A misconception about Mystery Science Theater 3000, the cult phenomena created by comedian Joel Hodgson in the late 1980s, was that it existed to make fun of movies. Hodgson envisioned the series as a way to hang out with the audience, to brave a world of unseen cinema without feeling daunted or alone. Joel Robinson (Hodgson) and his homemade androids, Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo (voiced initially by puppeteers and co-writers Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein and later by Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy), threw amiable, slightly stoned observations at bargain-basement sci-fi like Legend of Dinosaurs and Monster Birds and Time of the Apes.
Joel and the bots were stuck in space on the Satellite of Love, subjects of an endurance experiment orchestrated by Joel’s bosses—Doctors Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and Laurence Erhardt (Weinstein), and later TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff)—at what would be called Gizmonic Institute. Eventually the bosses would figure out which movie was bad enough to drive Joel mad, and this would somehow help Forrester take over the world. The catch was that Joel and company liked these films too much to have their psyches permanently altered by any of them. They made friends with the films, and they invited us to do the same. The series couldn’t have endured if its creators thought they were superior to the experience of watching “bad” films.
Hodgson may have given MST3K an HD makeover to suit its new home on Netflix, but this is very much the same series he cooked up in the backrooms of KTMA in the Twin Cities. The intent isn’t to make fun of the movies, but to have a good time with a modern audience watching movies they might not ordinarily seek out. The same people who binge-watch 13 Reasons Why might not ordinarily seek out South Korean monster movie Yongary: Monster from the Deep or bizarro Bigfoot opus Cry Wilderness (just as the first MiSTies would never have discovered outsider artists like Harold Warren or Coleman Francis without the show’s spotlight). Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return invites one and all to enjoy the oddest pockets of film history.
The riffing in the new MST3K (provided by new host Jonah Ray with Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount as Servo and Crow, and a writing staff that includes Rick & Morty’s Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland) is less about pointing out the film’s flaws and more about situating their silliness in a modern idiom. Without Beaulieu, Conniff, and Murphy penning jokes, the series has lost most of its material about TV, movies, and celebrity from the ’40s through the ’70s. They’ve been replaced with more current references,including everything from material about Neil Degrasse Tyson’s habit of ruining movies on Twitter to Saved By the Bell to a regrettable “Uptown Funk” sing-along.
The chief draw of MST3K: The Return, however, is the raw exuberance Jonah and the bots express for every new image and line of dialogue. Yount, Vaughn, and Ray breathlessly comment on everything in the frame at a breakneck pace that would give whiplash to the Satellite of Love crew of the late ’80s. They turn edits, zooms, and reveals into their own form of sight gag, teeing up the movie to complete jokes for them. They’re literally in conversation with the mechanics of the films, alerting viewers to grammar and technique in a way that not even the sharpest Mike Nelson episodes would.
The jokes are less funny because of this hyperawareness, but that was never the point of MST3K, at least not as Hodgson originally conceived the series. The point was to use movies, no matter how dire they seem, as a way to fight loneliness, which explains why a healthy and lasting convention culture grew around the property. Viewers loved chilling on the Satellite of Love with a man and his wisecracking robot friends so much that they wrote in every week. MST3K spoke to the malaise of movie fanatics in a pre-Internet age, after the publication of Michael J. Weldon’s The Psychotronic Film Guide and the first writings of Joe Bob Briggs but before there was any meaningful way for the masses to talk about their favorite oddball B movie. Joel had all the time in the world to watch movies with his best friends. Who doesn’t occasionally wish they had it so good, mad scientists or not?
It’s at capturing that particularly quality that MST3K: The Return excels. The new creative staff has included a metric ton of inside jokes that only the show’s fans will understand, and the Satellite of Love has fun new details built into it, like a quick glimpse of the living quarters during the countdown sequence that begins each film. The new villains have updated motivations—they’re out to monetize any and everything to conquer ancillary markets instead of the world—and a chic new look. Felicia Day plays Dr. Forrester’s daughter, Kinga, and Patton Oswalt plays Max, or as he prefers to be called, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, who harbors a crush on his mean-spirited boss.
Oswalt’s performance is heartbreaking, capturing not only the kind of stilted, nervous body language of the Frank Conniff character he’s replacing, but the unmistakable pathos of a man hopelessly in love. He’s the hidden heart of the series, the new guy hoping to make good with an audience predisposed to judging him. It’s tellingly that his voice pops up during “commercial” breaks to tell us about the show’s inner workings. By the time Oswalt presses “the button” and the new orchestral version of the end-credits music plays, it’s impossible not to give into the energy and love that went into recreating this strange, vital, and adorable piece of pop-culture history.