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Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Return genuinely loves its 14 bad films. You may not.

MST3K: The Return brings us riffs, giant monsters, and at least one excruciating film.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Throughout the long-awaited new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000, new host Jonah keeps attempting to introduce new bot companions to his classic pals Tom Servo and Crow — to no avail. Each time, Servo and Crow immediately vanquish the incoming android, destroying any perceived threats to replace them with newer models.

That’s a great running joke in keeping with Servo and Crow’s characters, but it’s also a metaphor for the new season as a whole. Overall, season 11 of MST3K is blessedly familiar — or at least it is until you scratch the surface.

Produced by original creator Joel Hodgson and featuring a litany of geek all-stars like Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt as the new “Mads” — mad scientist Kinga Forrester and her trusty henchman — the show’s 11th season has the look and feel of classic MST3K. Jonah Ray as Jonah Heston, the latest kidnapped bad movie victim, is perfectly enjoyable, as are his returning “bot” companions — Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo and Hampton Yount as Crow. As Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff has already pointed out, Hodgson has taken great pains to make the new season feel as retro, low-budget, and jocularly hokey as MST3K ever was, while updating the riffs with modern references and a whole new slate of terrible B movies to mock.

But with 14 new episodes — the third of which is MST3K’s 200th overall — there are bound to be both hits and misses. And sure enough, once the initial excitement of recognizing the familiar format and bad movies we love has worn off, the differences begin to peek through.

The main difference between old and new MST3K: the riffs are geekier

If there’s any huge difference to be found between old and new MST3K, you’ll find it in the riffs. Overall, the new season’s riffs are very much modeled on the riffing style that old-school MST3K perfected. If you love classic staples like “…line?” “Actor 1 playing Actor 2 as Actor 3 in Random Movie Title!” singing, and Packers jokes, then everything you loved about MST3K is here in full supply.

But where old-school MST3K covered a vast pantheon of sociocultural knowledge — one of the series’ greatest delights was the sheer randomness and breadth of the cultural references floating around the Satellite of Love — you won’t find nearly as much esoterica in the new series. The new riffs are rooted firmly in modern geek culture, with a generally narrower range of references. This is reflected in the litany of guest stars, geek cameos, and geek writers who appear over the course of the season, from Buck Rogers alum Erin Gray in the first episode to Mark Hamill in Episode 12, and writers like Rick and Morty creators Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon.

The new MST3K riffs reflect this creative team’s experience with mainstream geek fandom. (In this, they resemble Rifftrax, the successful MST3K offshoot formed in 2006 by original contributors Mike Nelson, Bill Corbett, and Kevin Murphy.) Because the jokes are both faster-paced and scoped from a narrower field of pop culture, they don’t always feel fresh or surprising. But they’re still usually pretty funny, and the fact that the references are a known quantity helps sell the reboot’s aura of comforting familiarity.

The new season gains complexity from an eternal MST3K fan debate

In season five of MST3K’s 10-season run, creator and original show host Joel Hodgson left the show and handed his hosting duties over to Mike Nelson, who up until then had served as MST3K’s head writer. The subsequent endless fan debates over which “era” of the series was better has been broadened by the new season, both by the addition of a third host and by Hodgson’s return as executive producer and co-director.

There were several subtle differences between the Joel and Mike eras of MST3K, but the main distinction is spiritual. Playing a character who has been kidnapped by mad scientists, jettisoned into space, and forced to watch bad movies, Joel’s character exuded enjoyment of the absurdity of his experience, where Mike participated in his bad movie experiment with more flagrant, long-suffering resistance. When Joel finally gave in and started arguing with a movie, you knew that movie was truly bad; with Mike, arguing with the movie was an innate part of the viewing experience.

Unsurprisingly, given Hodgson’s involvement, season 11 is in many ways a return to the Joel era of MST3K. This is most evident in the skits, which revive the invention exchange and carry it through all 14 episodes. But it’s also evident in things like movie selection and the general approach to the films themselves.

It makes sense that Hodgson might not have wanted Nelson to return to the series reboot as a riffer — as previously noted, Nelson already helped evolve MST3K into the modern era through Rifftrax, so anyone wanting more of Mike-era MST3K can already find plenty of it.

Hodgson did call on numerous members of the Mike-era staff to aid him in this production, including Corbett and Murphy and original writing staffer Paul Chaplin, so season 11 doesn’t completely abandon that era of MST3K. But more than losing Mike himself, I found myself missing the Mike-era sensibility as I watched this new season: the sense that half the fun of watching a bad B-movie is fighting with it.

My colleague VanDerWerff has argued that MST3K is at its best when it foregoes the snark and sticks to less aggressive mockery of the films it’s skewering; but when the fictional conceit at play is that our hero is being “forced” to endure bad films, the audience’s basic goodwill should be allowed to have its limits. MST3K’s choice to include a film as excruciating as Carnival Magic in its lineup and then not spend every second of it wielding jokes that mask barely contained, yet fully justifiable, resentment at the film’s existence feels a bit like cheating.

Still, all in all, the new season has done a good job at uniting both “sides” of the series, and I’d rather have a full new season of good-natured, Joel-flavored positivity than no new season of MST3K at all. That the new season also happens to deliver so much of what we love about MST3K as a whole is a happy bonus.

Cut to the chase — which bad movies are worth watching?

As always with MST3K, bad movie greatness is in the eye of the beholder, but there are a few standouts in season 11 that have to be seen to be believed. This ranking is geared more toward evaluating movie watchability than riff quality.

“Do you realize how much duct tape it’s gonna take for us to repair that Hydra?”

On a scale from Red Zone Cuba to Space Mutiny, these films are a solid Rowsdower

  • Episode two, Cry Wilderness

Of all the films in the new series’ arsenal, this one comes closest to the Hot FuzzLovefool” bar of utter WTF-ery. Teeming with stock footage of wild animals and featuring one of the great cinematic non-sequiturs, this story manages to wedge a conservationist motif into a boy’s wilderness adventure. Along the way, we meet a Coke-loving Sasquatch, a transparent Native American mystic, an evil hunter, and a bunch of raccoons. The riffs are almost incidental to the magic.

  • Episode 11, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2

Not to be confused with the totally different plot and cast of its predecessor, the sequel has all the ingredients of a movie that can only be redeemed by a series of excellent riffs: an obnoxious kid wizard, a phoning-it-in David Carradine, adolescent sexual humor, recurring chicken jokes, and terrible B-movie magic effects atop lots of sword-and-sandal group fights. This episode unites the best of old and new MST3K: well-paced riffs blending with absurd built-in movie comedy, splashed with a dollop of genuine fun.

  • Episode eight, The Loves of Hercules

This film breaks into my instant favorites list thanks to starlet Jayne Mansfield’s campy acting, the Wiseau-esque posturing of her real-life husband Mickey Hargitay as Hercules, and a truly tremendous sequence of B-movie-dom wherein Hercules fights a puppet-head Hydra. It’s a must-see.

Fortunately, this season doesn’t suffer from a dearth of giant monsters — four dinosaurs, three Hydra heads, two Sasquatch, and a car-driving chimpanzee!

  • Episode five, The Beast of Hollow Mountain

The fact that we don’t actually meet the titular Beast until about five minutes before the end of the movie is just one of the many pleasures of this romp through a bevy of Western tropes and Mexican stereotypes.

  • Episode six, Starcrash

Jonah and the bots’ constant callouts to this film’s status as a blatant Star Wars rip-off are almost a detraction from how kooky this space opera is on its own. By the time Captain Von Trapp actually does crash a star, you won’t even really be surprised.

  • Episode 13, The Christmas that Almost Wasn’t

The new season’s holiday movie is like a present you get to unwrap early — one that comes with an over-the-top villain who has to be taught the magic of Christmas. The scenes when Santa sings are among the truly surreal MST3K moments of wonder, topped only by the hilarious riffing sequence that accompanies his climactic sleigh ride.

  • Episode 14, At the Earth’s Core

This is a great note to end this season on, both because the entire movie is a Mole People throwback and because it sets up our hero, Doug McClure, as a worthy successor to Mole People’s John Agar and as a bastion of riffable bad films in his own right. Plus, the season concludes the ongoing story of Kinga’s attempt to become world ruler of television ratings on what amounts to a cliffhanger ending. Well done.

“One last macarena before I die...” — Yongary

My My My My Mid-tier

  • Episode nine, Yongary

As far as MST3K Kaiju go, Yongary is no Gamera, but this classic monster story from Korea outdoes the ordinary brand with a truly memorable death scene. Who knew stop-motion monsters could chew so much scenery?

  • Episode 10, Wizards of the Lost Kingdom

Almost as good as Wizards of the Lost Kingdom 2, except its wizard kid isn’t quite as obnoxious, its louche maverick turned reluctant hero isn’t quite as David Carradine-y, and it suffers from a dearth of chicken jokes.

  • Episode three, Time Travelers

This movie has almost no plot to speak of outside the mugging of its hammy comic relief character “Danny,” but the hilarious and inexplicable ending elevates it from being a complete snoozefest.

“It’s getting slippery in here, I’ll just grab one of those large pots of tomato sauce and spillAHHHHH!” — Avalanche

Coleman Francis levels of boredom

  • Episode one, Reptilicus

A movie that MST3K fans have long hoped to see riffed, Danish monster movie Reptilicus opens the new season in style, but suffers from an overabundance of riffs that make it, surprisingly, a bit of a slog.

  • Episode four, Avalanche

I’m still not sure how this movie was a whole movie — after indulging in the star power of Rock Hudson and Mia Farrow for most of its first half, the film delivers the promised avalanche and … that’s about it. I can only assume the real third act involving heroic rescue attempts and poignant deaths was swept away along with the movie’s budget in all that fake snow.

  • Episode seven, The Land that Time Forgot

Another Doug McClure star vehicle, this is the movie that time forgot — for good reason. Nothing happens on a German U-boat, and then nothing happens on a prehistoric Antarctic island. Not even solid riffs can save this one from being a snore.

“I’m a chimp driving a car; even I’m bored with this.”

Sheer Manos-level torture

  • Episode 12, Carnival Magic

Every show has its “dark night of the soul” moment, but there’s no excuse for this. Whoever thought forcing us to watch an entire 75-minute film about a trained carnival chimp doing whimsical trained chimp things, only to ultimately become a miserable pawn of human greed and exploitation, should be caged and force-fed to a horde of raging Torgos. Not even the world’s most excellent Mark Hamill cameo can make up for the torture of this film. I’ll never get those moments of my life back, and I completely blame the 13 writers who worked on creating riffs. You are all complicit; none of you is without blame.