When Mystery Science Theater 3000 returned for its eleventh season, they had big shoes to fill. While the series has evolved over the decades, prior change only happened in pieces. When Mike Nelson replaced Joel Hodgson as MST3K host, everything else remained the same. With the jump from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi Channel, it still just boiled down to losing Trace Beaulieu and having to cover for it. The eleventh season, on the other hand, was a total changeover. New host, new voices for the robots, new antagonists, new set, newer everything.
They did pretty damn well. The fourteen-episode season was well-received overall, even if it had some growing pains. The biggest issue was that the jokes were too rapid-fire and felt unnatural. Lines weren’t given time to breathe and things felt so overly scripted that you never got to hear the genuine laughter of the other riffers. Otherwise, the season had a lot to offer, including one of the all-time best episodes in Cry Wilderness.
Then comes the follow-up, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet. In order to get seasons out and done quicker, the count has gone from fourteen to a mere six. It’s not the first time we’ve had a six-episode season, as the seventh season had the same length, but even that was a double-edged sword as we got an incredibly solid season that was also the end of the Comedy Central run.
To make the quantity downgrade work, the gimmick is that the twelfth season is supposed to be binge-watched. Six episodes in one go, not only for the viewers (optional), but for Jonah and the bots (mandatory). There’s a continuity in there where our heroes feel a bit more tired and desperate in the opening segments, but thankfully it doesn’t show during the movies themselves.
While I’ll go in more depth a bit later, the movies are a good selection for the most part. They were able to pick six movies that have very little to do with each other. A very nice variety, all things considered.
All the regulars are back, from test subjects Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn), and Crow (Hampton Yount) to the mad scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max (Patton Oswalt). Rebecca Hanson returns as both Gypsy and Synthia, the latter of which gets written into being intelligent in order to make her more than just a one-dimensional gag. Also, new robots from season 11 – Growler and M. Waverly – return and are accepted as regular fixtures on the Satellite of Love. Heck, they even get added to Gypsy’s riff cameos at times.
There’s also a certain new character added who shouldn’t be a surprise for those who have watched the current live tour.
While the last season featured a bevy of special appearances from old characters and big names in entertainment, this one scales back. A lot. In fact, there’s only one notable appearance and while I won’t say who, I will say it’s someone I honestly didn’t see coming.
The drop of quantity isn’t just in the amount of episodes, but also in the format of the episodes themselves. For about the entire series, the structure has been pretty set in stone: not counting the host segment bookends, the movie would be broken up by three host segments with four commercial bumpers thrown in. Even in the eleventh season, where it’s on Netflix and doesn’t need to cut to commercial, they used this style. Now they’re going with something different.
Rather than show the entire movie due to the non-televised nature of it all, each episode is an hour and twenty minutes instead of an hour and a half. The unnecessary commercial bumpers are gone and the movies lose a host segment. In other words, the show starts, movie begins, a host segment happens, the movie continues, another host segment happens, the movie ends, and the show ends.
Of the host segments we do get, they mostly hit better than last season. What I find kind of funny is how they do a bit about how impossible it is to follow up on last season’s hit song “Every Country Has a Monster,” only a later episode has a brilliant song of its own that’s very much on that level.
The important thing is that they slowed down on the jokes. The opening minutes had me scared for a sec because they were just rapidly throwing out line after line, but that was only because it was a scene without dialogue, so what else can you do? After that, the trio’s timing is a lot more normalized and there are a few moments where the guys chuckle at each other. Just like old times.
So let’s talk about the movies. The titles are all shown in the trailer and the opening minutes of the first episode, so I don’t feel like I’m spoiling. Here’s just a look at what to expect from each experiment. Much like in season 11, all the movies are in color.
First up is Mac and Me, a rather infamous knockoff of ET. These days, this one is mostly well-known for Paul Rudd’s running gag on Conan O’Brien’s various talk shows, so it pains me to say that there’s no reference to Mr. Rudd in the episode. Even though ET featured some product placement with Reese’s Pieces, the people behind Mac and Me thought that they could go further and did even more aggressive product placement with Coca Cola and McDonald’s.
The first half isn’t all that special, but once McDonald’s is brought into the picture, things get completely batshit, including a ridiculous finale. They absolutely hit their potential with this one and I’d easily call it the highlight episode of the six.
Then we get the weakest movie in Atlantic Rim. This, the most recent movie MST3K has ever covered, is an Asylum flick and therefore is just a lazy and low-budget attempt to piggy back on whatever success Pacific Rim had going for it. It’s Pacific Rim as done by the studio behind Sharknado, only without any of the fun from either. Just unlikable characters (except the commander guy…he’s cool) killing time until they’re ready to eat up the CGI budget.
As RiffTrax Live has already taught us, Asylum movies don’t work well with riffing. There are still some good laughs, so it isn’t a total loss.
Our next stop is Lords of the Deep. This late-80s slog is about an underwater lab where a series of strange and mysterious disappearances and deaths start happening. All the while, our main character is a scientist studying a blobby organism that’s rapidly evolving into something more intelligent. There’s also a guy there who looks an awful lot like Ryan Styles. While a bit slow, it’s still watchable and at times completely trippy.
The Day Time Stopped is a nice, little surprise. How to describe this one…hm… Okay, so take Evil Dead but replace all the supernatural stuff with science fiction stuff. A lot of science fiction stuff. Then never explain anything. Ever. That’s this movie. An unfocused stretch of film where a shitload of stuff happens, but in the end, nothing really happens at all.
Killer Fish, despite its overly simplistic title, is the movie of the season that falls under the, “This isn’t actually that bad,” category. This Lee Majors vehicle is arguably watchable on its own, but leads to some inspired riffing as a MST3K target. As you can guess, it’s about a handful of people trying not to be eaten by a school of piranhas. Luckily, there’s enough fun plot in there about the aftermath of a jewel heist to keep things afloat.
Pun might be intended. I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Lastly, there’s Ator the Fighting Eagle. This one is a prequel to the MST3K classic Cave Dwellers and loses a little bit of steam due to RiffTrax having already covered it. It’s your usual ’80s barbarian movie fare, only memorable for two reasons: 1) Ator has an adorable pet bear cub tagging along and, 2) the relationship between Ator and the damsel in distress is…interesting to say the least.
It’s an overall good lineup, even if it does leave you wanting more. At least there’s something of a minor storyline going on through the season. Then again, don’t expect any answers on why Tom and Crow aren’t still living with Mike Nelson on Earth. Just relax on that one.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet hits Netflix on November 22.