Glory be, they didn’t fuck it up. There was plenty of cause for concern about the Netflix revival of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the ‘90s cult fave (which first aired on Comedy Central, then the Sci-Fi Channel) about a guy and his two robots stuck on a satellite in space, watching bad movies at the whim of mad scientists: The crowd-funding was sketchy, the lack of announced participation by any of the original cast (save creator and original host Joel Hodgson) was troubling, and the notion that an all-new crew would be able to slide right in and just recreate the specific magic that was MST3K seemed, at best, dubious. And somehow, they’ve done just that.
Fair warning: It gets off to a very rocky start, with a prologue of bad expositional dialogue, poorly delivered by guest stars Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray. We’re introduced to new “experiment subject” Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), a Gizmonic Institute employee who makes the mistake of answering a distress call from “Moon Base 13” – actually a fishing expedition by “third generation super-villian” Kinga Clayton Forrester (Felicia Day) and her henchman Max, a.k.a. “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” (Patton Oswalt), to find a new schmuck to strand on the Satellite of Love. Alongside robot friends Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn) and Crow T. Robot (Hampton Yount), they’re subjected to the worst movies ever made. They try to keep their sanity by riffing on their badness, and there you have a show.
And, frankly, an empire. Though the original series ended its television run in 1999, the base element of wisecracking through bad movies has continued via DVD sales, downloads and streams, and in several spin-offs for the parties involved: Rifftrax, Cinematic Titanic, The Film Crew, The Mads. The fact that the show (and the people who made it) had never really gone away was part of this fan’s mild resistance to the revival, so credit where due: there were little touches of MST3k that were missed. Thus, as they roll out the delightfully junky model work, scroll through a new doorway sequence, shout out “WE’VE GOT MOVIE SIGN,” and give us the iconic theater silhouettes, the out-of-context end credit “stingers,” sketches with characters from the films’ commercial bumpers (in spite of this season running on a platform where there are no commercials), and even the return of the Joel-era Invention Exchange — well, I’ll admit. I got a little verklempt.
Yet it’s not an iteration that lives solely in its own past. The genius of Mystery Science Theater 3000, the specific element that the revival miraculously gets right right out of the gate, is the show’s many tricky balances: Between lowbrow and highbrow culture, smart and dumb gags, contemporary and historical references, arcane insularity and popular ubiquity. Those balances have sometimes proven elusive to the spin-offs and follow-ups (Rifftrax, though often delightful, can lean on broad swipes against easy targets). The new MST3K achieves that balance, and throws in another one besides: balancing nostalgia for the old show with innovations of the new.
So there are callbacks to classic episodes (“I’m squishy,” “Rowsdower!” “It stinks!” “They tampered in God’s domain,” etc.), and cameos from Pearl and Bobo and Brain Guy, and the kind of musical interludes and puzzling-out-the-plot host segments we’ve come to expect. But there are new touches: a pre-opening theme scene, Oswalt’s very funny DJ-style bumper voice-overs, Gypsy popping into the theater, a “movie in the hole” to send the film down, a band (really!), and a Servo who can somehow fly at will in the theater. And there are contemporary references (Twitter, TED Talks, Tim & Eric, mansplaining, Lawrence O’Donnell, Skrillex, Mad Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, Iñárritu’s long takes, ComicCon’s Hall H panels, Christopher Nolan’s resistance to digital, and “cinematic universes” and reboots). There are references to the revival’s own origin, and even a cliffhanger and a binge-friendly running plotline or two.
But they’re also not pandering to a younger demo – their take on the 1978 disaster flick Avalanche, for example, includes references to Average White Band, Welcome Back Kotter, Good Times, Mia Farrow’s marriage to Andre Previn, and an extended, hilarious riff on the movie announcements from M*A*S*H. I’ve read interviews with the show’s original writing staff, who explain that the key to their success was the variety of reference frames in that room – they all had different areas of expertise to draw and joke from, and as a general rule, they never worried about every viewer getting every joke. All that mattered was that enough viewers got enough of the jokes. (They seem to have replicated that notion here; in addition to the regular staff or workaday comedy writers, the room included a rotation of big names, including original writers Paul Chaplin, Bill Corbett, and Mary Jo Pehl; Community’s Dan Harmon and Joel McHale; Patton’s very-funny-on-Twitter brother Matt Oswalt; and Ghostbusters villain Neil Casey.)
Creating that kind of a hit/miss ratio means working at a lightning-fast pace, and the new episodes move – the riffs come fast and furious, at least one tucked into every pause and transition, and, occasionally, a glorious traded-dialogue side jag that gets funnier the longer it goes (Jonah and the bots calling out the names of the toy ships as they fly pass in Starcrash, or “reading” negative Trip Advisor reviews of the resort at the end of Avalanche).
It helps that they’ve got the right movies. In one well-aimed host segment, they (thankfully) call out the winking likes of Sharknado, with Ray announcing, “It’s not ok to just combine an animal and a disaster and release it as a bad-on-purpose movie.” Movies that get the MST3K treatment are never bad-on-purpose, but they’re very bad, and this group is fertile: mostly forgotten cheapos from the 1960s through the 1980s, like the AIP monster flick Reptilicus and the mirthless holiday musical The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t (which Day dubs “a Christmas movie with all the fun of hiring a lawyer to deal with your landlord”). But there are also a couple of known entities, like the Hasselhoff-fronted Star Wars rip-off Starcrash (“Thank God for my completely original weapon, the Illumination Sword!”), and even a “real” movie or two, like the aforementioned Avalanche (Roger Corman, but still!) and the 1976 At the Earth’s Core, a well-mounted production with period costumes, extensive sets, and impressive effects that’s still ridiculous.
Television revivals really are a slippery business, tricky in the same way that movie sequels are, and the revivals of this particular era tend to fall into a pattern: years of braying and praying, celebratory announcements, months to years of deafening hype, followed by the inevitable disappointment of the show itself. Hew too close to the original and they’ll complain (The X-Files, With Bob and David); change the shape and they’ll complain about that (Arrested Development, Gilmore Girls). The highest compliment I can pay the new Mystery Science Theater 3000 is this: by about an hour into the first episode, I’d completely forgotten that I was watching a big-deal hyped-up revival. I was just watching the show again. And it was glorious.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return” is now streaming on Netflix.