The Phantom of the Cineplex: Mystery Science Theater 3000

I approached the eleventh season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 fully expecting to be hurt again.  My childhood had previously been viciously molested by those monsters Lucas and Spielburg, and when I had finally opened myself up to what should have been a healing experience, Abrams grabbed my childhood right there and shook it like a doberman.  He laughed while doing it.

This time my childhood was not at stake, just the memory of my burgeoning young adulthood.  Still, the emotional attachment that I had formed to the original MST3K during that formative period of character growth left me very vulnerable to the sort of attack which had driven my childhood to eventual suicide (requiescas in pacem, little friend).  So it was with great trepidation that I exposed myself to potential harm from standup comedy legend Patton Oswalt and human-Muun hybrid Felicia Day (the Muun are a species of Star Wars alien notable for their surplus of face).

The new show’s opening premise and introduction came as a surprise and jarred me out of my comfort zone, but I was soon soothed back into mindless bingeing by the reappearance of old show regulars, include Joel Hodgson himself, the show creator whose presence is more persistent than Felecia Day’s shadow mustache.  Yes, the season starts off a little rough, but by the third episode it really starts to feel like the old show again.  And while the robots are now voiced by new talent, their voice actors quickly develop perfect impressions of Tom’s and Crow’s previous personae.  Patton Oswalt substituting for Frank Connif was a stroke of genius and his “Max, TV’s son of TV’s Frank” becomes the true feature attraction.  Oh, and there’s some guy named Jonah wearing a YELLOW (yellow!) jumpsuit who doesn’t clown it up too badly.  Jonah Ray’s Nerdist cred is nothing to me, but he shows that he knows his role in the robot hierarchy and plays well with the actual stars, so he is acceptable.

The robots, themselves, were only slightly altered, upgraded really, but instantly familiar to old timers.  Their humor and banter synchronizes and harmonizes and, by episode three, they are performing as they should.  It was critically important for the success of this revival that they sound like their old selves (not just the voice acting, but the jokes and gags), and Hampton Yount (as Crow) and Baron Vaughn (as Tom Servo) work together well.  The new Gypsy persona, however, completely misses the point and the humor of the old version of that character, and her forced inclusion in the theater shots are painfully awkward.  Cambot is still unloved Cambot.

Though neither the Doctor Forrester nor the “TV’s Frank” characters return, Pearl Forrester, Observer “Brain Guy”, and their prognathic friend (Bobo, that is – not Felicia Day) reappear to establish continuity with the series’ previous run from Sci-Fi Channel.  They were always the least popular version of the “mads” and serve only to buttress the premise that this is a continuation of the family business.  They remain essentially unchanged from their previous incarnations.

Surprisingly, there were a couple of real triple-A guest celebrities whose appearances on the show were hilarious and delightful.  I hope that this continues in any future seasons and that guest starring on MST3K becomes the same draw that appearing in the 1960’s “Batman” series was in its day.  I don’t know if Hodgson writes their material for them, but the celebs were best utilized given their performance history – that is, they seemed themselves.

And, um, who am I forgetting…oh yeah.  Felicia Day.

Ms. Day is semi-famous for being a nerd herder, that is, she uses her passing acceptable appearance to fascinate the sex-starved masses of antisocials who have very low expectations.  She lures her fan flock along with the tantalizing hope of barely achievable non-ugliness.  As such, she positions her star in a constellation of other such luminaries by being smarter than Olivia Munn, less lantern-jawed than Morgan Webb, and more demure than Sarah Silverman (or at least, she has the courtesy to incline her head so that we don’t see straight through her nostrils to the back of her sinus cavity).  She is playing a whole new character of her own and so, by definition, is adequate.

The show’s visual effects are greatly improved, though this is a departure from form for this genre, and I find myself actually missing the cleaner and simpler movie portions of the old show without flying Tom Servo and spider-dropping Gypsy.  The music is both familiar and fresh, the opening theme is appropriately updated but nostalgic, and the closer is just as beautiful and noble sounding as I remember.  The Patton Oswalt bumpers, which substitute for commercial breaks, cleverly serve to frame up commentary segments.

The commentary, itself, evolved from the first episode (episodes of this season seem to have been recorded in their serial release order) to become something very much like the old show, which leads me to suspect that much of the dialogue is scripted by Hodgson and not really ad-libbed.  I really enjoyed the wit and the comedic timing of the humor, but I became concerned that, perhaps, too much of the material referenced subject matter which was FAR outside the experience of the target audience.  The Satellite of Love’s crew called back to subjects as obscure and diverse as Infocom’s Zork, Ralph Nader’s Corvair lawsuit, and NBC’s “Police Woman” television series.  Now, of course, *I* got 100% of the references, but I am an old nerd who understands that the fun of name-dropping arcana is found in embarrassing nerdlings with their ignorance.  It seems to actually expect young viewers to not get the material.  Risky.

The season finale leaves Netflix binge-watchers in doubt about the future return of Jonah “Heston”.  If the show finalizes on episode 11-14 (“At The Earth’s Core”), I will be satisfied that MST3K lived the full measure of its life, received a graceful sendoff, and can now be buried under the porch, giving us the sort of closure we rarely get from cult shows.  I truly hope that season twelve is approved and that Netflix will guarantee at least two more seasons.  I am optimistic that they will, given that most of the production value has already been realized and that the greatest labor now is just in the writing of the show. The way that Netflix seasons are marketed, it should be possible to record all of the filler material in batch.  I don’t know if I really care if Jonah comes back, but I would really like to see this incarnation of MST3K continue as is.

Even with Felicia Day.

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