The new MST3K is excellent. Watch it.

I can’t give this a fair review. Mystery Science Theater was my childhood, something I’d watch on Comedy Central, especially during Thanksgiving or Christmas marathons. It was my college years before it went off of the Sci-Fi Network. It’s something I’ve watched and shared with friends all the time during and since graduate school. When the show was announced to return, with Dr. Horrible’s Felicia Day as the main villain, of course I gave money to the Kickstarter.

I’m so biased for MST3K that of course I’m recommending the first episode when it posts to Netflix this Friday. The reason I got to watch it early is because I chipped into the initial Kickstarter and got the advanced preview on Sunday.

So, rather than offer a review to persuade you to watch, I’m going to analyze what works, what doesn’t work, and what references are tossed into this episode just so I can brag about my knowledge in useless MST3K trivia. Yay!

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The Opening

I have my quibbles, such as how the theme song, opting this time for guitar and winds rather than synth-pop, is interrupted by the cold opening. Maybe that will change episode by episode, each iteration of the theme song having a different structure behind it. What is presented is quite good, having more of a Rocky Horror live-show vibe, this year’s lackeys the Skeleton Crew performing the song live. Day’s Kinga Forrester drums her fingers maniacally as she is wheeled around, while her assistants, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, played by Patton Oswalt, and the as yet unnamed lackey Synthia, played by Gypsy’s new actor Rebecca Hanson, spin and sing the “La La Las.” Jonah, overwhelmed by the spectacle, can’t react before he is shoved into a pneumatic pipe and set up into the Satellite of Love. After Jonah–or, rather, an action figure shaped like Jonah–is dropped from the pipe into the theater, the movie screen is projecting clips from this episode’s film, which is what was done in the movie theater in the opening to Cinematic Titanic, the follow-up riff series by MST3K creator Joel Hodgson.

And the opening is clever in using the Robot Roll Call to instead re-introduce the ShadowVision style, as the silhouettes of the Bots appear (minus Cam Bot, shown in a mirror held by Jonah’s silhouette), and their personalities: Gypsy gets a friendly wave from Jonah, while Servo almost crashes into Jonah, and Crow, now with working arms and legs, leaps onto Jonah for a piggy-back ride out of the theater–after years of Joel denying him the chance to get carried out like Servo.

I am disappointed by the lack of a rotating MST3K globe, however, as the frozen logo seems like something just done for quick marketing–which, as I’ll write below about the Mads, actually makes sense in the context of this universe.

It’s Just a Show…

On the one hand, there are details that seem to skip past backstory. If the Gizmonic Institute is still around (having disappeared in Season 5 when its copyright holder, Joel Hodgson, left the show), how did they move into acquiring space rocks for funding? When did Clayton Forrester have a kid? How did she make a version of the Satellite of Love that looks so much like the original–and why did she retain that name, when it was given by Joel to mock Clayton? When did Crow and Servo leave Mike and get stuck on the SOL again? Why did Gypsy leave her profitable company to be stuck commanding higher functions of the ship? How did Jonah change her voice when it’s already canon Gypsy had her earlier voice because her CPU was over-taxed with taking care of the ship? (Actually, that last one was kind of explained by Hodgson in an email to backers: advanced electronics means Gypsy does have a bit more ability now to multitask.)

On the other hand, the door sequence into and out of the theater does offer some information about how Jonah eats and breathes–and washes his yellow jumpsuit. Whereas earlier door sequences had random stuff in each room, this time the rooms are a garage (with a copy of Crow’s head–perhaps a reference to TV’s Frank spare head that was in the door sequence to the MST3K film), a bathroom, a laundry, and a bedroom–places a human inventor would actually use while stranded in space. Granted, I don’t know how comfortable that bed will be when Jonah’s body is crushed by the opening and closing doors. The show even offers some explanation why Jonah is so used to riffs and the Bots: there is a two-month time skip between the cold opening and the film.

The Man Shot Into Space

Jonah Ray is sufficient as the Man Shot Into Space. He’s not terrible, but he also has not yet floored me, which can speak to how well he is doing at not overshadowing the return of MST3K. On the Joel-Mike spectrum, he’s closer to Joel, sounding like a laid-back sort who is prone to invention, creativity, and competent. I have not been a fan of the Mike episodes, as the character was rather mean-spirited and dopey, his relationship with the Bots, his situation, and the films being far too acerbic to seem amusing during episodes. I guess that’s one reason I don’t enjoy RiffTrax: the humor comes across as wanting to tear everything down rather than find something funny in the content.

Jonah Heston’s introduction is a bit awkward, in part because of how much it sounds like Ray is mumbling through lines, his voice drowned out by the opening theme music. But the show does something brilliant with him as well. He is introduced as the Creator’s Pet: everyone sings his praises him for being both hyper-competent yet also a rebel, super-smart yet also a bit of a schlub, a walking contradiction. He’s described by other characters as covering all parts of the spectrum. I hate this phrase with all fibers of my being, given its sexist connotations, but it’s the word to use given what is happening: he’s a male Mary Sue. He’s the deconstruction of the character whom everyone calls perfect, ignoring his actual flaws, blandness, or Creator’s Pet status. And who introduces him as such? A Gizmonic employee, Drake, played by Next Generation’s Wesley Crusher, Wil Wheaton. The writers are in on the joke! That is hilarious!

The Bots

The show has improved the Bots’ body language, with Crow and Servo now having moving arms. This detail allows them to have more elaborate jokes, such as catching the monster’s ooze in a bucket or donning 3D glasses. The gimmick of Servo now hovering up and down in the theater has limited comedic effect so far, but after similar gags by those who could stand, like Joel and Mike, and the more inventive use of latitudinal movement by the crew at Cinematic Titanic, the potential is there for something hilarious.

I have some difficulty differentiating Jonah, Crow, and Servo’s voices, although that has more to do with the different voices they can manage in impersonations, in particular Baron Vaughn, who lends such a range to Servo that I never heard from J. Elvis Weinstein or Kevin Murphy. Hampton Yount offers a version of Crow whose voice is an excellent blend of Trace Beaulieu and Bill Corbett’s voices.

Gypsy is finally performed by a woman, Rebecca Hanson, and the limited time she has around the ship–and even in the theater!–sounds great. Jonah’s explanation for increasing her mobility makes me look forward to hearing more quips from her, especially given her lackluster last outing in the theater.

The Host Segments

Most are too short, likely a constraint for keeping the episode at 90 minutes, whereas episodes from earlier seasons, without commercials, were seven minutes longer. Nothing of course stops future episodes from having a few extra minutes, as Netflix has done with its Marvel Comics adaptations, but the loss is felt. In particular, the limited number of host segments means the focus is largely on Jonah and the Bots, with almost no attention on the Mads. While Max handles the commercial breaks, a la local television bumpers, the ones that started MST3K back on Minnesota broadcast television, Kinga is nowhere to be seen or heard. Given Day’s comedic chops, I hope that oversight is corrected in future episodes.

And as I’ll say about the set below, the acting can be a little stiff, much like the camera angles. While MST3K was largely written out in later seasons with few ad libs, the actors did respond to the technical glitches, such as joking when J. Elvis Weinstein as Servo sneezed in the middle of a scene, when Hodgson flubbed a line, or when a part of the Bots fell off. Here, if the production is too clean, a lot of those opportunities will be lost to mine humor out of errors.

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The Film

While the trailer hinted at some bawdier films that had me cringing, thinking a show that had letters from children would get too ribald upon moving to Netflix, the first episode’s film, Reptilius, is a goofy monster movie that lets the group riff something lending itself to obvious gags. This Danish film lacks the charm of the Godzilla and Gamera movies, although like them it allows the Man Shot Into Space to sing about various monsters–this time as a rap. And the plot is goofy and lacking in sense for comedic effect, while thankfully having an actual plot with a a beginning, middle, and end that it won’t overwhelm new viewers like Manos: The Hands of Fate. The film is ernest and actually trying, even when limited by awful animation for its monster’s attacks, so that it doesn’t provoke cynicism in the viewers or the riffers, as I feel when I try to sit through Nelson’s Rifftrax series.

The Riffs

I am curious how this episode compares in jokes per minute compared to earlier seasons. The episode starts slow but, after about 20 minutes, the jokes are faster and non-stop. Part of this may owe to initial production, expectations for how quick new viewers would adapt to this episode and this season, or having Jonah and the Bots shut up so that the viewers know the plot and aren’t too confused later.

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The Mads

The Mads unfortunately do not get much to do in this episode, limited to the beginning and end, with Max stepping in during commercial breaks to serve as announcer–and with a voice like Oswalt’s, he’s more than qualified to be the announcer. While time is limited, the two make the minutes count. Day’s singing in the theme song is excellent, as would be expected. She even gets to wear a Dr. Horrible outfit at the end of the episode! She and Oswalt give the performance one would expect: he’s the resentful toady, taping into Oswalt’s ability to play seething bitterness, and Day gets to put him in his place. I wish more was done to let Day go more over-the-top, although as a first episode, her character is not yet at the point of utter frustration as Clayton and Pearl were when contending with their lackeys and repeated failures to break the crew of the Satellite of Love.

What stand out visually and musically are the Skeleton Crew, Kinga’s lackeys. Their costume design like Power Rangers meets Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, with a bit of Mega Man tossed in: bicycle helmets with bones sticking out like antenna, plus armored undies. Even the black and white facepaint reminds me of Lord Death Man from the Japanese Batman manga–or another Lord Death. The bone motif ties them into the bone-shaped Satellite of Love, complete with Kinga having a bone through her hair to keep it up in a Betty Rubble bun. Having these Bone Men perform as the live band for the show’s opening and the commercial breaks is genius.

And that’s what is really fun about the Mads in this new iteration: they know they are putting on a television show. That self-awareness was apparent with previous iterations. After all, he was called TV’s Frank, and Clayton and Pearl did make references to low ratings and trying to keep the experiment funded by live broadcast. Here, Kinga is as much a producer as she is a supervillain–although, really, those can be the same thing. She sets up a television studio inside her evil lair, has Max doing commercial breaks with “Moon 13, The Moon,” as if he’s telling you the city and state of the location, and she has a live band with handheld camera operators following Jonah’s arrival to her evil lair. Even the letters from viewers that Jonah is reading now make a bit more sense. And that is why the MST3K logo doesn’t rotate: look around Kinga’s lair, or, rather, television studio, and it is full of the MST3K logo, even on her uniform, because she’s turned that orb into just a logo for profiting! She even has a TV light projecting onto the logo out in space! There is the potential for some self-referential humor about Shout Factory’s purchase of MST3K and trying to profit from it, similar to the gags against Rhino that Mike Nelson tried to add to his follow-up series, The Film Crew.

To summarize, all of this is done not as some complex satire of reality television, thank goodness, as I don’t need that cynicism tainting this show. Rather, it’s a dimension to the show that allows for some insider humor, such as when Max has to remain Kinga that Netflix doesn’t get ratings, per se.

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Gizmonic Institute

Gizmonic is also back, since its copyright holder Joel Hodgson is back in production on this show, and like the backstory to Kinga’s plans, they too look more fully realized. The city that was in the Season 1 to 5 bumpers now makes sense, with deliveries being made, people coming to and from work, and employees discussing Jonah’s space rock acquisitions and current graduate school research.

Gizmonic vs the Mads

The first episode also sets up a potential wrinkle that the other seasons didn’t, although I’m not expecting much in the way of continuity-heavy explication of that dynamic: this is the first time the Mads have not had a connection to Gizmonic. Whereas Clayton and Dr. Erhardt had to hide in the Gizmonic basement after they broke too many employee rules, the Mads this time are on their own. Before, Seasons 1 to 5 suggested something darker to Gizmonic, that they were hiding radioactive waste and hiring people like Clayton and Erhardt. This time, the show is presenting a more utopian view of Gizmonic: they fund research, their employees are innovators, they are creating new technology.

But there is something ominous when Wil Wheaton’s character at Gizmonic mentions they need these moon rocks Jonah is delivering to fund their operations. Who’s to say something won’t come in the future where Gizmonic has the financial difficulties Clayton and Pearl had with their operations? Is that where the show is headed? While the Mads are manipulating mass media, real funding for real science at Gizmonic is hampered? I’m likely over-reading all of this given our current climate, where a dumbass celebrity commands more attention for his stupidity, bigotry, and the fact he has his button over nuclear weapons, while intelligent, compassionate people are belittled and ignored. But it’s an odd dynamic this time between Gizmonic and the Mads that may help bridge episodes in this season that the Sci-Fi Channel episodes could not.

The Music

I want this music on a soundtrack, including the new opening, which is less synth-pop and takes more of a cue from Neil Norman & His Cosmic Orchestra’s rendition of the theme. The other music, which sounds like it done not only on a computer but with actual wind instruments and more female vocals, helps ground this otherworldly series in a sound that is more natural. The ending theme also gains more orchestral fanfare, if that is even possible. “Every Country Has a Monster” by comedy music duo Paul and Storm is also catchy, as the writers obviously did their research through the Wikipedia page on mythological monsters around the world–and having Paul and Storm, who have worked with Wil Wheaton and others in geek culture, lends some cultural cache to the show.

The Set and Props

The set looks a little too stiff, the camera stationery and not titling around to get all views. This iteration of Cambot may lack the coiled structure of Gypsy, which limits angles, and such a structure makes the host segments rather stiff. Whereas earlier seasons allowed us to see the Hex-Field Viewscreen or the windows out into the space, this time we’re just seeing Jonah and the Bots head-on, and it’s a little boring. Likely the production cannot move the camera so much or else disrupt the door sequence, or reveal the puppeteers and what is suspending Gypsy from the ceiling, so I would hope these limitations are fixed in future episodes.

The return of the Invention Exchange is appreciated, especially as the bubble fan looks to be an actually operational device. However, lacking such an invention from Kinga was a missed opportunity that I hope does not persist. Given all the tech around her in Moon Base 13, however, she’s probably been busy just getting everything set up.

More success are the use of models for Gizmonic and Moon Base 13, having a bit of Thunderbirds tossed in, a show frequently referenced in the original MST3K.

The Allusions, References, and Call Backs

Much like Joel Robinson taking his name from Swiss Family Robinson and Lost in Space, Jonah Heston takes his name from The Omega Man, Charleton Heston.

The “Liquid Television” that powers the cameras and Kinga’s studio may allude to the British and MTV animated series Liquid Television, or it may be a more subtle joke. Liquid is in streams. This is Netflix. Netflix is streaming video.

There is a reason TV’s Son of TV’s Frank has the real name of Max, and it’s not just so Kinga can mock him–and it’s not revealed until episode’s end. Clayton’s line “Push the button, Frank,” alludes to the 1965 film The Great Race, which uses the line “Push the button, Max”–which is what Kinga says at the end of this episode. The reference has become more obvious!

There are cultural that popped up from previous seasons: Minnesota, Smucker’s jelly, “I don’t know where to eat–it all looks so good,” “Diarrhea is like a storm raging inside of you.”

The Servo clones from the earlier series are back, this time made by Crow. Also back is the warning to turn off the lights at the start of the episode.

Like Joel’s first episode on the Comedy Channel, we’re introduced to Jonah playing drums.

As well, a few references are updated. Hip hop gains a bit more prominence without simply being as simplified as they were in the 1990s, thanks largely to hindsight, whether Jonah rapping about various nations’ own monsters and keiju or slipping in a reference to Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” There are some obligatory gags about Duck Dynasty and other trash culture that, I hope, will age as well as references the original show would use.

Plus, politics creeps in slightly, with an extended riff on the anti-vax, lizard people, chemtrails bullshit of jackasses like Alex Jones, and subtle references to militarism and a character who looks like Kissinger. Nothing is as caustic as what appeared later in Hodgson’s Cinematic Titanic riff series or the comedy of that show and MST3K’s Frank Conniff, which disappoints me slightly even as it probably attracts a wider audience that just wants to have something entertaining as a distraction from, or a source of hope against, the kind of fascism, bigotry, and stupidity situated in a post-election White House. Some humor grates me, such as Crow thinking the monster needs a “safe space”: it’s not as clever as what Samurai Jack did recently, but it’s largely innocuous. Coupled with jokes the film makes about lacking diversity in Denmark and lacking accessibility options in the film, plus the previously mentioned slight against Jones, and the show still seems to be largely on the right side of history. Having a female Mad and Gypsy portrayed by a woman also helps.

Otherwise, the show avoids spoken gags pulling from the earlier episodes: no Torgo, no “Watch out for snakes,” no “rock climbing,” no “deep hurting.” Again, the comedy is subtle, such as the pun on “Skeleton Crew,” or that their interstitial music are covers of songs from earlier seasons, such as “Wild Rebels” or “We’re Living in Deep 13.” Heck, Moon Base 13 is itself referencing Deep 13.

Credits

The credits are going to be long, not only because of the increased number of writers, budget, and complexity of Shout Factory and Netflix’s corporate structures, but also to give credit to the numerous Kickstarter backers. But this episode only gets up to the person’s who first name starts with “B,” so it’ll be awhile, if at all, that my name pops up. (Maybe in Episode 2 or 3?)

All 13 episodes of Netflix’s Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiere Friday, April 14.

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