In the not too distant future—that is to say, tonight at 12:01 a.m. Pacific time, 3:01 a.m. Eastern—the crowdfunded new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 finally hits Netflix. As one of the funding contributors, I had early access to the shows and have watched the first three episodes so far. And good news for my fellow MSTies: the magic is still there.
Off to a Good Kickstart
As I noted in late 2015 as its incredibly successful Kickstarter wound down, it is no exaggeration to say that the original Mystery Science Theater 3000 helped to shape the modern popular culture of the Internet. MST3K hit the scene right when the first big expansion of the Internet to colleges across the country was happening, waves of college students were coming on-line, and many of them were taking part in the Internet writing circles that helped to set the stage for ebooks. The explosion of terrible fanfic intersected with expanding MST3K fandom to produce “MSTie fanfic” in which writers would interject sarcastic comments into badly-written stories.
Many of those early fans now have college-aged children of their own, and have passed on that fandom to them. And many of MST3K‘s alumni have launched film-riffing projects of their own. As a result, the time was right to launch a crowdfunded revival—and the revival Kickstarter has to rate as one of the best-run Kickstarter projects I’ve ever seen.
In putting the Kickstarter together, Joel Hodgson and his fellow project runners made none of the mistakes I’ve previously cited as crowdfunding kisses of death. For starters, the Kickstarter page had a great description that went into as much detail as it possibly could about every aspect of the production. It set realistic and credible goals and stretch goals, and explained exactly why each goal level was pegged at the amount it was. It had ample reward tiers with many different levels of reward, including DRM-free downloads of the episodes (which is the level I kicked in for). And Hodgson and company were tireless in answering fan questions and promoting the project, making sure that everyone who might possibly be interested had to hear about it at least once or twice. Even after the Kickstarter finished, Hodgson made sure to update backers periodically, letting them know exactly where they were in the process. In short, they did everything right.
How Good is It So Far?
But the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as they say. For the last few days, the episodes have been available for early streaming to backers, and I’ve had the opportunity to view the first three. I’m going to stay nonspecific here, so as not to spoil any surprises, but suffice it to say that fans are not going to be disappointed.
Although the nature of video production has improved considerably, with high-definition video production and better microphones, the show’s production values remain fundamentally unchanged from its early days. They still use cheap cardboard sets and miniatures, but they’re absolutely the best cheap cardboard sets and miniatures that $6 million can buy. (It is a bit of a shock seeing them in high definition for the first time, though. HD footage isn’t as kind to cardboard. It shows up all the little blemishes all the more, in much the same way as it reveals flaws in actors’ skin conditions.) The puppets are a bit fancier, and controlled by separate puppeteers now (except for the mouths, which the voice actors control themselves), but they still have much the same feel as the old versions.
The new technology has allowed for a few new flourishes in the production, including some running gags that wouldn’t have been possible in the old production style. Some of them may take a little getting used to, but you don’t even notice so much once the film has started rolling and the riffing has started.
A Return to Form
The basic structure of the show remains unchanged from its earlier incarnations. There are introductory and concluding skits, as well as several more skits evenly spaced through the movie and framed by camera zooms into and out of six vault doors. The rest of the time is taken up by silhouettes pantomiming against a movie screen as riffer Jonah Heston and his two robot companions match their wits and sarcasm against terrible movies determined to crush their souls with sheer awfulness.
Jonah Ray (Heston), Baron Vaughn (Tom Servo), and Hampton Yount (Crow) do an excellent job with both the movies and the skits. One minor criticism I’ve heard is that it can be a little hard to tell the different robots’ voices apart, but presumably that will improve as the show goes on. New “Mads” Felicia Day (Kinga Forrester) and Patton Oswalt (TV’s Son of TV’s Frank) play their roles with just the right amount of over-the-top cheesiness. The chemistry between their characters compares favorably to that between the original Clayton Forrester and TV’s Frank. And I won’t spoil any of the names, but there are guest skit players, and they are just as amusing.
The movie choices seem to hark back to the same sources as the original version of the show—mostly old obscure movies from the fifties through eighties. This helps it feel just like a continuation of the original, because it’s continuing to use exactly the same source material that the original would have. And the gag writing is excellent, with references running the usual gamut from old movies to recent Internet stuff.
One minor nitpick, to my mind, is that the show is sometimes a little too self-referential when it comes to what TVTropes calls “memetic mutations”—phrases or gags from MST3K‘s earlier incarnation that since passed into popular culture. We watch the show to see them make jokes on other pop culture, after all; it’s a little jarring to hear them make jokes on themselves. I mean, I know they did that to some extent back in the old days, too, but it seems like every show so far in the new series features a callback to the original. But then, I suppose it’s just like I said in my earlier story about the Kickstarter—that earlier version has become so widely known that it’s part of our shared collective pop culture. So naturally they’re going to base jokes on it, the same as on any other part of that heritage.
Does It Have a Future?
Fan reaction I’ve seen thus far to the new show has been overwhelmingly positive. Some fans have been annoyed that the period of exclusivity for backers to stream and download the episodes was only a few days before they became available on Netflix. But then, Hodgson and the show’s fellow producers have to walk a fine tightrope when it comes to protecting the future of their show.
The Kickstarter funded one new season, but MST3K can’t run a $6 million Kickstarter every year. After this new season, it has to hope that Netflix will be willing to bankroll future seasons itself. For that to happen, the show needs to get good streaming numbers on Netflix—and everyone who watches the show some other way than Netflix is going to hurt those numbers. Hence, it’s in the show’s best interest to allow as little time as possible for pirated versions of those episodes to propagate.
In any event, Mystery Science Theater 3000 is one of the Internet’s best-loved shows—as the amazing success of its $6 million Kickstarter should amply prove. If all the show’s many fans tune in to it on Netflix and give the new version a chance, its numbers will surely be good enough to merit future seasons. And based on what I’ve seen so far, any old-time fan who watches even just one episode will instantly fall back in love again.
It’s harder to say how well it will play for new fans, since I haven’t been one of those in a long time. But the show has a simple concept, especially with the success of Rifftrax over the last few years. And it executes that concept just as well as it ever has. I fully expect new viewers to be just as enthralled as new viewers were back in the old days.
As for watching the show on Netflix, my personal recommendation is not to binge on it. Space the show out, and just watch an episode or two a day. Like a fine wine, it needs time to breathe.
And also like a fine wine, it goes well with plenty of cheese.