Keeping with Netflix’s tradition of bringing cancelled/hibernating TV shows back to life, we have the new Mystery Science Theater 3000. Fourteen episodes of what is essentially Season 11 of the series have just dropped on Netflix, featuring corny “budget” movies being riffed on by host Jonah Ray and his robot sidekicks.
But how does it measure up to the original MST3K?
The original Mystery Science Theater 3000 debuted on local television in 1988, with Comedy Central picking up the series in ’89. The show revolved around hapless janitor Joel (Joel Hodgson) trapped on the Satellite Of Love with three robots—Tom Servo, Crow T. Robot and Gypsy. The nefarious Dr. Clayton Forrester and his assistant TV’s Frank would remotely torture Joel by forcing him to watch B movies; Joel & robots would cope with this abuse by coming up with a stream of one-liners in response to the ludicrous film proceedings.
The cast lineup for MST3K would change over the years, most notably with Joel being replaced by Mike Nelson. After the show was cancelled, Nelson, along with Tom Servo & Crow voice actors Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, formed RiffTrax—which was sort of like an unofficial “next stage” of the series concept.
For the janitor/host role this time around we have Ray, a co-host of the Nerdist podcast as well as Comedy Central’s The Meltdown with Jonah and Kumail. “Headlining” the proceedings are Geek Royalty Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank. Particularly significant is the writer lineup, who, in addition to producer Hodgson and lead writer Elliott Kalan (formerly of The Daily Show With Jon Stewart), includes Rick and Morty’s Dan Harmon & Justin Roiland, Rob Schrab, and others.
And everybody does a great job. Everybody here is obviously having a blast reviving MST3K.
But I’m not sure if I’ve changed, the world has changed, or both have changed since the last time the series was in its prime. Let me explain.
Let’s start with the movie “riffed” in the first episode, 1961’s Reptilicus. This American International Pictures/Danish low-budget monster movie is a…dry choice to kick off this revival. It’s like the stripped-down IKEA of low-budget monster movies. The monster, a sort of dinosaur/dragon, is particularly atrocious, looking like a children’s art project. While there are some intriguing & gooey practical effects here involving what looks like mud, hair, and raw chicken cutlets, the “non-monster” scenes of dialogue and the like are very pedantic and slow.
But why, in spite of all that, did I prefer to just watch straight-up Reptilicus rather than the “riffed” version? Not because the riffed version was unfunny or bad in any way. I was just more interested in the movie artifact that was Reptilicus.
I even went so far as to look up the history of the movie. Apparently, there were two Reptilicuses (Reptilii?)—a Danish version, and then an English one for A.I.P. with most of the original cast. A man named Sidney Pink directed that latter version, and it ended up being deemed by the studio so unwatchable that Danish B-movie mainstay Ib Melchior had to rework it. Pink got so angry that his version was messed-with that he brought a lawsuit upon A.I.P., later dropping it when he saw the actual film and I guess realized they were right.
Then a comic book based on Reptilicus got made by Charlton the same year, lasting two issues; after the licensing deal lapsed, the comic publisher simply changed the name to Reptisaurus and just ran with it through issue #8.
All this backstory feels more interesting to me than listening to people make fun of the movie for over an hour. And maybe that’s because I’m just an old fuck. Or maybe it’s because…
Here’s what a friend commented to me when I mentioned I was going to review this new MST3K: he felt that the original series was one of the first to encourage people to be “super-snarky dickbags.” Now, that’s a pretty controversial statement to make…and honestly, I currently enjoy videos on YouTube from Nostalgia Critic and Cinema Snob that pretty much do the same thing.
But with this first episode of the revival, we have a pretty boring movie that moves at a snail’s pace, from a completely different time period and even culture—plus riffs on everything from Kickstarter, Finding Nemo, Stan Lee, Breaking Bad, chemtrails, and other contemporary references. All this against a backdrop of built-in referentiality regarding MST3K being a classic TV show that we already all know and love.
The sense of “discovery” I had when I first encountered this show in the early 1990s on cable just isn’t there. And a lot of “budget” movies today look very quaint to me next to the types of bloated blockbusters that people like Nostalgia Critic take down. What is a greater cinematic “sin?” Reptilicus or 2003’s Cat in the Hat?
Nowadays I’d expect auteur directors to tie themselves into knots trying to replicate the authentic look & feel of a Reptilicus, goofy guy in the denim overalls and all.
This all not to take away from the enjoyability or quality of the new MST3K. This is a perfectly good series to binge-watch on Netflix, which I have no doubt many people are doing right this very second. And having caught most of the fourth episode, based on the jaw-droppingly nuts 1978 disaster movie Avalanche, the energy and pacing of the jokes were much much stronger and funnier.
It’s just as a fan of the original series in the Nineties, I can’t help but note some particular reactions and impressions I’ve had to the revival that perhaps are only unique to me. Some shows grow up with you. And then some shows…grow up with you?