We’re watching the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000
TV editor Erik Adams is watching season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000—yeah, he can’t believe it either. After he watches an episode, he’ll post his impressions here.
Experiment 1101: Reptilicus
The first episode of the reboot—filed under Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return on Netflix—has a lot of work to do up front, introducing new test subject Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) and captors Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, a.k.a. TV’s Son Of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt). There’s premise to lay out and the mythology of Gizmonics Institute to re-establish, setting the pace for a movie that lays its creature-feature exposition on thick. Reptilicus is a prototypical MST3K film, with what must be less than 15 minutes of special effects footage propping up endless scenes of people standing around looking concerned—but that special effects footage is legendarily awful, and Reptilicus’ drunken bobbing and weaving proves inspiring to Jonah and the bots. But the humans get theirs, too, especially ostensible comic relief Dirch Passer in the role of Reptilicus-minder Petersen, the sort of Torgo-esque supporting player whose sets up a string of running gags in a remarkably short amount of time.
But what’s most important here: Does it feel like Mystery Science Theater 3000? It does, in ways that reflect both the Joel and Mike eras of the show. In the host segments and in presentation, it’s recognizably Joel Hodgson’s show once more, with a renewed focus on practical effects and technological wizardry—I wasn’t initially sure about what’s gained by giving Tom Servo the ability to fly in the theater, but it looks neat and opens up some clever avenues for riffing. And once the riffs get going, there’s a pleasing familiarity to the whole affair, the allusions to two important, Nelsons—Prince Rogers and Frank, not Michael J.—feeling like MST3K jokes of a timeless vintage. I really like how the new crew seems to lock in on weird visual peculiarities, like “Mr. Filing Cabinet” or General Grayson’s invisible ice cream cone. Kinga’s intent might be to capitalize on nostalgia for monetary gain, but even in its first outing, this MST3K is adding its own value to the brand. Also being added: an Impressive single-take rap about the international brotherhood of monsters. Everybody sing: “Every country has a monster / they’re afraid of / in their nation.”
Favorite riff: “General Brigadier Military-Industrial Complex, this is Miss Doctor Woman”
Experiment 1102: Cry Wilderness
Now, Cry Wilderness has almost the opposite of Reptilicus’ problem: The story of a boarding-school boy and his bbf (bigfoot best friend) is beguilingly weird for its first act, but all the aimless wandering through the woods that makes up the rest of the movie really puts a damper on things. But for the first 15 minutes, it’s one big laugh after another, as the attempt to squeeze some Spielbergian magic out of “stock footage and incomplete bigfoot costumes” prompts a great run of talking-animal and stuffy-dean material.
Going all the way back to MST3K’s origins pays off in the Mads’ half of the invention exchange, in which their Carvel ice-cream cake ploy threatens to give prop comedy a good name. I’d like a Philly Phool for my next birthday, please. (For those keeping tabs, that’s the second Carvel reference in two episodes, following the Carvel-Häagen-Dazs joke from Reptilicus. I have to assume that New Jersey native and head writer Elliott Kalan has something to do with this.) Amid the perplexing back half of the film, the host segments threaten to steal the spotlight, what with Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy showing up at Moon 13 to pretend like they didn’t mean to show up at Moon 13. It’s a cute vignette, painting Kinga as someone who’s trying to prove herself and properly introducing Pearl’s clone, Synthia (get it?), who’s played by new Gypsy Rebecca Hanson. But whoever bought Kevin Murphy’s Bobo mask in the Best Brains prop auction really ought to return it, because if there’s one spot where you can’t see the Kickstarter money in these episodes, it’s the stiff prosthetic Muprhy is wearing while he grooms Max into the second-banana ranks.
Favorite riff: “When it comes time for insurance, Paul, I want you to remember Hartford Fund!”
Experiment 1103: The Time Travelers
Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Saturn Award winner Ib Melchior to the pantheon of repeat MST3K offenders. After his screenplay for Reptilicus was produced in 1961, Melchior wrote and directed this time-warping romp, whose ludicrous fashions, bloodthirsty mutants, and condescending (and seemingly libidinous) Dr. Varno all carry a hint of This Island Earth. But This Island Earth lacks the hideous, noseless androids who prompt many of this episode’s best riffs—nor does it have Danny (Steve Franken), a classic character in the “wormy guy” mold, on to whom Jonah and the bots latch as soon as he saunters into frame in that coveralls-and-necktie getup. (Sure, This Island Earth has Joe, but he’s gone after Cal heads off to Georgia—and we’re getting off-track.)
The new episodes really underline the importance of these strong joke-telling spines, be they a character like Danny, an invented subtext like Varno’s pansexual lust, or a gift that keeps on giving like the androids. They lend a sense of narrative to the show’s firehose spray of humor, creating little in-theater stories and sketches supplementing (or, in the cases of more meandering movies, supplanting) the stories being told onscreen. I think that’s part of the inspiration behind the increased amount of activity in the theater during these episodes: The writers have been given these huge canvases with which to work, so why confine that work to the lower-right-hand corner of the screen? Anybody can hurl insults at a bad movie; the real artistry is in stringing those insults into coherent threads, or articulating them through Tom Servo’s rocket-launch pantomime.
Favorite riff: I won’t transcribe it in full here, but Crow’s C-3PO run in the android workshop, and Hampton Yount’s commitment to his borderline Anthony Daniels impression, had me in stitches.
PS In attributing Reptilicus’ and Cry Wilderness’ Carvel jokes to head writer Elliott Kalan, I completely ignored Patton Oswalt’s stand-up routine about Tom Carvel’s gravel-voiced commercial voiceovers. My bad. We can, however, definitively credit Kalan with the jingle Servo sings over the closing shots of The Time Travelers’ far-off future utopia. When I interviewed Joel Hodgson, Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, and Hampton Yount in February, the conversation turned to obscure references, at which point the cast brought up the vintage advertising campaign for Mount Airy Lodge, which gives Servo his “All you have to bring / Is your love of everything” refrain. “And then we had to find it on YouTube and we’re like, ‘Why are we even doing this?’” Ray said. “He’s like, ‘Guys, I need this one!’” “‘Anybody my age from Jersey is going to flip out when they hear that,’” Yount recalled Kalan saying. So, New Jersey natives born in the 1980s—all that extra effort is for you.
Experiment 1104: Avalanche
The star-studded disaster films of the 1970s are so ripe for the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, it’s a wonder one hasn’t played on the Satellite Of Love since the KTMA days. Like SST: Death Flight and City On Fire, Avalanche is a down-market counterpart to The Towering Inferno or The Poseidon Adventure, the imprimatur of producer Roger Corman guaranteeing that its special effects will be affordable (and partially sourced from stock footage) and its cast less “star-studded” than “star-containing.” It’s a glorious mess of a movie with too many characters and wide berths for era-appropriate commentary, like the figure-skating moves Servo coins (“Okay, this is The Cindy Brady, followed by The Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”) and the riffs at the opening-night disco (Caroline: “Very good dance” Jonah: “By ’70s standards”). Avalanche’s eponymous threat also sets up one of my favorite types of running theater gags: The anthropomorphization of the avalanche itself. Something about nonverbal, non-human characters being endowed with snotty voices gets me every time.
People tend to associate MST3K with the B-movies of the ’50s and ’60s, but this fan of Riding With Death, Mitchell, and Angels Revenge considers the ’70s to be the most riffable decade of the 20th century. There’s an earnestness to these movies that I find both charming and worthy of lampooning, a quality that’s lacking from Avalanche’s biggest non-lunch target. In the time that MST3K has been off the air, the trend of “hybrid disaster” movies has picked up considerable steam, strewing Sharknados, their portmanteau-ed kin, and various C- and D-listers across a nation’s television screens. Maybe all these cable cheapies cropped up because there were no wisecracking robots to put them in their place. Maybe stitching a natural phenomenon to a predatory beast and throwing in some alums of a ’90s Fox series is just a quick and easy way to gin up ratings and Twitter engagement. Whatever the reason for this flare up, the new MST3K is having none of it, because, as Jonah puts it “it’s not okay to combine an animal with a disaster and release it as a bad-on-purpose movie.” The preemptive strike of Pugslide 2: The Puggening, Ptarmageddon, and Snaketological Duckopalypse Vs. Protopuffin (and so many more) makes for a great host segment, but the point stands: You won’t see the crew of the SOL making fun of any movies that are already making fun of themselves.
We’ll get into Neil Patrick Harris’ cameo a little bit later.
Favorite riff: [After David picks up the phone.] “This is The Avalanche. Ready for me?”
Experiment 1105: The Beast Of Hollow Mountain
What’s this? Two mountain-related pictures in a row? More chances for geological formations to gain funny voices? And there’s a stop-motion dinosaur (like four-fifths of the way through the film)? The Beast Of Hollow Mountain has some very funny runs (the fight in the market place, the wedding preparation and stampede sequence) and a killer set of host segments (the bots’ parade is classic bridge-plus-Mads stuff), but something’s keeping me from loving this episode. It might be the way some of the riffs gild the lily, like the “Meta!” tagged on to Servo’s cowboy-dinosaur version of the “MST3K Love Theme.” There’s also the fact that The Beast Of Hollow Mountain is a Weird West epic made in the 1950s and set in Mexico, so there are a lot of performers talking in Frito Bandito accents. Throughout the movie, Ray, Vaughn, and Yount seem acutely aware that they’re comedians working in the 2010s, and thus know better than to resort to such caricature in their takes on Pancho, Don Pedro, and Margarita. So there’s a bit of awkward dancing around with that material, and a few collar pulls when they actually go for it.
I like The Beast Of Hollow Mountain best as a window into how the new Satellite Of Love crew is shaping up. Jonah throws some biography into his riffing, his anecdotes about a POG-induced fight and a cousin, a chicken wing, and a sewer grate containing far too much detail to not be inspired by the writers’ actual lives. We get some glimpses at the relationship between Jonah and his robot friends, too, when Crow and Servo pitch their ideal monster movies (and Jonah gets way into Crow’s Brozilla—just wait until he gets a load of Earth Vs. Soup!) and when Crow admits to rifling through Jonah’s things while he sleeps. The Beast Of Hollow Mountain also gives Vaughn and Yount a bit of a vocal workout, between Servo’s gravel-throated movie-trailer voiceovers, and Crow’s pompous rendition of Guy Madison. There are shades of Trace Beaulieu’s Gregory Peck impression there—and you won’t find me complaining about that.
Favorite riff: “Turns out The Beast of Hollow Mountain was the breaking of a loving heart.”
Experiment 1106: Starcrash
I’m kind of conflicted about this one. I was excited to see Starcrash turn up as part of season 11, because it’s a notorious piece of sci-fi cheese with an odd imagination and an even odder sense of what makes for appropriate space-faring wardrobe. But it’s not exactly Barbarella, and its hectic plotting and paper-thin characterization must’ve presented a challenge to the writers—who, in this go-round, include alumni Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, and Paul Chapin, in addition to Dana Gould and Paul And Storm. They really only have cornpone robot Elle and smug smuggler Akton to latch onto (which they do with relish); meanwhile, lengthy stretches of padding tax the riff engines with endless space-fleet deployments and a thawing Caroline Munro. The movie gets the best of our heroes, but at least it inspires some creative solutions: Jonah creates a lot of anticipation when he grabs a guitar during the first act, and the early-Beach-Boys-style song about boarding “a complete stranger’s UFO” doesn’t disappoint. It’s the highlight of an episode in which a lot of my biggest laughs came during host segments: The table read for World War Space (I knew Crow’s screenwriting hobby was going to come into play soon enough!) and the cosplay-heavy torpedo sketch.
The celebrity cameos are something I’m still trying to wrap my head around, too. During the Kickstarter, the promise of appearances from Neil Patrick Harris and Jerry Seinfeld helped attract attention to the campaign, garnering news coverage and almost certainly inspiring some donations. The way they fit into the show has been a touch awkward, though: Harris’ duet with Felicia Day is a cute Dr. Horrible reunion, but it’s not until Max butts in that a song about long-distance, tech-assisted dating has any relevance to the new Mystery Science Theater 3000. In Starcrash, the Seinfeld segment gets off to a rocky start, because even though he starred in one of the greatest sitcoms of all time, Seinfeld has never been great at playing characters that aren’t fictionalized versions of himself. But once he gets into the zany, space-huckster rhythms of the scene, it becomes less about a mega-wattage star visiting The Mads and starts being more of a charmingly low-fi piece of sketch comedy. Now I just wish these interactions could occur within the same frame. It works for communication between Moon 13 and the SOL, but the guest-star segments lose some of their energy in the editing. I never would’ve guessed that the Hexfield Viewscreen would be the thing I miss most about original-formula MST3K.
Favorite riff: “That’s the thing about this movie: It’s not afraid to take it’s time to aggravate you.”
Experiment 1107: The Land That Time Forgot
Keep season 11’s second episode in your back pocket for whenever someone insists that every Mystery Science Theater monster should look as cheap as The Creeping Terror. The rubbery dinosaurs in The Land That Time Forgot look great, but a great-looking movie dinosaur isn’t immune to “It’s a living” jokes. Like the prehistoric game hunted by Doug McClure—a big, beefy star of yesteryear primed for a run through the SOL crew’s Link Hogthrob-like perspective on mid-20th-century masculinity—and company, The Land That Time Forgot presents a feast for MST3K. Think of all the lampoonable genre conventions and clichés in the premise alone: It’s a war movie, it’s a submarine movie, it’s a fantasy movie, it’s an adventure movie, it’s a caveman movie, it’s a dinosaur movie. The riffing’s sharp here, digging up the old chestnut of multi-layered fantasy casting (“Matthew Lillard is Donald Sutherland in The Andy Capp Story”) and marveling at some of the more extreme measures taken by the filmmakers. Proof that quality effects can be effectively zinged, as can the fact that the producers are throwing real fire at Doug McClure and Susan Penhaligon.
Now, if you’re anything like me (and you’re reading someone’s MST3K impressions three weeks after the new season premiered, so I have to assume you are), you might have wondered how the show would be effected by its new streaming home and/or the binge-watching model. The Land That Time Forgot demonstrates one reflection of our modern TV age: If you’re watching the episodes in quick succession, you might’ve picked up on the way the riffs seem to be influencing The Mads’ inventions. The Elder Pump exposes this flagrant Gizmocratic fraud, followed by a quick rundown of the game of telephone that’s been played between theater and invention exchange. It’s a clever concept that’s less taxing on the memory when you’re bingeing, but 90-minute MST3K episodes don’t make for the easiest binge, so The Land That Time Forgot makes a compromise for more patient viewers. “It’s not a crime, it’s an Easter egg” says Max—though the episode’s true Easter egg is the shoutout to the “world-famous Dino Hotel,” an actual Best Western location outside of Denver that serves as the recording location for the Mystery Science Theater Revival League Podcast.
But while we’re on the topics of continuity and serialization: I doubt this is the last we’ll be hearing about a movie leak on Moon 14.
Favorite riff: “Jonah, what do you drink?” “You ever seen the beginning of Waterworld?” “Ew, you drink copies of Waterworld?”