The “not too distant future” is now.
Well, kind of. It’s not the year 3000 yet, but we have now passed April 14, 2017, meaning Netflix’s Kickstarter-funded Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return is here for all of us to binge or leisurely consume to our heart’s delight. There’s a new host (The Nerdist’s Jonah Ray, a lifelong MST3K fan), new robot voices (comedians Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount as Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot) and new tormenters (Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are the evil scientist/sniveling sidekick duo subjecting our heroes to terrible movies). Series creator Joel Hodgson is back as producer, writer and [spoiler alert] occasional on-air talent, but the rotating writing staff is largely new and special celebrity cameos rather well-guarded secrets.
Yeah, but it is it any good?
Thankfully, yes. The biggest compliment I can pay to The Return is that after the inevitable adjustment period to the new guys you quickly feel as if you are watching the same old MST3K, just with updated material (e.g., they can make Game of Thrones references now!). The sets are still endearingly amateurish. The in-between movie bits are hit and miss. Crow, Tom and Gypsy broadly seem like themselves even though they have new voices. Individual episodes largely rise and fall on the mockability of the movie they picked. Yet even when the jokes occasionally dry up you still enjoy being in the company of three well-versed pop culture nerds firing off jokes, impressions, impromptu songs, an occasional rant, easter egg reference to older episodes and everything else you’d expect from MST3K.
That doesn’t mean every new episode of The Return is a winner, and the slight attempt at some continuity between episodes doesn’t really mean you have to watch them in order. For example, if you are new to the show maybe don’t start with the first episode because it’s the worst. Instead, start with Cry Wilderness, the second episode. In fact, here’s how I would rank the first 7 episodes (there are 14 in total; a similar ranking of the back-7 will be coming once I’ve finished the season):
7. Ep. 1, Reptilicus, 1961
The Plot: Denmark miners discover the frozen tail of a prehistoric monster, but the scientists assigned to study it fall asleep on the job, allow it to thaw out and then grow into a city-sized menace which curiously has wings it never actually chooses to use. There’s also some background business involving two blonde women fighting over a man (I think), but you’ll quickly struggle to tell them apart (as the robots point out).
Best riff: “Oh, I finally found the shade of lipstick I’m going to die in.”
Best bit (away from the movie): An educational rap song featuring the chorus “Every country has their own monster they’re afraid in their nation” while Jonah places 3D-printed models of monsters on a map. It’s all the more endearing for its one-off feel, with Jonah knocking over models on accident but powering through because they were probably only going to film this the one time.
It’s unfortunate, but perhaps inevitable they wouldn’t storm out of the gate with their best effort. Part of that might be due to Reptilicus not giving them enough to mock (the characters they get the best jokes out of keep receding into the background) or that the team is still trying to find their groove or that the in-between bits with Day and Oswalt take up too much time establishing the new continuity (i.e., Day is the daughter of Dr. Forrester, Jonah was beloved at Gizmonics Institute and only ended up in this situation after responding to a distress signal which turned out to be a trap, etc.). However, you will be just as surprised as they are to see the staggering numbers of Danish extras filling out the “monster attacks the city” scenes at the end. So, that’s something.
6. Ep. 4, Avalanche, 1978
The Plot: Mia Farrow, Rock Hudson and Robert Forster form an improbable romantic triangle in this would-be disaster flick that’s more interested in shady business deals (Hudson’s a greedy snow resort owner), sweet 70s love on the dance floor and comic relief grandmas than it is with, I dunno, the actual avalanche. One character actually hits on a 16-year-old girl moments before being waylaid by the much-delayed avalanche, and we’re supposed to cheer when he’s rescued?
Best riff: “She died as she lived – lit up!” in reference to the boozy Shelly Winters stand-in who oddly mistakes snowy mountains for Hawaii at one point.
Best bit (during the movie): Tom and Crow remote controlling two drone planes down just in time to strategically cover a woman’s nipples during a gratuitous topless scene.
One interesting test of a MST3K crew is how they handle a movie that actually features recognizable actors. Do they bust out a funny impression and pile on a gleefully endless supply of references to the actor’s other movies or most famous role ala the Adam West jokes in Zombie Nightmare? Or do they make a couple of obvious jokes but mostly go easy on them?
Jonah and crew somewhat surprisingly opt for the latter with Avalanche, largely treating Rock Hudson and Robert Forster as if they were just any other actor in a bad MST3K movie. Beyond a couple of Frank Sinatra/Woody Allen references, they do the same with Mia Farrow as well. It feels like a missed opportunity.
Thus, the best character-specific joke in the episode (other than the one I quoted above) might be their suggestion that Forster would keep asking “Is it up to code?” after overly harping about building codes earlier in the movie. It’s a classic MST3K bit, i.e., imagining characters annoyingly repeating their more animated lines. However, other than that and a truly solid Simpsons reference (“feels like I’m wearing nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all”) not much about Avalanche stands out. It’s a movie in which three actors with no chemistry meander their way through inter-personal conflict, biding time until the thing we were promised in the title, the damn avalanche, finally shows up after making us wait nearly a full hour.
5. Ep. 7, The Land That Time Forgot, 1974
The Plot: World War 1 U-boat Germans and the survivors of a British ship must learn to get alone and lean on each other to survive as they somehow take a wrong turn into a land of dinosaurs and Neanderthals.
Best riff: “Okay, white guy checklist: kill all the animals?”/ “Check”/ “Take the natural resources?”/ “Check”/ “Use locals as slave labor?”/ “Check”/ “Build a church?”/ “Check”
Best bit (during the movie): Crow holding a prop bullhorn while shouting out instructions as if he was an old Hollywood director on a crane: “Guy with the hammer, right now it looks like you’re aimlessly hammering all over the frame. Pick a nail and just focus on it.”
For the first 25 minutes, The Land That Time Forgot is a fairly subpar (no submarine pun intended) episode, but then the German U-Boat captain emerges on the scene, finally giving the crew a funny voice to impersonate (Baron Vaughn’s Tom proves to be especially funny here). That’s still not enough, though, to elevate the episode into something special.
The problem for them is that Land That Time Forgot plays as a fairly decent submarine drama for half of its running time with no obvious terrible accents or performances. They do their best with the German voice, and get some good bits at the expense of the slightly out of shape semi-famous star of the movie, Doug McClure (you’d better believe they make a couple of Troy McClure references). However, they’re stuck with a merely boring movie, not an insanely terrible one.
That starts to change once the characters reach the titular land that time forgot, but even then it’s mostly a bunch of familiar jokes about now cheesy-looking monsters. The eventual introduction of cavemen into the scenario proves to be the extra ingredient necessary to give them something to consistently latch onto (e.g., “Wait. Don’t go. You have to tell us how we can save 50% on our car insurance!”).
4. Ep. 5, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, 1956
The Plot: “An American cowboy living in Mexico discovers his cattle are being eaten by a giant prehistoric dinosaur,” says IMDB, but man does it take a long damn time for that dinosaur to show up. Until then, there’s a love triangle which erupts in a mid-day, city square brawl (“that’s the second brawl today,” jokes one of the robots), and the doomed tale of an alcoholic sombrero-loving ranch hand named Poncho and his too-small-to-be-useful son.
Best riff: “You’ll never know the joy of watching your father die of liver disease,” while the American cowboy tries to console the child over the untimely death of his alcoholic father Poncho.
Best bit (away from the movie): A robot fashion show of the curious Mexican clothing on display in the film.
The first 7 episodes are a little over-stuffed with not just monster movies but monster movies featuring dinosaur-like creatures. Thus, Reptilicus, The Beast of Hollow Mountain and The Land That Time Forgot slightly blend together, with plenty of similar monster-related jokes (e.g., assigning a funny human voice/personality to the monster). Hollow Mountain at least stands out in that it is set in Mexico and is the only western of the bunch, but this is one of those imbalanced MST3K episodes where they make due with a good joke here or there for a while before suddenly hitting their stride. In Hollow Mountain’s case, that means turning Poncho and his son into reliable punchlines until the crappy claymation dinosaur monster finally shows up and the golden zingers come fast and furious.
3. Ep. 3, Time Travelers, 1964
The Plot: A group of scientists – and their lab tech Danny who kind of just hangs around even when they all completely ignore him – accidentally create a portal to 2071, a time when the last of humanity is plotting an escape off the planet via spaceship. They’re on a strict timetable because the mutants surviving on the outskirts are pushing ever inward. Wait a minute. That’s kind of like Doctor Who’s season 3 episode “Utopia.” Say, will one of these scientist turn out to be The Master hiding out as a human? Sadly, no. However, we will be forced to decide who to root for – the 1964 scientist just trying to get back home, the 2071 dickhead humans hoarding resources and refusing to take the ’64 scientists with them or the 2071 mutants who just want to be loved (or to kill, but mostly to be loved). Personally, I’m Team Mutant.
Best riff: “Would an idiot do?” after two scientists discuss how they’ll need a guinea pig for their experiment and then both mischievously glance over at the obvious candidate, Danny, i.e., the movie’s whooping boy.
Best bit (away from the film): Joel and a comedian pretending to be two of the characters from the film who have emerged from their hyper sleep and now travel the universe as skeezy swingers. “A talking gumball machine? Wow, this drink really is kicking in.”
Finally, in Time Travelers the new crew finds a movie where the jokes just write themselves. There’s a dim-witted comic relief sidekick character who is easily exaggerated through ongoing impressions as an absolute moron the rest of the characters despise. There are futuristic scientists who both dress and sound funny enough to be constant sources of ridicule. The quickly unfolding plot never forces them to make due with scenes which drag for far too long. Truly bizarre-looking part-human, part-monster robots provide a steady stream of jokes, particularly the recurring bit of Tom and Crow becoming very emotional whenever the poor robots are assembled/disassembled or destroyed.
2. Ep. 6, Starcrash, 1978
The Plot: What if Han Solo was a smoking hot former female model inexplicably walking around in the vampire lingerie clothing she was first forced to wear in prison? What if her Chewie-esque co-pilot was a human-like android who always seemed to stay behind on the ship but also consistently used powers (like regeneration) we were never actually told he had? What if C-3PO had an oddly Southern accent and was quite the heart-melting gunslinger? What if, for good measure, you threw in some Buck Rogers shit too and filled the rest of the cast with Christopher Plummer as the supremely bored, but benevolent Emperor and David Hasselfhoff as his well-coiffed son? What if, after all of that, your Star Wars knock-off still ran short and you were forced to add in even more shots of spaceships slowly making their way across the screen? Well, then you’ve got yourself Starcrash.
Best riff: “Believe it or not, I’m not William Katt” in reference to co-lead Marjoe Gortner, who really, really looks like William Katt circa-Greatest American Hero
Best bit (away from the movie): Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt pitching some of their invention ideas to an incredulous [special celebrity guest] as the biggest venture capitalist in the universe. “Where’s the reality competition element? Where’s the audience interactivity? Where’s my second screen experience?” is his response to their on-going experiment to drive Jonah insane by making him watch the world’s worst movies.
Starcrash would rank high on this list even if Jonah and the robot silhouettes simply sat there quietly watching the movie the entire time. That’s because Starcrash is so unbelievably bad, and such a historical curiosity (coming out just one year after Star Wars) that it has plenty of entertainment value on its own.
Thankfully, Jonah and the bots add to that entertainment by instantly seizing on the Star Wars similarities, Marjoe Gortner’s William Katt-ness and the shamelessness of forcing British model Caroline Munro to be half-naked the whole movie even though she’s the lead character. Plus, the robot who talks like a Southern cowboy gives them the chance to bust out a pretty solid impression.
Curiously, once David Hasselhoff finally shows up they almost completely refrain from making jokes at the expense of his career, public persona or more famous roles (e.g., no Knight Rider or Baywatch riffs). Coupled with the Avalanche example, it seems as if this MST3K crew is going to play nicer with celebrities than the Mike era of the show. However, in Starcrash’s case there’s so much more to mock that it doesn’t matter.
1. Ep. 2, Cry Wilderness, 1987
The Plot: Paul is a dreamer who still believes in fairytales and Bigfoot. It’s not weird or anything. He’s just a little kid, but everyone at his boarding school wants him to straighten up and fly right. So, naturally, when Bigfoot appears to him in a vision – wait, what? – warning him his father is in danger – again, WTF? – he runs away from school and pals around with his park ranger father and his weird Indian friend in the woods. At one point, the Indian, who is quite clearly batshit insane, runs to hug a bear in the wilderness, and the massively dangerous tug-of-war which ensues suggests many stuntmen were killed in this making of this movie. There’s also a Sly Stallone lookalike big game hunter, who’s cool with breaking into people’s houses, eating their food and then flashing his U.S. Marshall’s badge to make it all okay. Of course, he wants to kill Bigfoot, but that ole glorified Sasquatch only appears to those young and pure enough to truly believe in him (what is he, Drop Dead Fred?). What the Stallone lookalike doesn’t realize is that angering the only child, in this case Paul, who can command a godless killing machine like Bigfoot is a bad idea.
Best riff: “Does a bear crap in the woods? Well, keep watching and find out.”
Best bit (away from the movie): Pearl Forrester gives Felicia Day’s character, her granddaughter, the cold shoulder.
This isn’t just the best episode of the first 7; this instantly joins the ranks of MST3K’s greatest episodes. It’s not as strong as The Final Sacrifice, which Paste ranked as the best MST3K episode of all-time (my pick would be Werewolf), but it initially has a similar feel, with a wide-eyed young boy palling around with a curiously-haired old man in the woods, the two of them frequently erupting into awkward bits of clearly fake laughter. Then it morphs into something completely different, with endless stock footage of animals combined with truly bizarre acting and a so-earnest-it-hurts message about the power of a child’s innocence. You thus end up with an episode filled with too many great jokes to count. Do I mention the bit about how the kid’s shirt makes him look like a human coke can? Or the woman whose one defining characteristic is her long braided hair? Or the running internal monologue of what all the animals might be thinking?
When you’re struggling to pick your favorite jokes because the choices are too numerous you know you’ve watched an amazing episode of MST3K. I can’t wait to see if the back half of the season has something which tops Cry Wilderness.
What about you? What episode are you on? How would you rank the first 7? Or are you a MST3K hold-out? Let me know in the comments.