Very few TV series manage to reach seven seasons. The history of television is littered with series that couldn’t finish even one full season, shows that could get three before being cast adrift, and even a show that didn’t finish it’s own first episode. Series that reach seven seasons have a strong following. The even rarer series that can go for ten seasons tend to be staples of second-run syndication, even when the series is still running. However, there is one series that made it through ten seasons but never became a network darling.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 was created by Joel Hodgson and first aired on KTMA in November of 1988. The premise was simple, as the opening theme says. A poor schmuck gets sent to a satellite in Earth’s orbit and is subjected to bad movies by his employers/kidnappers to find out just how much pain the human brain can take. However, the poor schmuck knows how to build robots, who help him get through the cheesy movies by riffing with him.
The Comedy Channel, one of the companies that became Comedy Central, picked up the show the following year. With the bigger budget compared to the KTMA days, the show became how it’s best known, with Joel Robinson (played by Hodgson) not only riffing with the bots Tom Servo (first played by Josh Weinstein*, later by Kevin Murphy) and Crow T. Robot (first played by Trace Beaulieu, later by Bill Corbett), but also participating in invention exchanges with the Mads, Dr. Clayton Forrester (Beaulieu) and Dr. Lawrence Erhardt (Weinstein), and doing skits as a break from the movie.
The riffing was the show’s main draw. The production crew looked for cheesy movies, ones that were bad not not necessarily boring, from the films available through syndication. While science fiction and fantasy films make up the bulk of the series, the show wasn’t restricted to just those genres until it moved to the Sci-Fi Channel in 1997. Thus, movies like The Girl in Lover’s Lane and Mitchell appeared along with The Magic Sword and Space Mutiny. If a movie wouldn’t fill the show’s running time, film shorts were added, from old serials to educational films. As long as the writers could find the funny for riffing, the films were added to the line up.
The cast changed during the run of the series. When Weinstein moved on, Dr. Erhardt was replaced by TV’s Frank (Frank Conniff). Joel was replaced by Mike Nelson (Michael J. Nelson) in season 5 during Mitchell, resulting in a new opening theme. When the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank were replaced by Forrester’s more evil and more capable mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl), who then brought on the Observer, aka “Brain Guy” (Corbett) and had Professor Bobo (Murphy) stowaway on her rocket ship after the apes accidentally destroy the Earth in the future.
While continuity was flexible, there were call backs to previous episodes, including Nelson playing Torgo from Manos: The Hands of Fate in several episodes. However, when the Sci-Fi Channel picked up the series, execs insisted on an on-going plot arc, despite the draw being the riffing. The crew did what they could, creating a chase where Pearl tried to catch up to the Satellite of Love. The final episode aired in August 1999 after increasing conflict between Best Brains, owner of MST3K, and the Sci-Fi Channel led to the show being cancelled after ten season, eleven if the KTMA year is included.
The show became a cult classic through word of mouth and the budding public-use Internet. The show had a wide reference base, everything from Gilligan’s Island and SCTV to Shakespeare and Proust. Tapes of the show were circulated, letting fans bring in more people into the joy of MST3K, even if the show wasn’t otherwise available in an area, like Canada**. Thanks to the magic of Internet streaming, Shout! has made the library available online through subscription, in addition to releasing the series slowly on DVD.
The cast members of MST3K continued with riffing with their own projects. Hodgson created Cinematic Titanic, working with Beaulieu, Weinstein, Conniff, and Pehl. Rifftrax was started by Nelson and included Corbett and Murphy. The demand for quality riffing was there. Several people answered the call, but, ultimately, the fans wanted one thing – more MST3K.
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return was a Kickstarter project started by Hodgson and Shout!, looking for $2 million to produce three episodes. The Kickstarter ending with over $5.75 million, enough for fourteen episodes and surpassing the Veronica Mars movie efforts. Backers received several benefits, including early access and their names listed in the credtis. With the eighteen years since the end of the series and almost thirty since the beginning, Hodgson, now the executive producer of the series, went with a new cast. Taking the place of Joel and Mike is Jonah Heston, (Jonah Ray). Like Joel and Mike before him, Jonah is also subjected to cheesy movies as Clayton’s daugher and Pearl’s granddaughter, Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and Max, TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) not only try to find the breaking point of a human but also try to commercialize the experiments to pay for the new base, Moon 13.
For this analysis, I’m only taking into consideration the first three episodes. Once more are reviewed, there may be an update. Fourteen 90+ minute episodes take time to watch and digest properly. However, all the episodes are available on Netflix. The decision to work with Netflix instead of a more traditional broadcaster or cable station gave the production crew more control over how the series was made. No fights with a station executive who never watched MST3K on what the show should do.
The first episode of a rebooted/remade series is critical in getting viewers to keep watching. Miss the tone, flub the casting, make one big misstep, and the audience leaves. It’s possible to take a show in a new direction; the rebooted Battlestar Galactica demonstrates how it can be done. But MST3K, at its heart, is a comedy. Fortunately, Hodgson is well aware of that, being the creator. The first episode of a show also has to set up the series for new viewers. It’s possible that someone watching The Return has only heard the word of mouth about the original and has never been able to watch an episode.
Thus, we get a longer than usual introductory segment in the first episode of The Return, including a pre-credits scene featuring cameos by Wil Wheaton and Erin Gray talking up the new host, Jonah, before Kinga lures him to the dark side of the moon. The opening credits again tells the full story.
Keeping to Kinga’s desire to make the experiments commercially successful, the show not only keeps to the established format of the original but also brings in elements of late night talk shows, including a band, the Skeleton Crew, and ad bumpers, which also serve as a break point for the audience. The first episode features the Danish monster movie, Reptilicus, which doesn’t have the production values that early Japanese kaiju films had. The riffing comes fast and furious and pulls from a wide reference base but doesn’t overwhelm the action on screen. The host segments include the invention exchange at the beginning and features a rap about the monster legends throughout the world. But the first episode is meant to wow viewers both old and new. The following episodes would be the real tell for the series. Fortunately, the cast and crew are up to the task. The level and quality of riffs remain strong, and the host segments are entertaining.
Naturally, some changes were made from the original, including those noted above. There are new voices for Tom Servo (Baron Vaughan), Crow (Hampton Yount), and Gypsy (previously played by Jim Mallon and untility infielder Patrick Brantseg, now played by Rebecca Hanson). Gypsy also received a modifiction that lets her travel on the ceilings of the Satellite of Love, allowing her to drop in on host segments and in the theatre. Jonah’s host segments include laser-cut wood carvings to illustrate scenes, giving him his own twist. The main puppets now have a team of puppeteers instead of just the one actor doing both voice and manipulation. Thanks to the expanded budget from the Kickstarter, the door sequence is more involved, yet still retains its charm.
Overall, The Return is a return home to the Satellite of Love. Even with the changes in cast, the new series is still MST3K. Joel Hodgson took efforts to find out what fans enjoyed, choosing movies that reflect the fan-favourite episodes. The result is a series that welcomes back the fans of the original series while bringing in new viewers.
* Better known today as J. Elvis Weinstein.
** Rights issues were the main problem. MST3K had limited rights licensed to them for the movies, and thus couldn’t pass that along to foreign broadcasters. The only way for anyone outside the US to see the show was through the passing of the tapes, which was encouraged in the end credits of each episode. The other option was to see the movie without the riffing, a dire state of affairs for some features.
Correction: I originally had Michael J. Nelson credited as Professor Bobo, when I should have have Kevin Murphy. Apologies to all involved.