Sometimes a concept is so brilliantly simplistic that you’re not sure why nobody ever ran with it before.
Take this simple premise – you and your friends are sitting on a couch watching bad movies and making fun of them as you do so. Sound like fun? You’ve probably done it.
Well Joel Hodgson ran with it when he introduced Mystery Science Theater 3000 in 1988. Collectively, over 10 seasons and three networks, Hodgson and the MST3K team managed to make fun of almost 200 movies.
Fans of the cult show rejoiced when in 2015 Hodgson announced the return of the show and started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to fund (initially) the first three episodes. The campaign raised a total of almost 6 million dollars, and it was announced that the series would be developed for Netflix’s “drop all episodes at once” streaming format.
Much to his credit, Hodgson didn’t bog down the simple concept of his show with a lot of extraneous narrative, and thankfully, the new show keeps the same format with all of the most recognizable antics as before, allowing old fans to hop right back on as if they’d never left, and new fans to quickly catch on.
If you’re not familiar with the show, the premise is two paragraph simple (or if you like, one minute and a half introductory theme song simple – see below); two mad scientists ( now played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt) kidnap one poor guy (now played by Jonah Rey) and force him to watch horrible movies to see how long it takes to break his sanity.
“So are all these mountains hallow, or are we going to have to guess which one?” – Crow
In the original series our poor guy (initially portrayed by Hodgson himself) retaliates by using parts of the ship he’s trapped in (ironically the parts that he could have used to stop the movie) to build several robot friends who watch the movies as well, helping him keep his sanity by making fun of (riffing on) all the stupid things that happen during the movies.
And we’re off. That simple. The show never wastes time over analyzing the motivations of the Mads, or why Joel, who could build all these cool robots doesn’t try to do something more useful like figuring out a way to escape, or as the introductory theme song intones, how he eats and breaths.
Although the new series is much of the same the first episode does take a few minutes of exposition to bridge from the older series and give enough background to bring newer viewers quickly up to speed.
There’s a small introductory skit that features Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray, but much like Wheaton says about being Sheldon Cooper’s mortal enemy on Big Bang Theory, it doesn’t really take up much of your time.
The prologue sets up Jonah as the new host, including a run down of several upgrades he’s made to the Bots, including Gypsy’s voice and the fact that Tom Servo can now hover.
“Little know fact: most scientific problems are solved right here at the dish rack.” – Tom Servo
The theme song has gotten an upgrade thanks to the musical help of Har Mar Superstar and kicks in every episode when the cold opening in interrupted by a tube that comes down and sucks Jonah into the title sequence, to the point where one of the Bots even asks him during one episode, “why does she make you do that every time?” Robot Roll Call is shot in silhouette on a green screen allowing it to be presented over scenes from the episode’s movie, and the countdown hallway has been given a fantastic makeover.
While classic bits like the invention exchange, conversations with “the Mads” and guest appearances are all still here, the show seems to have given them less time, which never gives them a chance to get stale or repetitive – a good thing considering the show is now bingable. Is that a word? Yeah, that’s a word.
The classic Bots are back, with Hampton Yount doing a pretty solid Crow voice, Baron Vaughn giving a new inflection to Servo’s voice, and Rebecca Hanson adding a really nice touch taking Gypsy’s voice into a more mature, feminine tone.
Once inside the theater, where the horrible movies are played, it’s business as usual with a few cool upgrades. The classic silhouette in the corner technique is still used to depict Jonah and the Bots as they watch, but now the threesome seem to do more, including leaving the theater and coming back or switching seats. Servo will on occasion hover up to the screen to point out something, and in what I think is a really nice addition, Gypsy now drops in on the left side every now and then to help our team out with a quick comment of her own. Although I have no idea what she’s bringing in and out of the theater when she does.
But as the cliche goes, the real stars in the series are the movies. Joel Hodgson kept the screening list for the new series under very tight wraps and every fan I talked to had specific wishes for the types of movies that would be represented.
And I don’t think Hodgson disappointed. The series contains a nice mixture of the black and white horror movies that were the show’s bread and butter when it first began (Reptillicus, The Beast from Hallow Mountain), horribly bad space dramas (Starcrash), sword and sorcery (The Loves of Hercules, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom I/II), and even a movie about a magical Bigfoot and the boy he tries to help (Cry Wilderness).
I was especially happy to see Reptillicus and Beast on the list as I remember watching these movies in my youth on the old Doctor Shock horror movie TV shows (any old Philly area UHF TV watchers out there?). Those old black and white horror movies are what drew me to MST3K in the first place, as I’d seen so many in my youth and grew up loving them.
(Said about a blank foggy screen) “This is what every Star Wars movie looks like before the CGI is put in.” – Jonah
As does Hodgson, at the heart of the show is the fact that he’s is not making fun of these moves so much as having fun with them. So with that in mind he insisted with this new incarnation that the riffing not go over the dialog of the movies so that the audience would not only be able to enjoy the comedy, but also enjoy the movie for what it was intended to be. I was afraid this would slow down the comedic pace of the show, but in truth it really doesn’t affect it all and if I hadn’t been aware of it in advance I probably wouldn’t have even noticed.
And even though the show was shot for Netflix, the show still appeared to me to be blocked for commercial broadcast (a fact that I was able to verify while writing this review), which I found odd, but not overly distracting.
The new series of MST3K not only updates the old format enough to put a little bit of a new shine on the show, but also successfully recaptures the fun camp that made the show so great to begin with.
Jonah Rey is a solid choice as the new host, bringing a quiet “play along” reserve that typified previous hosts Hodgson and Mike Nelson, while Day and Oswalt appear to be having a lot of fun playing the Mads.
Old fans will be happy with the new 13 episode offering and new viewers will have no problem discovering why so many of us enjoyed the show initially.
MST3K season 11 is current available for streaming on Netflix along with a selection of shows from previous seasons, and remember – Turn Down Your Lights (Where Applicable).