We’re a little short on time this week (somehow, the Nerd Farm taxes never get done til the last minute), so this may be brief. Brief, but joyous. Because this past weekend, one of my all-time favorite television series made a comeback.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return
That’s right. Thanks to Kickstarter, and Netflix, everybody’s favorite TV puppet show is back. Under the direction of series creator Joel Hodgson, an all-new cast takes up the serious business of making fun of bad movies. New host Jonah Ray is joined in the theater by new Crow voice actor Hampton Yount and new Tom Servo performer Baron Vaughn.
Conducting the experiments this time around are Felicia Day as Kinga Forester, daughter of original series villain Dr. Clayton Forester (though lord knows how that guy ever found somebody to impregnate), and Patton Oswalt as her henchman Max, aka “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” (ditto on the unlikely fatherhood, but whattaya gonna do?).
It’s a good cast, and a good revival, though I think they’re still finding their way in the three episodes I’ve watched so far. Granted, it’s not up to the standards of the original series at its height. But I’m okay with that. Considering that the original cast didn’t actually hit its stride until Season Two of the show’s national cable TV run, I’m willing to give the new guys time to grow. Hell, they’re already better than Joel and the boys were in the beginning.
This is not to knock the early MST3K, mind you. I’m a big fan of those shows. I even love the primitive “Season Zero” stuff they did for KTMA, the local channel in Minnesota where they got their start.
Thanks to bootleg video and blatant (if encouraged) interweb piracy (KEEP CIRCULATING THE TAPES!), I’ve had a chance to see all the surviving episodes from those early days, in addition to damn near every episode of the cable run. So I feel pretty comfortable comparing the new show to the old one.
Like the old show, for example, they live and die by their movie choices. It’s seldom that even the best riffing can save a dull film. Because there’s bad movies, and then there’s god-awful tedious bad movies. And tedium doesn’t play well, even with jokes (as anyone who’s seen The Beast of Yucca Flats can tell you). The line-up for the new season looks pretty killer, though. No black and whites, sad to say, but a good mix of monsters, spaceships, disasters, and horror. I’ve seen about half of them before, without somebody making the jokes for me, and if the rest are as good as those, we’re in for a treat.
Which makes it surprising that the new season opener is as lackluster as it is. The movie they chose to start with is Reptilicus…
…a Swedish giant monster flick with all the things that make great fodder for riffs: laughable science, bad acting, sexism, monsters on a string… It’s good stuff. But something just doesn’t come together in that first episode. Don’t get me wrong. I laughed. And I liked it enough to go back for another one the next day. But something was off. The jokes felt almost too hesitant, the references too dated. It was like Jonah Ray was doing his Joel Hodgson impression, right down to quoting 1980s Smuckers ads.
Which… Hell, I dunno. For kids who grew up on MST3K reruns, maybe the Smuckers gags are funny in and of themselves. Kind of like how I found Looney Tunes funny as a kid even though I didn’t know it when they referenced 1940s pop culture (Red Skelton was a revelation!). Regardless… For me, the episode one riffs sometimes feel a bit dated.
The skits in that episode are also pretty weak. I was especially surprised that I didn’t like Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt more. The Mads were always one of the highlights of the original series, and I like both those actors quite a bit. But in the opener, they were just kind of… stiff. Their schtick felt forced, and they weren’t bringing much to the roles to make them more natural. It wasn’t working, and I was a little concerned heading into episode two.
Luckily, however, things picked up across the board in that one. Day and Oswalt found some chemistry, and the movie… Good lord.
That would be Cry Wilderness, an Eighties flick about a boy whose dad is a forest ranger, and whose best friend is Bigfoot. And we’re not just talkin’ Harry and the Hendersons style Bigfoot, either. No, this guy’s some kind of mystical forest spirit capable of appearing to Our Hero in strange visions where he can talk (but not, it seems, come inside for a normal conversation. He just kind of shows up in the yard and shouts). It’s jaw-dropping in its what-the-fuck ridiculousness, and the cast rises to the occasion, delivering a consistently funny riff that kept me laughing all the way through. Even better, Jonah and the bots came into their own with this episode, forging their own identity and style.
I haven’t said much about the bots yet, in part because they’re the most jarring change. These are characters I know, being played by new actors whose take on them doesn’t entirely mesh with how I remember them. I mean, they’re not completely different. Crow is still a smart-ass, and Tom Servo is still a loveable egomaniac. But something about them was throwing me, and it took me til episode three to figure out what it was: their personalities are like the more jaded late-series Crow and Servo, but they’re being written the way Joel wrote them in the early seasons, when they were like very precocious children instead of the best buds they became to second MST host Mike Nelson. The result is a sort of self-centered impulsiveness, and I’m still settling into that groove. It’s funny, don’t get me wrong. It’s just a bit different.
But I mentioned episode three, so I should discuss that one a bit, too. The movie is Time Travelers, a late-60s sci-fi effort about a group of scientists who get stuck in a post-apocalyptic future when their time machine malfunctions.
I’d never run across it before, but it’s a neat little movie. Not great, by any stretch, but imaginative, and with some cool low-budget practical effects. In one scene, for instance, they take a guy’s head off without the use of trick photography, relying instead on stage magic tricks to create the illusion. And that’s kinda cool to see presented in this sci-fi context.
The riff for that one isn’t quite as good as episode two, but it is funny, and the cast continues to find their own voice, so it’s all good. I was pleased to see Day and Oswalt gelling better, as well. There’s still something lacking in the new Mads, but they’re getting there.
So! That still leaves me with 11 more experiments to watch, and I must say that I’m looking forward to it. While the new show really isn’t up to the heights of the original series’ Seasons Two through Six, I do think I’d put it on a par with the later seasons that ran on the Sci-Fi Channel. The burn-out you could feel setting in for those episodes (understandable, after a decade of movie riffing) levels out against the new cast’s inexperience. And as they settle into their roles… really hit their stride… I look forward to seeing what they can do.
Oh! One last thing. One of the best things I’ve seen from the new show so far is the following promo clip they released last week, featuring a riff on the opening few minutes of the Duffer Brothers’ Stranger Things. This was my first taste of the revival, and it left me feeling good about it going in. So now, I’ll share it with you: