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 seventh 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?”
Show 1108: The Loves Of Hercules
So it turns out the last Hercules movie wasn’t the last Hercules movie. Twenty-four years after Joel and the bots took on Steve Reeves’ first turn as the Greek demigod, Jonah and the bots meet one of his many imitators, in the form of Mariska Hargitay’s dad, Mickey. The sword-and-sandal epics usually make me feel like Hercules—in that they make me so sleepy—but this one’s an exception. Hard to feel lethargic when there are hydra jokes to be made. (Because the thing about a hydra joke is that even when one doesn’t land, another one springs up in its place.)
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is distinct among the recent TV revivals in that the creative helm is manned by alumni of the original series and people who first experienced the show from the other side of the screen. Gilmore Girls: A Year In The Life was all Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino; Mark Frost and David Lynch are completely in control of new Twin Peaks. (Clearly.) When season 11 gets to The Loves Of Hercules, you can feel the benefit of having both experienced and fresh eyes on this material. The Hercules movies were packed so closely together—three in four episodes in the middle of season four, then another at the beginning of season five—that the Brains had no choice but to bury the franchise (and pour root beer on its grave) at the end of Hercules And The Captive Women. Joel Hodgson and Paul Chaplin can lend some institutional knowledge (and whatever lingering exhaustion there might be) here, and the new blood knows the importance of Hercules to the history of MST3K. But they can provide new angles on this mythological nonsense, too, and I really enjoy the ways they take chunks out of the son of Zeus. The games of backseat director (“And action. Don’t look at the camera! Cut!”) had me laughing every time, as did the Droopy voice given to the faces of the gods scattered about the city. (“Sorry, I’m closed. Hrmm.”)
The riffing takes a tremendous leap from the platform of the movie’s inherent silliness, the kind of thing that I wanted more of from Starcrash. Both are suitably bonkers movies, but the bonkers-ness of this one resonated with me more. Apparently I prefer my camp with Amazon sorceresses chewing through bleeding tree limbs. Or gave the MST3K crew more to work with. Or pushed them to the very brink of sanity, based on that loud, anarchic, faux-operatic final host segment. For various reasons, it’s been almost a month since I’ve been able to make the time to sit down with a new MST3K episode—I’m glad this is the one I jumped back in with.
Favorite riff: “See that pink smoke? Nowadays, all this would just be done in CGI, which I feel is cold and sterile.” “Yeah, you don’t get the warmth of these shots of incompetent people trying their very hardest.” “Right.”
- Max confirms it: The theater on the Satellite Of Love is indeed the Mystery Science Theater.
- Aw, M. Waverly: You didn’t deserve to be treated that way, but I do so love watching Crow and Servo’s vindictive protocols kick in.
Experiment 1109: Yongary: Monster From The Deep
Who was expecting the Korean monster movie to be season 11’s most emotionally wrenching passage? Not I. But Yongary: Monster From The Deep is unsparing. One minute the horned dinosaur is dancing with stinger-worthy glee, the next he’s bleeding out on a riverbank. I’m with Jonah and the bots on this one: Tell me how to please push past the hurting.
I wonder if, knowing where all this is going, Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, and Hampton Yount gave themselves a little more leeway for joviality in their Yongary performances. I could be wrong, but it feels like there’s more in-theater laughter in this episode than any of the preceding ones, a nice lightening of the mood amid a pretty grim rubber-lizard caper. (Post-Korean War tensions run deep with Yongary. Why else would it make such a big deal about the ground cracking in two?) When the movie is about space exploration, there’s some memorably goofy riffing (“Capsule!”), but the final act is overcome by the “Gamera, but grayer and with more refineries” vibe. But before it gets there, I’m grateful there’s the soldier in the toilet and “Welcome back to Speaking Spectacles, I’m your host, Glasses McFancyhair.”
A couple of other nuts-and-bolts thoughts:
- Do you think the punchline to Kinga and Max’s Todd Hitler Coffee bit was inspired by the way Astronaut Groom’s helmet winds up making him look like Charlie Chaplin?
- Given the volume of jokes in a given MST3K episode, there’s bound to be some riffs that wind up serving as time capsules. The James Corden reference will make sense to future viewers, but internet memes will take the obscurity of the show’s sense of humor to new depths. “Carpool Karaoke” doesn’t show any signs of going away soon, but “Smokes weed once, destroys city. Don’t be a Yongary” will require a few Google searches.
Favorite riff: “Before the internet, it took so much more effort just to tell people not very much.”
Experiment 1110: Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom
Not to be confused with Warrior Of The Lost World, Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom gets off on the right foot with a prologue of unrelated footage from the first Deathstalker movie, world building by way of recycling. After that, it’s on to enchanted statues and the protagonist’s best friend, a wampa who’s gone to a dog groomer. But Wizards gives MST3K its greatest gift when the antagonist, Shurka (Thom Christopher), enters the scene with his crustacean headgear, which Jonah immediately dubs “Crabby The Crab Hat.”
Crabby is one of several threads within Wizards Of The Lost World that feels less like running commentary on the onscreen action, and more like an alternative soundtrack to the movie (a la Brad Neely’s Wizard People, Dear Reader). Like the inner thoughts of Troy McGreggor and Zap Rowsdower or the latent bad-boy streak of Trumpy, these types of riffs work with, rather than against, the movie, so it always helps if the movie itself carries a spark of inspiration. Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom’s main failing is that it has inspiration to spare, but not the talent or budget to convey it, and so there are all sorts of alternate routes Jonah and the bots can take things in: Translating for big, furry Gulfax, or enhancing the characteristics that the movie gives to its Troy and Rowsdower equivalents, Simon and Kor. For Simon, it’s a sort of medieval preppie act; for Kor, it’s an escalation of his intoxication. It all culminates in Crow and Servo’s speculation about what befalls the lost kingdom once Simon has recovered it, which we could compare to the events of the next episode’s movie, Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom II—if Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom II bore any legitimate connection to Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom.
It makes for a lot of big laughs during Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom, but this is an episode of big laughs overall. There are all sorts of monsters, witches, and zombies to endow with voices and personalities, and the fantasy setting gives way to some solid Wizard Of Oz zingers. I’m left thinking of a couple jokes that caught me completely by off-guard, sharp non sequiturs that twist the weirdness of Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom into clever observational humor: “I learned this smile from a playing card” and “Forest scissors?!” Mystery Science Theater 3000 sees the untamed inspiration of Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom and more than matches it in this episode.
Favorite riff: “Crabby, you need more savoir faire.” “Boss, you don’t pay me enough for subway fare!”
Experiment 1111: Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom II
Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom II sneaks up on you. Following that high-metabolism prologue—“Woah, goodnight moon forever”—I worried that the episode would suffer the fate of most sequels and pale in comparison to its predecessor. Sequels are nothing new to Mystery Science Theater 3000, but they were more spaced out on the original series: Season two ends with back-to-back Godzilla movies, but there’s a Pod People between Gamera and Gamera Vs. Barugon, and multiple episodes separating Fugitive Alien installments. (And to those episodes, we say: “Hahahahahaha! You’re stuck here!”) I presume that, as a series airing weekly on basic cable in the 1990s, there was more call for MST3K to keep the type and sequencing of its films more varied—it casts a wider net for catching channel surfers. Not so much on Netflix, where most of the people watching the Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom episodes know what they’re getting into, and are more likely to be watching these episodes in sequence.
And besides: The Wizards Of The Lost Kingdom movies have nothing but a title in common. With no Crabby or Gulfax to speak of (at least not until one dark, dark, dark riff after the second host segment), Jonah and the bots are starting from scratch, and the opening scenes don’t give them very much material beyond an annoying teen and a bearded stooge. But that first host segment, with the Satellite Of Love gang creating a training video for new franchisees of Dark One’s Renaissance Inn & Grille, really recharges things. It’s a demonstration of how solid the host segments are in season 11, and a good example of how they can break up the monotony of the movie and send it back into the theater with a renewed momentum. There’s not a whole lot of wiggle room for inserting these breaks, since they’re dictated by the format of the show, but there’s enough that the placement really matters. If the episode cut from The Dark One’s tavern to the training video parody to Tyor and Caedmon in the marketplace, it would’ve chased a comedic high point with a little bit of lull. In its actual state, however, it’s a hell of a ride from the “Babes Werewolf Fat Wizard Dungeon” forward.
While we’re thinking about behind-the-scenes stuff: Is David Carradine’s fight with the tentacle monster—as referenced in Ardy’s movie-spill report—something that had to be cut from the episode? If so, I wonder why. (Maybe the hydra fight in The Loves Of Hercules ate up all the good sword-versus-creature jokes?)
Favorite riff: Servo: “An experienced director has the confidence to stay with the scene, even with a single shot, when the situation really calls for it.” Crow: Amathea’s hunting now, and the filmmaker wants us to understand that’s a boring and laborious process.”
Experiment 1112: Carnival Magic
There were two experiments I was most eager to see this season, because the reputation of their movies preceded them: Starcrash and Carnival Magic, which I’d learned of during the time I spent organizing the events calendar for the Austin print edition of The A.V. Club. Starcrash let me down. Carnival Magic did not. It’s not quite a match laugh-for-laugh with the Wizards movies, but this is the type of thing I would’ve liked to see more of in season 11: Jonah and the bots dipping into a movie that’s corny, incompetent, and unwatchable without running commentary—but not because it has dubious special effects of a genre premise whose budget, talent, and imagination are outmatched by its ambitions. There are fantasy elements to Carnival Magic—the “magic” part—but it’s otherwise a weirdly plain-stated slice-of-life picture set among carnival folk, an attempted family film that never had a chance to be an actual family film because it was helmed by the director of Blazing Stewardesses, Five Bloody Graves, and The Dynamite Brothers, the last of which was riffed by Cinematic Titanic under the title East Meets Watts. There’s a character credited as “The Girl In The Car,” and it’s a featured credit! (“Sure, she’s a girl in a car, but is she the girl in the car?) What’s there not to make fun of here?
Abramson’s rambling direction and the film’s ample padding also help MST3K clear a hurdle that trips up some of the riffing in the revival’s earlier episodes: There are some wordy jokes in season 11, which require Jonah Ray, Baron Vaughn, and Hampton Yount to spit their lines out quickly before the movie can cut away from what they’re commenting on. I think you can trace the writers’ growing comfort with brevity as the season progresses, but they can really cut loose in the middle of Carnival Magic. The car chase has two marvelous extended riffs: Crow and Servo going over the CB lingo for a “carnival magic,” and Jonah impersonating the sheriff as his car is towed away. There’s space enough for the former, but if the host segment that follows is any indication, the writers had more worthy CB gags than they could fit in the theater—so they became the basis for a sketch. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: The 1970s have been very good to Mystery Science Theater. And I’m talking about Carnival Magic and Mark Hamill’s musical cameo here.
As the season winds down, the serialized plots start revving up. Kinga’s still on about her ratings-boosting plan to marry Jonah—and there’s something suspicious about that footage of a purple-jumpsuited test subject that bubbles into the Mads’ viewscreen at the end of the sadness parade. We’re being asked to ignore it, which is a pretty good indication that we should remember it at a later date.
Favorite riff: It’s definitely the sheriff’s lament, which is too long to transcribe here. But I also loved this quick riff after Kirk’s ”tiger wound” is revealed: “Damn tiger shot me!”
Experiment 1113: The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t
I have this half-baked theory about how the true nature of a television series can be summed up by which of the three major year-end holidays it does best: Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Christmas. (Theory may not apply to TV series produced outside the United States.) Just for a little exercise, let’s apply Adams’ Spectrum Of Golden Quarter TV to last decade’s canonical NBC sitcoms:
- 30 Rock, a comedy about people who play pretend for a living, is a Halloween show with Christmas show tendencies.
- Community is the opposite: Its themes of chosen family and bonhomie-by-proxy were best served through Christmas episodes, though its dabbling in genre fit well with Halloween, too.
- The Office, with its sentimental streak and fan-favorite company parties, is undoubtedly a Christmas show.
- And despite Parks And Recreation building half of its best season around a Harvest Festival, that one’s a Halloween show by default, because it’s an obvious Thanksgiving show that never did a Thanksgiving episode.
Mystery Science Theater 3000, meanwhile, debuted on Thanksgiving Day 1988, and has marked the occasion ever since—give or take the Novembers between 1998 and 2012—with the annual Turkey Day marathon. It is, on the basis of these associations alone, a Thanksgiving show. But it pulls a little bit in the holly, jolly direction, too, thanks to Comedy Central-era favorites Santa Claus Conquers The Martians and Santa Claus, and that tradition carries over into season 11. As noted by Kinga prior to The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t, an episode focused on any holiday is an odd choice for a show that now originates from an on-demand streaming service, but bite me: The North Pole, festive songs, and Santa Claus are fun—and fun to make fun of.
For Jonah’s inaugural Christmas outing, he’s sent a colorful Italian-American fantasy film that operates by the Rankin-Bass playbook: A mustache-twirling villain, an indeterminately old-timey setting, and an entire holiday jeopardized by Old St. Nick’s impudence and/or foolishness. Santa’s always the center of these types of stories, but MST3K has a better time with his antagonist, Phineas T. “If you’re going to spy, do it weird” Prune (Rossano Brazzi, who also directed), and his lawyer, Sam “Santa having a lawyer really sucks the enchantment out of all this” Whipple (Paul Tripp). “Better” in terms of the variety and volume of the riffs, though not necessarily their quality: Whipple winds up the basis for season 11’s strangest running gag, in which Mrs. Claus’ coddling prompts Servo to say “I’m a widdle baby, and you’re my mommy and daddy,” which then snowballs into a series of jokes about Whipple being a full-blown adult baby.
I got a much bigger kick out of the material that has to do with Whipple’s inability to collect fees from his clients, or pretty much anything about Prune’s cartoonish, Count Von Count-accented villainy. (He sleeps among cobwebs and plays predatory landlord to the Clauses!) And the musical strengths of season 11 are on display once more, even if the melody’s not as sticky as “Every Country Has A Monster” or “Come Along Baby In My UFO”: Giving voice to the silent toy-store clerks during Santa’s big number about meeting conscious children is a clever way of working with The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t’s original songs. Because let’s face it: Santa wouldn’t be in this mess if he’d just stop thinking about himself and tried on someone else’s shoes for a change. Overall, the reboot’s first holiday outing isn’t quite as joyous as the haziest, laziest, Swayziest Christmas of them all, but it’s no dull, inarticulated, Napoleon-era toy soldier, either.
Favorite riff: “I can’t believe this is in the Bible.”
Experiment 1114: At The Earth’s Core
Kinga Forrester threw a wedding for herself in order to drum up more Mystery Science Theater 3000 viewers, but she wasn’t counting on being beaten to the punch by a different proven interest-generator: The seeming death of a main character. Like J.R. Ewing and the attendees of Dynasty’s infamous Moldavian wedding before him, the fate of Jonah Heston hangs in the balance at the end of a season finale. It’s a bold, unexpected move, punctuating the bold, unexpected coda of MST3K’s first season on Netflix. With the show’s own future still unknown at this point, Reptilicus Metallicus’ mid-ceremony rampage injects some urgency into Kinga’s meta-commentary on TV conventions.
It’s a big swing at the end of a season of big swings, and it connects for me because I’ve really come to like Jonah Ray in the host position. The cold open of At The Earth’s Core reiterates why he’s such a good fit, drawing on the teasing repartee Crow and Servo have with their new human companion and the undaunted affability of the actor who plays him. (Jonah’s just going to keep building these new robots, no matter what the originals think!) The fourth wall has another brick taken out of it when Crow voices his expectations for the season-11 host: “We really were hoping for a combination of Joel and Mike, which I think would be a lot like T.J. Miller.” But Jonah’s more like an added branch to the Satellite Of Love’s family tree. Joel struck a fatherly dynamic with the ’bots, Mike was more like their older brother, and Jonah’s in a bit of a kid-sibling position. Ray’s personal history with and affection for MST3K carries over into an onscreen enthusiasm—he’s the fan who got sucked in to one of his favorite shows—but while Jonah’s eager to please his new robot friends, he’s not overeager. The ’bots are hard on him (though not Gypsy, because she’s a big softy), but have come to accept him as their own—and not just because they’re stranded in space together.
Oh right, there’s a feature-length rubber-monster extravaganza at the middle of this thing: The At The Earth’s Core riff satisfies, like the Yongary and Beast Of Hollow Mountain riffs satisfy, without reaching the daffy heights of Avalanche, The Loves Of Hercules, or the Wizards movies. It makes a meal of Doug McClure, though, jokes about his meatiness and meat-obsession carrying over from The Land That Time Forgot. He’s become MST3K’s personal Troy McClure, and if the real McClure’s influence on the animated star of Gladys, The Groovy Mule, The Erotic Adventures Of Hercules, and Dial M For Murderousness wasn’t already apparent, Joel McHale gets it across at the top of his host-segment cameo. McClure’s the main course, and Peter Cushing is dessert, a year away from Star Wars and in full “Please don’t think of me as Drs. Frankenstein or Van Helsing exclusively” mode, his foppish Dr. Perry providing a workout for the many falsettos of the SOL.
As seen throughout season 11 of Mystery Science Theater 3000, there’s still a ton of life in this premise. Beneath the Kickstarted bells and whistles and in-theater prop comedy (great flying Servo gag during At The Earth’s Core, when he dons Mickey Mouse ears and does some Fantasia schtick with an ironworker’s silhouette), lies one of TV’s most elegantly simple frameworks, one of the medium’s few concepts that’s truly unique and endlessly renewable: Three shadows, three funny voices, 211 bad movies, thousands of jokes. For nearly 20 years, MST3K only existed in the past; I still haven’t gotten used to saying the phrase “new MST3K.” I hope I get to keep saying. Because, at the very least, don’t we deserve to find out what happened to Jonah?