The cruellest scientific experiment in television history has recommenced after a hiatus of nearly two decades. Spank The Monkey puts on his lab coat to revisit Mystery Science Theater 3000.
Yelling out insults at a movie screen: it’s a form of entertainment as old as the medium itself, ever since someone in the audience at the Lumière brothers’ Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat noisily observed “that guy in the bowtie looks pissed.” It’s hard to recreate the spontaneity of the best cinema heckles in a scripted medium, but one TV show managed it: Mystery Science Theater 3000.
The premise of the show is neatly laid out in its theme song, but as that song’s been rewritten several times over the years let’s go for a quick precis. A human schlub – series creator Joel Hodgson for the first four and a half seasons, Mike Nelson for the next five and a half – is sent into space by a mad scientist – Dr Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu), subsequently succeeded by his mother Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl) – for a series of experiments. Stranded on the spaceship Satellite Of Love, the man is forced to watch terrible movies while his reactions are monitored. We get to sit behind him, along with his robot pals Crow T Robot and Tom Servo, as all three of them take turns to verbally riff on the film they’re watching. Which means that an awful lot of the show looks like this:
Between 1989 and 1999, ten seasons of MST3K – as it’s known to the cool kids – were produced, along with a movie nobody really talks about. (Well, almost nobody.) Over the following years, the team of writers and performers split into two rival factions, each coming up with their own not-quite-copyright-infringing variant on the MST3K concept – RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. Throughout it all, series creator Joel Hodgson held onto the rights to the original name, waiting for the right time to re-use it.
It appears that the right time is now. Following a Kickstarter campaign, Hodgson has produced a new season of 14 episodes, all of which premiered on Netflix last Friday. He’s working with a new team of collaborators here, led by replacement schlub Jonah Ray. Obviously, Jonah’s going to be competing with people’s memories of Joel and Mike: so he’s probably delighted that Netflix have also made twenty classic MST3K episodes available online, allowing us to ruthlessly compare the varying approaches of the three human hosts. Let’s do that, shall we?
Manos: The Hands Of Fate (season 4, 1993)
There’s a school of thought which suggests that the reason for the cult success of The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t the music, or the genderbending: it’s the crappy editing. Scenes run far too slow, with awkward gaps in between the lines, just waiting to be filled with an amusing audience quip about the film’s narrator having no neck. It’s a flaw that’s shared by many of the most popular MST3K movie selections, because it means heckles can be inserted without losing too much dialogue.
You can have too much of a good thing, though: and Manos counts as waaaay too much, containing the sort of gaps you could drive a truck through. Joel and the bots have to lift their riff game several notches above the norm, because the film would be literally unwatchable without their commentary. In some places, it’s the cross-cultural referencing that we’ve come to know and love, like the gratuitous catfight pictured above being accompanied by the line “and now the Manos Women’s Guild will re-enact the Battle of Pearl Harbor.” But more often than not, it’s exasperation at the shortcomings of the film itself: an utterly pointless staredown between two characters goes on for over half a minute before the lack of tension is broken with a yell of “DO SOMETHING! GOD!”
Manos has a reputation amongst fans as being one of the all-time great episodes of MST3K, and you can see why: there’s real enthusiasm as the crew tear into the film at the start (notably an opening driving sequence in which virtually nothing of dramatic interest happens). But ultimately, no amount of snark can get over the demoralising experience of seeing so much atrocious filmmaking compressed into so small a timeframe, and you can hear that enthusiasm being ground down minute by minute. By the time we hit the unnecessarily grim final scene, their moans of disgust sound genuine rather than faked: and because Joel took the time in his seasons to build up the relationship between him and the robots, you actually feel sad about that. MST3K has built an entire career out of the so-bad-it’s-good aesthetic, but you have to accept that some things are just so bad they’re bad.
Space Mutiny (season 8, 1996)
If I was forced to make the choice between Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson, I’d inevitably go with Mike, because I’m British and he’s what I’m used to. Here in the UK, the only time MST3K has made it onto TV was in the late 90s, when The Sci-Fi Channel (as was) played a dozen or so Nelson-era episodes in a weekly loop for two years, until the ferric oxide had been totally scraped away from the tapes. Nelson was also the head of the writing team, and brought a very different approach to the riffing: more cynical and more packed with gags. You felt it was all about the jokes with Nelson – you could believe Joel had robot pals, but Mike was the kind of guy more likely to have robot programme associates.
Made in South Africa, and memorably described by Kevin Podsiadlik of Agony Booth as “the second worst thing to originate in that country,” Space Mutiny is a prime example of low-budget 80s sci-fi and just the right level of terrible to work as an MST3K film. There are parts of it that actually look competent, notably the space battle scenes: once you discover that they’re all literally footage taken from Battlestar Galactica, it makes perfect sense, because everything else is so shoddy. The sets, trying to persuade us that a derelict building is the inside of a spaceship, even when you can see daylight through the windows: the plotting, which frequently grinds to a halt so we can watch a coven of space witches prance around in sub-Stevie Nicks style: even the continuity, which most memorably runs to a female character being murdered in one scene and appearing in the background of the next.
Space Mutiny possibly contains the highest gag density of any MST3K episode I know, and it’s mostly down to the film’s over-steroided leading man Reb Brown. Any time he appears on screen, he’s greeted with yells of alternative names for his character: “Blast Hardcheese! Slate Fistcrunch! Big McLargeHuge!” Couple that with the relentless ribbing of the characters, design and ultra-cheap wireframe computer graphics used to cover the space sequences they couldn’t find a match for in the Galactica stock footage, and you’ve got ninety minutes of solid hilarity from start to finish.
Reptilicus (season 11, 2017)
Oh, come on, that’s hardly a fair fight. For Joel and Mike, I pick an episode of theirs that’s an established classic: for Jonah Ray, I’ve picked his debut. In my defence, the all-new season of MST3K only started on Netflix last Friday, and the premiere is the only episode I’ve had time to watch so far. Obviously, it’s not going to be a typical show, as there’s setting-up to be done. Hodgson and his team actually pull this off very smartly indeed: Ray is catapulted from a space haulage job to the Satellite Of Love in a tidy four minutes. This introduces the basic premise to newcomers, with a few bits of exposition for the long-term fans coming later, mainly explaining how new mad scientists Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt fit into the history of the show.
MST3K fans will, inevitably leap on the changes that have been made: some good, some less so. Is it a good idea that Tom Servo can now fly? On the whole, yes, as it makes for new opportunities for jokes involving stuff near the top of the frame. Is it a good idea to get third robot Gypsy more involved in the riffing? I’m less sure about that one so far, though it makes a nice change for the only female member of the Satellite Of Love crew to be voiced by a woman for once. Does the redesign of the sets work? Actually, they look just fine: it would have been so tempting for Hodgson to ditch the low-budget handmade look of the show and redo everything in shiny CGI, but he seems to have a firm grasp of just how flung-together he can make things look without descending to the levels of the films being mocked.
On that topic, Reptilicus is a solid film to start this new season, although the sheer strangeness of the idea of a Danish-American monster movie just makes you want to run away to the internet to find out how it came to happen in the first place. It’s got everything you could hope for: actors from two different continents not quite meshing with each other, ham-fisted redubbing of most of their voices, and monster footage that’s largely been pasted in from another, more water-damaged film. By and large, the jokes hurled at it by the cast work – it takes a little time to get used to the Jonah/Servo/Crow dynamic, but by the end it’s almost like MST3K has never been away.
Has this new cast produced a Manos or Space Mutiny straight out of the starting gate? Well, no. But what we’ve got suggests that with time, they could reach those heights again. For now, in the words of the theme song, we should really just relax.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is available now on Netflix, featuring 14 new episodes as well as 20 from the original series.