Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), the little public access puppet show from Minneapolis that could, returns to Netflix on April 14th with their first new season since their 1999 cancellation. Bolstered by a tremendously successful Kickstarter campaign, the cult show about a hapless schmuck trapped in outer space forced to watch bad movies with robot companions has been revived with a new cast, new crew, and a new slew of cheesy bad movies. For many, the show’s return was a cause for celebration. But many others approached the idea of a continuation—and this is a continuation, not a reboot—with trepidation. Most of the original writers and performers would not be returning, including long-time head writer and host Michael J. Nelson and the two voices of his mechanical buddies Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. But the revival was headed by Joel Hodgson, the series creator and original host, who drafted an impressive cast of established actors and up-and-coming comedians for the return.
On April 9, the first episode of the new season was streamed for free for Kickstarter contributors. Having been one of those contributors, I was allowed access. I am happy to report that, while it has its flaws, the new episode of MST3K is not just good, but it indicates a program revitalized for a new generation, not a mere duplication of the original.
This time around the shanghaied dweeb forced into the movie theater is Jonah (Jonah Ray), a crack inventor and spaceship pilot for the Gizmonic Institute who gets captured by the nefarious evil scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) while responding to a phony distress call. Trapped in a bone-shaped spaceship known as the “Satellite of Love” attached via space elevator to Forrester’s hidden base on the dark side of the moon, Jonah is forced to watch awful movies as part of a science experiment to see how much pain the human mind can take before breaking. His companions are Tom Servo, a red droid designed like a gumball machine, and Crow T. Robot, a yellow spider-duck thing built from a bowling pin and a lacrosse net. They stave off madness by making fun of the movies, a practice which quickly became known as “riffing” in the original series.
A few points of order before we take a look at the feature movie. First, we don’t actually see that much of Kinga or her assistant TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) in this episode. They appear mostly in the episode’s prologue and epilogue. But this isn’t a bad thing. The focus of this first episode is establishing Jonah as the new face of the show and the new voices of Tom and Crow, provided by Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount. All of the host segments—short skits first used as bumpers proceeding commercial breaks—focus on their shenanigans on the ship. In a wise decision, an offhand bit of exposition reveals that this first episode takes place two months after Jonah’s capture, reprieving us from witnessing Jonah’s shocked reactions to his new situation and his new friends. When we meet the three, they already have an established chemistry and friendship. However, it’s still too early to define the exact nature of that relationship. After all, both of the original hosts had specific roles vis-à-vis the robots: Joel, their creator, was their father figure and confidant, Mike their older brother and co-conspirator. For now it seems like their relationship with Jonah leans towards the latter, but we’ll see what happens as the show progresses. Both Vaughn and Yount lean into their roles with an excited vigor, Vaughn perfectly capturing Tom’s insouciant exuberance and tendency to burst out into song, Yount maintaining Crow’s devil-may-care cynicism and periodic outbursts of frenzied mania. (For longtime MST3K fans, or “MSTies,” Yount’s Crow is much more reminiscent of Trace Beaulieu—the character’s original voice—than of his replacement Corbett in that his cynicism is more breezy and off-hand than it is bitter and venomous.)
One of the biggest contentions critics of the revival had was that the sudden influx of funding and their acquisition by Netflix would lead to a watering down of the low-fi aesthetic of the original. When MST3K got started, everything was super low-tech and cheesy, the sets and robot puppets being built from reclaimed scraps and garbage, the special effects not going much further than kitschy miniature models for exterior shots of the Satellite of Love and hidden tubing in the robots that squirted foam or crazy string. When the show was picked up by Comedy Central and later by the Sci-Fi Channel, they maintained the cheap production values. That sense of cheapness is thankfully present in the new episode: they still use obvious models for the spaceships and moon bases, still use ridiculous costumes that would get laughed out of a George Kuchar home movie, and still use props that seem reclaimed from a back alley dumpster. One particularly nice touch was how the episode took a relaxed attitude towards blown takes: during one of the host segments Jonah accidentally knocks over a number of props being used in the sketch, but everybody keeps going. And if I’m not mistaken, I’m pretty sure they kept in Yount accidentally messing up one of his lines in the movie theater. Such accidents were common in the original show, so these were all welcome throwbacks to the original’s slapdash, amateurish feel. The one difference is that everything seems cleaner and more polished. The props and sets, while cheesy, feel too new and shiny. Hopefully a season or two of wear and tear will fix that.
But on to the meat of the show, the movie. For their season premiere, Kinga has rolled out the infamous Reptilicus (1961), a giant monster movie from Denmark which has gained cult notoriety as the Danish Godzilla. Much of the cult appeal of the film comes from the producers’ choice to depict the eponymous monster, a poison-spewing snake-dragon that can regenerate its entire body like a flatworm, through the use of puppetry instead of through more traditional giant monster genre methods like men in rubber suits or claymation models. It’s an appropriate pick: the show about puppet robots begins with them making fun of a movie about a puppet monster. Long-time fans will take comfort in how the riffing has not devolved into mere pop culture references or shock humor. The humor still comes largely from the timing and the unexpectedness of the jokes. Take one fantastic exchange early in the episode when a team of drillers uncover a fragment of Reptilicus buried in the ground.
A dumbstruck miner: “Bones!”
Jonah: [Imitating DeForest Kelley] “Jim.”
Miner: “Fossil bones!”
Jonah: [Still imitating Kelley] “Fossil Jim.”
On paper, this joke doesn’t seem very funny. But its rapid-fire delivery had me doubled over in laughter on my couch.
Jonah and the Bots have a field day mocking the film’s preposterous Danish setting for a monster movie (“How much more Copenhagen is there for the monster to destroy? It’s the size of New Haven!”), the deteriorated quality of the film print (“Reptilicus is destroying the film stock!” “Yeah, either this print is in really bad shape or it’s raining tar.”), and the ridiculous look and design of the titular monster (“Reptilicus is a marionette with only one string!”)
I mentioned that the episode has a flew flaws. Most of them come from the episode’s central problem: Reptilicus isn’t actually that bad of a movie. Cheesy and silly? Sure. But the film had decent production values and a handful of chilling scenes, particularly one shot where a crowd of fleeing civilians barrel off the side of a folding bridge. The episode has the same problem the original show had with Jack Arnold’s Revenge of the Creature (1955), the sequel to the classic Universal horror film Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), the first Gamera movie, and any number of the Scandinavian/Eastern European fantasy films they covered like The Magic Voyage of Sinbad (1952) or The Day the Earth Froze (1959): it’s inherently harder to make fun of an objectively good (or half-decent) movie than it is a total stinker. There’s an unfortunate amount of dead air in the first half of the episode as Jonah and the Bots struggle for things to say as scientists bicker back and forth about the monster in nondescript rooms and laboratories. It’s only after the monster appears and begins to rampage that the riffing picks up and develops the snappy rhythm reminiscent of the original show.
Overall, this new episode is just about everything diehard MSTies and first-time watchers could want: clever, tongue-in-cheek comedy and B-movie silliness. I’m eager to see what happens in the rest of the season—it’s rumored MST3K alumni might make guest appearances—but for now we can all rest assured that the Satellite of Love is in good, capable hands.