Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s second season on Netflix was just six episodes, but it took advantage of the nature of binge watching. This season, Jonah was subject to The Gauntlet, six moves back to back to back as Kinga tried to once and for all find the combination of bad movies that would break his mind, with the intent of turning those movies on the inhabitants of Earth. In that light, why not take a look at each movie in The Gauntlet and see if they have the potential to be remade better?
Mac & Me
There is a good movie within Mac & Me trying to get out. It was called E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Mac & Me was an attempt to do to Skittles, Coke, and MacDonalds what ET did for Reese’s Pieces. The difference, though, was blatant levels of product placement. Only Josie and the Pussycats was more obvious with product placement, and that was for satire. The aliens, vacuumed up by a NASA probe and brought back to Earth, are elastic. They stretch the same way Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man, and Stretch Armstrong do. That broke suspension of disbelief early. The tone was inconsistent as a result.
Remaking Mac & Me isn’t worth the effort, not when ET is available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and streaming. There are good elements that can be pulled from the movie, though. While having the lead character be wheelchair bound was there to pull more sympathy for him, Eric, the Me in the title, wasn’t passive. Played by Jade Calegory, Eric drove the plot. The wheelchair and Eric’s inability to walk wasn’t a hindrance for the sake of a plot twist. Instead, the wheelchair enabled a car chase, of all things. There can be improvements, but the groundwork for a more inclusive cast, something that is needed today, is already laid down.
The first movie from the Twenty-First Century to be featured on MST3K comes from The Asylum. Again, there’s a good movie . . . no. No there isn’t. Atlantic Rim was made to take advantage of the far better theatrical release, Pacific Rim. The US Army has three new prototype mecha being tested when monster from the deep bubble up from the depths of the sea. The mecha are colour-coded, making it easy to reuse the same cockpit by changing the ambient light. The quality of writing makes Sharknado look like Shakespeare. The characters are anime mecha jocks, the brash pilots who get killed before a big battle so that the emo main character has to step up.
There’s no reason to remake Atlantic Rim as a serious film; it’s primary purpose was to cash in on the popularity of Pacific Rim. Instead, turn it into a parody of the genre of giant mecha and daikaiju. Don’t limit the parody to just Pacific Rim; anime provides many examples of both and Godzilla is a household name. Throw in Power Rangers; the mecha are already colour-coordinated. Even toss in a transformable mecha with a wink to Transformers, live action or animated. Broaden the genre here. Turn Atlantic Rim into the Airplane of giant mecha works.
Lords of the Deep
The last of the “leans heavily on another movie” entries of The Gauntlet, Lords of the Deep is several movies away from The Abyss. An unknown species makes contact with an underwater base, while the corporate owners of the base do everything possible to suppress that knowledge, including killing personnel. The details of why the mother corporation wants to keep the knowledge suppressed isn’t gone into great detail, but the creatures, some of the cutest aliens to invade, exude a slime that provides oxygen, allowing for greater lengths of time exploring undersea.
Unlike Mac & Me and Atlantic Rim, there is a core to the movie that could be remade. First contact from the perspective from the contacted makes for a twist on the usual approach. The ocean floor, while still terrestrial, is an alien location as far as humanity is concerned. Having aliens make contact there isn’t a bad idea, though this adds an added degree of complexity for the first contact. How does an aquatic lifeform even communicate to a surface air-breathing species? This is something that can be explored. How does humanity figure out communication with an alien species? Close Encounters of the Third Kind was all about trying to learn to communicate, eventually through music. Underwater, things change, so present the different ways an alien can try to communicate to humans who don’t know that they’re being talked to.
The Day Time Stopped
A family gets caught up in an alien war, the youngest disappears into a glowing pyramid, then the family travels to a new world to escape the destruction. Maybe. The plot soon took a backseat to the special effects in the movie. Two monsters appear and fight each other, ignoring the family. A tiny alien dances around the youngest daughter, maybe leading to the girl disappearing in the glowing pyramid.
The biggest problem is that the family, the protagonists of the movie, has very little agency. The one attempt to defend themselves from an alien miniature attack ship has the bullet fired being disintegrated and the family running and barricading themselves. The youngest daughter disappears, but there isn’t a way for the family to look for her. Things happen, but the point of view is from the spectators. Lords of the Deep at least has the cast given something to focus on while the cute aliens abduct them. For a The Day Time Stopped remake, get the family investigating, even if they don’t figure things out. Otherwise, they characters aren’t even audience surrogates. They’re just there to provide the book ends of the movie. Correcting that issue should help the film.
Lee Majors, Karen Black, and James Franciscus are thieves who managed to steal a medium-sized fortune in gemstones. Joining the cast are Margaux Hemingway, Gary Collins, and Roy Brocksmith, not necessarily big name draws but solid actors nonetheless. There is no honour among thieves as each plot against the others. Franciscus’ character, Paul, plays the ultimate long game with backstab by filling a lake behind a dam with piranha, Killer Fish is one of the follow-the-leader movies about killer sea life that came out after Jaws, without necessarily focusing on just the fish. The movie was a direct-to-video release in the US.
The movie is a good demonstration of how monster movies work, even if the piranha are mostly plot device than actual looming monster. Two mooks are used as redshirts to show how the piranha work to the audience. Innocents are killed to move the sympathy from the piranha to the protagonists. Annoying characters are killed to let the audience root for the title characters, the killer fish. Ultimately, the villain is done in by the piranha while the protagonists escape. The only major changes would be to establish the leads more before and during the heist, setting up the betrayals and twists. A little more budget could help, but 1979’s special effects are practical. Not showing the piranha and just showing reactions can add to the tension until the reveal.
Ator the Fighting Eagle
Left with a young family as a baby, Ator grows up, marries his foster sister who is then promptly kidnapped by henchmen of the priest of the spider god. To get her back, Ator learns how to fight from Griba. Once trained, he sets off on his quest, joined by the Amazon, Roon. The main problem with Ator is the pacing. There is a lot going on, but the movie slows down in places. The worldbuilding is weak. Amazons appear more to serve the plot than because of any other reason.
The movie may have been better served as a TV series. This would let the world develop. The different elements thrown at the audience in the movie would be developed and introduced as needed. The cult of the spider god could be built up as the big bad of the series. Ator and his foster sister/bride could have some time to develop their relationship. The rush will be gone. The risk, though, is that the series may not survive the ratings push. In 1982, though, networks were more willing to give a series time to find an audience.
One thing that The Gauntlet did was front-load the worst of the six. Mac & Me and Atlantic Rim are dire and if anyone is going to break while watching, it’d be during these two. The rest, while not Oscar worthy, aren’t Manos: The Hands of Fate level, either. Get through the first two, and the rest of The Gauntlet is easy.
Why remake any of these movies? Kinga said it herself, after watching those movies, we’ll never be able to see another film without noticing the flaws. We can learn from mistakes, though, both ours and others. It’s a rare bad movie that has no redeeming features. Even Mac & Me has some good ideas in it, despite the poor execution.
MST3K ran ten seasons, eleven if the KTMA season is included, jumping first to Comedy Central and then the SciFi Channel before coming to an end. The show grew in popularity as fans circulated tapes to people who didn’t have access to the series. Several traditions came about during the series, including the annual Turkey Day marathon, where several episodes were shown in a row. Thanks to word of mouth and circulating tapes, the series is still popular, leading to a revival on Netflix.
The premise of the show is simple enough that the opening theme tells it; evil mad scientists who want to take over the world kidnap an unsuspecting schlub, sending him to the Satellite of Love where he’ll be subjected to cheesy movies, the worst they can find. The goal, to see how long it takes to break the victim’s mind. However, the victim has help on the SoL, robots who can riff the bad movies with him. The Mads have come close to breaking their victim, most notably with Manos: The Hands of Fate.
The episodes follow a fixed format. While the bulk of an episode is dedicated to movie being riffed, it’s not the sole feature. The host segments, including the opening one to introduce the movie of the week and the episode’s plot and the ones surrounding commercial breaks, give both cast and audience a break from the cheesy film. During the Joel (Joel Hodgson) years, the opening segment was used for the invention exchange. When Mike (Michael J. Nelson) became the experimental subject, the opening segment began to focus more on introducing the episode’s plot, including showing him as Mike Nelson, Destroyer of Worlds. The riffing is the draw, the host segments the reason to keep returning week after week.
In 1996, Best Brains, the production company behind MST3K, decided to try a theatrical release. The movie chosen for riffing on the silver screen was This Island Earth, originally released in 1955 and itself an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Raymond F. Jones. This Island Earth has many problems, the biggest being the main characters, Cal Meacham (Rex Reason) and Ruth Adams (Faith Domergue), are passengers on the railroad plot. Even the engineer of the plot, Exeter (Jeff Morrow), doesn’t do much to steer the onscreen events. The film does have opportunities for riffing, though. This Island Earth does have a 71% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, so it isn’t necessarily bad. The difference between critics and viewer response, though, is telling; viewers found the movie lacking.
If MST3K: The Movie was just riffing on This Island Earth, audiences wouldn’t get the full effect of the TV series. The host segments are as crucial to MST3K as the riffing. The nature of a theatrical release, though, means changing up how the segments appear. There’s no need for a standard opening theme; the audience already knows what film it is seeing. However, not everyone going to see the movie will know what the premise is; as mentioned above, MST3K wasn’t available in all areas. Thus, the movie opens with Dr. Clayton Forrester (Trace Beaulieu) explaining to the audience what he’s about to do to Mike and, now, them, and why in an over the top sequence in Deep 13, setting up the plot of the movie, which is more involved than the plot of This Island Earth.
On board the Satellite of Love, Mike is exercising on a hamster wheel in a scene taken from 2001: A Space Odyssey, being coached by Gypsy (Jim Mallon). When he takes a break and a drink from a water bottle, Tom Servo (Kevin Murphy) arrives to assure Mike that nothing at all is wrong, absolutely nothing, why do you ask and what is that rhythmic thumping. Turns out, Crow (Beaulieu) has his own plan to escape the SoL, involving a pick axe. Mike tries to stop the attempt, but, as even Crow predicted in his own plans, he breaches the hull. As the air rushes out the hole, Mike and Crow manage to grab on to something. Tom Servo’s spindly hands and arms aren’t enough to save him, though, and he shoots into the hole. The hole isn’t big, though; Tom fits perfectly over it, giving Mike time to find a plate to act as a more permanent fix.
Once Mike and the bots are given the movie sign, they head into the SoL’s theatre. With the budget for a feature film, the sequence through the theatre doors, the transition from host segment to riffing, is given an upgrade, though still looks appropriate. This Island Earth starts, the riffing begins, and everything is familiar to fans. Because of the differences between film and television, there are no commercial breaks. To make up for that, the next host segment comes when the film breaks. Dr. Forrester tries to make up to the audience and adjusts his estimates before he takes over the world.
On the SoL, Tom and Crow dare Mike to fly the SoL after he claims to be one hundred per cent certified on Microsoft Flight Simulator. Mike has no initial problems flying the SoL, then he hits something, the Hubble Space Telescope, now caught on the side of the SoL. To get it off, Mike turns to the manipulator arms, conveniently labelled as “Manos“, complete with musical sting. With some care and a little extra damage, Mike gets the Hubble off the SoL and releases it, where it plummets into the Earth’s atmosphere. Way to go, Mike.
With the movie fixed, Mike, Crow, and Tom return to the theatre and resume riffing. When This Island Earth shows the completed interocitor, a faster-than-light communications device, Tom Servo remarks he has one in his bedroom. The trio escape the theatre and go looking in Servo’s room, which is a total mess. They find the interocitor and call out for help, reaching Benkitnorf (John Brady), a Metalunan like Exeter in This Island Earth. Benkitnorf isn’t too impressed, seeing as he was in the shower when Mike and the bots called. Despite the intrusion, the Metalunan tries to help, but isn’t familiar enough with the interocitor’s settings, much to Tom Servo’s dismay and discomfort. Dr. Forrester breaks into the communications with his own interociter, sending the trio running back to the movie.
Mike and the bots finish their riffing of This Island Earth. Instead of being broken like Dr. Forrester expects, they’re recreating the final scene, having a grand party. Dr. F tries to zap them with his interociter but ends up zapping himself to Benkitnorf’s shower instead. With the movie ending, there’s no traditional stinger, a replay of a scene that caused hilarity. Instead, Mike and the bots riff their own credits. “Puppet wrangler? There weren’t any puppets in this movie.”
The riffing during the movie doesn’t call back to previous episodes. The idea was to make it open to new audiences without the familiarity of long-time fans, with the assumption that people going to the movie are science fiction fans. Thus, there are many Star Trek-related riffs, plus playing up on obvious gags. Helping is the addition of Russell Johnson in This Island Earth as Steve Carlson; Johnson is better known for his role as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island. There’s even a brief riff involving Mork & Mindy in reference to the character Exidor (Robert Donner). That isn’t to say that there isn’t any callbacks. The “Manos” manipulators with Torgo music is but one example.
MST3K: The Movie works as an introduction to the TV series. Meddling by Gramercy Studios caused issues that affected the presentation and availability. The movie opened in only twenty-six theatres, yet did pull in audiences where it did play. Gramercy, though, was backing Barb Wire*. However, the core writers of the movie were the core writers of the TV series; the riffing is top notch, if limited to a common knowledge base. The expansion of the Satellite of Love gives a bit of an insight on the characters.
While the cast and crew feel that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie isn’t their best work, it does show how even a TV series featuring films has to make changes when moving to the big screen. The nature of the two media necessitated a slightly different approach in presentation. What works for TV doesn’t for film. MST3K: The Movie, though, does make the jump to the silver screen with few problems.
Lost in Translation has looked at some of the easier movies featured on Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to remake and to watch. Time to amp up the difficulty and see if Manos: The Hands of Fate can be remade.
Manos is infamous on MST3K. The Mads took pity on Joel during the experiment, the movie was so dire. Netflix included the Manos episode in it’s lineup of classic MST3K. Thanks to that episode, the movie far better known today. The movie began its existence after producer and director Harold P. Warren bet Stirling Silliphant, script writer for Route 66 at the time that not only can anyone make a horror movie, he could make one on his own. Unfortunately, Warren won that bet. With a budget of just US$19,000, Warren wrote the script for, directed, and produced Manos.
The film follows a family of three, Michael (Warren), Margaret (Diane Mahree), and their daughter Debbie (Jackey Neyman), as their vacation takes a horrific turn when they stumble upon the home of the Master (Tom Neyman) and meet his servant, Torgo (John Reynolds). The Master runs a cult where he rules over his wives. Torgo “take[s] care of the place while the Master is gone.” As the young family is drawn deeper into the Master’s web, Torgo rebels. Ultimately, Debbie and Margaret become wives of the Master and Michael takes over Torgo’s role.
The budget doesn’t begin to describe how low end the production was. Warren rushed filming to make sure he could return the rented equipment on time. His camera could only record thirty-two seconds of film at a time. Lighting was limited, and many scenes were filmed at night because the actors had day jobs. The opening seven minute car drive, which may have been meant to be used for opening credits, was just scenery. So, while Warren may have won the bet he had with Silliphant, he wasn’t successful at creating a horror film.
Yet, the core idea, the Master’s cult and how the family falls victim to it, is viable. It was the execution that turned Manos into what it is. The equipment problems that Warren had aren’t a factor for even student filmmakers. Digital video recorders with far longer record times than thirty-two seconds are available off the shelf as a consumer product. Editing software is available through open source projects. Special effects can be done with CGI if needed.
To remake Manos, start with the script. Clean it up with a few more drafts so that the dialogue doesn’t seem stilted. Keep the idea of Torgo as a satyr and imply that the Master has a link to the Winter Court of the fey, a touch of the supernatural for today’s audiences. Ramp up the tension and eerieness. The Master’s dog should look like it came from the depths of Hell, with blazing red eyes; use the myth of the Barghest to tie the dog in with the fey. Keep the cult, but make sure that the Master seems more than human. The hardest part is deciding what to do with Debbie. The original Manos has the little girl becoming one of the Master’s wives, which may not sit well with modern audiences. Does Debbie escape, leaving room for a sequel hook years later? Or is she indoctrinated into the cult? Or, given the fey background being woven in, is she exchanged for a changeling and sent out elsewhere?
As with the other movies examined this month, budget was an issue with Manos. However, giving the remake a huge budget would do it a disservice. Manos could easily be done by students with commercial equipment today. The remake needs a modest budget, but most of the details come from the world around us now. It’d be fitting to remake Manos with a smaller budget than most releases, but the studio shouldn’t turn cheap. Provide what is needed; don’t force the filmmakers to cut corners.
A remake of Manos isn’t impossible. Last year, Debbie’s actress, now known as Jackie Neyman Jones and her father, Tom, who played the Master, ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to film a sequel, MANOS Returns. There is an interest.
Ultimately, a remake of Manos: The Hands of Fate is possible. The effort to remaking the film isn’t so much trying to preserve the original as it is pulling out the good in what was an awful movie. Today’s filmmakers have access to so much more than what was available in 1966 that even a student film could do the work justice.
Why the remakes this month? November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, and I’m participating. As an attempt to save some time, I want to cut the number of movies watched down to get to the analysis faster and still be able to get to NaNoWriMo’s goal of 50 000 words in 30 days. I shouldn’t be surprised, but the MST3K remake posts are running longer than expected. As a result, the choice of movie to be remade is based on familiarity with the episode.
Mystery Science Theatre 3000 is known for riffing. That’s the core of the series and its follow ups, RiffTrax and Cinematic Titanic. For the early years, the crew went for the cheesy movies that were packaged with films that TV stations would want, partially because of the cost. No one wanted the movies, really, so they could be had for cheap. Some of the films were re-packaged episodes of old TV series, edited into one movie. Such is 1954’s Manhunt in Space, which began life as Rocky Jones, Space Ranger. Rocky Jones lasted all of two seasons as a syndicated TV series in the early days of television. Manhunt consists of three episodes of the series, the three chapters of “The Pirates of Prah” that were easy to edit together.
Manhunt in Space stars Richard Crane as Rocky Jone, Scotty Beckett as Rocky’s co-pilot Winky, Sally Mansfield as Rocky’s navigator Vena, Robert Lyden as Bobby, Patsy Parsons as Queen Cleolanta of Ophecius, Ray Montgomery as Space Ranger Reggie, Henry Brandon as space pirate Rinkman, James Griffith as Space Traffic Controller Ken
The movie opens with Vena and Reggie on board a cargo rocket heading to Casa 7 when they get hit by a mysterious ray, neutralizing the ship’s systems. Pirates led by Rinkman board the cargo rocket to rob it of its valuables, then leave, letting the ship drift without power. Meanwhile, at the Office of Space Affairs. Rocky and Winky are told that their leave has been cancelled. Instead, they’ve been assigned to investigate the disappearance of a number of ships near Casa 7. They rush there in their rocket, where they find Vena and Reggie adrift. Rocky brings them about his rocket, then tries to work out where the pirates could be based – Prah. On Ophecius, Queen Cleolantra receives work from Rinkman about the success of the raids. Cleolantra, though, compares Rinkman to Rocky, not inspiring confidence in the pirate leader.
Since Prah has a defensive field around it that no ship has been able to penetrate, Rocky gets a new device installed on his ship. Cold light*, when activated, will cloak Rocky’s ship by causing light to slow down; the device runs close to absolute zero, rendering the light slower and thus not showing anything, the opposite of a mirage. The cold light lets Rocky penetrate Prah’s defensive field and land.
On Prah, Rocky uses a tried and true method to discover information – he gets caught. Rocky learns that Rinkman is taking orders from someone else, but not who. Rocky escapes and flies back to Casa 7. The pirates, though, have a man on the inside. Space Controller Ken reports Rocky’s return to the pirates, who then come to Casa 7. The pirates capture Rocky to prevent him from reporting in. Rocky manages to escape and fools the pirates into thinking he’s left. The pirates figured out that an invisible rocket is hard to find, so they marked the landing pad where they captured Rocky. Rocky moved that mark to an empty pad. He lets the pirates gather, then strikes. The climactic battle sees Rocky and Winky taking on the pirates and winning. Rocky then takes his crew to his ship and leaves Casa 7, letting the local authorities round up the pirates.
Why remake Manhunt? It doesn’t have name recognition beyond being featured on MST3K. It is old enough to be picked up on the cheap. The plot works with a retro-pulp feel, much like the 1980 Flash Gordon movie. Space pirates, a femme fatale queen, and a plucky hero, everything that should make for a decent pulp movie is there. Manhunt‘s biggest problem was being a syndicated TV series; again, low budget, though the crew did try to get fancy with the cold light cloak. Our knowledge of space has grown since Rocky Jones first aired.
To remake Manhunt, let’s start with the Space Rangers. That organization is going to be the core concept of the remake. They’re the reason why the main characters are interacting with the plot. In Manhunt, Space Rangers patrol space to keep it safe from the predations of space pirates and evil queens, almost a prototype of Star Trek‘s Starfleet. Unlike Starfleet, the Space Rangers weren’t primarily for exploration, and the rocket ships only had a crew of three – pilot, co-pilot, and navigator. In the remake, the Space Rangers get a definite mandate – defend the Solar System.
Much like what happened in the Fifties, when old black and white silent films were remade with full colour and sound, a remake of Manhunt can take advantage of not just colour but also digital effects. Set design is easily augmented by CGI these days, and environments impossible to film in due to toxic atmospheres can be easily simulated. Black and white isn’t necessarily a bad choice, but a Manhunt remake may work better with colour.
Technology has changed since 1954. Manhunt‘s sets, which were done on the cheap for 1954 look woeful in 2017. Fortunately, not only can we make Rocky’s ship look modern to today’s eyes, we can do it for possibly less than in 1954. CGI takes care of the exteriors, though a detailed model may be nice and will help with merchandising. The interiors need to be updated so that they at least match the photos NASA has released of both the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Thanks to modern technology, the average person has a better idea of what the inside of a real space-going vehicle looks like. Thanks to modern science fiction television, the average person has a higher expectation of what the future will hold.
What the above means is that a decision needs to be made about what the space ships look like. Does the remake stay with the sleek rocket ships or will the Space Rangers use a vessel that looks like it evolved from the Space Shuttle. Rocky’s ship was capable of landing on its end, something that is still in experimentation today. A key moment in the movie is that Rocky can land his ship while cloaked in cold light. Audiences might find it easier to believe a space ship that looks like it came from the Shuttle can do just that. Changing up the ship design also means letting each major element – Rocky, the space pirates, and Queen Cleolantra – to have an easily identifiable vessel each.
Plot-wise, the main points from Manhunt can be reused. Space pirates are causing ships to go missing near Casa 7 and Rocky and his crew are sent to investigate. The investigation leads Rocky to discover the pirates’ base on Prah and that Cleolantra is behind the plot. The question of whether Rocky faces Cleolantra in the climax does depend on what format the remake takes. As a movie, to have a satisfying ending, Rocky must meet Cleolantra. Sequel hooks are possible; Rocky could escape Cleolantra’s clutches and foil her plans without defeating her outright. If Manhunt turns into a remake of Rocky Jones, though, Cleolantra could be left in the background, a hint to the audience of what’s to come later in the season.
There are details to clean up. The nature of the size of the United Planets, whether they represent just the Solar System or a larger community, needs to be worked out. The writers need to know the difference between a planet, a moon, and an asteroid. The dialogue will need to be worked on and some of the then-innocent lines may have to be excised. The writers should take the advice of Joel and the Bots and not overuse the word “space” as a modifier; the audience will get that the adventure is in space without the extra help. Winky might want to refer to the wild nightlife, not the gay nightlife, and “riding the rocket”, which may have come from “riding the rails”, now has a different meaning today. Of course, the writers could take Winky in a new direction and have him have a guy in every port. Even the title can use some sprucing up; Manhunt in Space is more serviceable than Rocky Jones, Space Ranger, but could use some oomph If you have a suggestion, add it to the comments below.
Manhunt in Space is a good example of television trying to jump on the space opera bandwagon. It was done on a low budget, typical of the era, and it shows. With work, it could be brought back. The core of the movie, space rangers on patrol battling space pirates, has potential, as long as there’s effort made to update the material.
* Cold light is technobabble, but the idea behind is solid if one doesn’t examine it too hard. As things cool, they lose energy. At Absolute Zero, there is no energy left in an object. Since light is both a wave and a particle, removing energy should slow it down. However, so far, the only way experimentation has been able to slow light was to send it through a dense substance, there may not be a basis for the technobabble. Such is the way of technobabble.
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.