Yesterday, it was finally movie sign.
Well, if you backed the “Bring Back Mystery Science Theater 3000” campaign on Kickstarter it was. The legendary, decades-old cult TV show that features a man and his ‘bots riffing on the most toxic B-movies available broke fundraising records on its way back to prominence, the Satellite of Love being thrust forward by the twin rockets of nostalgia and current geek culture dominance.
And I do mean “forward.” If there was one thing to be learned by the special pre-screen for Kickstarter backers that aired on April 9, a week before the revamped series goes live on Netflix, it’s that this isn’t your daddy’s MST3K. Might not even be your own.
Mystery Science was always an odd duck. Begun at a Minnesota local television channel by Joel Hodgson and friends way back in 1988, it was the ultimate low-budget filler content — grab a bad movie off the station rack and make fun of it. Of course it was more nuanced than that, though, as the Midwest, homespun-quality shone through, even in later years, with a sprinkle of historical and film academia throughout the barbs about bad acting and poor production values.
Those qualities even carried over when the show was picked up by The Comedy Channel (now Comedy Central) and after the much-debated changing of the host, as Mike Nelson, head writer of the show for much of its existence, took over on-screen duties from Hodgson during season five. Unsurprisingly, many original MST3K fans (or “MSTies,” if you’re hep) drew a line in the sand there, insisting this was no longer the Mystery Science they knew and loved.
I know because I’m a Mike guy. My first exposure to the show was when it landed on the Sci-Fi Channel (now SyFy), with Nelson at the helm. Oldheads roll their eyes at me when I tell them I still prefer those episodes, as I think everyone’s timing got better, the riffers learned not to stomp all over the dialogue, and the jokes had more time to breathe and get laughs. Not that the original crew couldn’t do those things, too, but Nelson, Kevin Murphy (as Tom Servo) and Bill Corbett (as Crow T. Robot) seemed to perfect it.
So I knew I myself might expect a similar kind of culture shock when the relaunched Mystery Science Theater 3000 came roaring back after a nearly 20 year absence. But I was still hopeful! I really wanted to like the new stuff — why wouldn’t I? There’s only so many times you can rewatch Overdrawn at the Memory Bank or Mole People before the familiarity deadens all the things you initially loved and leaves you aching for novelty.
But after watching the first new episode — I’m not very optimistic. I won’t spout off about “corporate” this and “beancounter” that, because I understand the game and that Netflix wants this new MST3K to be palatable to the largest possible audience. But in so doing, it’s kind of robbed the show of what made it what it was, throughout all the actor changes and channel-hops. The homespun quality is gone, and the references are much fewer and simpler. And no longer do you even get a chance to laugh, as each second-long scene change is accompanied by a new quip. This is truly a Mystery Science for the easily-distracted, smartphone generation.
That fact is made even more evident by the lack of any overall narrative throughout the movie riffs. Previous character iterations would actually pay attention to the film and have callbacks to earlier scenes, or even running jokes (as in the rightly-lauded Space Mutiny masterpiece). This new episode, featuring the movie Reptilicus (I think), instead peppers the viewer with incessant quips that have no relation to each other and exist in a timing vacuum. It lessens the overall experience, as even with all the jokes, I don’t think I can remember a single one, and can barely even recall what the movie was about.
Shit, I couldn’t even tell who was talking! The voices of new host Jonah Ray (aka “Jonah Heston”) and Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount, who have taken the reigns of Servo and Crow, respectively, are so similar as to be nearly indistinguishable, as if all three were auditioning for the same highly-contested animated show role. Even if the writers had tried to give each character a through line, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pick each one out.
Look, I don’t want to veer into “get off my lawn” territory, so I will say that the overall vibe of the non-movie scenes strikes about as perfect a balance between the old and the new as you could ask for. The aesthetic is kitschy and cheap, as it should be, while still adding some neat things that expand the MSTie mythos. But even then, the puppetry is somehow substandard to what it was 20 years ago, and we’re back to invention exchanges and fan letters as if the Mike years never happened. With Joel back on the writing team, maybe that’s to be expected, but you’d think some of these younger guys (including Community and Rick and Morty mastermind Dan Harmon, if you can believe that), would have their nostalgia meter aimed a little later in time.
It probably sounds like I’m saying you shouldn’t bother watching this. I’m not. In fact, I think EVERYONE should go watch the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 when it officially debuts on Netflix this Friday, April 14. And if the whole thing is new to you and you like it, check out a couple of the 20 old episodes also available on the streaming service, as you might like those, too.
If you’re an old diehard and you don’t like it, despite what I’m sure will be almost universally positive reviews once the views get circulating, know you’re not alone. I’ll continue to check out subsequent episodes, but I’m pretty sure I just experienced my own “Mike replacement” moment.