There’s something genuinely sad about the end credits theme for Mystery Science Theater 3000. For such a goofball comedy show that begins with insisting you just relax, the horns playing at the end come off as closing the door on what a great time you just had. As bad as whatever movie you watched was, you just sat through an entire adventure and had some laughs with some puppets and a regular dude and now it’s time to move on and face reality.
It especially hit hard in 1999 when Mystery Science Theater 3000 aired its final episode…and then a couple of months later when they aired another final episode. Even though I’ll probably never get around to seeing every single episode of the show, the finality of it all got to me. This series was finally over.
But like a mush-mouthed Vietnam vet once proclaimed, “Nothing is over!” MST3K was finished, but the people who made it spread out to keep the riff genre alive between RiffTrax, Cinematic Titanic, The Mads, and The Film Crew. While some of these flourished, there was still the awkward feeling that they weren’t moving forward. We were still dealing with the same figures from the ’80s and ’90s and there didn’t seem to be a good enough reason to seek out new blood. RiffTrax had its RiffTrax Presents banner featuring people who aren’t Mike, Bill, and Kevin, but there was nothing especially roping fans into getting into a new generation of riffers.
Then came the highly-successful Kickstarter to bring back MST3K with a new cast, including new jumpsuit-wearing host Jonah Ray. The series is revived and will be hitting Netflix on April 14, giving us thirteen regular episodes and a Christmas special. Many of the backers got to check out the first episode days early and I’m one of them.
We’d finally get the answer to the question every MSTies had been wondering. Was Jonah Ray going to be the Gary Cherone to MST3K’s Van Halen (that means bad) or was he going to be the Jaime Reyes to their Blue Beetle (that means good)?
Sit back and relax. I think he’s got this.
MST3K Season 11 tries to hit a sweet spot where it looks like a shiny, new coat of paint, but not too new. It reminds me of Strong Bad’s computers, which would occasionally get upgraded into better models while looking comparatively low rent to what we’re used to. So we’re left with a comparably extravagant atmosphere that still manages to retain the cheap charm of the original.
One challenge with this first episode is having to set it up. The early Joel episodes cut to the chase and let the intro say it all while any meaningful changes throughout the years were still attached to familiarity. Mike replacing Joel was essentially done via two episodes and while the exposition in the first Sci-Fi Channel episode took a while, we still had the same core protagonists to latch onto. Understandably, the opening minutes of the first season 11 episode are necessary to shake off the years of radio silence and dealing with the complete cast overhaul.
But then you get to the new theme song and everything feels right. Despite being on Netflix and not having to deal with TV limitations, the structure remains the same as the other ten seasons, complete with commercial break bumpers. Expect to see movies getting cut down to fit the show’s 90 minute format.
Once we’re past the opening theme, the show starts to feel more familiar. Since Joel Hodgson spearheaded this revival, it makes sense that it feels a little more like his era than Mike’s. Jonah himself skews more towards Joel’s geeky innocence, though with Mike’s brotherly relationship with the bots.
Crow’s new voice actor Hampton Yount is quick to feel at home and sounds enough like the Crows that came before him. If anything, he steps into the shoes better than Bill Corbett’s very first outing. As for Baron Vaughn, he gets the smarmy intellectual personality of Tom Servo down, but considering Kevin Murphy was Tom Servo for nine seasons, his performance will take the most getting used to. There are other changes in store for these bots and Gypsy, too. Our villains are Felicia Day as Kinga Forrester and Patton Oswalt as Max, the next generation of TV’s Frank. There’s not enough of them to judge in this episode, though Max gets to liven up the commercial bumpers just a bit.
The movie they target in this first episode is a great choice. It’s very watchable, but still plenty bad, has some laughable special effects, and at least one questionable character. Thankfully, our new trio is able to give it what for and it certainly won me over.
There are a lot of great laughs to be had, including a certain MST3K recurring punchline from the old days. The biggest criticism is that while the movie does have a lot to poke at, our snarky trio doesn’t always know when to hold back. Especially during the climax, it feels like someone has a joke to say at every single cut and camera angle. Jokes are more like machine gun bullets instead of shotgun blasts and some don’t get a chance to breathe or land correctly.
Then there are the host segments. I’m not going to spoil what goes on, but I will say that one of them starts off seeming like it’s going to be the most cringe-worthy thing, only to join the pantheon of memorable MST3K musical numbers. It’s such a fun bit and I’ve had to go back and listen to it several times over.
But also in the end credits is the usual ending theme, only now spruced up. No longer do I feel all down and out when it hits. Instead it feels more triumphant because not only are there thirteen more episodes to get through, but I have a good feeling there will be many more episodes beyond that.
Gavin Jasper is not the guy who’s been writing anti-Aztec stuff on the bathroom wall. Follow him on Twitter!