I really love Mystery Science Theater 3000. I love the episodes where (original host) Joel Hodgson hosted it, I love the episodes where Mike Nelson hosted it, and I love the episodes where Jonah Ray hosted it. I love the Turkey Day marathons. I was too young to watch them when they actually aired on Comedy Central and, later, Sci-Fi channel, but I’ve been enjoying them since Shout TV resurrected them a few years ago. So the idea of the newest season of the show, subtitled The Gauntlet, premiering on Thanksgiving was one that was immediately appealing to me. What could be better than eating Thanksgiving dinner and watching some cheesy movies being made fun of by a man and his robot friends? Answer: very little, because The Gauntlet is an excellent season of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
After her failed stunt-marriage to Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray), mad scientist Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day), and her sidekick Max (Patton Oswalt), decide to subject Jonah, Crow (Hampton Yount), and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn) to a six-movie marathon she’s calling The Gauntlet.
This season of MST3K was structured as something to be binge-watched. In-universe, it was being “binge-made” as Jonah and the robots were being forced to watch these films back to back to back to back to back to back. In reality, it was an effort by Joel Hodgson (creator of MST3K) and the other writers to better structure the show for Netflix’s binge-watching model. The previous season, which was crowdfunded by a bunch of the fans, featured 14 ninety-minute episodes which all dropped at one time on Netflix. That’s just too much content to binge watch and, as a result, the show probably didn’t do as well in its first week as Netflix would have liked. Luckily, it’s been given a second chance with this season, and I really think this season hits it out of the park. MST3K: The Return featured a number of problems that could easily be chalked up to growing pains/an entirely new cast and crew trying to get their footing: riffs that didn’t quite feel timed right, host segments that featured actors who didn’t quite seem comfortable in their roles yet, and a balls-to-the-wall attitude that suggested a lack of confidence in the future of the show and a desire to accomplish everything they wanted to do while also featuring an almost suffocating amount of callbacks to the past. Thankfully, this season fixes all three of those issues. The riffs feel a lot more natural and are timed much better, likely due to the fact that Jonah, Baron, and Hampton actually recorded them in the same room together and were able to feed off of each other as a result; the host segments feel a lot more fleshed out and natural, much like they did in the original series, probably due to the fact that everyone is a lot more comfortable in their roles; and this season focuses more on the future than it does on the past, though there are a few nice callbacks to the history of the show. More on that soon.
Episode 1 begins with very little hullabaloo about resolving any lingering plot threads from the previous season. As the theme song says: just repeat to yourself it’s just a show, I should really just relax. The episode starts off really strong with a very enjoyable host segment that introduces the concept of this season: The Gauntlet. We are then immediately thrown into our first film: Mac and Me. I actually rather enjoyed Mac and Me. It’s a fun movie and the episode features a lot of funny jokes. It’s here where we first notice one of the major improvements of this season: the pacing of the jokes. Last season, it felt like they were throwing as many jokes as possible at the screen to see what would stick. This season, they seem to have refined their process and the jokes all land better because they’re given some time to breathe. As I mentioned earlier, it feels like they’ve gotten the hang of the host segments too. Everyone feels a lot more confident in their roles and it makes for a much funnier and enjoyable experience. I did notice the fact that these shorter episodes are missing a host segment in the middle of the film and I do miss it, but it’s not enough to really bother me.
As you’d expect, episode 2 picks up pretty much exactly where episode 1 left off with Jonah and the robots having to drill new holes in the movie holder thing. It’s in this scene where we’re introduced to another of this season’s ongoing plots: Jonah and the Robots’ escape plan. It’s a plotline that won’t come to full fruition until the season finale, but it’s some fun setup that’s revisited throughout the rest of the episodes. After a fun invention exchanged, we’re whisked off to this episodes movie and it’s almost amazing just how bad the film, Atlantic Rim, is. There’s only so much Jonah and the bots could do when it comes to mocking the film. It’s hard to make jokes about something that’s not taking itself seriously. But Atlantic Rim also isn’t good as a parody of Pacific Rim either. It’s just really bad and really boring. The riffs do a decent enough job at making it watchable, though, and there are some fun host segments that keep this episode enjoyable.
Episode 3 continues our marathon through six cheesy movies with a movie that isn’t actually too awful: Lords of the Deep is a kind of fun base-under-siege story. Like most low-budget sci-fi affairs, it’s often boring at times since it doesn’t have the budget to show its monster as much as it might like to (which is a shame, because the monster is super cute), but it has a nice atmosphere and some interesting visuals. There are some funny jokes made by Jonah and the bots during the film, but aside from the design of the monster, the film is kinda boring and forgettable. I did love the final host segment featuring the appearance of Dr. Donna St. Phibes (Deanna Rooney), a doctor who studies monsters or something. And it’s always fun when the show incorporates elements from the movies it’s riffing into the host segments.
With episode 4, we find ourselves halfway through The Gauntlet. It’s just a shame that its film, The Day Time Ended, is so bad. It’s tied with Atlantic Rim as the worst film in this season. It’s, visually, the ugliest of the films and it never really goes anywhere. It has some ideas that are interesting, but its effects are dreadful and its acting is even worse. That being said, there are some damn good jokes in this episode. There’s a really fun recurring one about how the barn in the film looks like something out of Jesus’ time. Plus there’s a really great song in one of the host segments called “Concept” and I bloody loved it. Also, a certain character from the first season of the show reappears in the final host segment, played by the original actor. It’s lots of fun. Also, Kinga’s mother is Kim Cattrall, so there’s that.
With the abomination that was The Day Time Ended, we move onto episode 5. The episode begins with Kinga and Max trying to figure out a way for Dr. Laurence Erhardt (J. Elvis Weinstein), Dr. Clayton Forrester’s () original partner from the first season, to be able to playback a song from the episode Pod Killers at Clayton’s funeral, as per Clayton’s wishes. It’s a fun little sketch that features Weinstein’s return to the show after a 29-year absence. It’s fun and the invention that Kinga (and Synthia (Rebecca Hanson), the clone of Pearl) ends up coming up with is clever as heck. Then we move onto the film and Killer Fish is actually an almost watchable movie on its own, but the jokes from Jonah and the bots definitely make it a more enjoyable time. The movie is probably the best film of the season (though I still like Mac and Me a lot) and there’s a really fun song sung during the movie by all the bots. It’s a really good time.
With episode 6, we finally reach the end of this six-movie binge known as The Gauntlet. Here, Kinga and Max are preparing to send Jonah and the Robots to earth, with a stack of awful movies, to go on tour and torture the world (presumably a reference to the recent MST3K live tour). Jonah and the ‘bots struggle to get through one final movie and enact their daring escape plan. This episode’s film, Ator: The Fighting Eagle, is another dull one for me. It’s nowhere near as bad as The Day Time Ended, but it’s still not very good. It’s also the only film featured in this season that isn’t really a sci-fi film. That’s not a bad thing or anything, but it’s a lot harder to do fantasy films on a low budget than it is to do sci-fi films on one, and Ator shows just why that is. The action scenes are awful, the dialogue is worse. The saving grace of this film is the genuinely hilarious jokes that Jonah and the robots are able to make. I think this episode is gonna end up as a classic episode as the film is laughably bad and the riffs on the film are top-notch. The episode ends with Jonah and the Robots tricking Kinga and Max into putting the tube with the final movie into the holder that he’s been working on the whole episode. As they do that, the holder turns into a cart that takes them into a theater hidden deep in Moon Base 13 where they are forced to watch a bad movie and riff on it as Jonah and the ‘Bots use the spaceship destined to take them on tour as their means of escape back to earth. It’s a great ending and one I’m sure can be easily reversed if the show gets picked up for another season. But if Netflix decides not to do so, it’s a good ending for this era of the show too.
All in all, Mystery Science Theatre 3000: The Gauntlet is an exceptional season of MST3K. It takes every issue that people had with the previous season and improves upon them, offering up six episodes of MST3K that stand among the best episodes the show has put out. The movies range from watchable to atrocious but the riffs always make the experience an enjoyable one. Jonah, Baron, Hampton, Felicia, and Patton all seem to be settling into their roles nicely and they’re a joy to behold. Jonah, Baron, and Hampton share a great chemistry that translates very well to Jonah, Crow, and Tom Servo. The production value of the show feels like it has increased since last season, but it still feels very homemade and a bit dinky. I just loved this season so much. Everyone from the cast to the crew seems to be operating at their highest marks and I really hope that the gimmick of making a season that’s expressly designed to binge will be enough to entice some new viewers to the show and will convince Netflix to renew it for another season!
4.5 out of 5 wands