Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return Brings Back the Laughs

In the not-too-distant past (1988-1999), Mystery Science Theater 3000 was a cult hit, first on Comedy Central and then on the SyFy Network. Created by comedian Joel Hodgson, it ran for over 10 years, despite numerous cast changes, and a netwrok change, along the way. MST3K gained a legion of devoted fans, (myself included) all of whom were sad to see the show go off the air in 1999. Almost two decades later, Hodgson has brought his comedic gem back, with all-new episodes.  The first season of 14 episodes debuted this weekend on Netflix, and happily, the revival does not disappoint.

For those who aren’t familiar with the original MST3K, it was about a janitor/inventor named Joel Robinson (Hodgson) who is trapped aboard an orbiting satellite (which he renames the Satellite of Love) by mad scientist Dr. Clayton Forester and his goofball henchman, who are indulging in a weird experiment to see if they can use the worst movies ever made to break the human spirit. To keep himself sane as he watches the horrible films, Robinson creates four wacky robots to keep him company. Two of the robots (called “Bots”), named Crow and Tom Servo, join Robinson in the theater to mock the bad movies with uproariously funny puns, gags and witticisms. Later in the series, Robinson managed to get off the satellite and was replaced by unlucky temp worker Mike (Mike Nelson), who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

 The new series is a kinda, sorta, semi-continuation of the original. The newest mad scientist is “3rd generation super villain” Kinga Forester (Felicia Day) daughter of Clayton Forester and granddaughter of Pearl Forester (Clayton’s mother, who took over his experiments in the original show after Clayton was transformed into a baby in the later seasons). Assisting her is Max (Patton Oswalt) who plays the son of Forester’s henchman, TV’s Franks. The villain’s lair has been moved from the subterranean Deep 13, to a moon base called Moon 13.  

Instead of Joel or Mike, this time we have Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), another employee of the Gizmonic Institute, who is misfortunate enough to be chosen as the Guinee Pig for the renewed experiments of the deranged Forester family. We actually get a brief origin/set-up at the beginning of the first episode, featuring guest appearances by Erin Gray (who played Wilma Deering in Buck Rogers in the 25th Century) and Will Wheaton (Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation). We see good-natured, space travelling pilot Jonah Heston answer a distress call on the moon and get captured by Kinga and Max. He is zipped up to the satellite via the Umbilicus, and before you can say “Next Sunday AD”, the bad flicks and the good jokes begin.    

Jonah is a good follow-up to Joel and Mike, keeping the mild-mannered, everyman quality that his predecessors had. Like them, he never seems to get angry about his unfortunate predicament. He is joined by the weird and witty Bots; Crow, Tom Servo, Gypsy and Cambot. The Bots have all new voices, and it takes a few minutes to get used to the change, but you’ll adjust quickly enough. (The Bot’s voices changed during the original show, too, as some actors left and new ones came.) It helps that the new voice actors for Tom and Crow do their best to imitate the previous actors, although Gypsy sounds completely different.  

The key to the show, of course, is the humor, and MST3K: The Return supplies that. After having seen the first three episodes—Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness and Time Travelers—the new show recaptures the cleverly sarcastic wit of the original. The films they’ve chosen are perfect fodder for sarcasm and mockery. The jokes come at a faster pace than in the original show, and although they may be just a bit more hit-and-miss at this point than the previous series, you’ll still get plenty of good laughs. Old skits like the Invention Exchange are revived, as well.

There are numerous references to the earlier show, including cameos by three of the original cast members in the second episode. Joel Hodgson, who is back as a writer/producer, appears on screen a few times, but not as his old Joel Robinson character. His involvement in the show is a welcome sign, and he seems to have caught lightning in a bottle once again.

I do have one nerdy question, though…Are these supposed to be the same Bots from the original series, or brand new versions? Mike and the Bots returned to Earth at the end of the old series (ironically still spending their time watching cheesy movies). Here, it appears that Jonah found them already on board. Were they brought back or rebuilt? It’s not important but I’m just curious. 

The new show is off to a funny start. I noticed it getting funnier as the first three episodes went by, and they seem to be finding their groove, so I look forward to viewing the rest of the season. If you were a fan of the original MST3K, you’ll likely find yourself enjoying this. However, if you’re one of those people who think that a renewed series is an affront to the treasured original, well, just remember the immortal words of the MST3K theme song… “Repeat to yourself ‘It’s just a show. I should really just relax’.” So, relax and enjoy MST3K: The Return. It’s funny!