Re: An MST3K Thing
Posted: Thu Apr 27, 2017 7:47 am
So, Mystery Science Theater 3000, season 11 on Netflix. If we judge this revival on how well it accomplishes what it's trying to do, I'd have to call it an unqualified success. It's funny and entirely in keeping with what the show has been in the past. But it's impossible not to qualify that, and write a million disclaimers. It's impossible to watch the new season and not think about what might have been.
The prototype for Mystery Science Theater 3000 first aired over Thanksgiving 1988, on local Minneapolis station KTMA23. It was created by local comedian Joel Hodgson, who had had a taste of stardom in Hollywood but went back home to have more creative control. Inspired by the 1972 film Silent Running, Joel at first came across as a very relaxed hippie up in space with his puppet robots, operated by Josh Weinstein and Trace Beaulieu. Josh was just a teenager at the time, but pushed Joel harder to make funny comments over the junky movies they watched. By 1990, when they went national on the Comedy Channel (later Comedy Central), the show was centered around making jokes over bad movies, and the clear personalities of the robots Tom Servo and Crow. The next year, Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo. With a deeper, self-assured voice, he became the iconic version of the character.
The show was a huge hit for Comedy Central. Unexpected too - with each episode running two hours (or ninety minutes without commercials), it was a cheap and ideal schedule-filler that didn't ask a lot of its audience. It could easily have been overlooked. But its clever and often obscure jokes never talked down to the audience. It made great comedy out of something we all do sometimes - talk back to the TV screen. Today, it might be overlooked in a sea of people reacting to things they're watching. Really, it was twenty-five years ahead of its time. MST3K won a rabid cult following who circulated the episodes on VHS tapes.
But Joel Hodgson decided to leave the show in 1993, more than partly over fighting with producer Jim Mallon, who wanted creative control over a possible MST3K movie. Headwriter Mike Nelson took over as host. The show was dropped by Comedy Central but picked up by the Sci-Fi channel from 1997-1999. While a lot of fans prefer Joel as host, the later episodes become increasingly dense with jokes, to the show's benefit. While the loss of Trace Beaulieu as Dr. Forrester hurt the show, Bill Corbett took over successfully as Crow, playing the character in a recognizably similar way to Trace Beaulieu, albeit with more actorly theatricality.
In all, MST3K lasted ten seasons. It became a landmark of TV comedy, and influenced much of the television and web comedy that came after. At worst you can say that each episode is thirty minutes of good comedy stretched over a ninety minute film. It's easygoing television, and easy to like despite its flaws. Today, anyone on Youtube making jokes over a video game, TV show or film owes a lot to MST3K. It was always shot on the cheap, in Minnesota, far away from Hollywood, and in the ramshackle style of the kid's cartoon show hosts it was inspired by. The KTMA episodes were basically shot live. The national episodes still had some of that feel about them. It wasn't slick and sitcommy. It was nerdy, and nerds loved it. You'd hear things referenced on MST3K that you wouldn't hear anywhere else. It was an internet sort of show, before the internet was even a national craze.
The MST3K trademark was owned by producer Jim Mallon, who was making pretty much all of the profit off of the show, at the detriment of anyone else involved. No one seems to like Jim Mallon these days, and that's a big part of why.
In the early 2000s, Mike Nelson was looking for ways to bring MST3K back to life. With Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett he filmed four episodes of "The Film Crew" for Rhino Video. Jim Mallon sued to block their release, as being too similar to MST3K. Rhino discontinued the series, which was released in 2007 by Shout! Factory, who had taken over MST3K video releases at that point.
By 2004 Mike Nelson was recording commentary tracks for public domain releases by Legend Films, such as Night of the Living Dead and Reefer Madness. He founded Rifftrax in 2006, providing commentary tracks for more popular and recently released movies. Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy then joined him, and Rifftrax essentially became a revival of MST3K, with the three featuring on most of the hundreds of tracks Rifftrax releases. They've also done live shows.
In 2007, Joel Hodgson brought the other MST3K castmembers together for Cinematic Titanic. At live shows and on DVD, Joel, Josh Weinstein, Mary Jo Pehl, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff riffed on fifteen older films. This was not as successful as Rifftrax, and harder to schedule. The project fizzled out after awhile.
So, that brings us to now. Joel Hodgson hadn't really been involved in the MST3K brand in a long time. After all, he left the show back in 1993. But with the help of Shout! Factory and after MST3K's success on DVD, he was able to get the rights to MST3K back from Jim Mallon, to revive the property.
Well, Jim Mallon had made some little Flash cartoons with different people voicing Tom Servo, Crow and Gypsy. That was so dumb I mention it only to mention that I shouldn't have bothered mentioning it.
Joel Hodgson then started a Kickstarter, titled "Bring Back MST3K!" It raised nearly six million dollars, allowing Joel and company to film fourteen new episodes.
A big success for the fans, and for the original MST3K crew? Well, yes and no.
The reason people donated to the Kickstarter was, they loved the original show. They loved Joel, Trace, Kevin, Mike, Bill, Frank, and the rest. A lot of fans called this the MST3K reunion. There was a separate MST3K reunion, a live show with the original cast. That got funded too.
Season 11 is a revival, but it's not a reunion. Halfway into the Kickstarter, a video of the new cast made that very clear. You could call this MST3K: The Next Generation. The new host is Jonah Ray, with Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount as a younger Tom and Crow. Quite famous television stars Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt are the new Mads (Kinga Forrester and Max, TV's Son of TV's Frank). Rebecca Hanson now voices Gypsy and plays Synthia, a clone of Pearl Forrester, due to her striking resemblance to Mary Jo Pehl.
This has injected the show with a lot of new blood. It's also a bit of a slap in the face to the old cast. Josh Weinstein, Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff were all pretty vocal on Twitter about how they'd been shut out of the proceedings.
Joel Hodgson has said that at first he was working with Trace, and assuming that the late Clayton Forrester would return, alongside Pearl and Kinga. He tried to join his new show concept with the old one. Eventually, he decided not to bother. Kinga makes a joke in one episode about how difficult it is to join this season with the previous one, and how they should have just rebooted.
Whatever his reasons, Joel didn't bring back Kevin and Trace (or Bill, or Josh) to voice their robot characters, and Mike and Frank don't appear either. Let's be plain - Trace Beaulieu and Kevin Murphy - and to a lesser extent Josh Weinstein and Bill Corbett - were most of the reason the show worked in the first place. Their comedic skills made Crow and Tom Servo iconic. Josh Weinstein's teenage enthusiasm making fun of Gerry Anderson's puppet films basically invented the show that MST3K became. To exclude them from this new season is unfortunate.
That being said, it is now almost thirty years since MST3K premiered. As Joel has acknowledged, comedy is something of a young man's game. The Cinematic Titanic episodes feature the original MST3K cast, but the combination of old movies and a relaxed atmosphere made them a bit tiring to sit through. Meanwhile the Rifftrax crew has been amazingly prolific, coming up with densely joke-packed MST3K-style commentaries for hundreds and hundreds of major films. But these guys are in their 50s and 60s now, and it shows. It feels a little odd when they make references to current internet culture, and references they find funny will fly over the heads of kids looking for a laugh now. Mike Nelson is a right-wing conservative, and that comes across too at times. (Although otherwise he's the rare example of a right-winger with an actual sense of humor.)
About twenty years after Star Trek, we got Star Trek: The Next Generation with a new cast. After thirty years, it's not crazy that Joel Hodgson would seek out new people, who might connect with younger viewers and sustain the show into the future.
Jonah Ray is 34 years old. He has a Tumblr, which greets you with the words "Hi, I'm Jonah. Go Fuck Yerself."
The Sci-Fi Channel era Mads actually do make an appearance in the new season, in one scene. There's Mary Jo Pehl, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett. It feels a bit perfunctory but it's there. And technically, in MST3K continuity, Trace and Frank and possibly Larry would be dead by now. Not that MST3K has ever taken its continuity very seriously. And Frank has come back as a ghost before. And there's nothing stopping Mike from coming back, storywise - apart from the apparent rivalry between Joel and the Rifftrax crew. Perhaps.
Whatever the motivation, what we seem to get with the MST3K revival is Joel Hodgson as director and auteur, putting his stamp as creator back on a property he left in 1993.
The results are dazzling and fascinating, by MST3K's ramshackle standards anyway. It's easy to forget just how much imagination Joel brought to the table originally, designing the robots and the look and feel of the show. All that imagination is very much in evidence here, using the digital tools available today to expand the world of MST3K beyond what we saw on the original show. The first few minutes of the first new episode feature tons of model effects and digital compositing all over the place. They all have an unconvincing, handmade look which recalls what we saw in the original show, but delivered in a larger scope. Walking crowds of people are represented by toys on a conveyor belt. Model ships on wires travel through space, which looks like a backdrop of lights. Gadgets and gizmos open and close. Many of the hallmarks of the Joel era are back - the Invention Exchange. Gizmonics Institute.
It all feels very organically MST3K. As if Joel came back to do the exact same show he always did, with new ideas that have been stewing in his head all this time. The new "door sequence" is especially impressive, with small models of rooms in the ship unfolding for every door. We see a workshop, kitchen, and bedrooms. Apart from The Movie we haven't really seen elsewhere on the Satellite of Love. These small models don't flesh out the world entirely but are certainly interesting to see. Meanwhile, Kinga and Max, the new Mads, are on Moon 13, on the Dark Side of the Moon, accompanied by the Skeleton Crew, her motorcycle-helmeted henchmen who are also a ska band, led by Har Mar Superstar and Charlie Erickson, who composed the MST3K theme back in 1988. They play songs from MST3K's past, and star in commercial break bumpers, even though Netflix has no commercials. This all has a nice feel about it.
Downsides: The handheld camerawork on the Mads is distracting. Even more distracting? An overlay of pink bubbles which covers any edit in Day and Oswalt's scenes. Bad idea.
Joel himself shows up as a helmeted character called Ardy, doing a cameo in every episode without actually showing his face. He also turns up elsewhere, but this in particular is very "Space Ghost Coast to Coast," and there's a lot of worldbuilding going on in the show's look, even though the show doesn't do a great job of actually telling a narrative story. Then again, it never did.
At first we meet two employees of Gizmonics Institute played by sci fi convention stalwarts Will Wheaton and Erin Gray. Both find new host Jonah Ray to be super cool, apparently. It's a waste of a scene, and the storytelling isn't coherent enough in this first episode to really introduce us to Jonah as a character, or explain anything about what's become of Crow and Servo.
In terms of puppeteering, though, all three bots have been upgraded. Gypsy now comes down from overhead, and pops up in the theater once in awhile as a distracting gimmick. Servo has longer arms which actually work at times, and can fly around to interact with the screen, also a distracting gimmick. Crow has bigger hands and thicker arms and can use them. In the theater, at times, he stands up as a full body puppeteered puppet. It's all very ambitious by MST3K standards. The new Cambot is a disappointment - it just looks like a stage light.
As far as production value goes, it's all very slick and nice. Visually there are a lot of ideas here and they're all pretty good. The Satellite of Love bridge set is no longer decorated with a complicated-looking array of old toys. It has a specific design, simpler and more streamlined, and it works pretty well.
Really, it's surprising how good this all is. Even though Joel Hodgson created this property, his work afterward has been much more experimental and esoteric and there was no reason to think this revival would work without the original crew.
It does work, though. As far as the meat of the show goes - taking bad old movies and telling jokes over them - this is MST3K exactly the way it always was, and it works.
The jokes come at a very fast pace. Too fast. There are too many jokes crammed into too small a space, and in the first episode, Reptilicus, they don't land the way they should. Half the same amount of jokes would have a bigger impact. It no longer feels like a guy and two puppets watching a movie in real time. Jokes are attempted at the exact moment something appears onscreen. It's too early, too fast and without the right rhythm. They need to see something onscreen and react to it. Instead too much is attempted. Three weak jokes fail in a space where one decent one would have landed. Reptilicus has its moments but is something of a chore to get through.
This all gets better in episode 2, Cry Wilderness. This episode convinced me that this revival could really be funny. Maybe it's the film chosen, but the writing here reminds me of a Sci-Fi era episode, and can really stand with the show's best.
I also enjoyed episode 3, The Time Travelers. There's really no doubt that this is the same show, and that this is MST3K done right.
Except for the voices.
The show now stars three guys in their thirties, who all kind of sound the same. The voices and characterizations aren't as clear and differentiated as they were when Kevin and Trace and Bill played the bots. Not even close.
Hampton Yount at least attempts to sound like Crow, having some of the same snarky tone. It's a very weak impersonation though, without much force behind it.
Baron Vaughn has some of the suaveness of Tom Servo, and like Yount he clearly knows the show and knows the character he's playing. But otherwise he sounds nothing like Kevin Murphy. Notably, Vaughn's voice is much higher pitched. It makes him come across as much more of a lightweight, as a performer, especially by comparison.
They are funny guys, which is more or less all that matters. They can deliver a joke, during the movie riffing segments, which will have you laughing. They know what they're doing, basically. But they come across more like "guys who might do a podcast in 2017" than these iconic characters. They're up and comers who are funny on Twitter and onstage -- and who have more of a resume than the original cast had at the time.
Oddly enough, an apt comparison is the JJ Abrams Star Trek reboot. William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy and George Takei (and so on) all had practiced, resonant actorly voices, which sound old-fashioned now. Their replacements in the reboot films are well known, popular, in demand actors - whose voices have none of the same resonance.
Then there's Jonah Ray. In the first four episodes, at least, we don't get much of a feel for who this guy is supposed to be. He's not much of an actor, doesn't show too much personality, and seems a little ill at ease. It doesn't help that the first episode skips ahead to where he's already familiar with the robots, the show and everything else. I suppose it saves time. The main impression we get of Jonah is that he's not bothered by being stuck up in space, and just goes about his business. Early on we get "Every Country Has a Monster," a song sequence which actually sounds really good, a bit like Cee Lo Green's "Fuck You." That could stand with anything MST3K ever did. As a host, Jonah doesn't screw anything up but doesn't distinguish himself either.
Similarly, considering that they star two famous TV actors, the new Mad segments are even more ramshackle and awkward than the old ones. Felicia Day is a likeable actress, remembered for her work with Joss Whedon. But "evil mad scientist" wouldn't be my first thought for a part she might play. (Although there are fans who wish that "Dr. Horrible" would have ended that way.) Her attempts at evil come off as forced especially early on, and it's a waste of a good, likeable actress to give her a part she sort of struggles at. Patton Oswalt has a better time of it as second banana Max (TV's Son of TV's Frank). He's an old pro and it shows.
We know from interviews that the shooting was rushed to the point of madness. They did all the episodes at once, at great speed. I'm only partway into the season but it looks like they found their footing gradually, noticeably so. They were figuring out how to perform these characters. It bodes well for future seasons.
It does feel rushed. The theater sequences look great in HD, but the actual puppeteering, if you look closely, was mimed to the audio and often doesn't match. Sometimes the audio was moved back or forward but the puppets are out of sync. Sometimes the puppeteering barely hits the mouth movements. But you also get ambitious stuff like Crow flying or doing things with his hands, and Crow standing up and walking. Or everyone changing clothes in the theater. There's ambitious work going on here, but the strain of shooting a movie's worth of theater segments in one go shows, more than it used to. Sometimes they stumble over lines - odd considering the audio was done in a booth. But it is a lot of material to get through.
And the host segments stumble over lines at times too, of course. That's always been a bit true with MST3K. The segments are supposed to be shot in one take without cuts. The performances, in the old show, were often not as assured and confident as they should have been.
The same is true here, but more due to the rushed schedule. There are cuts from take to take in the Mads sequences. Covered with bubbles. It's awkward, and they certainly could have come up with something else to cover it with, like graphics to cover what they're talking about.
Comparing the new show with the old really drives the point home - the show was always a bit ramshackle and awkward, with performances that weren't quite there. At its best it was gold, and Trace and Kevin in particular held the show together like glue. Their absence here is felt. But let's not pretend like MST3K was a perfect show to begin with. They were putting out 90 minutes a week on a low budget and they did the best they could. I like Frank Conniff but he doesn't come off as a slick, professional actor. And Josh never figured out what voice to do as Servo or Larry. I like Mary Jo Pehl but she was never convincing as Pearl. She wasn't a proper replacement for Trace as Clayton Forrester - and not as funny a character.
Expectations were high for this revival of MST3K but the old show, itself, set the bar pretty low in some ways. Kinga and Max are not quite what I wanted but their segments are better than Pearl's, I think. And the show itself, in season 11, is certainly better than it was in Season 1, or the KTMA episodes of course. So that puts us in the territory where we can compare season 11 episodes with episodes from any other season, and they hold up okay by comparison. It's worthy of the name and how it actually fares is opinion. Is it as good as the Sci Fi era? The Joel era? The early Mike era? You decide. At times, certainly it is.
It's sad that the original cast got left out here but the show also needed new blood after almost thirty years. The new cast are, at least, funny. Their voices don't grab you the way Trace, Kevin and Bill's did. At first they're hard to tell apart at all. But they are funny.
The writing's funny too, even if there's too much of it. There's a sort of generation gap thing going on, where the new crew reference current internet culture but also a lot of older 20th century culture. You can feel the age of the various writers. Nothing wrong with that. It's expected at this point, and Rifftrax does the same thing.
What I have heard from people is that even compared to Rifftrax, this MST3K revival feels like the real thing. It feels like MST3K is finally back.
The new blood shows in the writing staff. There's a full staff of new writers, including some famous names here and there.
And then there's Joel Hodgson, directing and overseeing things. It's a new crew, but it's also Joel making the exact same show he was making back in 1990 and thereabouts, in more or less the same way.
Well, sort of. They don't keep the sets standing. They shoot in Los Angeles, they shoot them all in a row, and then they're done.
This has, I'm certain, made it hard for Joel and company to judge exactly what is and isn't working and what they've done here.
Time to reflect on what has and hasn't worked would do this revival a world of good.
What I can say is, this is MST3K. It's easy to feel disappointed at what could have been - a revival with the original cast, or other people involved. But it's also clear that Joel hired a new cast that he admires. And there's a lot of talent here. MST3K was never a perfect production, and it's easy to criticize, but it's also easy to see that this is the exact same show, more or less.
It is Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's still funny, and still provides a great way to experience bad old movies in an entertaining way. Even the characters are more or less the same as they always were. Crow has his bad attitude, Servo his self-confidence. Jonah is a regular guy not too bothered by being stuck up in space. Kinga and Max, of course, stand in for Dr. Forrester and Frank. They still "push the button."
So this is Joel Hodgson, back putting his stamp on the iconic show he created. You can call that ego, that maybe pushes others out of the picture, but it's also exactly where he should be. And yeah, the show is still good, if you get over what's different.
By episode 2, I was sold. At times it's as good as MST3K has ever been. And that deserves a look. We have movie sign.