MST3k Review: 1102 – “Cry Wilderness”

Rowzdower!

No one is happier than me to report that episode two of MST3k’s new season is an improvement over the premiere/pilot of this reboot/reimagining of the series.

The characters are getting more comfortable in their roles, the riffing is stronger, and the movie is suitably goofy and accessible for the new team to tackle.

But the series apparently won’t have a traditional MST3k theme opening. It starts with a cold open and then Jonah is forced to reenact the opening because Kinga can’t record it for some reason… I suspect this is being done because if you binge episodes on Netflix it will skip over the opening if it’s the same and I guess the show runners don’t want that? I don’t know how I feel about it yet… it’s strange, but it doesn’t lessen the experience. I’ll wait to see how I feel in a few episodes.

This episode’s experiment is a wonderfully odd film from 1987 called Cry Wilderness. It has no discernible plot that I can detect, but I suspect this one could become classic over time. It’s just so strange and the characters are exactly the kinds of goofy personalities that make for MST3k history. Time will tell.

Basically, a young man escapes from a boarding school because he’s been dreaming (having visions?) about Big Foot and wants to find him. He goes from boarding school to the untamed wilds of forested park land in about 4 seconds and there are cougars and tigers and skunks and every other kind of animal just wandering around on the paths within easy reach. He finds his father, a park ranger, and an assortment of other strange characters and they do… something. It’s better if you watch it.

The riffing is much improved. The performers aren’t saying everything really fast like they were in the premiere. But the riffing does still feel overly polished. It doesn’t feel like a guy and his robots reacting to a movie in real-time. In fact, there are a few riffs that start a split second before the thing or event they’re reacting to. That’s a bit dizzying in the moment, but since there’s already been huge strides made in the riffing it’s encouraging.

And while the characters are improving, the Bots still feel like background characters. Just other voices with which to make jokes. They show up a little bit more in the out of theater sketches, but just barely.

But the big news is CAMEOS! Pearl, Bobo, and Brain Guy show up in a brief sequence midway through the episode. I had been looking for an anchor and it was great to see them inhabiting those roles. Something was off about Bobo’s face prosthetics, but I didn’t care. Kevin Murphy was there to help me ignore it. From a character standpoint, Kinga was overjoyed to see her grandmother and Pearl didn’t really seem interested, which was exactly the Pearl Forrester reaction I would have expected. Good stuff.

When the show improves with each episode, it makes it easier to continue on knowing that each one will be better than the last one.

MST3k Premiere Review: 1101 – “Reptilicus”

Movie sign!

I shared my broad, non-spoiler reactions to the new MST3k’s premiere episode here. Since I can finally talk spoilers and refer to the movie, I’ll share my impressions beyond those broader thoughts.

As I noted before, there was certainly a lot of good aspects to the premiere. I’m encouraged to watch more.

The show opening is spirited and it certainly covered a lot of narrative ground. It did not, however, explain why the Satellite of Love or the Bots are back in space. As a fan of the original series, and one who was particularly moved by that show’s conclusion, this rubbed me the wrong way. I made this comment to Joel Hodgson on Facebook and he actually responded to me! Joel said (I made grammar edits for clarity and OCD reasons…):

“I appreciate your note, but I didn’t feel like sewing all those elements together up front. Felt “top heavy.” Also, I’ll explain how the bots got back into space downstream. Next season.”

First off, I’m glad to hear he thinks there will be another season. More MST3k can only be a good thing. But while I respect that Joel took the time to respond to me, it doesn’t persuade me to his view because he dedicated a lot of upfront narrative as it is.

I would say explaining how the Bots, who escaped their previous captors, ended up stranded on the satellite again is a worthwhile story to tell. Or at least acknowledge. The previous iteration of MST, while goofy, still maintained a loose but straightforward continuity. That’s why I think the transitions from Josh to Kevin, Joel to Mike, Frank and Trace to Pearl, and Trace to Bill were about as smooth as could be expected given the affection for those characters. The show acknowledged something was different and, while not dwelling on it, at least gave it attention so the audience didn’t feel unmoored. Since this is being positioned as a new season and kind of a reboot, it clearly doesn’t play by those same rules, but it’s why I, as a “legacy” fan, feel it’s a rough start.

It also doesn’t help that Tom Servo and Crow, who were last performed so vividly by Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (and Trace Beaulieu before him), are shells of their former selves. Again, I recognize I may just be longing for the old performers who embodied these characters for so long. But even when I try to account for that bias, it’s undeniable that in this premiere episode Tom and Crow are merely additional voices to deliver jokes. I have no idea what their new personalities are supposed to be. For new viewers, they may not care. But for legacy fans, I can’t imagine I’ll be alone in this.

Even in Bill Corbett’s first episode as Crow, arguably the second toughest character transition for the show (after Joel to Mike, of course), he began developing a personality that was somewhat of a hybrid between Trace’s Crow and the one he would eventually perfect, that “barely contained East Coast anger” Crow. He left an impression. I have no impression of the new Crow, voiced by (but not puppeted) comedian Hampton Yount.

It’s even worse for Tom Servo, now voiced by comedian Baron Vaughn. It’s inarguable that Kevin Murphy was Tom Servo for 99% of MSTies. Yes, I know the character originated with Josh Weinstein. But he had two (sorta) seasons with Tom and the show was barely defined at this point, he didn’t have much time to make a mark. I don’t see any huge contingent of “Weinstein was better” fans coming out of the woodwork other than the “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE” guy. Kevin Murphy inhabited Tom Servo from Season 2 to the end. His mark on the character is indelible. The singing, the swaying to music in the theater, the unique deep baritone, even the odd quirks he developed over the years like an underwear collection… It’s unfair to compare Vaughn to Murphy, but it will happen. Particularly because Murphy’s Tom was so memorable and developed.

Jonah probably comes out the best, from a character perspective, in the premiere. But he’s definitely more Joel than Mike. And, of course he does because this is Joel’s party. What do I mean by this? Well, Joel “Robinson” was a thoughtful, easy going father figure who didn’t really rock the boat. He did inventions, he taught the bots lessons, he tried to focus on the positive aspects of movies, and was pretty much an amiable lug content to watch bad movies while being held hostage.

Jonah’s not much different. He has that “millennial,” Chris Hardwick vibe (the two are real life friends, actually) where he seems to get excited and geek out on subjects of interest. But in the premiere, Jonah plays very much of a Joel role. He doesn’t really act like a guy who just got kidnapped and is forced to watch bad movies.

Mike Nelson started off “cooler” than he would ultimately be by the end. “Insecure, beefy Midwestern guy.” He bucked the Mads. He tried to escape a lot. And he didn’t police the Bots’ riffs in the theater like Joel did. He was like a big brother, if Joel was akin to a father figure. Jonah has been pitched as akin to your friend’s little brother who you don’t really want hanging around you, in terms of his relationship with the Bots. But if that’s the idea, it’s not apparent in the premiere.

The strongest additions are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” or just Max. He prefers the former. They’ve got a good chemistry together. I like Felicia Day from her other work. Patton Oswalt is hilarious and I’ve enjoyed him at least since The King of Queens. Their “evil” goal is somewhat different than Dr. F or Pearl’s; it’s more meta. Kinga is resurrecting Mystery Science Theater 3000 and wants to inflict bad movies on Jonah because that will get better ratings. I think it’s an inspired choice. My only fear is that meta stuff can get tiresome fast if not well balanced. We’ll see.

Finally, the movie: 1961’s Reptilicus. If there’s a definition of a “cheesy” movie, this is it. It’s got everything a MSTie could want: drab, lumpy white guys in coats talking about made up science, hot 60s babes, and more models of buildings and a green lizard monster than you can shake a stick at. Plus, the monster spews green acid that looks like Ecto Cooler and is an effect added after the fact and so doesn’t render well. Ripe material for riffing.

The riffing: this episode bears re-watching, but the riffs came so often and so fast that it was hard to react to them. It was definitely a case of the new riffing team getting comfortable because this gets better as the episodes go on and everyone settles down. I laughed out loud a few times, but was more bemused than anything.

The new MST3k feels very much like Joel Hodgson is behind it. It’s feels like the show rewound to its Season 3 and Season 4 sensibilities. I have no problems with Season 3 or 4 of MST3k; there are great episodes in those seasons: Pod People, of course, Master Ninja, Gamera, Manos, Monster A-Go-Go, and more. It’s just that the show evolved after those seasons. The riffing got tighter and the characters grew into their roles. It felt more like a guy trapped in space forced to watch bad movies. The riffs became more conversational than some guy doing a voice shouting at the screen (although those riffs still happened).

I realize that I may be coming off fairly negative. It’s not my intent. But I had high expectations. Probably too high. And since my preferences come from Season 5 Joel and the Mike era of the show, my expectations are probably even more uncalibrated. I just see too many people heaping praise on the premiere and, while decent, it really doesn’t warrant it. It succeeds at launching the new show and reestablishing the premise, but so far it only honors the “Joel” era of MST3k and there were 4 ½ other seasons (and a movie!) to draw upon.

Fortunately, I saw enough good things and lavish attention to detail that I’m not calling it a misfire. And since I’ve already watched ahead beyond the premiere, I know that each episode forward is an improvement.

New MST3k Restores Creator Joel Hodgson’s Vision

(image: Netflix)

Mike fans might be left in the dust.

Before the full season drops on Netflix next week, Kickstarter backers received an advance streaming screening of the season premiere (pilot?) of the new Mystery Science Theater 3000.

I’ll keep spoilers light in case you are trying to stay fresh for the new episodes.

Full disclosure: I’m an original fan of MST3k, with a preference for the Mike Nelson hosted episodes. I’m not a Joel hater by any stretch (he’s the creator for goodness sake) and happily cite “Monster A Go Go,” “Manos: The Hands of Fate,” “I Accuse My Parents,” “Eegah,” “Mitchell,” among others as personal favorites. But the sensibility of the Mike episodes was a little more mature, both in content and in the characters’ personalities, so it was a fully formed show by that point and the riffing was stronger because they had it down to a science by then.

For the uninitiated, the show premise is the same as it ever was: a mad scientist traps a man in space and subjects him to bad movies to torture him (Mike), find the worst one to take over the world with it (Joel/Mike), or get better ratings (Jonah, I guess?). He’s joined by robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, and they make fun of the movies sent their way.

The new show concept is blissfully unaltered in that way. Comedian and internet personality Jonah Ray is the new host, comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn are the new Crow and Tom, actress Felicia Day, of Buffy and Supernatural fame, is the new mad scientist, Kinga Forrester, and actor/comedian Patton Oswalt is the new henchman, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank.

The pilot opens to show us how Jonah has been captured and segues into the new theme song and then dives into the episode like any MST3k begins. It was a cute, maybe slightly too precious sequence featuring a few cameos including one original cast member cameo that, jarringly, went unexplained. The production values, while still mostly kitschy scale models and strings, are more polished here than the original series and feature more green screens. There are also a bunch of cast extras around which is a change from the “intimate,” sometimes “claustrophobic” feel of the original series. Even the MST3k movie, which had a bigger budget, still focused only on Mike, the bots, and Dr. Forrester. Here, there is a villain band that plays at “commercial” breaks and it’s certainly different, although not necessarily unwelcome. The movie is Reptilicus and is a classic MST3k-type film, so solid on that front.

But the first thing that struck me was a sense that series creator, Joel Hodgson, is reclaiming his show after leaving under contentious circumstances halfway through the fifth season in 1994. Since then, Joel has seemingly made peace with the departure, but watching this new version of the show makes me think he’s working out some of his issues and unapologetically reclaiming his creation.

For one, Jonah Ray works for the Gizmonic Institute, which is where Joel and the Mads worked in the original series. After Joel left, the institute disappeared from the show as it was Joel’s IP. Second, the invention exchange has returned—Joel’s stand-up comedy featured hand crafted inventions sort of like a prototype Carrot Top routine. The inventions only survived a few episodes into the Mike era before they were jettisoned in favor of more “life on the satellite” bits and random skits that kept the story moving forward more smoothly. Third, and this is more of a feel thing, the episode’s sensibility and riffing more closely match that of a, say, third season episode. There are some sharp third season episodes to be sure, like “Pod People” and “Cave Dwellers,” but the show was still finding its feet at that point and the riffs and skits sometimes feel detached. Even though the show was scripted and they were trying to create the feeling that the characters were spontaneously reacting to the movie, it wasn’t until the later years that the characters felt truly embedded with the movies and like they were in a theater being forced to watch them. In this new episode, the riffs feel too polished and the characters seem detached from the movie. There’s also quite a bit of silence and a dearth of riffs at some points. Even if the characters just made sound effects, sighed, laughed, or muttered to one another, in the original show’s best episodes the silences were usually filled with something interesting. That’s missing here.

Finally, the new show completely ignores the original series conclusion. Or at least it appears to. At the end of the original show, Pearl Forrester accidentally puts the Satellite of Love into reentry mode and Mike and the Bots escape the crash to live together on Earth continuing to watch bad movies on afternoon TV. In this new series, Jonah is put up on the Satellite of Love with Tom and Crow with nary a mention of how they got back up there. I’ve already seen some fans question this and the series’ staple response of “It’s just a show, I should just relax” being used to repel the question. But that doesn’t do it for me. It feels like Joel is taking back his show and ignoring anything inconvenient or which he doesn’t like.

While, yes, this is a show with a guy shot into space to watch bad movies with human intelligent robots, MST3k always had a pretty solid story continuity that they referred back to often:

  • The transition from Josh Weinstein’s Dr. Erhardt to TV’s Frank was at least acknowledged in a backhanded way (he was “missing” on a milk carton).
  • Since Weinstein also originally voiced Servo, Joel reprogrammed him with Kevin Murphy’s voice.
  • Mike helped Joel escape the satellite and was subsequently kidnapped as the most convenient option. The bots even needed to give him some training in his first episode.
  • TV’s Frank was absorbed into sidekick heaven and Dr. Forrester needed his mom, Pearl, to help him recover from Frank’s absence in the following season.
  • Forrester lost his funding and was reborn as a star baby in a 2001 homage while Mike and the Bots became beings of pure energy at the edge of the universe.
  • Mike and the Bots were then brought back to the satellite by Pearl Forrester who confessed to smothering Dr. Forrester in his sleep because he grew from a star baby into another “idiot obsessed with his experiment.”
  • It also turned out that Crow got bored at the edge of the universe and lived on the satellite for 5,000 years before Mike and the others returned and he “changed his bowling pin” and had a different, Bill Corbett-sounding voice now. Crow also didn’t seem to know Mike anymore, which was a story point that continued for a few episodes.
  • The whole of season eight followed Pearl and her henchmen and the Satellite of Love 5,000 years in the future flying around the galaxy getting into funny scrapes everywhere including Mike blowing up 3 planets and being put on trial.
  • Everyone made it back to present day and Pearl began her quest to be a fully certified mad scientist and take over the world.
  • Even Joel and Frank came back and updated us on what they had been doing since leaving/dying.
  • Then, in the final episode, Mike and the Bots prepare to go back to Earth in a surprisingly poignant farewell. Even Pearl and her minions’ goodbye is sweet.

Given how nice of a swan-song MST3k’s original finale was, it’s jarring to see it just casually ignored. I would have preferred just a brand new reboot if they’re going to do that. Given how much time went into Jonah and Kinga’s introduction, I don’t see why there couldn’t have been some attention paid to the series’ original closing. Even if it was as simple as noting that these are duplicate bots and a duplicate satellite. That would have been more satisfying and respectful to the original series legacy and solid finale.

OK. Geeky fan rant over.

What I liked:

  • Jonah Ray has a good temperament as a host and has, by far, the funniest riffing delivery.
  • Patton Oswalt, while not given much to do, makes the most of it and is funny as always.
  • The updated mythology is interesting and I’d like to learn more about Kinga et al (aside from the aforementioned rejection of the previous series’ conclusion).
  • Movie riffing is still the main ingredient, as it should be.

What Needs Work:

  • While there were some good lines, and I laughed out loud more than once, they were infrequent. The riffing is definitely not as sharp as the series’ more refined later season efforts.
  • The characters in-theater chemistry needs work—it feels a little too much like people reading a pre-written script with little interplay between them.
  • Jonah’s, Baron’s, and Hampton’s voices are all a little bit too similar sounding. And Jonah’s joke delivery, while the best, feels like he’s doing a voice. Clearly some seasoning is needed for the riffers.
  • Tom and Crow should be over sized characters and they barely registered in this episode. Perhaps that was by design, but Hampton and Baron have big shoes to fill, particularly Baron since Kevin Murphy was the Tom Servo for most fans. I hope the Bots’ new personalities stand out more in episodes to come. As it was, they were just additional joke voices in the theater.
  • The “celebrity” cameos were too over the top for my taste. I hope these get better as the season goes on.

Summary:

I’m an original MST3k fan. I can’t hide it. I also won’t apologize for it. My initial reaction to the pilot is mixed.

The series concept is as solid as it ever was—making fun of bad movies. Clearly, a lot of care and attention has gone into the new series from the writers, performers, and set crew. The riffing was serviceable; not “The Final Sacrifice,” “Mitchell,” or “Space Mutiny” levels, but certainly not the worst. And it really does seem like the writers and performers have tremendous upside. I mean, Dan Harmon is one of the writers!

But I’m bothered by the omissions to the new story as they pertain to the original series ending. It’s a complaint only a fan would have and even maybe only a complaint a Mike-biased fan would have. Joel seems to be trying to restore MST3k to the pre-1994 version that he hosted. He’s the creator and he drove the revival effort. But I think he may be forgetting that many MST3k fans came onboard during the Mike years and after through DVDs that were initially heavily weighted by Mike episodes. Discounting that fan base and perspective is dangerous because Rifftrax, run by Mike Nelson and featuring Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, exists. If these new episodes don’t measure up, fans have alternatives including just re-watching old episodes.

As a fan, I want MST3k and movie riffing as a genre to continue. I’m skeptical after what I saw in this premiere, but encouraged enough to continue.