MST3K: The Return

Awhile back, I wrote a series on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  My main focus was on what I saw as the archetypes of the Trickster and the Holy Fool that one could discern in the series.  However, I also talked a little bit about how I came to be a fan of the show, and my thoughts on the two hosts, Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson.  The previous seasons have been around long enough that I assume everyone has seen them by now, and I won’t be discussing them, anyway.

As MST3K fans are doubtless aware, in April of 2017, the show, after many years off the air, returned with much fanfare and popular acclaim, as well as with new cast.  I watched the new season–the 11th–and enjoyed it.  It occurred to me that having written previously on MST3K, I should post something about its newest iteration.  However, alas, at that time, I had lapsed from regular blogging.  Of late, I have got back to at least periodic writing here at the Chequer-Board.  I decided, therefore, that it was high time that I should return to MST3K and to write about my thoughts on the revived show.

Spoiler Alert:  There will be mild spoilers for Season 11 below.

The full story of the MST3K revival can be read here.  In brief, Joel Hodgson, the original creator of the series, had decided around 2010 that he’d like to do a revival of the show.  He reacquired the rights to the series and decided to go with a non-traditional outlet–Netflix–as the venue for streaming the show.  This was a very shrewd move–by the second decade of the 21st Century, streaming has increasingly replaced broadcast TV and various forms of recorded content (DVD’s, etc.), and streaming services such as Netflix and Hulu have pioneered original-to-streaming content.  He also shrewdly used Kickstarter to fund the project, ultimately setting a record for funds raised for Film and Video.  These two moves also allowed him more creative freedom–one of the issues behind his leaving the original series after Season 5.

Hodgson, while serving as one of the executive producers of the revived show, decided not to return to his former position in front of the camera.  Rather, he recruited a new cast.  For the new host/”test subject” he picked comedian, writer, and Nerdist podcast co-host Jonah Ray (the professional name of Jonah Ray Rodrigues).  Just as Joel Hodgson changed his character’s last name to Robinson (presumably echoing the Space Family Robinson of the old series Lost in Space), Jonah Ray played Jonah Heston, doubtless referencing the late Charlton Heston.  The new Mads were Kinga Forrester, daughter of Dr. Forrester (played by Felicia Day, of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Guild, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and Supernatural), and Max, a.k.a. TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (played by well-known actor and comic Patton Oswalt).  The bots returned, of course, with new voices:  Crow and Tom Servo were voiced by Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn, respectively, while Gypsy was voiced for the first time by an actual woman, Rebecca Hanson.

The new season saw the return of Gizmonics Institute.  Joel held the trademark to “Gizmonics”, and so when he left the show, “Gizmonics Institute” went with him.  It was thus no longer referenced in the opening theme song or on the show in general during the Mike Nelson years.  With Joel’s return as producer, Gizmonics returned with him.  Thus Jonah Heston, like Joel Robinson before him, “worked at Gizmonics Institute/ Just another guy in a yellow jumpsuit.” (the color changed, though!)  As to the Satellite of Love:  During Joel’s tenure, it orbited Earth and the Mads communicated with it from Gizmonics Institute.  During the Mike years, with the Gizmonics trademark lost, the Mads broadcast from Deep 13.  After Trace Beaulieu (who played Dr. Clayton Forrester) left after Season 6, the Satellite of Love broke free and plunged into deep space, with Pearl Forrester (Mary Jo Pehl) pursuing them in her space van.  In Season 11, Jonah Heston is flying a space tug, his job being to haul asteroids to Earth, when he is lured to the moon by a false distress call sent out by Kinga.  He is captured and shot through an air tube to the Satellite of Love, which is now parked above the moon, to which it seems to be connected by an umbilical tube.

At the end of the original series, the Satellite of Love crashed to Earth, with Mike and the bots escaping and living happily ever after, watching cheesy movies on TV now.  In Season 11, this is retconned–though mentioned once or twice in passing, Mike’s fate is not mentioned, and the bots are back on the Satellite of Love, which is still in space.  A change in continuity; but after all, it’s just a show, and you should really just relax!  In any case, the basic premise–the Mads forcing Jonah and the bots to watch “cheesy movies, the worst [they] can find” in order to break his mind–is the same as in the original run of the series.  Whereas Clayton and Pearl Forrester both had the ultimate motive of taking over the world, Kinga seems to be motivated by a quest for ratings, and controlling the world that way.  It’s worth pointing out that the quest for ratings that motivates Kinga, and Max’s insistence on being referred to as “TV’s Son of TV’s Frank” are clever examples of how Season 11 is much more meta than the preceding seasons.

Season 11 consisted of fourteen episodes, and was a resounding success.  Over the Thanksgiving Day MST3K marathon, Joel Hodgson announced that Netflix had approved a twelfth season.  Since Jonah was apparently devoured by an evil robot released by Max in the last episode of Season 11, there is much fan speculation as to how he will be brought back (since presumably Jonah Ray will continue as host).  Still, when Season 12 comes out, we’ll see!

This, then, is a summary of Season 11 of MST3K.  What are my thoughts on it?

As I said above, I enjoyed the new season–it was a lot of fun.  One way Season 11 differed from older seasons is that it made heavier use of (relatively) newer movies, such as Cry Wilderness, Avalanche, The Land that Time Forgot, and Wizards of the Lost Kingdom, as opposed to the frequency of shows from the 60’s and earlier in the previous iterations of the show.  During the show’s original run on Comedy Central, the movies ran a gamut–while heavily slanted towards science fiction, they were often of other genres, as well–the most notable example being Mitchell, the last episode of Joel’s run on the show.  When it moved to the SciFi Channel (now SyFy), it was stipulated that the movies had to be science fiction or fantasy.  This, in my view, weakened the show, as it restricted the pool of available movies.  Season 11 returned to use of a wider variety of film genres.

The new season was most similar to the Joel years (for the obvious reason that he was back as producer), though it also contained some characteristics of the Mike years.  The Invention Exchange and fan letter segments, retired during the Mike years, returned for Season 11.  Those were actually two of my less favorite aspects of the otherwise excellent Joel years, and I didn’t find that I liked them any better in Season 11.  On the other hand, the ongoing plots in the segments with Jonah, the bots, and the Mads were somewhat reminiscent of the sometimes complicated plots of the Mike years.  That worked better for me–I always liked that about the show during Mike Nelson’s tenure.  The pining of Max for Kinga, and Kinga’s plot to marry Jonah were entertaining plot threads, and the cast did a great job pulling them off.  Another generally fun feature of the new season was the regular appearance of guest stars, including Mary Jo Pehl, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy (reprising their roles as Pearl Forrester, Brain Guy, and Professor Bobo, respectively), Neil Patrick Harris, Jerry Seinfeld, and Mark Hamill.

The riffing–the raison d’être of the show, of course–was top-notch.  The writing was sharper than it had been in years, and Jonah Ray fit easily into the role of chief movie-riffer.  Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn were great as the bots, too, making fun of movies with the best of them.  There wasn’t a single weak episode–the movies were as cheesy as ever and the laughs plentiful as the guys riffed them as mercilessly as ever.

Having given my thoughts previously on Joel vs. Mike, I will conclude with my thoughts on Jonah.  Jonah Ray was by no means unknown before his tenure on MST3K, but this is the first thing I’d seen him in.  As I’ve argued, the host/captive of MST3K, by the nature of the role, needs to instantiate the archetype of either the Trickster or the Fool, or a little of both.  In a vague sort of way, Jonah reminds me of a young John Belushi–the lovable, affable slob who is smarter than he seems at first.  Like Belushi in many of his roles, and like Joel in his days on MST3K, Jonah is reminiscent of the Fool archetype.  Like the Fool who glides through the most absurd situations while never suffering true harm, Jonah affably accepts his imprisonment in the Satellite of Love and goes with the flow, winning over the bots and making the best of his situation, no matter what the Mads throw at him.  He definitely projects more the innocence and wide-eyed fascination of Joel than the knowing, clever air of Mike.  On the whole, he is a worthy successor to both, and I look forward to his return in Season 12.

That’s all for now–if you haven’t seen Season 11 yet, then go watch it, already!  Stay tuned here, too–I may have more to say when Season 12 comes along.  Meanwhile, keep riffing!

Part of the series “Mystery Science Theater 3000


Posted on 31/01/2018, in Entertainment, movies, pop culture, television, television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

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