Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is available on Netflix today, April 14.
In the Not Too Distant Future…: A MST3K Dweeb’s Hopes and Fears for the Netflix Revival
After 18 years of circulating the tapes, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has returned to television thanks to show creator Joel Hodgson’s successful Kickstarter campaign and the good folks at Netflix. (Netflix: Foster Home of Neglected Shows You Love!) While various MST3K spinoffs such as Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic have kept movie riffing alive and well, we finally have a new season of Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot, Gypsy, and the Satellite of Love (S.O.L.) with new space antics with a new host being terrorized by a new set of Mads. Everything old is new again!
Still, I can’t help but think of what Judd Crandall said in The Pet Sematary: “Sometimes dead is better.” Far too often we cling for things from the past, and yet when they return, they aren’t quite what we expected. Take Jurassic World, for example. While it made boatloads of cash, from a creative standpoint, it was a mess of fan service, one-note characters, and Jimmy Fallon. It didn’t stand on its own feet. Can Mystery Science Theater 3000 deliver the goods, or will it fall into the same traps? Let’s examine a few key areas to see where it could either go great or go sour.
When show creator Joel Hodgson (whom you may remember as the show’s original host “Joel Robinson”) put together the new cast, he was looking not only for people who could hang with the old crowd, but people who reach a younger audience. For the most part, I think he succeeds. Jonah Ray takes over hosting duties from former head writer Mike Nelson. A regular in the Nerdist network of comedy content, Jonah’s humor tends to lean toward a dry cynicism. This leads me to believe that his movie riffing will be closer to the Mike-era than the Joel-era. As somebody who prefers the Mike-era, this is definitely a good thing. That said, his live riffing with Rifftrax—the movie riffing troupe headed up by Mike Nelson and fellow MST3K alumni Kevin Murphy (Tom Servo, season 2-10) and Bill Corbett (Crow T. Robot, season 8-10)—during last year’s MST3K reunion show fell a little flat. Granted, it was his debut performance, and it was live. His booming voice and tone felt right, though.
Joining Jonah in the theater as his robot pals are Hampton Yount as Crow and Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo. Both of these comedians are funny in their own right, and seem to capture some essence of the old voices while bringing something new. Hampton as Crow actually sounds more similar to the original Crow (as portrayed by Trace Beaulieu) than he does Bill’s interpretation. It’s a bit more nasally and mischievous. Baron’s Tom Servo doesn’t quite have the booming nature of Kevin Murphy’s or Josh Weinstein’s (season 1), but it does have that sense of self-importance and overcompensation. My only real worry with these two is that both Hampton and Baron have voices that are in a similar range. It may take a few episodes to be able to distinguish between the two without having to focus on the silhouettes.
Manning the controls of the ship, as always, is Gypsy—the only feminine robot on the S.O.L.. In the past, Gypsy has been voiced by men, and has been portrayed as being dimwitted and naive. The joke was that since the ship required so much power to run, she was running at a diminished capacity. With the new show, that’s changed. Gypsy is running at full speed. Also, she’s voiced by Rebecca Hanson—an actual woman! It’ll be interesting to see what new directions she’ll take the character in.
Lastly, the show wouldn’t exist without the Mads. Playing the new Mads are Felicia Day (as “Kinga Forrester”) and Patton Oswalt (“Son of TV’s Frank”). Both of these characters are descendants of previous Mads, which is both intriguing and worrisome. Both actors are capable of delivering a good comedic performance (especially Patton Oswalt), so I hope that they can make these characters unique and not just clones of the originals.
The puppets on the old show were crudely cobbled together messes; they were constantly falling apart, and their paint didn’t want to stay adhered. Despite these limitations, the bots had a degree of personality to them that is quite remarkable. Tom Servo’s head, for example, is just a gum ball machine, and yet, he seemingly has a face.
The new show has some distinct advantages in this area. For one, they have a crew of puppeteers moving the bots, with the voice actors controlling the mouth movements remotely. This will allow the actors to focus purely on their voice work while the professionals control the movements of the puppets. The puppets themselves have also received an upgrade. With a higher budget and modern building technologies such as 3D printing, the puppets are now far more articulated. Tom Servo’s arms are no longer merely springs, but now have a solid core that allows them to rotate. Crow’s arms and hands appear to be fully articulated, and Gypsy now floats from the ceiling.
The new machinery inside the puppets are done in such a way that, at a glance, they still look like the old bots—albeit really well made versions. A more casual viewer might not even notice a difference. From a performance standpoint, however, for this to work, the voice actors will have to be in sync with the movement of the puppeteers or else the illusion will seem off.
The greatest episodes of MST3K feature movies that are bafflingly bad, yet entertaining enough on their own. Episodes like “The Starfighters” and some of the Roger Corman films are so boring that not even the riffs themselves can save them. The advantage of being with Netflix versus Comedy Central or The Sci-Fi Channel is that Netflix is already host to tons of content. Shout! Factory, the current production company of MST3K, also already owns the rights to a large library of old and restored content as well, so they have a large library to choose from.
The show’s writing staff is headed up by Elliott Kalan, former head writer of The Daily Show, who in recent years also cohosts the podcast The Flop House—a talk show focussed on bad movies. As a bad movie aficionado, he should be able to steer clear of the snoozers and choose only the good-bad movies, and not the irredeemably bad. (The deplorables, if you will.)
Ultimately, season 11 isn’t about what I want, or what other fans of the old show want. Their new run on Netflix is about building a new generation of MSTies. It’s for the kids who already turn on Netflix and watch random garbage based on how cool the cover art looks. It’s to make the kids who make fun of these movies alone to feel like they are a part of a community.