Mystery Science Theater 3000 is a show that will not die. It has moved through so many incarnations, starting on a local TV station, moving to basic cable, on two different networks (three if you count The Comedy Channel, which turned into Comedy Central.) When that run ended, after a few years the principals behind the show created their own internet-enabled versions of the concept, Rifftrax, The Film Crew, and Cinematic Titanic. Then a massive Kickstarter in 2015 brought back the original series with a new host that landed eventually on Netflix.
That lasted two seasons. Then last year a new Kickstarter has created a fresh and independent 13th season, which publicly premieres today. For the uninitiated, MST3K is a show about making fun of bad movies. It also has a meta-story about employees of Gizmonic Institute, a corporation run by evil scientists who force an employee into outer space to monitor their reaction to bad movies.
The only place to watch this season is the new MST3K website, The Gizmoplex. Along with the new season, the Gizmoplex gives members access to every episode of the classic (pre-Netflix) MST3K. There are also several scheduled livestreams for premieres of the new episodes and classic MST3K episodes commented on by various MST crew members.
The first three episodes of the 13th Season will premiere this weekend. There are several genres of film that are typical for MST3K. These first three episodes, Santo in the Treasure of Dracula, Robot Wars, and Beyond Atlantis, are from three of these distinct genres.
Santo is a Mexican Wrestling film. It’s one of the oddest regional film genres. Santo, a champion wrestler, is also a super-secret spy and a scientist. No one knows his identity (Mexican wrestlers, luchadores, always wear masks) but he is relied on by top government officials for his prowess in and out of the ring. So he sends his girlfriend into a past life where she encounters Dracula.
Robot Wars is a ’90s direct-to-video movie from Full Moon productions. They’re most famous for the Puppetmaster movies. This is a cheap sci-fi flick with fun stop-motion robots and less fun human actors. It feels like it should be a sequel to Robot Jox, but it isn’t. It lacks the texture and sense of that film, which makes it better fodder for mockery.
Both of those films are hosted by Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray Rodriguez) who was the host for the Netflix era of the film. The installation of a Satellite of Love simulator creates the opportunity for the Forresters to install a new host and set of robots. If that makes any sense to you, you’re fine. If it doesn’t, remember this line from the theme song: “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.”
There’s an entire in-show mythology, and it’s confusing, but it also doesn’t matter. What does matter is the new host, Emily Connor (played by Emily Marsh). Ancient people on the Internet will remember the Host Wars, where the question of who was better, Joel or Mike, divided friendships. Families. Maybe nations.
Happily, Emily fits right in with her debut episode Beyond Atlantis. It’s an exploitation movie from the Philippines that was apparently made to not be too exploitative at all, but more family friendly. Which made it kind of useless, and useless films are the best fodder for an MST3K episode. Emily Connor has an immediate likeability that serves well for someone you have to spend hours with, watching movies.
Looking at the schedule ahead, there are plenty of bad movies, semi-famous and completely obscure, on the agenda. Unfortunately, my favorite genre, low-budget ’50s and ’60s black and white teen dramas, seems to be absent. When MST3K was new, they had slim pickings for what movies they could get to make fun on. A lot of great (terrible) obscure movies like Girls Town, The Girl in Lover’s Lane, and The Screaming Skull filled out the film rosters. Watching those over and over are some of my happiest youthful memories, and I hope at some point in the future that mine of terribleness will again be struck.
The question of how good or bad these episodes are kind of misses the point, because MST3K is not just a TV show. It’s a way of looking at things. Nobody likes the host segments at first. They just want the movie, but as you get used to the format what was once lame becomes endearing. And the jokes are so rapid fire and dense that if you only get a third of them, you still have a high laugh-to-joke ratio.
For my measure, I was predisposed against Santo, since I really don’t like Mexican wrestler films, but a few jokes (“Usually I’m not a veal guy”) really got me. Robot Wars was more my speed, but the film’s limited sets made for some limited opportunities for humor. Beyond Atlantis is the most interesting of the films, and maybe the daffiest.
The format of MST3K is equal parts commentary track and puppet show. Presaging YouTube “Reaction” videos by 30 years, the entire ethos of MST3K is about response to culture. A cheesy movie is played, the puppets make fun of it. What started as a way to fill desperately needed airtime became a prototype for enormous swaths of internet culture.
Joel Hodgson, the creator of the series, has always stressed the important of the visual aspect of the series. The puppet silhouettes in front of the screen are every bit as important as the jokes they’re telling. The host segments are just as much a part of the show as the movie. It might take a newcomer some time to warm to the disparate (and weird) aspects of the show. It seems cheap and cheesy. That’s the point.
The Gizmoplex opens today with one new episode of the show, two more to come this weekend. There are different levels of content depending on the plan one has paid for, but everyone has access to the classic MST3K. From the first three episodes, I would say the season has a pretty strong foundation to build from. There will be 13 episodes, and several livestreams, being released throughout the year. MST3K has been a constant companion of mine throughout my life, and it has also been constantly changing. It’s exciting to see where this new form will take the show that will not die.