An article in Salon magazine reports that Glenn Beck has started a training camp to indoctrinate incoming college students in fringe views of history. Working with pseudo-historian David Barton, Beck plans to hold a two-week, $375 per student camp to teach students a fundamentalist Christian version of American history so “they can then set their ignorant professors straight on the ‘real’ history of America.” Beck, as you will recall, is a Mormon who has used his media outlets to promote hyper-diffusionism and fringe history views about Mound Builders and other “mysteries” of ancient America in a bid to support the fantasies of the Book of Mormon. Barton believes that the Founders were fundamentalist Christians who ensconced creationism in America’s founding documents because they somehow intuited the theory of evolution and rejected it as ungodly before it had even been proposed. Both men prefer a version of history that places white men at the center of events. Beck’s camp seems to hit all the fringe history sweet spots: fundamentalism, anti-elitism, white nationalism, etc.
But enough of that misery. Today I’d like to talk a bit about the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which debuted yesterday on Netflix. I have to admit to being of two minds about the resurrected series. The original was a favorite of mine as a kid, and the new version both recalls the original and doesn’t quite live up to my memory of what it used to be. Insofar as that’s the case, it’s more due to the vagaries of nostalgia and rose-colored glasses with which I view media from my younger years than anything specific about the new series.
For the resurrected MST3K, a new cast has taken over, with different voice actors for robots Crow and Tom Servo (Hampton Yount and Baron Vaughn), and a new host, Johan Ray, playing space delivery man Jonah Heston. I haven’t really warmed to Ray/Heston yet, and in the couple of episodes I’ve watched, he seems to be a competent if unmemorable presence. As the series goes on, perhaps the character develops some personality traits, but in the early going, he is a character without qualities.
New villains Kinga Forrester and TV’s Son of TV’s Frank, played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, are instantly more compelling than our heroes, and their comedic experience as regular TV presences helps give more life to their characters in their brief appearances. Even so, I can’t help but feel more excitement at the special guest appearances of late original-series villain team Pearl Forrester, Bobo, and Brain Guy in episode 2 than in the somewhat derivative shtick of the new team, which at times comes too close to what Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank did in early seasons of the first MST3K run. I have high hopes, though, that over time they will develop personalities of their own rather than emulating the villains of yore.
But all of this is really window dressing for the question of whether the jokes are any good. So far, they’ve been pretty good. During the first episode, the deathly dull Danish disaster Reptilicus, I thought they leaned a bit toward the juvenile, but by the end of the second episode, the bizarre Bigfoot film Cry Wilderness, I was convinced that the writers had captured the pop culture magic of MST3K’s riffing. That said, the new team reportedly said that they wanted more jokes per minute because the internet has trained audiences to take in more information. Personally, I found the nearly non-stop taking to be less effective than allowing the movie a little room to breathe. At times, it was a little hard to follow the movie for all the talking, and jokes pass by too fast for the best ones to have the time to really land. Sometimes judicious silence can make the joke stronger.
However, these are mostly minor quibbles, and perhaps my reaction is mostly due to the fact that the old MST3K team never really went away, so there is a natural temptation to compare. MST3K vets Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett currently produce MST3K-style riffs for RiffTrax, and it is completely bizarre to think that I have spent more than twenty years (!) listening to those three guys make jokes about crappy B-movies. When you listen to the same guys making fun of movies for decades, you sort of get used to their rhythms and their style. Two episodes can’t really compete against twenty years of memories, especially since there have been some RiffTrax episodes that would stand up against anything MST3K ever produced.
So, in short, the new show is good, but at this stage it still feels to me a bit like seeing a tribute band, at least until they find a way to make their own music.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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