REVIEW: Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet

THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW for the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The 2-Part SPOILER FILLED REVIEW and GUIDE will drop this Thursday.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, aka that show your older nerdy relatives never shut up about, celebrates its 30th year this Turkey Day. It’s a good time to be a MSTie; there’s a MST3K comic out by Dark Horse, a nationwide live tour has just wrapped up, and the 12th season of the show is about to premiere on Thursday. Netflix is the new home of the long-running series brought back to life in 2017 with MST3K: The Return. Creator Joel Hodgson returned to oversee the latest iteration, with newcomer to the series Jonah Ray serving as the hapless host trapped aboard the Satellite of Love with wisecracking robots Crow and Servo (voiced by Hampton Yount and Barron Vaughn respectively) at his side. The Return introduced longtime fans to new ‘Mads’ Kinga Forrester and Max (played by Felicia Day and Patton Oswalt, respectively), a bevy of new invention exchanges, and classic riffs over terrible films. With Season 12, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet, premiering Thanksgiving morning, it’s once again time to gather your loved ones around the TV/computer/tablet and chow down on six brand-new episodes. But as with any holiday meal, some dishes are pure, blissful comfort food while some might find themselves poking nervously at the green bean casserole in the corner.

The Gauntlet finds Jonah and the bots being subjected to Z-grade movies back to back to back in Kinga’s newest bid for world domination. The over-arching framing device of The Gauntlet leans heavily into the binge-watchability of the series and feels like a slicker package right from the start. Gone are the fake commercial breaks and one host segment skit per episode, seemingly completing the transition into the modern, streaming era. The opening and ending host segments also have a rushed, hurried feel to them at times, which works within the context of the show, but at other times leaves the viewer with a sense that the show has somewhere else to be. The urgency to get Jonah and the bots into the theater quicker this season sometimes feels slightly heavy-handed.

The host segments themselves are a delight however, boasting strong entries featuring new characters and one returning favorite. The addition of Rob Schrab as co-director of all six episodes brings a clever cinematic touch to a handful of important segments. Barron Vaughn expertly handles the heavy lifting during a musical segment that harkens back to the high of ‘Every Country has a Monster,’ and Hampton Yount needs to consider a side career in voice acting, as the variety of emotions and pitches he pulls off makes his Crow a constant highlight. Rebecca Hanson’s Synthia has an adjusted role that suits her comedic timing even better, and Deanna Rooney’s new character that debuted earlier this year during the live tour is sure to be a fan favorite. The puppeteers behind the scenes are firing on all cylinders with practical sleight of hand tricks and creativity on full display in the construction of a few memorable additions to MST3K canon. The fact that some of these host segments are filmed in one take remains an achievement, and now even more so with the variety of new props that seamlessly move together.

The movies being riffed are just as horrid as ever. Ranging from more recent ‘mock-buster’ titles to a prequel, to an old favorite from the classic MST3K era, the theme of these movies seems to be ripoffs of much better movies. Each one took elements from its betters, put them through a dirty rag and dripped the runoff onto celluloid. A few are ‘so bad they’re good,’ and two are so bad it’s hard to discern what they were even about in the first place. One movie in particular is so infamous for being bad, you’re going to wonder how MST3K didn’t do it sooner.

‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ starring Jonah Ray, Patton Oswalt, Felicia Day, Bill Corbett, Kevin Murphy, Mary Jo Pehl, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn, Rebecca Hanson, Tim Blaney, Elliot Kalan. Directed by Joel Hodgson & Rob Schrab. Photo by Darren Michaels, SMPSP

The riffs themselves are as hilarious as ever, with callbacks to the previous seasons and new running jokes peppered throughout the six-episode run. Certain similar-sounding jokes are sprinkled in from episode to episode and can be noticeable in a binge. The first episode’s movie riffing is great right out of the gate, and the rhythm of the whole season is more natural compared to the beginning of The Return. The joke pacing is a happy medium between the rapid fire of The Return and the classic episodes. There’s just enough time to breathe between riffs and focus on movie dialogue when needed.

With a show like MST3K where part of the opening theme’s lyrics is a call to remember “it’s just a show, and we should really just relax,” later seasons of the show started to develop deeper plot elements woven outside of the theater. The Return and The Gauntlet are no different, as the story this season continues soon after Jonah’s seeming demise at the jaws of Reptilicus Metalicus. The show finds a humorous way of explaining away last season’s cliffhanger and throws the viewer into a handful of new plot threads that culminate in a possibly divisive, meta ending tying into the now completed MST3K: Live Tour. The ending might have had a bigger punch had the season premiered before the tour began because as it is now, some viewers might not be privy to the full context of certain scenes. However, the journey along the way is a treat, including a major guest appearance from MST3K lore, certain mysteries about someone’s parentage being revealed, and Jonah stepping up to distinguish himself from previous hosts.

Final Thoughts

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet tweaks the formula the show has played in for 30 years, reinventing itself (again) for the digital age. Fans of The Return are going to find more of what they loved this time around, with stronger host segments and more evenly paced riffs. This season doesn’t hit the mark every time, but when it does, you’ll be crying with laughter, and if you’re a long time MSTie there’s a lot to love with this new team. Besides, what else are you going to do on Thanksgiving Day? Spend time with your family? We all know this is a much better choice.

Overall Verdict: 4 out of 5.

Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet premieres Thursday, Thanksgiving Day only on Netflix.

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Page Branson is a webcomic creator, martial artist, podcaster, dog petter and occasional sleeper. She is the creator of the Magical Girl webcomic Legacy’s Call and co-hosts the Level 7 Access podcast.

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