Like all great SF shows, Mystery Science Theatre 3000 (or MST3K, as all the cool kids call it) was truly ahead of its time. Little did its creators know that – when MST3K first aired on a small, low budget American TV station in 1989 – their central idea of people snarkily commenting on something would become the foundation on which almost the entirety of the Internet is based (the other foundations being pornography, cat pictures and a tiny smidgeon of being able to retrieve genuinely useful information.)
The show’s set-up is a simple one. In the future, mad scientists (AKA ‘The Mads’) kidnap a poor schlub and spirit him to the ‘Satellite of Love’ and force him to watch terrible movies in the hopes of breaking his mind. Our beleaguered film-watcher builds robots to help him view the torrent of on-screen cheesiness and they find the only way to stay sane is to make as many sarcastic comments as possible. While the film viewing is always the main focus of the programme, there is always time for a few sketches and vignettes to keep everything ticking along.
Running over 10 seasons, the show took in two leads (Joel Hodgson and Mike Hodgson), three different US TV channels and a myriad of really, really bad B-Movies, including such delights Zombie Nightmare, The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies and Manos: Hands of Fate. They even managed to fit in an actual movie (with the boys and robots focusing on This Island Earth).
Throughout all this, the show picked up a massive cult following. With some gloriously low-budget aesthetics, fine comedic performances (from both humans and robots) and a constantly witty script, the show was a celebration of sci-fi.
But like all good things, it came to an end, leaving many good memories and ton of new ideas (including the likes of Rifftrax and Cinematic Titanic) in its wake.
But it has now been resurrected – not thanks to the old sci-fi staples of an alien bringing it back to life, or a scientist managing to revive it from the pieces of other programmes. Instead, the mythical beast known as Kickstarter brought the show back to life, with almost 6 million dollars being pledged for Season 11, making it the most funded TV and Film project in Kickstarter history. Now, MST3K is back, this time on Netflix. And while on the surface, there seems to be lots of new things, it seems that little has changed at all.
In the first episode of the new season, Jonah Heston (comedian Jonah Ray, who is clearly loving being in the role) is a whizkid pilot for the Gizmonic Institute who finds himself kidnapped and placed aboard the Satellite of Love, thanks to the machinations of Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and TV’s Son of TV’s Max (Patton Oswalt), both descendants of the original ‘Mads’. With Crow T. Robot and Servo by his side, Jonah must watch Reptilicus, your everyday English language reworking of your typical Danish monster movie.
The set-up is done with remarkable narrative economy, telling you all you need to know about the premise and new characters within 5 minutes. There’s no “this is a reboot, so we need to spend the entire first episode explain the concept” here. Of course, this is partly due to the fact that many fans will know what to expect. But even newcomers will find everything simple and easy to follow and settle into the world of MST3K quite comfortably.
The main attraction is the film itself and opener Reptilicus is certainly a winner in the ridiculousness stakes. Like a cross between Godzilla and an advert from the Copenhagen Tourist Board, there is plenty for our protagonists to make fun of, including some atrocious acting, diabolical special effects and a wafer thin story line. The comments directed at the film are witty, silly (any show where, in context, the line “I’m driving the fridge!” gets a laugh is a winner) and made with much gusto. Yet, as has always been the way of MST3K, it never descends into being mean-spirited. While they poke fun at the movie, there’s an underlying sense of joy. Outside of the film, there are some inspired skits, including Jonah’s rap about the history of monsters originating from different countries. It’s both silly yet totally endearing, with a genuine sense of enjoyment about everything.
Indeed, MST3K is something of paean to science fiction and pop culture as a whole. Eschewing fancy special-effects for jerky model shots and featuring cameos from Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Erin Gray (Wilma from the 80s TV show Buck Rogers in The 25th Century), the show celebrates the past of the genre in all its forms.
Later episodes manage to deliver on the promise of this first outing. There is a spot-on choice of movies, ranging from some epically bad sci-fi in the form of Starcrash (a Star Wars cash-in starring David Hasselhoff) to the comically woeful disaster movie Avalanche, starring Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow. The cast certainly seem comfortable in their roles as the series goes on, while there’s also a further enjoyable set of celebrity cameos (watch out for Mark Hamill, Neil Patrick Harris and Jerry Seinfeld), as well as a number of returning players from the show’s past.
Fans of the show will certainly feel happy with this continuation, while newbies will wonder where it’s been all their lives. Now let’s sit down, start watching and let those sarcastic comments fly.
All new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 premiere on Netflix on Friday 14th April. A collection of old episodes are already available to stream.