First a brief history lesson kids…
Back in 1988 down in the deepest depths of US cable television, Joel Hodgson and some fellow comedians put together a cheap and very funny sci-fi show called Mystery Science Theatre 3000. The premise was summed up perfectly in the opening theme song.
Forced to watch the most awful and cheesy movies for evil science, Joel and his robot friends riffed and wisecrack’ed their way through every single one and a cult show was born.
Have you ever live tweeted a terrible movie on TV and shared the experience with your friends? This is pretty much where it all began. Coming from a very American tradition of Hosted Creature Features shows, MST3K took that aesthetic and made it a shared comedy experience.
Moving from a local chstation to the Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) for six years the show suffered cancellation and another move to the Sci-Fi Channel (later Syfy) The show was taken off the air for the last time in 1999.
The makers of MST3K took their art of riffing elsewhere which various projects like Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic, but the fan base ( known as MSTies) kept the torch alive and then in August 2015 a miracle occurred.
Joel Hodgson began a Kickstarter campaign to bring MST3K back for a new run of shows and all he needed for at least a few episodes was two million dollars. The fans answered the call and I was one of them (MST3K Revival League Member 31371) The campaign finished with over 6 million in the bank guaranteeing 14 brand new episodes. Netflix, a company clearly with many fingers on many pulses made a deal to distribute the new show world-wide and it has finally dropped.
Being a fan of MST3K in the UK is definitely verging on the real cult side of fandom. The show was shown on the Sci-Fi channel over here in the 90s and the Movie still gets the odd late night showing on ITV. It didn’t have the same effect here as in its native country where the show is very much a part of geek culture.
So for an Old MSTie such as myself how does this new version hold up to the old and is it too full of in-jokes that it will alienate potential new fans?
Good news everyone!
The new show is completely fresh and whilst there are indeed many call backs to the original, newcomers will not be alienated at all.
Jonah Ray (Co host of the Nerdist Podcast) is the third host of the show after creator Joel Hodgson and successor Mike Nelson. As Jonah Heston, he too is imprisoned on the Satellite of Love with only robots and bad movies for company.
Felicia Day plays Kinga Forrester, daughter and granddaughter of the series’ earlier antagonists, and unlike her family, Kinga’s evil plan is much more simple. She intends to get rich off of the very series you are watching. It is a wonderfully meta idea and Day is clearly having fun in the role. Her henchman is TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (although people just call him Max) is another callback to the original series, played by the brilliant Patton Oswalt.
Though we don’t see much of the Mads (The show’s term for Mad scientists) in this episode, there is enough chemistry between Day and Oswalt to make me excited to see more of what they get up to as the show continues.
As host, Jonah Ray is like his predecessor’s in that despite being a prisoner he is rather cheerful and determined to make the best of a bad situation. Ray is a fantastic choice, with great comic timing and a natural rapport with the Satellites puppet Robot cast.
Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo are back but with new voice actors in the form of Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn.
Yount is an excellent Crow, and his voice sounds not too dissimilar to previous Crow actors Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett which made the transition for this fan rather easy. Baron Vaughn is completely different to the most famous Tom Servo voice Kevin Murphy which was at first a little jarring but I was won over very quickly. Vaughn puts a new spin on the character and it works really well.
The two main robots aren’t the only ones with an upgrade as the Satellite’s maintenance bot Gypsy is voiced by Rebecca Hanson, the first woman to play the part. We do not see much of Gypsy in this episode, but it seems from a couple of funny little moments she will probably be taking a much more involved role in the show.
So what of the movie Jonah and Bots are forced to watch?
Well to kick things off it is the 1961 Danish Monster movie Reptilicus which is a perfect way to kick off this revival series. A truly awful movie though not without some charm, it’s just as well our cast is there to help us along with plenty of cutting commentary. The riffs this time around are delivered with a much faster pace, many times with an almost machine gun rapidity. MST3K riff delivery of old was very much dependent on the host. Joel was more laid back and whimsical, whereas Mike was more sarcastic and cutting. This change in pace gives the show a good kick up the arse and I think will make it more accessible to a younger generation more used to this gag a minute style of comedy.
I definitely did miss a few jokes from laughing so much, so a few re-watches will be necessary but the jokes, written by Hodgson and head writer Elliot Kahn (The Daily Show) and various contributors (Dan Harmon of Community and Rick and Morty fame is on the writing staff) are hilarious and surreal.
I’m pleased to report that the new MST3K still retains the low-budget kitsch feel of the old show, but with a glossier shine. The opening titles and famous corridor sequence have all been created by the studios behind Robot Chicken and they are simply wonderful to behold. In this day of easily accessible CGI, it is a credit to Hodgson and company that they have not let a star cast and bigger budget take away the things that made MST3K magical.
As the credits rolled on this first episode, I was left with a huge smile on my face and mad desire to jump straight into the next episode.
So turn down your lights, where applicable and take a trip to the not too distant future.
You won’t regret it.
Reviewer: Matt Davis @DecadentGent