Fans don’t like to let their favourites go, but now they don’t have to. We live in a world desperate to remake, reboot, and flat-out return to beloved franchises, hunting the closest thing to a sure audience there is. But the more beloved these continuations are, they harder they are to get right. Fans want them to somehow be exactly the same while still being fresh and new, an impossible request — except, it turns out, for the return of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.
The show returns today on Netflix with its 11th season, 18 years after season 10 ended in 1999. There’s an all-new cast, but it’s still the same show you remember — where two mad scientists force an affable guy and his two robot pals to watch bad, cheesy, and sometimes truly wretched movies, and they make fun of it. It’s a concept that is truly timeless, which may be the primary reason that the new MST3K feels like it’s effortlessly picked back up right where it left off. But what’s new — the cast, the sets, the mad scientists’ house band(!) — these things too feel authentically Mystery Science Theatre, to the point where I have a hard time imagining even the most trepidatious fan being disappointed with the show’s return.
I can say this with total certainty because I am such a fan. There is nothing closer to my heart than MST3K, no franchise I adore more (not even Star Wars). I was hooked from the very first episode I watched, way back in 1989, when the first season appeared on the nascent Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central). Because the channel had so little programming, each episode would air multiple times a week; I watched them over and over, without hesitation. I was shocked when I learned creator Joel Hodgson was leaving the show (although I’m proud to say I never bore ill feelings to new host Mike). I was basically traumatized when Comedy Central canceled the show, and wrote actual letters to Sci-Fi Channel (now Syfy) executives, begging them to pick up the show. I was overjoyed when they did in 1997. And I was traumatized again when they canceled it in 1999, for good (…or so it seemed).
MST3K was with me from the time I was 12-years-old until I was 22, pretty much the most formative years of anyone’s life. And, thanks to my utter obsession with the show, which led me to attempt to tape all 176 episodes (I got 97% of the way there), the show was with me far, far longer than that. I watched and rewatched episodes, always finding it just as funny, and yet suddenly getting a new joke I previously hadn’t understood each time.
It sounds obsessive — and boy it sure was — but it came in very useful in 1999, when my girlfriend of six years broke up with me. I was with her from the time I was 16 until I was 22, and had basically never been in another relationship. Suddenly, the future I had envisioned for myself — my entire life — was destroyed, and I was heartbroken and devastated. This also meant, because of a series of very unfortunate medical issues affecting loved ones and because of my own intrinsic awkwardness, that I had essentially missed out on all those college years where I’m told people make lifelong friends and learn how to successfully interact with people they would under normal circumstances like to date. I was alone, I felt I would always be alone, and I also happened to be living in a horrible studio apartment which was once described to me as “a place where grad students go to die.” I also had no cable TV, and my antenna (hey, remember antennas?) worked for shit. I was essentially trapped in my own horrible biodome, with no contact to the outside world, other than classes I tried not to cry through.
I did, however, have a VCR. And 50+ VHS tapes containing three recorded episodes of MST3K each. (I liked to consolidate.) This was practically the only thing I watched for a year. Of course I realise that the problems I faced are, in retrospect, utterly trivial compared to what so many others faced — including those people in my life who were dealing with actual life or death issues. But they were my problems, and I couldn’t see past them. I felt like my entire life had been ripped away, and that I would never, ever get it back.
I don’t want to say Mystery Science Theatre 3000 saved my life, because that’s as hokey as it is untrue. But for a long, lonely year, it was the only thing that made me smile, let alone laugh. One of MST3K‘s greatest qualities has always been its loose execution and ramshackle nature really allowed you to feel like you were hanging out with Joel, Mike, Tom Servo and Crow in that theatre, that you were all friends watching together. I needed them.
So if you wanted to say MST3K was a fundamental part of my life, you wouldn’t be overstating it. Because, even beyond this sob story, it is a fact that without Mystery Science Theatre 3000, I would not be where I am today. The show is almost wholly responsible for my sense of humour, which has directly or indirectly led to every step of my professional career, which in turn has led me to meet lifelong friends and even my wife — all the things that make me me. As I eventually realised, my life was fine. It was just full of robot puppets and bad movies instead.
I say all this to let you know that if there is an uber-fan, someone who can’t help but hold the classic series to an impossibly high standard, I’m pretty sure it’s me. Certainly, as excited as I’ve been since the new MST3K Kickstarter got funded, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t also nervous as hell. I mean, I’d been Phantom Menaced and Crystal Skulled. I know how wrong these things can go when people try to bring back these beloved favourites after so long.
I am delighted to tell you that if you loved the old MST3K, you will love the new MST3K. Yes, there’s a new host, new villains, new voices for the ‘Bots, new sets, new jokes… but it is undeniably still Mystery Science Theatre. And I don’t mean because it’s still a guy and a couple of robot puppets making fun of a bad movie, although that’s surely part of it. In a crazy way, while I was watching season 11, I got the feeling that even if MST3K had been airing since 1999, if it had never went away and had 18 more years of episodes — Season 28 (or whatever) would still look exactly like what Season 11 actually is.
Even with a few cameos from the classic era — and the return of Joel-era mainstays like the Invention Exchange segments and Gizmonics Institute — the new MST3K doesn’t feel beholden to the past, it feels like an evolution, and an incredibly natural evolution at that. Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, and the new Mads Kinga Forrester and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, are so good and natural together in their roles you’d think they’d been doing them for the last five years.
New host Jonah Ray and the ‘Bots haven’t gelled nearly as much, although there’s an easy camaraderie that makes me confident it’s only a matter of time before they get there. Ray’s low-key, affable nerd vibe makes him a natural host for the show, but it’s almost shocking how Hamilton Yount as Crow and Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo have managed to inhabit their ‘Bots. Again, in the early episodes, it’s clear they need time to settle in, establish their voices and personalities a bit more, but that’s something that only comes with time. But the potential is there, and obvious, and even from the first episode Reptilicus, to the second ep Cry Wilderness — which is absolutely destined to go down as one of the great MST movies ever — you can feel Ray, Yount, and Vaughn start to get into their groove.
To continue my analogy from before, if this was Season 28, it would still be the first season for them, and Ray would be MST3K host #6. Honestly, it was a little uncanny to me how much their host segments together felt a bit like the show’s actual season one, as Joel and the original ‘Bots developed their characters and established what the show would be. Except in Season 11, the movie riffing is much, much, much better. Again, episode #1102 — the very second episode back! — is instantly an MST3K classic. This, more than anything else, proves the new season is getting Mystery Science Theatre 3000 fundamentally right.
And that’s really the key. The new MST3K feels right. It’s still the show I loved, and where it’s changed, even the differences feel authentic and organic; if some are still a bit jarring, they’re such that I still feel extremely confident that by the time we get to season 12 — Torgo willing! — Jonah Heston, Kinga Forrester, Moon 13 and the rest of it will be considered as core to the show as Joel, Mike, TV’s Frank, and everything else we loved from the classic series.
To put it simply, the new Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is the old Mystery Science Theatre 3000. In a way, it’s not new at all. It’s just… more, After 18 years, we finally have “Movie Sign” again. Turn down your lights where applicable.