After nearly two decades of dormancy, Mystery Science Theater 3000 rocketed back to life last year thanks to a staggeringly successful Kickstarter campaign and the arrival of the program on Netflix. Though the original cast was long gone, subsequent replacements made cameos and original host/creator Joel Hodgson was behind the scenes. In the place of Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein — or their replacements Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy — were Jonah Ray and comedians Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount. Their first season is now finally out on Blu-ray and, for the most part, their work and the very essence of MST3K is preserved in this eight disc set from Shout! Factory.
The narrative framework of the show is maintained with a slight update. Ray stars as Jonah Heston, a beloved student at Gizmonics Institute who responds to a distress signal originating from the dark side of the Moon. It turns out to be a trap set by Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day), daughter of the original MST3K‘s Dr. Clayton Forrester. Her plan for Jonah involves resuscitating her father’s most lucrative enterprise: Mystery Science Theater 3000 itself! One idea contained in the original program was the occasional reference to Forrester selling tapes of Joel and the his robot friends watching bad movies to a cable company; allowing him to continue his plan to rule the world. For Kinga, reviving MST3K is the means to a simpler goal: becoming the queen of all media.
But as the theme song states, you should just relax in regards to the narrative supporting the show’s real objective: riffing on cheesy movies. Season 11 of the show features some of the finest examples of cheese ever riffed and a handful of slower, but well-produced clunkers. Fans of the old show may find the pace at which Jonah and his robot pals Crow T. Robot (Yount) and Tom Servo (Vaughn) riff a little hard to deal with at first. But by halfway through the season, their rhythm works and the movies themselves offer plenty of goofy surprises. The rushed riffing in the first few episodes also extends to a number of the host segments, but each episode features a least one riotously funny sketch. The bizarre “native” dance Crow and Servo perform in episode 1105, The Beast of Hollow Mountain, might be one of the funniest things in the entire season.
Like the original show, Season 11 is a mix of monster movies, sci-fi rip-offs and the plain inexplicable. The viewer’s appreciation for each episode will vary based on their tolerance of the movie on display or its subject matter. The two giant monster flicks in the season, Reptilicus and Yongary, are not my favorite monster movies ever used on the show. The former, despite being the first episode of the new season, I’ve watched once while Yongary proves to be the better of the two thanks to some great riffing and the running gag of “capsule!”
Other favorites include Starcrash, a Star Wars ripoff with David Hasselhoff; Avalanche, a star-studded 1970s disaster movie that sluggishly makes its way to the disaster; and The Land that Time Forgot, MST3K‘s first exposure to infamously hammy actor Doug McClure.
The two absolute standouts, though, are the second episode, Cry Wilderness and a latter episode which feature the film Carnival Magic. Both movies come from the inexplicable school of filmmaking where both establish a premise and then wonder around it for 90 minutes. If you watch the series in order, Cry Wilderness will put to rest any doubts you might have in Jonah and the new bot voices from Reptilicus as the team find recent cultural touchstones to references and a terrible central character to mock in what has to be the lamest Bigfoot movie every made. Carnival Magic is probably the slowest film of the season, but the riffing keeps things moving as the film itself avoids conflict until the last few minutes. It is a remarkable thing to behold.
The set’s lone special feature is We Brought Back MST3K, an exhaustive look at the resurrection of the series with Hodgson, key producers, the stars, co-star Patton Oswalt and former MST3K staffers like Corbett and Mary Jo Pehl discussing the return and some of the ways it differs from the original series. It may in fact be the longest documentary Ballyhoo has produced for a MST3K set, but it honors the journey Hodgson undertook to bring the series back to the fans.
Mystery Science Theater 3000 Season 11 is a worthy addition to any MSTie’s home video collection. And since it is so current, episodes like Starcrash and Cry Wilderness provide new fans with a great entry point to movie riffing and the wild world of cheesy movies.