After 18 years of cancellation, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has finally returned with new episodes and a new host. This comeback was made possible by a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign (which I backed) and Netflix, where the show is exclusively available for streaming. Is it possible for a show to recapture its magic after so many years away? If you’re worried about that, you should really just relax!
The premise of Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) is simple but inventive. A blue-collar guy (not too different from you or me) has been captured by mad scientists who make him watch cheesy movies every week as part of an evil experiment. Our host is stranded in the Satellite of Love, where a handful of wisecracking robots keep him company. Together, they endure the worst that cinema has to offer by riffing (making jokes) their way through each movie.
Season 11 opening
MST3K’s Season 11 (referred to as MST3K: The Return on Netflix) premiere opens with a short story scene before launching into the new version of the series’ popular theme song. In the not-too-distant future, we meet Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) as he hauls a cargo of mineral-rich asteroids through space for his employers, the Gizmonic Institute.
Soon, Jonah answers a distress call from a base hidden on the dark side of the moon. There, he is captured by the Mads and their crew. As the ridiculously catchy new version of ‘The Love Theme from Mystery Science Theater 3000’ plays, Jonah walks through the base staffed by Kinga Forester (Felicia Day); her righthand man, Max (Patton Oswalt); and their henchmen, the Skeleton Crew. Soon he finds himself stranded on the Satellite of Love, just like previous hosts Joel and Mike.
If you’re a fan of the original MST3K, you will be delighted by this opening sequel; I still can’t stop smiling when it plays. And for new viewers, the intro’s peppy new take on the song and skillful-but-deliberately-cheesy model and stop-motion work does a terrific job of introducing the show’s lighthearted setting and premise. Future episodes play the same introductory song, but posit that Jonah is forced to act his part out anew every single time.
After the song wraps, each episode begins with a host segment on the bridge of the Satellite of Love. Jonah is joined by robots Crow, Tom Servo, and Gypsy (whose speech module has been upgraded and plays a slightly larger role in the new show). Puppeteers work with separate voice actors to bring these lovable robots to life. Since the puppeteers don’t provide the voices themselves like in the old show, the ‘bots have become more expressive. Crow’s arms are fully articulated and move around, for instance.
As for the robots’ voices, Hampton Yount as Crow T. Robot sounds the most like previous iterations of the character. Baron Vaughn, who sounded nothing like other versions of Tom Servo during the Kickstarter campaign, has adjusted his voice to better match the character. I still wish he sounded more like Kevin Murphy, but he’s bound to grow on me over time. For the first time, the female robot Gypsy is played by an actual woman (Rebecca Hanson) and speaks in a naturalistic voice. She also hangs from the ceiling, a change that likely makes reduces crowding for the puppeteers.
The movie riffed on in the Season 11 premiere is Reptilicus, a 1961 giant monster movie. Reptilicus was shot with the same actors in both Danish and English. This episode uses the English version, appropriately considered a disaster during its day.
The story of the movie should feel instantly familiar to any aficionado of kaiju movies. Danish miners discover the miraculously bloody tissue of a prehistoric reptile deep within the earth. They take the tissue to a nearby aquarium, where an incompetent biologist leaves it unrefrigerated. During a severe lightning storm, the tissue grows into the titular giant monster and begins to wreak havoc on the countryside and nearby cities.
Reptilicus is well-suited to ridicule. The actors are uniformly terrible, speaking with thick Danish accents and generally unnatural cadences. The actual film looks much better than any movie from previous MST3K seasons, appearing in widescreen, high resolution, and minimal print damage during non-special effects scenes.
The monster itself looks ridiculously bad, a cheap and inexpressive puppet that spits horridly fake slime at its victims. You have to wonder why they didn’t go with a suit instead of a puppet. Despite the cheap monster (which should be a highlight of a kaiju film), the non-special effects scenes look perfectly professional, many shot on location and some featuring hordes of frightened extras.
The magic is back
So Reptilicus is generally propulsive and interesting in the way of most 1960s monster movies. Watching it along with the silhouettes of Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo, the whole thing goes down a lot easier. The crew makes plenty of terrific jokes. One minor example: when a reporter suggests that the marine biologists name the creature “Reptilicus Martinicus,” the crew replies, “How about Reportercus Shutupicus?” It feels just as fun as the old show.
A couple of minor issues pop up during the movie segments, though. At least a couple of times during the movie, the hosts start speaking their lines before the in-movie dialog they’re supposed to be reacting to. Sometimes they noticeably speed through lines as well, rushing to get them in at too quick a pace. According to showrunner Joel Hodgson, these issues improve over time.
As for Gipsy, she pops up on the left side of the screen to drop a bucket (dubbed “The Payload” outside of the show) early in the movie and later picks it up towards the end. Her appearances are distracting and serve no purpose, seemingly existing simply to take advantage of the widescreen aspect ratio of the new season. Should be continue to appear during movie segments throughout the season, I hope she’s better integrated.
Also, a few cheesy bubble wipes are used to edit takes together in some of the host segments. Those definitely need to go.
Besides the cheesy movies, much of MST3K’s appeal has always come from the host segments scattered throughout each episode. Season 11 brings these back in full force. The premiere alone includes a sketch in which the team attempts a cloning experiment, a segment featuring letters written by young fans during the Kickstarter campaign, and a song.
Yes, Jonah and his crew sing a Reptilicus-inspired song called ‘Every country has a monster’ that involves lots of rapping and manipulation of models. Jonah does the whole thing in one take, which is quite impressive given the speed of the song and the numerous props involved. I always enjoyed the silly songs featured in older seasons, so it’s great to see them return in the new show.
One minor criticism: during the final sketch in which Gypsy pretends to be a rampaging monster, she makes no sounds at all. You’d expect her to growl or something, so the silence lessens the impact of the scene. It really feels like they forgot to add her voice during the editing process.
Welcoming back the Satellite of Love
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11 opens with a bang, and the subsequent episodes I’ve squeezed in so far do not disappoint either. The show has always been Joel Hodgson’s baby, one for which he worked hard to recover the rights and bring back to modern audiences. Joel has recruited a great new crew who will one day be as beloved as their predecessors (well, nobody can top Joel).
From the fantastic new Mads to the awesomely detailed miniature living quarters depicted in the new door sequences, the new MST3K is a labor of love that will thrill longtime fans and capture plenty of new viewers to boot. Netflix subscribers, be sure to give this show a watch in the not too distant future. The sooner, the better!