The return of Mystery Science Theater 3000

MST 3000 features stars like Mark Hamill and Jonah Ray. 

Many question the process of how a canceled television show becomes a beloved cult show. What causes fans to religiously follow the fictionalized lives of made-up characters? There are many common factors. Cult television shows typically air with an initial lukewarm commercial response. They often feature loveable, original characters. But most importantly, there’s a sense of intimacy created between the viewer and the show. It’s the same pleasure found from sharing an inside joke with a friend.

“Mystery Science Theater 3000” is really just one big inside joke. The show’s premise is a simple one. A man and his robots are held prisoners on a “satellite of love” by a set of evil overlords. These overlords perform experiments in which they force the prisoners to watch horrible B-movies — low-budget films that typically accompany the main attraction during a double feature. To keep from going insane, the silhouetted outline of the man and his robots crack jokes during the movies — a process known as riffing.

The jokes are relentless, snarky and immature, but they’re often very intelligent. The comedians will sometimes reference very specific camera angles, movies and stars. This humor’s even more palpable when you get these references. Yet much of the laughter stems from the B-movies themselves. The stilted dialogue, scatterbrained plots and painful special effects are unintentionally hilarious. Joel Hodgson, the show’s creator, has truly unearthed some of the worst films ever made.

“MST3K” has also been canceled and revived so many times that it’s starting to resemble an indecisive zombie. The show premiered at KTMA Minneapolis in 1988. After being picked up by Comedy Central, it ran for seven seasons before being canceled in 1996. The show was then acquired by the Syfy channel for another three seasons before its second cancellation in 1999.

Yet, the show refuses to go away. In fact, it’s now become an example of the power of fan funding. Hodgson started making efforts to bring back “Mystery Science Theater 3000” in 2010. In order to avoid the demands of media companies, Hodgson started a Kickstarter campaign to bring back the series. After surpassing the $2 million goal, a new cast began filming in 2015. Now, the return of “MST3K” is available for streaming on Netflix.

While the well-known puppets Crow, Tom Servo and Gypsy returned to the show, Jonah Ray has taken the torch as the third generation “MST3K” kidnapee. Replacing the evil overlords are Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, two actors of significant importance in the geek community. Though these are new faces, the spirit of “MST3K” remains.

One of the problems with rewatching old “MST3K” episodes is that many of the jokes are fairly dated. The comedians love to reference current events in their episodes. However, these new episodes introduce a new layer of enjoyment to the show. Once again, the jokes are topical, referencing current television shows, technology and movies.

The movies themselves are as hilariously flawed as ever. “Cry Wilderness,” an adventure film about a boy, his father and Bigfoot, features a ridiculously convoluted plot mixed with non sequitur animal footage. “The Beast of Hollow Mountain” is a western and monster film mashup that doesn’t actually show its namesake beast until the last five minutes of the movie.

Horrible monster puppetry aside, the worst episode in season 11 has to be “Carnival Magic.” The plot revolves around a failing carnival that’s reinvigorated by the exploits of a whimsical chimpanzee. Not even the riffs can save this poorly veiled excuse of a movie.

Thankfully, terrible movies can’t stop the return of “MST3K” from being great. This newest season feels fresher than ever. What season 11 does better than prior seasons is the way it embraces its signature qualities. Rather than trying to cater its humor to a wider audience, the show doubles down on its inherent geekiness. The nostalgia-fueled new season was made by nerds, for nerds — and it couldn’t be better.

Contact Drew Cowen at cowends@dukes.jmu.edu