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?”