I won’t belabor the point: if you have an ounce of nerd in you, you know that today’s the day Mystery Science Theater 3000 returns from the cancellation void for its first all-new season in nearly 20 years. All 14 episodes are now available to stream, but die-hard Popdose MSTies Tony Redman and Dan Wiencek (along a few thousand other Kickstarter backers who ponied up to bring the show back) had advance access to a stream of the first show of the new season. They eagerly compared notes to give you their spoiler-ific take on Experiment #1101, Reptilicus.
Dan: Well, before we wade into the nitty gritty, I’m pretty sure you and I can agree on one thing: How great is it to watch a new Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode after all this time? Because that’s what it was — sure, there were some differences we’ll get into below, but I think the main thing is that this feels like MST3K. Even Cinematic Titanic, overseen by Joel and featuring exclusively ex-MST cast members, didn’t feel like the old show as much as this does. There’s the wonderful low-tech special effects and model work, the broad acting (especially in the opening — I’m looking at you, Wil Wheaton) and, most of all, the generous, fun-loving spirit that always presided, especially when Joel was the host. Joel always insists that MST3K isn’t about ridiculing bad movies so much as it’s about having fun alongside them. That became a little less true when Joel left and especially once Bill Corbett came on and brought more punch to the writing. But now it’s back, and the result isn’t Rifftrax or Cinematic Titanic or The Film Crew or what have you: it’s MST3K, pretty much as we always loved it.
What are your first thoughts on seeing the show return?
Tony: I went into it being cautiously optimistic. I knew there were some very talented people involved (including Joel), so I hoped for the best and, for the most part, I think they delivered. I also liked that they kept the whole “kitbash” aesthetic to everything. I agree that the feel was the closest we’ve gotten to classic MST3K since the original left the air. I was concerned that there were rumors of some pretty famous names that wanted to do a cameo on the show but, at least this time, it worked without being intrusive. (And let’s face it: Erin Gray still looks great!)
Dan: Maybe I had just missed it, but I didn’t know/realize that Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray were slated to cameo. That definitely kicked things off with a nice surprise.
Tony: I remembered seeing some names being bandied about, but I didn’t recall Wheaton and Gray being mentioned. I wasn’t surprised to see Wil (He’s probably as much of a fanboy as we are), but I liked seeing Erin Gray again (although I have to admit that I couldn’t place her until I saw her name in the end credits). It would have helped if they had been wearing “Crusher” and “Deering” nametags respectively.
Dan: So, let’s talk cast. I envy Jonah Ray for the position he’s in, and at the same time I really don’t, because there’s a lot riding on those yellow-jumpsuit-clad shoulders. So far, I think we’re in pretty good hands. After nearly two decades, it’s apparent that an MST3K host has to be funny, easy-going and a little bland — not in a dull, boring way, but in a way that lets the bots and the Mads be more broad and cartoon-like; he’s the calm center all the craziness spins around. So far, he does that really well. And when he’s given something challenging to sink his teeth into, he rises to it. I’m betting they went out of their way to add the ”Every Monster Has a Country” song to the premiere just to assure everyone that Jonah has the chops to do this. I am pretty well convinced, and it’s only the first episode.
Tony: Jonah Ray has some mighty big shoes to fill, having to follow Joel Hodgson and Michael J. Nelson, but I think he did quite well. There was a bit of criticism of his riffing performance at the Rifftrax MST Reunion show, but I’m sure that nerves had a lot to do with that. I think he seemed a bit awkward at first, but that improved as the episode went on, and I’m sure he gained confidence as he got more shows under his belt. And “Every Monster Has a Country” was one of my favorite bits in the entire episode and quite an accomplishment, considering it was all done in one camera shot. (And according to one of the Q&As, Ray said it only took them four takes to get it right. Impressive.)
Dan: As for the bots, well, Hampton Yount has completely won me over as Crow. He brings the best of Trace’s childlike quality without simply copying him. Baron Vaughn I’m a little lukewarm on still. For one thing, Kevin Murphy was, for me, as much the heart and soul of MST3K as Joel was, and getting used to anyone else as Tom Servo is a challenge. But for another, Tom’s character isn’t popping for me in the theater yet; his voice is too similar to Jonah’s, and you need a certain level of cartooniness to bring life to the bots. Hampton nails it; Baron doesn’t yet.
Tony: I knew having new performers for the bots was going to be a big adjustment for me. I wasn’t there for when Servo switched from J. Elvis Weinstein to Kevin Murphy at the beginning of Season 2, but I was there for when Crow went from being performed by Trace Beaulieu to Bill Corbett. But when that happened (as well as the other cast departures and additions), there was always some cast members that were constants. Going with a completely new cast like they did here was risky, but I think they pulled it off pretty well. I did notice that Crow’s puppeteering is somewhat sloppy. He must be a difficult character to manipulate, because I remember Corbett remarking that, during his first few episodes, Crow looked like he had a stroke. I also noticed that Crow sometimes didn’t move his mouth (or didn’t do it very much) while riffing in the theater, but again, those things will probably smooth out with time. I’m still having problems differentiating the different voices in the theater sequences. I don’t know if it’s because the voices are so similar, or if it’s because Hampton and Vaughn haven’t made the characters distinct enough yet for me.
Dan, I saw that you didn’t mention anything about Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester or Patton Oswalt as TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (a.k.a. Max). Probably because they didn’t really have a lot to do this episode. I think they did fine with what they had to work with, but I’m looking forward to learning more about them.
Dan: Yeah, Felicia and Patton didn’t have a lot of time to make an impression. I imperil my nerd cred here, but I really didn’t know Felicia Day from Adam going into this, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. She seems fine, she’s having fun with the part, and I’m sure there’ll be time for her to develop her own peculiar spin on being a Mad. She and Patton already seem to have the proper dominant/submissive dynamic that the Mads should have, so that part they got right.
Regarding the bots, they’re now actually being controlled by separate puppeteers, with Hampton and Baron just operating their mouths by remote control. I wonder if that contributes to the slight air of stasis in the theater; my sense is that on the old show, they used to bob around more when they talked, especially Servo, which helped to distinguish who was talking. Plus the characters are just smaller on that big wide screen. Joel has talked about how, in the old days, they had to make the silhouettes bigger than he would have wanted to. Now they’re pretty small, and slightly de-emphasize the whole visual element of the riffing process. Until Servo starts flying, of course, or Gypsy makes an unexplained appearance.
Tony: I didn’t realize the bots’ mouths were being operated by remote control. That might explain the awkwardness. There are times where it looks like Crow is talking out of the side of his beak. (This is especially noticeable during “Every Monster Has a Country”, which was exacerbated by the fact that his head was turned to his left but his eyes were still straight ahead.) But again, I figure these are things that will straighten out down the line.
What did you think of the riffing of the featured cinematic gem, “Reptilicus”?
Dan: Well, it’s a pretty bad movie, but not an outright terrible one, so it fits the MST sweet spot pretty well. There weren’t a lot of riffs for the first few minutes, which made me wonder if they were hearkening back to the early, less-dense Joel years, but then things picked up and at times there was actually too much riffing. Sometimes I didn’t have time to laugh or even take in a joke before the next one hit. This seemed most noticeable during the army scenes, when there was no dialogue to work around. Still, I guess if I’m complaining the show’s too funny, well, there are worse things, right? I always like to note a few of the better gags, and there were actually a lot. Early on, I liked Tom’s ”As an American, I’ve photographed wheelbarrows of skin all over the world!” Later, as Reptilicus is laying waste to Copenhagen, someone (Crow?) shouts, ”Protect the Lego factory at all costs!” And because it’s not MST3K without those little references you feel they put in just for you to get, I loved Servo flying up by the power station to recreate the Animals album cover, and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to the Church of the SubGenius.
What did you think of the quality and quantity of the riffage?
Tony: “Reptilicus” was a great fit for the show, with its wonderful rubber monster and random elements. (I was disappointed though that Peterson survived through the end of the movie.) I agree that in spots it seemed like there was too much riffing. It’s not that the riffs were bad. it’s just that a joke barely had a chance to breathe before another one came after it. Maybe that came from the fact that there are so many writers, each wanting to put their take on things. There were also a few instances where the timing of the riffing seemed off, for example when the abundance of phones in one scene was mentioned a second or so before we saw them. Also, Servo’s flying and especially Gypsy’s drop down appearances don’t really work for me yet. It’s just gives me the impression of “look what we can do now”. I did like the riffs about the professor pretending to drive the freezer and the army guys about to charge Reptilicus eagerly shouting, “Come on! We’re young and full of blood!” I’m also happy that they’ve kept the humor at TV-PG level (at least so far). It’s yet another way that makes it seems like the old show.
Dan: Yeah, it definitely wouldn’t be MST3K if they went blue. I was surprised the first time I heard an f-bomb at a Cinematic Titanic show — and from Joel, no less! (To be fair, he did mess up a line, so it was spontaneous.)
I wanted to throw out a few random observations that didn’t really seem to fit with the above:
– What do you think of the commercial bumps that aren’t quite commercials? Without having seen more episodes yet, it seems like something that’s neither sufficiently funny nor sufficiently irksome to get bothered about. It’s more that it’s a strange thing to find yourself watching in a show designed to be streamed.
Tony: They have expanded out the opening song from what we’re used to (although it does get consolidated a bit after that first episode). I wonder if they’ll intersperse clips from the show in it as they go along.
– I agree that the new door sequence is awesome, and it actually kind of makes sense as it looks like it’s going through different rooms in the ship instead of the random (but still awesome) door sequences we’re used to.
– I’ve seen a few episodes now, and I’m starting to get used to Servo’s occasional flying. However, Gypsy’s theater drop-ins still seem pointless to me.
– I wonder if the commercial bumpers are there to make it easier for the show to eventually go into syndication. Either that or it just makes a nice stopping place to grab a snack or run to the bathroom. It does give us a chance to hear the Skeleton Crew play some of MST3K’s greatest hits though.
– Another point about the riffing. I think there was concern that the riffs would be targeted more for millennials, but I can tell you that thankfully that’s not the case. I also appreciated that they even have callbacks from the original show for us diehards.
The important thing for a MSTie like me is that this really does feel like a successor to the original Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I’ve had a few different cars through the years, but one constant has been my license plate frame reading “I’d rather be watching MST3K” that my wife gave me 20 years ago.) It makes me proud to have been a Kickstarter backer!
Dan: On a similar note, years ago I developed the habit of storing my music and movie files on an external hard drive. I’ve owned at least half a dozen over the last couple decades, always with the same name: Rocket #9.
The thing that makes MST3K my all-time favorite TV show is that, while there are lots of shows I like, MST is the only show that ever felt like it was made specifically with me in mind. Now, I feel it’s been re-made specifically with me in mind, and it’s not (entirely) my imagination; as a fellow Kickstarter backer, I know how hard Joel Hodgson worked to strike a balance between refreshing the concept while preserving what the existing fanbase loves about it. Do I love absolutely everything about the new MST3K? No — but at the same time, I couldn’t be happier about it.
Check back next Friday for Popdose contributor Daniel Suddes’ take on what makes the perfect MST3K movie.