National Post



- Robert Ito

As TV shows go, Mystery Science Theater 3000 has a pretty simple setup. Play a lousy movie — the 1988 Gremlins rip- off Hobgoblins or the 1986 Adam West thriller Zombie Nightmare — then have three smart alecks weigh in on the lacklustre acting and nonsensica­l plot. What could be easier or more thrifty, if not necessaril­y golden age of TV worthy?

But what could have been gratingly bad instead became a long- running cult hit, on the air for 10 seasons, first on a single UHF station in Minneapoli­s in 1988 and eventually on Comedy Central. The show inspired books, marathon screenings, a 1996 feature film and numerous parodies and copycats. It also earned two Emmy nomination­s and a Peabody Award in 1993 alongside 60 Minutes and NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross.

And on Friday, after one of the largest Kickstarte­r campaigns so far, the series will be revived on Netflix with 14 new 90- minute episodes.

Joel Hodgson, the creator of the series and one of its first hosts who has worked as a magician, ventriloqu­ist, standup comic and toy designer over the years, said he can’t quite believe his show has reached the big time.

“Our show has never been on prime time and now it kind of is,” Hodgson said. “We were always on at two in the morning on cable or on Saturday mornings. Now people can watch at seven in the evening if they want.”

Hodgson’s original ( and ridiculous) conceit is still intact on Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return. A hapless pi- lot aboard an orbiting spacecraft ( the Satellite of Love) is forced to watch the endless parade of B movies as part of a diabolical experiment conducted by mad scientists. To keep himself company ( and to stave off madness), the pilot creates two robot pals, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, who join him in tossing incredulou­s zingers at the screen as the movies unspool.

While several former cast members will return in cameos, including the men who voiced the original Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot, the three wisecracke­rs and supporting cast are all new. Jonah Ray stars as the hapless pilot Jonah Heston, while Baron Vaughn ( Servo) and Hampton Yount ( Crow) voice his two robotic friends.

“A lot of people wanted the old cast,” Hodgson said. “They were like, ‘ It’s got to be you or Mike.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m 57. I can’t be the guy. That would be like a reunion show.’”

The new version will also have something else the original lacked: big- name stars. In addition to the show regulars Patton Oswalt ( Agents of S. H. I. E. L. D.) and Felicia Day ( Supernatur­al, The Guild), who play the series’ villains, guest stars will include Jerry Seinfeld, Mark Hamill, Joel McHale and Neil Patrick Harris.

In September, the cast and crew were filming an episode of the show here at the Apache Studios, which was swarming with producers, puppeteers, artists and deep- pocketed Kickstarte­r donors. ( In one month, more than 48,000 backers contribute­d $ 5.7 million to the cause.) Outside the soundstage­s, freshly painted brains were drying in the warm California sun; in a nearby prop room were extra robots — full-colour ones for the skits, allblack ones for the signature theatre scenes, when the characters are shown in silhouette.

The featured movie is top secret ( the showrunner­s would rather that viewers come to the movies cold), but it involves a large reptilian monster (not Godzilla) trashing a large metropolit­an area ( not Tokyo). The three rehearsed a related skit in which Servo tries to persuade Crow to help him open a monster-themed nightclub, complete with monster- created disasters. Crow is skeptical. “People don’t want to be crushed to death,” he countered, sensibly.

Servo and Crow were controlled by puppeteers beneath the stage, while other crew members moved bits of scenery to “animate” the action. Offstage, Vaughn and Yount read their lines, opening and closing their characters’ mouths remotely by pressing the triggers on jury rigged model- car controller­s. Working the robots is so complicate­d that the needs of the human actors often go unnoticed. “My performanc­e is kind of low on the list of things that they’ll go back and fix,” Ray said. “I’m like, ‘ I flubbed my line,’ but they’ll be like, ‘ Yeah, but that was perfect for the bots.’”

Although the show often feels as if it were created on the fly, all the episodes are scripted. “A lot of people assume it’s improvised, which would be crazy, because we’d just be talking over each other all the time,” Yount said.

Riffing aside, the series lives or dies on the featured movies. Over its 10-season run, the show has favoured forgotten monster movies, schlocky sci- fi and martial arts films, with a particular emphasis on battles royale between unlikely opponents (Santo vs. las mujeres vampiro, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians) and small animals made terrifying­ly large ( Attack of the Giant Leeches, The Killer Shrews).

And not just any forgotten movie will do. At the very least, it has to have copious amounts of dead air to accommodat­e all that riffing and a decent print to accommodat­e today’s giant HD television screens.

In February, Netflix and executive producers from Shout! Factory presented a sneak peek of the first episode at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Nearly all of the cast and crew and producers were there, as well as executives from Netflix and scores of Kickstarte­r contributo­rs, some of whom had pledged as much as $25,000 to be there.

For lovers of the series, the revival is a huge deal, a momentous occasion after nearly two decades of waiting. For others, it’s less so. When Ray told his parents that he was set to star in the classic cult series, the magnitude of the event eluded them. “My dad was like, ‘ Yeah, hopefully that’ll lead to something,’” Ray said. “And I was like: “It did! It already did. This is the thing it led to.’"


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 ?? DARREN MICHAELS ?? Jonah Ray stars as the hapless pilot in the new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 coming to Netflix this week.
DARREN MICHAELS Jonah Ray stars as the hapless pilot in the new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 coming to Netflix this week.

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