Note: This review contains mild spoilers for the first seven episodes of MST3K: The Return.
Following a successful Kickstarter campaign and an outpouring of fan support from around the internet, 1990s cult classic Mystery Science Theater 3000 just premiered 14 new episodes on Netflix. In case you’re not familiar with the original show—which was much adored in geek circles during its original decade-long run—the basic plot is as follows: a guy is captured by mad scientists, trapped on a spaceship, and, along with two sarcastic robots, is forced to watch terrible movies as an experiment. (Even if you haven’t seen the show, you have probably seen the iconic MST3K theater silhouettes somewhere.)
The reboot features an all-new cast, including comedian and Nerdist podcast co-host Jonah Ray, comedic actress and gamer Felicia Day, and comedians Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn as sarcastic robots Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo.
The first new episode, Reptilicus—a Danish monster movie about a gigantic dragon/snake creature that threatens to topple Copenhagen—is planted firmly in the “good, but not great” category of MST3K episodes that aren’t quite classics but are still fairly solid. There are some memorable jokes despite the slow pace of this installment; upon seeing a group of scientists climb a wobbly metal staircase to view a specimen, Ray quips, “Anyone who’s disabled, just…stay down there and we’ll tell you about it later.”
It’s not until the second episode, which finds Jonah and the bots riffing the extremely strange, overwrought, and very 1980s kids’ adventure movie Cry Wilderness that the riffs kick into high gear and set the tone for the rest of the season; one secondary character’s hair inspires the rejoinder, “I’m in an elite branch of the Special Forces; they call us The Bowl Cuts.” The kid-and-Bigfoot-against-the-world plot of Cry Wilderness, combined with the film’s cheap costumes (when Patton Oswalt’s Max mentions the film’s use of “half of a Bigfoot costume,” it’s funny because it is, unfortunately, very true), facile script, and subpar special effects make it perfect MST3K fodder.
Later episodes include the bizarre disaster movie/romance flick hybrid Avalanche (worth watching for a sight gag involving Crow and Servo manning RC helicopters that pays off in an unexpected, hilarious way), the cheese-fest Beast of Hollow Mountain (which features so many 1960s-era Mexican stereotypes that it’s pointless for me to pick out one example), and the early David Hasselhoff space caper Starcrash (heavy on the gendered objectification, light on action). Most of the new episodes pay effective homage to the old MST3K, while adding enough new features (and callbacks to classic episodes) to keep the interest of longtime fans. The updated to/from theater countdown sequence– which shows some of the interiors of the Satellite of Love–is particularly inspired.
Not all aspects of The Return work so well, however. One thing I would have liked to see stay in MST3K’s past is the Invention Exchange, which often felt—and still feels—like an indulgent exercise in prop comedy. This segment is sometimes good for a chuckle (Dr. Crow’s Edible Silica Packets in episode three was, at least), but as an old-school MST3K fan, I would definitely prefer some bot-created mischief or character development to Invention Exchanges every episode.
Although the casting of The Return is effective for the most part—Jonah Ray is an affable lead, and Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt make the most of their villain roles—Crow and Tom Servo’s new voices suffer from one huge issue in that they sound too similar, so much so that it can be difficult to tell who is saying what during the theater segments. While the relative similarities of voice actors Baron Vaughn (Servo) and Hampton Yount’s (Crow) inflection and tone will probably not inspire a repeat of the I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE incident, it may be frustrating for longtime fans, particularly since there has not been enough character development of Crow and Servo to really distinguish them.
In a time of political unrest and uncertainty, some of us need entertainment that is both escapist and that, however subtly, encourages us to “talk back” to the media—and especially to media that regularly underestimates and insults its viewers’ intelligence. MST3K: The Return is a solid reboot of a beloved franchise; should Netflix decide to renew it for another season, the new series will hopefully make the jump from great to outstanding.
Photo credit: Shout!