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Mystery Science Theater 3000 Lives!

Almost twenty years after the last new episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired (“Danger, Diabolik!” On August 8, 1999, though true MYSTies know that one additional episode, intended for earlier in the final season, actually aired later, in September 1999, because of an issue with the rights for that episode’s movie), an incredible FOURTEEN new episodes of the show launch on Netflix TODAY.

Our modern era of what TV critic Alan Sepinwall calls “peak TV” has witnessed some joyous resurrections of long-dead TV shows, from a fourth season of Arrested Development to last year’s six-episode run of new X-Files episodes, but the return of MST3K is particularly exciting.  And, in the end, far more creatively successful than either of those other two resurrections I just mentioned.

The brainchild of Joel Hodgson, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has always had a gloriously simple premise: a guy and his two robot friends riffing on old movies.  This was a groundbreaking idea for a television show when Mr. Hodgson and his team first launched the show thirty years ago.  For ten seasons (first on local KTMA in Minneapolis, then on Comedy Central and then on the Sci-Fi Channel), Joel and then replacement host Mike Nelson riffed on an array of endearingly goofy old movies.

In the years since the show went off the air, several of the key creative players have been involved in efforts to continue the idea behind the show in different ways.  Creator Joel Hodgson, along with Trace Beaulieu (the original voice for Crow; he also played Dr. Forrester), Josh Elvis Weinstein (the original voice for Tom Servo), TV’s Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl (Pearl Forrester) formed Cinematic Titanic.  They traveled around the country, performing live shows riffing on old movies projected on the big screen.  I caught one terrific performance back in 2009.  Meanwhile, Mike Nelson, along with Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett (the lead players of MST3K during its later years), launched Rifftrax, which applied the MST3K idea to modern, well-known movies (rather than old, obscure ones), allowing folks to download audio tracks to play along with moves at home.  I have enjoyed many terrific Rifftrax over the years.  The players from both groups have continued to collaborate with one another, most notably Rifftrax’s recent MST3K reunion show.

But now, finally, the mothership has returned.  Joel Hodgson launched a Kickstarter campaign last year which resulted in an extraordinary success, eventually crowdfunding a whopping fourteen new episodes, and then landing a deal with Netflix to stream the new episodes.  All fourteen shows are now available on Netflix as of today, so you can go watch them right now!!

The new episodes were made available to Kickstarter backers a few days ago, and I have watched the premiere.  (After waiting so long for new episodes, I am not inclined to rush my way through them.  Plus, with each new episode clocking in at an hour and a half in length, this is a LOT of new content to take in!)

I was delighted how great the first new episode is!  In all the best ways, this new episode felt exactly like a classic MST3K episode.  It’s as if no time has passed.  The same basic structure has been maintained, and most importantly, the show remains very, very funny.  Not every single joke lands, but as always with MST3K, the jokes come so fast and furious that, if one doesn’t work, you know the are five more zingers following right behind.

While this first new episode has nailed the feel of classic MST3K, Joel Hodgson has wisely decided not to try to slavishly recreate the old show.  Most importantly, rather than hosting these new episodes himself, or bringing back Mike Nelson, he’s decided to bring in a new, younger host: Jonah Ray.  I was somewhat familiar with Mr. Ray from his work on the Nerdist Podcast, and he’s great here, with a vibe that combines the mellowness of Joel with the enthusiasm of Mike.  He comes close to stumbling over a few lines in this first episode, and there’s a moment when he knocks over a bunch of monster cut-outs that I doubt was intended, but it all fits into the show’s endearingly casual approach.  I suspect he will get even better with time.

Mr. Hodgson also decided to recast the voices of Crow and Tom Servo, bringing in Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn.  It took me a little bit of time to get used to the new voices, as I’d grown particularly attached to Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett, who voiced Crow and Servo during the Mike era.  Mr. Vaughn in particular brings a new spin to Servo.  But once I got into the episode I quickly adjusted to these new performers, and both men were very funny.

The new villains on the show are terrific: Felicia Day (Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog) plays Dr. Kinga Forrester, the daughter of the series’ original villain, Dr. Clayton Forrester, and Patton Oswalt plays TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (the former henchman).  Both talented actors are terrific and very, very funny.  They might be the best part of this revival, thus making it a shame that they’re only in this first episode for a few minutes.  I can’t wait to see more of these two in future episodes.

Other comments:

* The new theme song is great.  As expected, it’s a slight reworking of the classic theme song (which the show tweaked multiple times over the course of its original 10 seasons.)

* I had a big smile watching the gloriously hokey visual effects in the first few minutes, as we watch poor Jonah get trapped on Moonbase 13 (a nice nod to the “Deep 13” setting of previous episodes).  The “models on strings” look is exactly the feel the show has always has, even as these new effects are taken up a slight notch (such as the smooth way that footage of Jonah in the cockpit has been inserted into the model spaceship shots).

* All of the visuals, and the new sets and props, strike exactly that balance of maintaining the look and feel of classic MST3K while also updating things for a new era and HD TVs.  The new shot rushing through the doorways of the ship once “movie-sign” is declared is amazing, full with lots of little details about life onboard the Satellite of Love.

* One aspect of the structure of classic MST3K that I was surprised they included were commercial bumpers.  Watching the original show, I always thought it was a little silly that the show would waste time showing Joel/Mike and the Bots entering and leaving the movie theater several times over the course of each episode.  But I understood why this was done, both to hide edits made to the films being riffed and to allow time for the various skits which were a big part of each episode.  I entirely understand maintaining that structure for these new episodes.  But why the commercial bumpers in a Netflix show with no commercials?  Is this to prepare for a possible future airing of these episodes on a regular TV station some time in years to come?  Watching via streaming now, the bumpers felt like a waste of time.

* I enjoyed seeing Wil Wheaton in the opening minutes, as an employee of Gizmodo industries, though I was bummed he had such a tiny role.  I hope we see more of him in future episodes.

Bravo to Joel Hodgson for seeing this dream through to completion.  What a delight it is to have fourteen new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in the world.  Go watch one of them right now on Netflix, you won’t regret it.  I can’t wait to watch the remaining 13 episodes in this new season.

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