In the not-too-distant future, next Sunday A.D. …well, actually, right now, on Netflix. That’s right, the cult favorite TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000 has returned, with all-new hosts, all-new Mads and all-new voices for some familiar bots. Begun as a Kickstarter and now launching on Netflix, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is conceived as a new season of the original show. It builds off of the property’s beloved past and adds a few new quirks, but maintains the basic format of a guy, his bots and a pantheon of bad films.
The conceit of the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 mirrors the old: a hapless employee of Gizmonic Institute finds himself imprisoned on the Satellite of Love by two mad scientists who force him to watch bad movies. He maintains his sanity by riffing on the films, with the help of his robot companions Tom Servo, Crow, Gypsy and Cambot. The alterations here are only slight: Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) is the new host, captured on the dark side of the Moon by the evil Dr. Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day), the daughter of original Mad Dr. Clayton Forrester, who wants to revive her family’s most beloved experiment. With her is Max (Patton Oswalt), TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, and a literal skeleton crew of evil minions hidden in the underground laboratory “Moon 13” (a riff on the original show’s mad scientist lair “Deep 13”). Tom Servo (voiced by Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount) join Heston as the main riffers, though Gypsy (Rebecca Hanson) does make the occasional appearance in the screening room.
The first episode of the new season gives just enough backstory to Heston’s imprisonment to keep the new viewer informed, while giving the old viewer a happy little wave of nostalgia with a similar theme song and backstory. Make no mistake about it, MST3K: The Return is going to have to rely on nostalgia, at least in the first few episodes, to drive viewer engagement and keep older crowds from turning it off.
Each episode comes in around the hour and a half mark and includes quick commercial breaks narrated by Oswalt. The host segments that interrupt the film screenings are perfectly enjoyable (though these were never my favorite aspect to begin with), as is the “Invention Exchange,” a leave-over from the Joel Hodgson seasons that was largely abandoned after Joel left the show. Hodgson is a producer on this new season, which bears his hallmark of deadpan humor and earnest attempts to actually make sense of the bad, boring, and plain bizarre films the hosts grapple with.
But the external trappings of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return are incidental to the big, booming questions: Do Jonah and the newly voiced bots manage to pull off the unenviable task of stepping into the riffing shoes of their predecessors? Are the films bad enough to be worthy of the MST3K treatment, but good enough to not put the audience to sleep? Are the riffs funny?
I’m incredibly pleased to say that the answer, for the most part, is yes. The riffs are certainly funny, the hosts are dynamic, and the films (at least in the first two episodes) suitably bad for Mystery Science Theater 3000.
A good MST3K episode has to strike the balance between a film being terrible, thus giving the hosts plenty of riffing fodder, while also being bizarre and or amusing enough in its own right to avoid totally alienating the viewer. And the first two episodes mostly hit those marks, as Jonah and the bots take on Reptilicus, a Godzilla ripoff from Denmark, and Cry Wilderness, a hilariously bad Bigfoot film.
Reptilicus is the weaker of the two entries. It has a somewhat shaky beginning, given that the episode has to establish the new characters and voices quickly and get into the serious business of the bad movie. Jonah and the bots take time to find their footing once the movie starts, going silent for long periods and missing what should have been some easy jokes. But things begin to pick up about halfway through—the jokes come faster and the performers seem to have more confidence. It’s a decent enough job, but the boys hardly hit the ground running.
It’s with Cry Wilderness that they hit their stride. Some of this is simply due to the fodder that this weird Bigfoot film provides, with long sections of animal footage, an annoying child protagonist (always a favorite for MST3K), and an offensively stereotyped native spirit guide. But the hosts also seem to have gained confidence. The jokes are faster, the patter more subtle, and there are even riffs that rival some of the best original episodes. I didn’t particularly laugh at Reptilicus, but Cry Wilderness had me frightening my roommate.
The hosts themselves are bit of a mixed bag. Jonah has neither Hodgson’s deadpan humor nor the more eager-to-please attitude of later host Mike Nelson. He’s a perfectly likable schlub, though, and projects a somewhat befuddled image that only occasionally struggles to be interesting. Tom Servo and Crow are going to have a more uphill battle with fans of the original series, and possibly newcomers as well – their trademark attitudes are not quite there yet.
Given that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is billing itself as a new season carrying on from the last, that’s a bit of a problem. They’re usually easy to distinguish from each other, but at times the voices and personalities meshes into a single entity. One gets the sense that neither Yount nor Vaughn are yet totally comfortable with the characters they’re playing, and don’t always take the time to develop the bots’ differing personalities. This is particularly evident in Reptilicus, but improves with Cry Wilderness, and so bodes well for the further development of the characters.
Despite a few tiny missteps, it’s a pleasure to see Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return actually make a return in good form, with a great deal of potential for things to come to come. It’s enriched by some knowledge of the original series, especially in the host and introductory segments, but once we get into the actual riffing most of that becomes incidental. For new viewers, this will be a great introduction to a beloved property. For the experienced among us, it’s like MST3K never left.
A highly enjoyable return to the Satellite of Love, with new hosts, new voices and the same wonderfully bad movies.