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Television Review – Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return

Mystery Science Theater 3000 – Season 11 (Netflix; 2017)

The revival season of cult geek-comedy television classic Mystery Science Theater 3000, available since mid-April on Netflix, seems fortuitously timed. Its core concept – mad scientists imprison a jumpsuited factory grunt on an orbital satellite and attempt to pickle his brain with awful movies, to which the average Joe(l) (or Mike, or Jonah) responds by endearingly mocking the bad films with the help of two snarky robots to avoid losing his mind – could be considered a metaphor for cultural survivalism in the post-capitalist news-cycle madness of 2017. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether left-leaning political and cultural snark on television and the internet is an effective form of resistance to the reactionary ideology represented by Donald Trump. Whatever effect (or lack thereof) mockery has had on his election campaign and presidency, laughing at Trump, despite its ease, is undeniably cathartic for those who disagree with him and all that he represents.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 (or MST3K to its Silent Majority of dedicated acolytes, known as MSTies) is just such an outlet for comforting catharsis. Laughing at sincerely terrible movies might seem like punching down, but the MST3K model has always carried a measure of disrespect for authority and more than a faint shadow of anti-capitalist sentiment. The concept punctures the faux-mystique around cinema by violating its holiest commandment: Thou Shalt Not Talk in the Theatre. From the breaking of this cultural taboo follow small rebellions against the regard for filmmakers and actors, the suspension of disbelief at hackneyed premises and unconvincing special effects, the acceptance of nonsensical plotting and stilted dialogue; in short, against the very spurious claims to authority undergirding the producers-consumers compact that is the foundation of commercial capitalism. This is the bedrock of MST3K‘s trademarked “riffs”, which frequently spiral off into obscure references, topical jokes, and timeless observational humour in an unpredictable, often giddy manner. But it is also the bedrock for a generalized MST3K philosophy: the world is a mad place and it’s out to chew you up and rob you blind, and the only way to make sense of it is to laugh at it.

MST3K originally aired between 1988 and 1999, beginning on public access television in Minneapolis, Minnesota, moving to an embryonic Comedy Central (then known as the Comedy Channel), shifting to the Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy), and even finding its way to the very movie theatres it treated with such good-natured disrespect with a feature film in 1996 (which was my own inculcation to the franchise and still, for my money, one of the funniest movies ever made). The brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who also starred as its first host/human experimental subject, the low-budget show’s core scenes took place in a simulated cinema through an effect known as “Shadowrama”, with black silhouettes of the host, the robots, and a row of theatre seats superimposed at the base of the “projected” movie (inspired by an image in the liner notes of Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road album). This allowed for not only the flood of verbal riffs but also elements of performance and even visual gags in “interaction” with the movie. To break up this central motif, various sketches would be interspersed around the commercial breaks, featuring the host and the robots, as well as the so-called “Mads” via videolink.

Hodgson left the show after its fifth season, replaced thereafter as host by head writer Mike Nelson, who also headlined MST3K: The Movie. The voices of the robots, the gumball-machine-like mock-sophisticate Tom Servo and gold-clad Groucho Marx-esque Crow T. Robot, also changed during the decade-long run, as did the actors playing the Mads. A certain Joel vs. Mike schism has thus developed in the fan and critical reception of the show, with some fans preferring Joel’s laid-back, ironical style and preference for prop-based humour and others going to bat for Mike’s more aggressive zingers.

This split has likewise transfered into similarly-pitched post-MST3K projects headed by Hodgson and Nelson and featuring former cast members. Nelson produces and sells online-distributed audio-only comedic commentaries to accompany legal copies of movies (B-movie, Hollywood blockbuster, and otherwise) known as RiffTrax with longtime Tom Servo voice actor Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who played Crow near the end of the show’s run. Hodgson, meanwhile, started a (now discontinued) live movie-riffing tour with accompanying DVDs, which he called Cinematic Titanic, with Trace Beaulieu (a core cast member who played head Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester and voiced Crow up until the final three Sci-Fi Channel seasons), Frank Conniff (Forrester’s sidekick, TV’s Frank), Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester, Clayton’s mad-scientist mother), and J. Elvis Weinstein (the first Tom Servo).

With this in mind, the new season of MST3K, largely funded via public donations on Kickstarter (over $5.7 million was raised, a record for the service’s Film & Video section) and distributed by Netflix, is most certainly a Joel Hodgson production. Hodgson directs all 14 episodes of the new season, is on the writing staff (along with head writer Elliott Kalan, Jon Stewart’s former head writer on The Daily Show), makes disguised on-camera appearances, and his sensibility lurks behind the return of the prop-heavy Invention Exchange sketches and other practical effects. Pehl, Corbett, and Murphy also have cameos, but other than that, The Return is marked by a near-total turnover of on-camera talent. The new human subject is Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), with new voice actors for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), Crow (Hampton Yount), and female robot Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson). The Mads have also turned over, with Felicia Day as Kinga, the new scion of the Forrester mad-scientist clan, and Patton Oswalt as Max (a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank). Jonah’s prison home, the Satellite of Love, now orbits Kinga’s lunar base, Moon 13, which features a house band, the Skeleton Crew, that doubles as Kinga’s minions.

Hodgson and his team filmed the new season in Los Angeles rather than the prior 10 seasons’ production base of Minneapolis, and have a far more generous budget to work with. The sci-fi accoutrements of the filmed sketch segments retain a low-budget aesthetic nonetheless, but technical advances are more evident in the theatre: Tom Servo is now able to fly, opening up any number of new visual gags with his hovering silhouette on the movie screen; Crow has visible legs, and moves around the theatre more as well; and even Gypsy, her robotic head suspended at the end of a thick cable, pops into the theatre with a zinger or two each episode (she had previously only riffed along for a brief time in a 4th season episode). The intermission segments, though no longer strictly required on commercial-free Netflix, are retained as respites, often featuring high-wattage guest star spots (by Mark Hamill, Jerry Seinfeld, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris), limited long-form storytelling (Kinga decides late in the season to grab at bigger ratings by marrying Jonah), and striking faux-cardboard cut-out comedy sequences. These segments even provided MST3K‘s first real meme of the viral video internet era, a hilarious rap rundown of international mythic monsters:

But Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is, has, and always will be defined by its riffing along to terrible movies, and it’s the lion’s share of each episode’s running time inside the Mystery Science Theatre (its actual name, revealed in a faux-ad-break bumper) that defines its relative quality. The Return summons some real stinkburgers, and generally speaking, the riffs on these films performed by Ray, Vaughn, and Yount live up to the show’s august geek legacy while adapting tone and material for a contemporary cultural setting that, thanks largely to the internet and the digitally-empowered discourse therein, has moved closer to MST3K‘s barrage of snarky comments than Hodgson must have thought possible back in the still-analog 1980s. For easier consumption, some point-form highlights follow:

  • Episode 1 – “Reptilicus”: The source episode of “Every Country Has a Monster”, this awkwardly-pitched Danish monster rampage flick functions quite ably as a 90-minute assurance to fans that despite the space of years and near-total creative talent turnover, all will be well with MST3K. Featuring super-broad and eminently mockable comedy relief from Danish comic Dirch Passer, “Reptilicus” truly kicks into high cruddy-movie gear as the titular reptilian beast (shoddily executed as a model-scale rubber puppet) runs amok through the Danish countryside and finally in the centre of Copenhagen. The riffs ratchet up during this climax, too, and for me reach a comedic height that the rest of season struggles to match. One fancifully mock-informative behind-the-scenes detail riff from Servo (suggesting that model trees were made from sprigs of rosemary) had me on the floor.
  • Episode 2 – “Cry Wilderness”: Greeted by many viewers as a new MST3K classic, I found this movie’s riffs funny enough but not always up to the genuine loopiness of the film itself. Focusing on a young boy with some sort of psychic link with Bigfoot (who quite enjoys Coke), Cry Wilderness also features repeated forced faux-jocularity laughter and two scenes with a Native-American mystic and his menagerie of animal familiars that looks and feels like something out of Jodorowsky.
  • Episode 4 – “Avalanche”: For me, the revival season’s funniest episode. In this 1970s disaster flick, Rock Hudson (whose besweatered heftiness inspires a litany of jokes about a fondness for lunch buffets) stars as the owner and developer of a ski resort, with Mia Farrow as his ex-wife who visits just prior to the catastrophic titular snowslide. Dialogue-light scenes of furious action are always fine fodder for riffs, and the avalanche sequence in this episode might be the funniest sustained riff run of the season. Bonus points for holding off on the Woody Allen references re: Farrow until a fine extended joke in the final minutes, thus achieving maximum effect. Additionally, Neil Patrick Harris sings a song about online dating with Day (the two co-starred in Joss Whedon’s cult series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog) during one intermission but I didn’t much like it.
  • Episode 5 – “The Beast of Hollow Mountain”: With the titular stop-motion beast held offscreen until late in the closing act, this 1956 Western set in Mexico is ribbed mercilessly for its blatant racial stereotypes and insensitive humourous treatment of alcoholism. MST3K at its most woke.
  • Episode 6 – “Starcrash”: An illogical, glacially-paced American-Italian space opera starring frizzy-haired former evangelical preacher Marjoe Gortner, buxom B-movie queen Caroline Munro, David Hasselhoff, and Christopher Plummer as the Emperor as the Universe, Starcrash has long been a hoped-for target of MST3K riffing among fans. Though the result generally doesn’t disappoint, the riffing can’t quite do the film’s awful weirdness full justice. It does feature the season’s non-kaiju-rap musical comedy high point, a Beach Boys parody called “Come Along Baby In My UFO”, as well as a vaguely baffled Jerry Seinfeld cameo.
  • Episode 7 – “The Land That Time Forgot”: One of two Edgar Rice Burroughs spec-fic adaptations starring Doug McClure (the slightly-puffy B-movie star who was the primary model for the classic Simpsons character Troy McClure) this season, this nutty movie about a WWI German U-Boat taken over by Allied sailors that alights on a hidden prehistoric island edges out the season-ending “At The Earth’s Core”, despite the latter’s eccentric English gentleman sidekick role for Peter Cushing.
  • Episode 9 – “Yongary: Monster from the Deep”: A Korean kaiju movie from the 1960s, “Yongary” features an annoying kid who dances with the rampaging monster shortly before the beast’s climactic death throes, which are disturbingly, uncomfortably drawn out. Jonah and the bots’ discomfort at Yongary’s convincing, squirming agony summoned by the puppeteers pushes through the usual ironic detachment with just the right force.
  • Episodes 10 & 11 – “Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I & II”: Amateurish, filmed-in-the-woods sword-and-sorcery non-epics, each with different annoying kids, different vamping villains, and with low-budget kings Bo Svenson and David Carradine as different but equally-diffident legendary swordsmen who can barely be bothered to unsheath their blades. The first is better than the second, for MST3K purposes at least.
  • Episode 12 – “Carnival Magic”: A carnival-set sorta-drama starring a chimpanzee. Some funny stuff, but not enough good riff material to justify such a limp, incorrigibly incoherent movie choice. Good Mark Hamill cameo, though.

Overall, the Mystery Science Theatre 3000 revival is a welcome development, and sidles in alongside the revered previous seasons of the show with a reasonable claim to living up to its name. It’s a snarky but generally good-natured comedic balm for political, social, and cultural times that are particularly discouraging for the species of insouciant subcultural smart-asses for whom the show is a shared talisman.

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Categories: Film, Hilarity, Reviews, Television
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