release couldn’t have been more appropriate, as the holiday—lovingly known as “Turkey Day” among MSTies—is the closest thing the show has to an official holiday, having first premiered on it thirty years ago on KTMA, a local television station in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Three years later, the newly acquired Comedy Central smash hit held its first Turkey Day marathon. It was a gob-smacking thirty hours of B-movie cheese and robot puppet snark, which repeated every year for the rest of its run before being picked up six years later by Syfy. After their 1999 cancellation, the Turkey Day festivities languished until 2013 when Shout! Factory, a home video company that scored the show’s distribution rights, streamed an online marathon hosted by Joel Hodgson, series creator and original host.
For two more years, Shout! Factory and Hodgson kept the Turkey Day spirit alive online before announcing the soon-to-be-wildly-successful Kickstarter campaign for the show’s 2017 revival on Netflix. And finally, it was during the 2017 Turkey Day marathon that Hodgson broke the surprise news that the show had been renewed for another season.
A year has passed, the new season is here, and it’s an explicit celebration of the very Thanksgiving binge-watching that helped the fandom weather so many years post-cancellation. A six-episode season titled Mystery Science Theater 300: The Gauntlet, it continues the storyline laid down in the previous season that saw hapless inventor Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) trapped on a spaceship named the “Satellite of Love” (SOL) and forced to watch bad movies as part of a mad science experiment run by Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Frank (Patton Oswalt).
Armed with nothing but a crackling wit and two sarcastic puppets—Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn)—he maintains his sanity by making fun of the craptastic stinkers sent his way. In a move mimicking the casual nonchalance of the original show’s attitude toward its overarching plots, it completely hand-waved away the climactic resolution of season eleven, which saw Jonah devoured by a giant robot during a shotgun wedding with Kinga, and showed him happily back in one piece on the SOL as if nothing had happened. But Kinga returned with a new devious experiment: a six-movie marathon to be watched in one sitting. Unlike the original ten seasons where each episode canonically took place a week apart from each other, these six episodes were presented as occurring back-to-back-to-back with roughly a five minute break between each one. (Not-so-coincidentally, the end credits and production logos between the end of an episode and the prologue of the next take up were, you guessed it, five real-time minutes.)
The six-episode format immediately brought to mind the original show’s seventh season, their final doomed run on Comedy Central before it was axed as part of a channel-wide re-branding effort. In a first for the Comedy Central years, it featured a season-long storyline, in this case the unexpected arrival of Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl), mother to the show’s original antagonist, and the hapless Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu). The season climaxed with the inhabitants of the SOL becoming pure disembodied energy following a loving 2001: A Space Odyssey spoof where Clayton reached the next stage of human evolution after merging with the “Worst Movie Ever,” a transformation no doubt hastened by six episodes worth of henpecking and aggravation from his mother.
In addition to season twelve’s truncated length and sustained storyline, it also paid tribute to the seventh season’s goodbye to Dr. Clayton with the triumphant return of Dr. Laurence Erhardt (Josh Weinstein), side villain from MST3K’s first season way back in 1989, who demanded Kinga and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank help him with the internment of dead boss’s ashes.
But enough prevaricating about the host segments and show history—what about the movies? Much like season seven, which only featured two black-and-white movies, season twelve exclusively featured newer movies with the oldest one, Antonio Margheriti’s Killer Fish. The majority were ’80s genre cheese-fests, films made in the shadow of Spielberg, Lucas, and Zemeckis blockbusters with a fraction of their budget and talent. (Even Killer Fish is a low-budget nature-fights-back rip-off of Spielberg’s Jaws. Jonah and the Bots had a field day over how, despite its Brazilian setting, the sets looked suspiciously like the backlots of famous amusement parks like Universal Studios or Disney World.)
Episode three’s Lords of the Deep was, as described by TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, a rip-off of a rip-off of James Cameron’s The Abyss, while episode six’s Ator, the Fighting Eagle—the film season three’s Cave Dwellers was a sequel to—was every bad Conan the Barbarian imitator rolled into one. The fourth film, John Cardos’ The Day Time Ended, might not have been a direct rip-off of any one film, but its bizarre plot featured a menagerie of benevolent aliens and kooky special effects menacing a prim and proper American nuclear family, borrowed heavily from Spielberg’s early work.
None of the blockbuster ripoffs were more shameless than the movie featured in the first episode, Stewart Raffill’s Mac and Me, an E.T. ripoff about a wheelchair-bound boy who befriended an alien separated from its family. With its grotesque creature costumes, cloying saccharine sweetness, inexplicable musical number at a McDonald’s restaurant, and the most embarrassing product placement this side of a Michael Bay movie—the aliens can be magically revived from seemingly any injury with a few sips of delicious Coca-Cola—the film has long been celebrated as one of the pantheon so-bad-it’s-good films alongside Claudio Fragasso’s Troll 2 and Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. For devoted MSTies who’ve long dreamed of seeing it get the full SOL treatment, its inclusion was just as much of a high-profile “get” as Poul Bang’s infamous Danish kaiju flick Reptilicus, the film which kicked off season eleven.
Mac and Me began season twelve on fantastic footing, with the jokes coming faster and smarter than all but the best episodes from season eleven. Ray, Yount, and Vaughn feel like they’ve finally settled into the proper rhythm and groove for their characters, with none of the occasional stumbled lines or awkward stretches of silence that occasionally marred season eleven. Nowhere is this synergy better demonstrated than in the second episode featuring Jared Cohn’s Atlantic Rim, the show’s first film from the 21st century and the first produced by notorious mockbuster studio The Asylum. With its terrible CGI effects, laughable acting, and obnoxious lunkhead frat-boy hero, Atlantic Rim might objectively be the worst film of the season. Appropriately, it also makes for its single best episode, a ninety-minute home-run that easily stands alongside the best from the original series.
This season also saw the delightful inclusion of M. Waverly (Grant Baciocco) and Growler (Russ Walko), two robots invented by Jonah in one-off host segments last season, as guest riffers, occasionally dropping into the theater on the bottom left-hand side of the screen to milk a sight gag or two. Since the viewer is conditioned to pay attention to the bottom right-hand side of the screen where Jonah and the Bots sit, these cameos can go by unnoticed on first viewings. It’s actually a brilliant decision as it rewards repeated viewings with new jokes. The two new bots were welcomed additions to the cast and hopefully will play larger roles in future seasons.
With its genius film picks, cameos by old characters, introductions of charming new ones, and a slew of callbacks to running gags—the nonsense song Idiot Control Now, born from the unintelligible lyrics of a musical break in season three fan-favorite episode The Pod People was a central plot point to the overarching season-long storyline—Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet was the rare season that mixed indulgent fan service with bold steps forward for the future of the franchise. The six-episode format is a winning one considering that, unlike the original series, which was shot entirely in Minnesota with a cast and crew that lived nearby the studio, the current writers and performers live all over the United States and were, at any given moment, working on any number of tours and side-projects. If this shortened season format proved more flexible and beneficial for those involved, then we should be all for it. Hopefully, next season the show can flex some of its Netflix money to get the streaming rights to a few more Japanese kaiju films. I hear there are still plenty of unriffed Gamera films out there just lying around.