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.

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The MST3k Reunion Was Everything It Needed To Be And More

e6cb31b27ff62b87dad5e700b1eac58fOn Tuesday, June 28th, 2016, multiple casts of Mystery Science Theater 3000 joined in Minneapolis, MN for a live reunion streamed across the country via Rifftrax, a venture led by the show’s head writer and second host, Mike Nelson, second (and definitive) Tom Servo, Kevin Murphy, and second Crow T. Robot, Bill Corbett.

But let me take a step back.

If you’re not in the know, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is about a man trapped in outer space on a craft called the Satellite of Love and is forced to watch bad movies by an evil scientist. To survive these experiments, the man makes fun of the movies with the help of his robot companions that he built (Joel) or inherited (Mike). The show’s opening credits explain the premise, too.

The concept exists purely to watch a movie with running comedy commentary. The show ran from 1989 to 1999, starting first on a local Minneapolis TV station, KTMA, then transitioning to the precursor of Comedy Central (originally called “The Comedy Channel”), and finally to the Sci-Fi channel before it was cancelled. MST3k is the brainchild of comedian Joel Hodgson, who portrayed the series’ first hapless test subject Joel Robinson. Joel hosted the show until midway through the 5th season when Mike Nelson stepped into the role of “Mike Nelson” and replaced Joel on the SoL. The opening was modified when Mike took over. But the premise remained the same: make fun of bad movies.

Over the course of the show, many performers came and went. Originally, the mad scientist, Dr. Clayton Forrester (portrayed by Trace Beaulieu who also voiced Crow T. Robot), was assisted by Dr. Ernhardt (played by writer/comedian Josh Weinstein) who disappeared after the first season on the Comedy Channel. He was replaced by TV’s Frank (played by writer/comedian Frank Conniff). Weinstein also voiced and worked the puppet for Tom Servo, Joel’s bubble gum machine headed robot, and writer/performer Kevin Murphy assumed control of the bot until the show’s end in 1999. After Joel left in season 5, Frank Conniff departed at the end of season 6. Frank was effectively replaced by writer Mary Jo Pehl who played Dr. Forrester’s mom, Pearl. Trace Beaulieu left at the end of the abbreviated 7th season, which was also the last season on Comedy Central. Pearl Forrester became the primary “villain” when the show moved to Sci-Fi and writer/comedian Bill Corbett joined the show to assume the role of Crow and a new character called Observer or “Brain Guy” who worked with Pearl.

After the show ended in 1999, the various writers and performers went their separate ways. Joel worked in Hollywood on various projects. Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, and Josh Weinstein all worked in LA as writers on various shows and projects. Mike Nelson wrote a few books as did Kevin Murphy.

But in 2006, Mike worked for a small film studio called Legend Films and they asked him to do movie commentary on a few movies in their catalogue like Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. They came up with an idea to do movie commentary ala MST3k, but via tracks recorded separately that could be synced to avoid needing to acquire movie licenses. They called it Rifftrax. Nelson eventually brought along his buddies Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.

Joel also still had the movie riffing bug. He, Frank Conniff, Trace Beaulieu, Mary Jo Pehl, and Josh Weinstein formed Cinematic Titanic, which toured the country doing live movie riffs. The Rifftrax gang also started doing live movie riffs, but streaming them live to theaters throughout the country via Fathom Events.

Meanwhile, MST3k is living a new life on DVD and in streaming through a company called Shout Factory. Once Cinematic Titanic ended, Joel worked with Shout Factory to reacquire the rights to MST3k. Seeing opportunity through Kickstarter, Joel ran the most successful campaign in the history of the platform to create a new season of MST3k. A new young writer and comedian, Jonah Ray Rodrigues, who works for Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist, has been named the new host.

Wow. That was a big step back.

The MST3k reunion hosted by Rifftrax was also that enterprise’s 10th anniversary and its 20th live show. Mike, Bill, and Kevin were joined by Joel, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo, Bridget Nelson (Mike’s wife, who played many roles on MST3k over the years and has riffed with Mike and Mary Jo on Rifftrax), and Jonah Ray. Josh Weinstein chose not to participate.

Over the years, MST3k fans have fallen into various camps. Joel fans vs. Mike fans. Trace fans vs. Bill fans. Old vs. young. All a lot of nonsense really. MST3k is about making fun of bad movies. The talented writers and comedians who contributed to the show over the years only heightened the show’s reach and creativity. While I’m more a fan of Mike’s era on the show, there are some truly hilarious episodes during Joel’s tenure on the show. Sometimes Joel’s delivery alone moves a funny line to hilarious. Take this example from his final episode, Mitchell.

And I’ve never seen much point in comparing Trace and Bill’s runs on Crow T. Robot; they’re different, but hilarious in their own right. Trace’s Crow is a puckish, self-absorbed clown. Bill’s Crow has more attitude, but is insecure and prone to outbursts of rage.

Despite whatever divisions exist in the fan base, the reunion was full of nothing but good laughs and cheer. The writers and comedians who created and perfected this brand of comedy led the way by being funny. It was like a college reunion of good friends. Comedy is content, but there’s also an alchemy in personality. I felt glad just to watch them perform together. They can make one another laugh in ways that felt genuine and part of the live experience. This was never more evident than at the end when all performers appeared on stage together for a “Riff-a-palooza.”

The show opened with Mike, Kevin, and Bill riffing an educational short film for kids called “The Talking Car.” It sounds cute enough, but the eponymous talking car is a regular car with a pair of animated eyes and a mouth. A little boy almost gets hit by a car and his dreams are then haunted by three talking cars. It’s quite horrific, but the jokes were pretty sharp.

Mary Jo and Bridget followed up with a riff of an old sales short about fancy kitchens? I guess. It was called “A Word to the Wives” and it starred the dad from A Christmas Story. I confess, I think just about anything Mary Jo says is hilarious. Her delivery is always just the right mix of biting and “gee, gosh.”

Next up, Trace and Frank tackled a short film called “More Dates for Kay.” It’s such a strange short that I’m not exactly sure how to describe it. Basically, a young woman isn’t very popular, so she began a social outreach campaign that seemed an awful lot like hooking… Frank and Trace help make those connections for you in case you missed them. This was the strongest individual riffing team and effort in my opinion.

Mike, Kevin, and Bill came back out and took on a hilariously melodramatic short called “Shaking Hands with Danger.” It was made by the Caterpillar construction equipment company and is all about negligent men injuring or killing themselves in various implausible scenarios. The guys also took the opportunity during this window to show a greatest hits reel of Rifftrax over the years as well as formally introduce their senior co-writers, Conor and Sean.

Finally, Joel and Jonah took the stage. Jonah was still an unknown quantity. With the new show coming soon, I was very interested to see how he performed. I also wanted to see Joel perform again. I attended one of the Cinematic Titanic shows when the troupe appeared at George Washington University and thought he was great with the live audience. The good news is that Jonah is a natural. I was a little bit nervous about him, but after hearing his performance, he’s a solid riffer with a great delivery. He did screw up a riff, but it set up Joel for a great live moment. When Bill introduced them, he took a moment to thank Joel for creating movie riffing. A nod to the founder in this time of reflection and transition was especially needed.

The final segment was, like I noted earlier, a massive riff with all of the guests. They riffed a short film of the original Superman serial starring George Reeves. This one was particularly interesting because it was paid for by the government as an ad for postage stamp bonds… the connection between Superman and the stamps was tenuous at best.

But just when we thought the night was over, the Rifftrax crew wrangled everyone back on stage for one final riff. It was a short film from the highly popular “At Your Fingertips” series. This one was focused on Grass. Yep. Grass. If you’ve never seen one of these things, it’s entirely about how kids can make things with grass. What can you make with grass? Everything, apparently. Even things that no normal person would ever want to make with grass. It made for strong riffing material and a great finish.

When it was over, my mouth hurt. I had been smiling and laughing for two hours straight. The mark of a good night.

 

ADDENDUM:

At the press conference before the reunion, the riffers were asked about which MST3k episode they liked which doesn’t come up much. An underrated episode. Mike responded almost immediately to say he really enjoyed The Girl in Gold Boots (a Season 10 entry about a country girl who becomes a “dancer” in LA, which I rather enjoy, too). Joel posed a question back to everyone regarding the famous (possibly most famous) episode of MST3k Manos: The Hands of Fate a movie during Joel’s run that ranks near the top of worst films on the show and ever made. Joel asked what everyone thought of it. He noted that he knows it’s regarded as a fan favorite, but he doesn’t think it’s a particularly strong riff. He didn’t understand why it’s so well regarded.

Allow me to respond.

I think Joel is forgetting about the MST3k “fiction.” Remember that the show is about a guy who has these terrible movies inflicted on him. When the staff happened upon Manos, they clearly recognized how terrible the movie is. In the episode, both TV’s Frank and Dr. Forrester apologize for sending the movie even though it’s their job. Throughout the episode, the bots break down over how terrible it is. Even Joel, who was normally easy-going and laid back, screamed at the movie during an interminable scene where characters just looked at one another. His line was, “DO SOMETHING!” if I remember correctly.

But my point is that the episode is not necessarily remembered for the stellar riffing on the material (which, in my humble opinion, is still quite good). No, it’s remembered as a fantastic overall episode. And in the fiction of the show, this poor guy has to watch this awful movie. I feel like the MST3k audience perceives Joel/Mike and the bots as a shield against the movies on the show. If nothing else, that’s how I perceive them. They’re on the front line, exposed to the movie up close and personal. And so I think MST3k fans have sympathy for the characters as they’re exposed to this awful movie.

It’s even more than that, though. Frank Conniff noted how the show brought Manos out of obscurity and it’s taken on a life of its own. It’s such a remarkably strange movie. Bad, yes, but it has such unique characters. Of course, the most notable character, Torgo, is so weird, off-putting, and unique that he can’t help but be memorable. In fact, the character left such a strong impression that Mike Nelson portrayed Torgo out of the theater for a couple of seasons.

Anyway, my main point is that, as goofy as the premise is, fans bought into the idea that Joel and Mike are forced to watch these movies. As such, the episodes have to be taken in totality, not just the riffing. Because Manos is recognized as a very bad movie, it stands out for fans because of that fact. They identified with the plight of the characters.

Manos was also the first movie to be so oppressively bad and disturbing. Yes, there was King Dinosaur, Time of the Apes, The Castle of Fu Manchu, and Monster A Go-Go, but Manos really is in a category all its own. I’ll be honest, I think Invasion of the Neptune Men is worse mostly because Manos is at least watchable in a “car accident” kind of way, whereas Neptune Men is boring, repetitious, and punishingly inept in every possible way. But Manos was also shown at a time when MST3k’s popularity was reaching its peak, meaning a lot of people saw it. King Dinosaur and Time of the Apes are more like deep tracks.

I hope Joel and his new writing staff and performers remember this as they finish crafting the new season. Movie riffing is absolutely the number one ingredient in making MST3k, but the creators would be wise to remember how much the audience commits to the fiction that frames the riffing. Some of my favorite MST3k episodes feature the characters breaking down throughout the movie like Manos, Wild World of Batwoman, any Coleman Francis movie, Invasion of the Neptune Men, and Hobgoblins. I’m sure there are more, but those are the ones that come to mind. I just think it lends credence to the premise when the characters occasionally get mad about the movies inflicted on them they can’t control. Therefore, that’s why I would suggest Manos is so beloved to Joel. It’s not the riffing specifically, but the fact that the audience is “in it” with Joel and the bots.