“Don’t expect it to be the same,” I reminded myself, repeatedly, in the weeks leading up to the premiere of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return, a.k.a. MST3K S011.
“It can’t be the same,” I continued to tell myself. “Hollywood big shots can’t replicate the magic of no-budget late-’80s Minneapolis cable access, and there’s no reason why they should try. If you need it to be the same, little tiny trivial inconsistencies are gunna irk you, and you’re gunna hate it for no good reason and ruin your own ability to enjoy something custom fuckin’ designed for your demographic to like. Just be open and receptive to it being its own thing based on the original thing. This is all going to be okay, and just fine.”
I was right about that last part.
Despite a mostly different crop of writers overseen by Daily Show alum Elliott Kalan, MST3K’s 11th season, now available on Netflix, feels like a faithful continuation of its first 10.
— #MST3K (@MST3K) April 14, 2017
You’ve got your sight gags for the little kids entranced by sarcastic puppets, soft PG-13 quips for their incrementally more sophisticated adult counterparts, and pop culture references no individual viewer ever understands more than 40 percent of the time. Aside from the jokes about modern touchstones like Lost, Game of Thrones, and Twitter that aren’t (yet) as hilariously dated as the topical humor in the original series, it’s still two robots and a guy making fun of old movies. As far as format and presentation goes, it’s essentially exactly the same.
I honestly don’t know why I assumed they’d mess with it so much.
The mere fact of a fresh batch of MST3K episodes emerging not-quite 20 years after its cancellation boggles the mind, but the show itself feels entirely unencumbered by the elapsed time, or its own hefty legacy, or even — despite owing its existence to a Kickstarter campaign — fan expectations. In other words, the factors that to varying degrees messed up the Gilmore Girls and X-Files revivals don’t touch MST3K, and there’re a bunch of different reasons for that.
Season 11 isn’t under pressure to this era’s lone representative of its kind. Former cast members Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett have built RiffTrax into an autonomous riffing brand since MST3K departed the airwaves in 1999.
"Like I said, I'm not high but my dog is and I am." #MST3K
— Barely Tomson III (@barelytomson) April 14, 2017
And the show’s initial run already prepared us for a changeable cast. Nelson took over for creator Joel Hodgson as host in 1993, and any discussion of Jonah Ray’s ability to fill Nelson or Hodgson’s shoes inevitably turns into a relitigation of the long-exhausted “Joel vs. Mike” debate, and absolutely no one wants to have the “Joel vs. Mike” debate again, ever. Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount’s voice Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot with detectable reverence for Kevin Murphy and Trace Beaulieu’s renderings of the plucky robot sons of a gun — “If it ain’t broke, don’t give the robot puppet a different voice,” as the old saying goes.
As for the mad Kinga Forrester — daughter of the mad Doctor Clayton Forrester — Felicia Day presents an intriguing paradox. When she fulfills the traditional MST3K villain role of singing, “I’ll send ‘em cheesey movies — The worst I can find,” in the theme song, it’s hard to not automatically associate Day with her decisively nonthreatening turn as Penny in the Joss Whedon musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Though perhaps coincidental, the connection has ominous implications. The entire Forrester bloodline — perhaps especially Kinga, who sees herself as having something to prove — have less in common with Penny the gentle-natured homelessness advocate, and far more with Dr. Horrible’s titular menace. Horrible — especially in his secret identity as “Billy” — also scans as a perfectly harmless disgruntled nerd, until his saga’s devastating third act makes a strong case for the contrary. So if we learn any lesson from Dr. Horrible, it’s that just because we’re not afraid of Kinga Forrester yet, doesn’t mean we won’t be. Meanwhile, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank is the same character Patton Oswalt always plays, which works perfectly fine for this.
Production of bad movies continued undaunted during MST3K’s downtime, giving Season 11’s architects a sizeable new roster of contenders for the next Manos: The Hands of Fate. Among the others I didn’t have time to watch yet, there’s Danish Godzilla knockoff Reptilicus and The Time Travelers, both of which would’ve fit right in alongside MST3K presentations of Gamera and innumerable other chunks of 1960s drive-in filler.
The gang hits a stride by their second episode decimation of Cry Wilderness — a festering pile of nature stock footage and racism from the late ‘80s. Aimless skiing-related drama Avalanche is noteworthy as one of the really bad movies Mia Farrow inexplicably picked to do after Rosemary’s Baby. The ‘bots get to take an overdue swipe at David Hasselhoff in episode six, Starcrash, which I look forward to with seething glee.
Speaking grinding axes with celebrities, I do detect one significant divergence between MST3K: The Return and its indispensable predecessor — though I don’t think there’s any way it could’ve been intentional. To take nothing away from its singularity and importance, MST3K 1.0 has a bitterness at the core. Mocking someone else’s art is a fundamentally negative exercise. Squeezing the maximum amount of chuckles into a single episode of MST3K requires watching the same bad movie over and over and over and over again. If that’s your only job — if that’s the only thing you do, pretty much, for 10 or 15 years — then there’s no way you’re having fun 100 percent of the time. If there’s an old MST3K episode that just goes through the motions, I haven’t seen it, but I can attest that they got kind of mean every now and again. While millionaire supermodels generally don’t care if robot puppets say they’re terrible at acting, if Kathy Ireland’s capable of having her feelings hurt, I sincerely hope she’s never seen Episode 516: Alien From LA.
But Kalan, Ray, and the rest of the crew all have other gigs. Their riffy wares don’t yet scan as the work of anyone who’s been at the task long enough for drudgery to breed a cynicism that goes beyond the point of necessity. As Jonah Heston, Ray cracks jokes as if he’s glad that insane people kidnapped him and force him to watch terrible movies. Without the bitterness of its first incarnation, all that remains of MST3K is the joy of comedy and the magic of science fiction… which maybe, ultimately, won’t be as funny as the bitter, cynical MST3K, but it’s clearly plenty funny enough to do the trick.
Follow Barry Thompson on Twitter @barelytomson.