Monday, May 1, 2017

The Return of MST3K

I truly have a hard time explaining Mystery Science Theater 3000 to anyone who hasn't experienced it for themselves... and a harder time explaining why it's so exciting that it's come back. On the surface, it's three dudes yelling at movies with a cute conceit around it similar to the styling of local late night horror hosts. (If you're unfamiliar with those, check out this list or have a read of Randy Milholland's Midnight Macabre.)

What's hardest to explain is that Joel Hodgson and company literally created an art form. And yeah, a lot of people will look at MST3K (and Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax) and say "What's so special about it? My siblings and I did this every Saturday afternoon." Which to me feels a bit like asking why you'd buy a Stones CD when your brother can kinda play guitar, but to each their own.

Yelling shit back at movies is, truthfully, not new. Yelling scripted shit back at movies is a Halloween tradition. But the style, the format, the pacing, and the philosophy that came from MST3K were all inventions of the show combined with those old traditions. That's why it's a thing, and that's what's hard to explain. Here and now in 2017, it's practically its own form of theatre, with its own set of rules.

When it was first created as a local show for the Minneapolis/St. Paul area, the staff had a hard job ahead of them. They were meshing multiple types of shows, essentially creating a brand new genre that consisted of one show total, and then having to build their own fan base from the ground up. They had a lot of tools at their disposal: fandom's love of crappy movies, the tradition of local horror hosts, a lot of good comedy writers, and Joel's experience with puppets and prop comedy. From there you got this insane hybrid: a setting for old shlocky sci-fi that was in itself a shlocky sci-fi complete with mad scientists, robots made from household items, and rickety sets.

And then it bloody well succeeded.

I was a wee thing when the show first came to Comedy Central. The most advanced Internet we had was CompuServe, so all the fan club doings were conducted by mail. Send a SASE to their address in HOP-kins, Minnesota, and you'd get their semi-regular newsletter printed on coloured paper. Merchandise consisted of Hi-keeba! and I'm Huge! bumper stickers at best, and they read actual tangible fan mail. These days that sounds a bit backwards, but at the time it was a strange, spread-out community that you only found via inserting quotes into conversation.

Its time on Sci-Fi (now SyFy) helped the spread of the show and carried it forward into home videos and a theatrical release... and then it ended. But it crossed into the modern wired world before it bowed out. And in the process, with the comings and goings of goodies and baddies, it started to develop its own little storyline.

With Joel at the helm of Season 11, we see the show retaining major elements of both his era and the era of Mike Nelson, his replacement (who went on to co-found Rifftrax). The prop comedy of the Invention Exchange segments is back, and Jonah's performance is much closer to Joel's bewildered laid-back humour than Mike's more upbeat (but still damned funny) style. But we're also seeing more character building when it comes to the new set of mad scientists as we saw with Pearl and her crew. Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and TV's Son of TV's Frank (Patton Oswalt) are one-offs of their parents, the original Mads played by Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff, but they also very much have their own personalities and storyline.

Oh, right. Storyline.

See, that's the thing about bringing back a show after, like, a couple of decades. Entertainment and technology have moved on, and while the extra years gives us a whole new pool of cultural references, it also means the format has to adapt. Rather than being broadcast weekly -- in large part because very few networks are willing to hand over a weekly two-hour block anymore, I'm sure -- the whole thing is on Netflix, primed for binge-watching. And rather than the experiment being simply to see if a human can be driven mad by bad movies, Kinga has added an almost Cabin in the Woods-ish extra layer: she wants to monetize the experiment as a binge-able long form show, too.

So the storytelling style has evolved by necessity... but also as a parody of modern entertainment. Kinga is self-aware, knowing that a romantic subplot is necessary for good ratings and thus staging one, while Max (TSoTF's real name) pines for her back a step and to the left. It's another damn impressive the thing the show has done: not only did it create a genre, it upgraded the genre for the modern world.

It would be unfair to say that absolutely nothing was changed but that, of course. Yes, things are changed, but they're largely things that would totally have been done in the first ten seasons if they'd had the ability. More sight gags during the movie (thanks to Tom Servo being able to fly and a lot of silhouette experimenting that seemed to have gotten its dry run in Cinematic Titanic), Gypsy being ceiling-mounted and able to pop in for lines here and there, and more flexible (but still low-budget) effects. In other words, it wasn't broke so they didn't fix it, but they did shine it up a bit.

Creating your own fanbase for your own made-up genre is hard work, but the existence of season 11 shows us the payoff: those fans will have your back. Their Kickstarter was the most successful TV-related campaign in the history of the site, and stretch goals continued to pile on, allowing for the 14-episode run. And, fingers crossed, high ratings and continued support will allow it to come back.

There are ridiculous amounts of things to say about the show's return: the evolution of the jokes when it comes to calling out movies on bad roles for women, the guest stars, the use of music... but my fingers hurt. All I can say is if you haven't given the reboot a chance, please do. You won't be disappointed.