When Mystery Science Theater 3000 was picked up for its 11th season by Netflix approximately 100 years ago in 2017, the good news was tempered with a hint of foreboding. Even then, Netflix was earning a reputation as a place where well-loved shows were routinely kicked to the curb after a season or two, a suspicion borne out when the Netflix-financed Season 12 consisted of a measly six episodes. For series creator and returned showrunner Joel Hodgson, the lesson was clear: If MST3K was to survive in the streaming age, it wouldn’t be by depending on the whims of growth-hungry platforms like Netflix — the show had to go it alone.
Enter another record-breaking Kickstarter campaign that not only funded a batch of new episodes but a shiny new subscription service, the Gizmoplex, home to the existing (non-Netflix) MST catalog, as well as live events and other fan goodies. Season 13 episodes will drop bi-weekly beginning this month; in the meantime, Popdose’s resident MSTies Dan Wiencek and Tony Redman came together once again to weigh in on the two new episodes available for preview, as well as offer thoughts on the future of MST3K.
Dan: Our first episode is Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, featuring both everyone’s favorite lucha libre icon and Victorian anti-hero, respectively. Before discussing the movie proper, there are a lot of changes afoot. Moving from Netflix to the Gizmoplex entails yet another rejiggering of the show’s premise, introduced in the theme song, now sung onscreen by Tom Servo in full lounge-singer mode. (None of this threw me until I heard the immortal lyrics “(I’ll/We’ll) send him cheesy movies/The worst (I/we) can find” had been changed. Nooo!!) Obviously, whether the Mads hang out in a place called Moon 13 or one called the Kinga-Dome doesn’t really have much bearing one way or the other. What is quickly apparent however is that the sets are now entirely virtual, with green-screened backdrops and a 2-D animated theater door sequence rather than live models. While the sets for MST3K were never exactly spacious, the old show had an appealing, junky tactility that makes the new lack of depth immediately noticeable. The Mads sequences in particular are like watching two especially colorful TV weather people doing a skit. I don’t like saying this, but where Mystery Science Theater used to look comfortingly home-made, it now just looks cheap.
What do you think, Tony? Am I overreacting?
Tony: The new look does take some getting used to. Joel explains that it was a necessity due to COVID causing them to film on green screen in different parts of the country. Oddly enough, it almost makes the show look too slick. The graphics themselves are well done, but I do hope that if the show carries through to future seasons that they do go back to physical sets. I thought it was an interesting choice to have Tom Servo perform the theme (though not a bad one since Baron Vaughn is quite a good singer.) Something about Crow’s arms bother me, and I’m not sure what. They always had a T-Rexish look to them, but I think he may have bigger hands. (I assume to make them more functional.) I also miss Servo’s transparent bubble head, but I’m sure that’s a casualty of the green screening.
Dan: I felt the same thing about Servo’s head, and came to the same conclusion. OK, on to the movie. I would like to say a movie about Santo meeting Dracula is just as excitingly bonkers as it sounds. In fact, Santo in the Treasure of Dracula consists largely of people talking or watching each other on monitors — Santo does not wrestle anyone until nearly an hour into the proceedings, even complementing his silver mask with a business suit. He’s trying to prove some kind of hypothesis involving time travel and/or regressing people into the past, and spends much of the first half hour complaining about how no one trusts or believes him, which seems kind of peevish for the supposed hero of the film. So he ends up being upstaged by comic relief Perico (Alberto Rojas, well described by Crow as “the human C-3PO”) and Dracula himself, played by Italian actor Aldo Monti with a surprising amount of suavity; he was the only one I actually missed when he was offstage. The riffing, while paced more slowly than the relentless Netflix episodes, mostly went for contemporary references without truly grappling with the film’s manifest ineptness. (Though I did appreciate, during yet another badly staged night scene, “Dracula, Price of Day-for-Night!”) The host segments, likewise, were not terribly distinguished. My favorite found Crow and Servo, donning their own lucha libre kit, compete to see which of them is the nicest; a sung tribute to Perico, on the other hand, does not rise to the ranks of the show’s better musical moments. Season 11 started with the lackluster Reptilicus before finding its groove with the far superior Cry Wilderness, and Season 13 unfortunately, in my view, repeats that dynamic.
Tony: I don’t know. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart (and probably my head) for these crazy Mexican movies, from the mod fashions to the strange inflections of the words that almost make it sound they’re talking in reverse. And you’ve got to give it up to Santo who, between wrestling in the ring and battling monsters, also somehow squeezed inventing time travel into his busy schedule. Joel mentioned that this was one of the last movies for them to get clearance on, which might explain why the riffs don’t seem as sharp. As a wrestling fan, I loved the skit where they did what John Cena would call “reverse smacktalk” (and Baron/Servo does a pretty decent Randy Savage impression too). And while the Reptilicus episode may have been so-so, they knocked it out of the park on that one with the skit and song “Every Country Has a Monster”. We haven’t had a song of that caliber pop up yet, but it’s still early days.
For their second episode, we are introduced to Dr. Cabal, “the mysterious financier from the future” which is a nice bit of world building, as was Kinga Forrester’s invention, the Simulator of Love. This is a simulator ship that gives them an excuse to get yet another group of victims forced to watch cheesy movies: Emily Connor and her own Tom Servo and Crow (of which we’ll discover more later). The second episode riffs Robot Wars, brought to you by Full Moon Entertainment (a well that MST3K will draw from a few times this season). Jonah and the bots definitely seem to be hitting their stride on this post-apocalyptic epic about a brash hotshot named Drake (Don Michael Paul) who is tasked with piloting a giant scorpion-like giant robot that was once used for fighting during “the Toxic Gas Scare of 1993”, but is now mainly used to conduct tours of the landscape. Dignitaries from another country are looking to purchase their own line of mechanical robots, but Drake suspects ulterior motives. Long story short, Drake bucks the system, gets fired, the bad guys hijack the robot, and Drake comes to the rescue piloting an older robot that was hidden by the grandfather of Drake’s wise mechanic, Stumpy. I was also pleased to see noted character actor Peter Haskell as Drake’s boss, Rooney. (However, he might not have been crazy about when in the movie Drake asked Haskell how he could sleep at night, Crow responded “With a CPAP machine and a hemorrhoid girdle”.)
Dan: Fun fact: Don Michael Paul also played the erstwhile boyfriend of Kathy Ireland in Alien from L.A., an association that, unless I missed it, went completely unremarked by Jonah and the bots. You’d think Crow at least would’ve noticed! Santo in the Treasure of Dracula had me wondering if maybe MST3K shouldn’t have come back; Robot Wars, by contrast, is a welcome 180, proof that this new incarnation still has that old MST spark. For one thing, we got Baron playing Dr. Cabal, restoring the tradition of the cast acting as a repertory company to play its own guest parts. (The numerous celebrity cameos of Season 11 were nice for getting PR, but not so funny in execution.) For another, the gang find an angle on Robot Wars they were unable to find on Santo, grounding the riffing in 90s fashion and action cliches that give the episode a momentum completely distinct from the stupid-ass movie at the heart of it. The best of the host segments featured Jonah—complete with sleeveless flannel, soul patch and catchphrases for days—pitching the bots on Crystal Vista, the movie’s surviving pre-apocalyptic town. It all goes fine until he has to log onto AOL …
So Robot Wars left me feeling good about what’s to come in the remainder of Season 13. Overall, while I’m a little bummed by the show’s new shoestring-on-a-shoestring aesthetic, the cast are giving it their all and growing into their roles, and I’m looking forward to seeing new host Emily come on board (along with new Crow and Servo) and shake things up a little. And of course, we’ll see Joel himself don the jumpsuit once last time for The Christmas Dragon.
Tony, what are your final thoughts? And what say we come back for a complete season recap once all the episodes have dropped?
Tony: Hey, I’ve been a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan for a long time (I’ve had a license plate frame reading “I’d rather be watching MST3K” adorn every car I’ve owned since the mid-90s), and I’m not about to stop that now, especially with Joel at the helm. Circumstances have led them to some unfortunate (but creative) workarounds, but as long as the performing and riffing stay strong, everything else is gravy. We’ve got eleven more episodes to go, and I’m definitely up for a recap when it’s done. And if you guys would like to know more about the Gizmoplex and how to watch these shows too, just go to gizmoplex.com and see what’s in store! Rooty-toot-toot!!