[Editor’s note: Mild spoilers follow for the first episode of “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet.”]
When “Mystery Science Theater 3000” returned for what was technically Season 12 on Thanksgiving Day, it did so under the weight of a huge cliffhanger: At the end of Season 11, Jonah (Jonah Ray) had been devoured by a robot snake — his ultimate fate left in the balance…
…a fact that gets totally brushed aside at the beginning of the first episode, so that Jonah and his faithful robot friends Crow (Hampton Yount) and Tom Servo (Baron Vaughn) can get back to what matters: making fun of bad movies on the Satellite of Love.
“It’s a commentary on shows that do big cliffhangers, and just like, ‘Oh, what if they just didn’t care?'” Ray said in an interview. “What if the show itself just said, ‘Eh, don’t worry about it. No one cares, we just want to get back to doing the show.’ It was just the funniest idea to us in the room at the time.”
“Some people, they just want to get to the movie riffing,” said creator Joel Hodgson.
Of course, movie riffing has been “MST3K’s” raison d’etre for 30 years now, with over 200 episodes spent skewering some of cinema’s worst mistakes in the name of the best laughs. Over the course of those years, the show has undergone some changes, largely in the form of new cast members, but otherwise, the established formula remains an unchanged fan favorite.
With this new season, though, there is a slight tweak to the show’s format: In a testament to the show’s new home on Netflix, Jonah and the ‘bots are not just forced to watch bad movies by their mad scientist captors, but they’re forced to watch six bad movies in a row — the ultimate binge, referred to by evil Dr. Kinga (Felicia Day) and her assistant Max (Patton Oswalt) as “The Gauntlet.”
This is a shift for the first season to debut on Netflix, which was a bit more true to the “MST3K” format, and also ran for 14 episodes thanks to a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign.
According to Hodgson, when discussions about a potential Season 12 began, the feedback he and his team got was, “Well, this works great for your diehard fans, because they’re watching all of them, but for people who are casual viewers, like newcomers, it’s too much.”
This fits, Hodgson said, with how “the size of a normal Netflix series, or the length of it, might be six hours, you know, at that. And we were doing three times that much. It was like we created an enchanted forest people were wandering into and they couldn’t wander out of it, because it was not the same length and shape as a Netflix series.”
Hence, a six-episode Season 12, which Hodgson said “was much more manageable. It was much easier to put an arc and a story into it.”
Also, incorporating the bingeing experience directly into the narrative adds a fun meta twist, Hodgson felt. “It was just kind of looking at it and going, ‘What would the Mads, if they really understood they were on Netflix, what would they want to do?’ And that would be to not only make Jonah ‘binge-make’ the shows, but insist everyone binge-watch the show.”
Another advantage of the six-episode structure: “I thought that was nothing that we could’ve done last season, with 14 episodes,” Ray said. “That would’ve been unhealthy. We would’ve gotten probably sued if we encouraged binging on 14 episodes of ‘MST3K’ last time. So now that there’s six, it’s a more fun way to do it.”
For Day, “we were all really excited because it seemed like the shorter order and that concept would go really well together, so that everybody could watch all of it in a quick way. I think it’s brilliant and it really fits the format and the service that we’re on really well.”
In many ways, Season 12 marked a new level of confidence for everyone involved, including Ray, who felt that his performance in this season was more assured than the work he did in Season 11. “I watched a couple moments in the new season, and I’m seeing a little bit more of a steady hand in my performance,” he said. “I might’ve not noticed it the first time, but our schedule was so fast, and just trying to come to terms with that I was doing this show that I had worshiped growing up, and still did as a professional comic… I could tell I was nervous, or I was trying to do a little bit of Joel here, I was trying to do a little bit of Mike here, an approximation.”
However, he said, “when I watched the newer stuff, I realized I had settled into what my style of it was, and that was relieving to see, that some of my own personality started to come out.”
Ray is technically new to the franchise with Season 11, along with many other people in front of and behind the camera, but that’s something Hodgson sees as a value. “Me and the original cast are all in our fifties and sixties now — you need new people to refresh it, and put new ideas in it,” he said of his new collaborators, many of whom are in their thirties or younger. “I have to defer to them, and I’m happy to do it, and I trust them.”
There are few shows which are barely older than their staffers, after all, but to everyone involved, there’s real potential for “MST3K” to go for yet another 30 years. “I think us bringing it back this time was very profound, because I think people were kind of stuck in the past of the show, thinking that it was kind of finite,” Hodgson said of the original Season 11 revival.
“I think us bringing it back, we feel like we proved our point with that — just the idea that you can refresh it with all-new people, and it still functions and works the way it should,” he added. “Something that was really important to me as the creator, to kind of demonstrate that it had a life beyond just the first 10 seasons of the show.”
Ray, as the current face of the show, would be happy to continue returning to the show (likely once again brushing aside the season-ending cliffhanger). “As long as they let us keep on making this, we’ll come up with dumb ways to justify coming back to the Satellite of Love,” he said. “That kind of stuff is so fun to do, to play with expectations.”
Day, whose TV career currently includes a return to the insanely long-running CW series “Supernatural,” sees a real possibility of another 30 years. “Even ‘Supernatural’ looks like it might have an end,” she said. “But I can say that this one is one that you could just have a new iteration of hosts and bad guys going on and on and on. It’s the universals of humor that will always last.”
Not only that, but it’s unlikely that Hollywood will stop making terrible movies at any point in the future. “I think there will never stop being a glut of bad movies, and I think that the show now is just so much more indicative of the culture of being snarky,” Ray said. “So I think this could go in indefinitely, for sure. And hopefully, I’ll be involved as long as I want to be.”
“Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Gauntlet” is streaming now on Netflix.