What do Jason Vorhees, Tom Brady and Mystery Science Theater 3000 all have in common? They never age, and they all take a beating and come back for more. Joel Hodgson’s creation has endured for thirty-five years across multiple networks, without changing its simple, yet elegant premise. For anyone too young to remember here it is: A lone everyman is trapped on an orbiting satellite with only three eccentric robots as company. Evil scientists back on Earth force him to watch terrible films, testing his mental stamina. He and the bots cling to their sanity by mocking the films.
Since premiering in 1988 MST3K has built a loyal, multi-generational following of “MSTies.” Much of the show’s charm stemmed from its roots as a handmade production spawned at a Minnesota television station. Yes kids, once upon a time local television stations made original programs.
From those humble beginnings MST3K was picked up by the Comedy Central Network where It ran for seven seasons. It survived multiple cast changes, including a mid-season host swap from creator Joel Hodgson to head writer Michael J. Nelson, both of whom were embraced by fans.
Comedy Central cancelled MST3K in 1996, but it was resurrected by the Syfy Channel a year later. The show thrived, despite being scheduled opposite that animated powerhouse The Simpsons. SyFy pulled the plug after three seasons marred by network interference, and a limited film library.
A ten-year television run is nothing to sneeze at, but creator Joel Hodgson wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. But despite a vocal fan base, It still took Hodgson eighteen years to resurrect his brainchild. After a phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign MST3K was picked up by streaming giant Netflix. While this reboot spawned some gems like Starcrash, it was bogged down by Netflix’s mandate to shoot all the episodes back-to-back for simultaneous streaming. That accelerated pace led to creative burnout. There were also misguided attempts to update the show’s humor, including faster tempo riffing and way too many jokes about Instagram. This incarnation lasted one and a half seasons.
In retrospect it’s remarkable that multiple broadcasters tried to put their stamp on the show while ignoring its greatest strength. MST3K was an oddity that proudly leaned into its quirky, niche status. It included goofy skits and musical numbers that were straight out of vaudeville and totally out of fashion. And what other program could get away with repeated jokes about cult heavy metal guitarist Yngwie Malmsteen, or simultaneous obscure references to The Replacements non-hit (but classic) song, Hold My Life and the forgotten cartoon Tooter Turtle? Creator Joel Hodgson commented that, while many people wouldn’t get those jokes, the right people would. He was correct. The show’s obscure references felt like personalized gifts from its creators.
Hodgson returned to Kickstarter in 2021, funding new episodes designed to run on a unique digital platform called the Gizmoplex, severing the chains of creative interference. Along with producing new episodes his team created an ambitious slate of touring live shows called The Time Bubble Tour—at least until the pandemic changed everything. The live shows got derailed, but by shooting remotely on two coasts the new episodes were completed.
Pandemic limitations mandated that these episodes return to the low-tech charm of the Comedy Central days. There’s a handcrafted, Karel Zeman film look to the two-dimensional backdrops that really suits the show. Returning host Jonah Ray lets the jokes breathe a little, rather than firing them off at the tempo of a Motorhead song. And those obscure references are back, with a vengeance!
When The Bat Woman’s villain said, “This is the only exit,” the bots retorted, “That’s one more than Sartre had.” Later, when the titular Bat Woman is seen wearing a cape while driving her convertible, the riffers quipped, “I guess she never heard of Isadora Duncan.” These jokes make you laugh and say, “Wow, I guess my Liberal Arts Degree wasn’t a waste of money after all!”
While Jonah Ray and his bots are terrific the real discovery is new, rotating host Emily Marsh, aided by bots voiced by Conor McGriffin, Kelsey Ann Brady and Yvonne Freese. After honing their ensemble comedic chops on the live performance circuit, these new kids came hot out of the gate with 1973’s Beyond Atlantis—a fast paced film starring B-Movie royalty, augmented by bad makeup and misogynistic dialogue. In short, perfect riffing fodder. Their hot streak continued with 1968’s Mexican super hero, wrestling epic The Bat Woman. But they genuinely hit it out of the park with 1979’s Star Wars wannabe The Shape of Things to Come—a film which should have opened with an apology to HG Wells. That episode’s most memorable quip came during the appearance of a suspiciously familiar looking spaceship design.
Emily asked, “What do you call a knock off of the USS Enterprise?”
Tom replied, “The USS Compromise.”
I also laughed out loud when the bots called the film’s Lycra costumes, “The shapewear of things to come.”
Not every episode hits those heights, but the films selected have to shoulder some of the blame. Two Full Moon Pictures, Robot Wars and Doctor Mordrid made it into the lineup. One might assume that Charles Band’s cut rate science fiction and horror opuses would be ideal riffing fodder, but thus far they’ve been the weakest. The problem stems from Band’s tell-not-show approach to low budget cinema. The overly talky Doctor Mordrid plays like the table reading for an unproduced Doctor Strange film. Robot Wars suffers from the same combo platter of wall-to-wall exposition and top to bottom inaction. The riffing suffered accordingly, and the performers struggled to hide their frustration. Robot Wars was the first time Jonah and the bots ‘Minnesota nice’ demeanor turned just plain mean. Older films like Santo in the Treasure of Dracula and Gamera vs Jiger still provide the best foundation for comedy.
My final verdict—The episodes are solid and the cast is great, including returnees Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the updated ‘Mads.’ MST3K stands as a shining example of American, never give up, never say die dedication. And, while it may be shot in Los Angeles, it’s still as Minnesota as a cup of Caribou coffee.
As far as the Gizmoplex goes, it’s a pleasant, easily accessed platform. I opted for renting individual movies as opposed to buying or purchasing a season pass. Everything ran smoothly. When I didn’t have time to finish watching a film, I was able to log in and pick up exactly where I left off. Season passes offer buyers access to livestream events, vault picks and other goodies. You can also download classic MST3K episodes for about $8.00, meaning you can have a legal copy of Pod People available 24/7. Sometimes you need that.
For a guy in his sixties, Joel Hodgson has a remarkable grasp of what makes a modern digital platform enjoyable. The Gizmoplex feels like a friendly, online clubhouse that you’ve been invited to join. I suspect that’s exactly what Hodgson has been trying to build for the past thirty-five years. So, dim the lights (where applicable) and enjoy a few hours with old and new friends.
And, if you’re in the mood for some literary monster mayhem check out my latest novel DOMINANT SPECIES, published by those MADs at Severed Press. You can find it on Amazon.