Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Next Sunday A.D.....

Mystery Science Theatre 3000: Season 1

Well, we've left the wilds of independent UHF TV behind and have jumped into the exciting new world of cable. And what is the result?

The first thing you notice is that the bigger budget has let the show LOOK better. The visuals and the music for the opening theme now have a slick, professional look but without sacrificing the deliberate cheesiness that was at the heart of the show – for example, using models for the overview of Gizmonic… and deliberately letting them LOOK like models – right down to seeing the string attached to the rocket to accompany the “They shot him into space” line of the theme song.

Once into the show itself we see the Mads get an appropriately Mad Scientist looking lair in “Deep 13” and the bridge of the Satellite of Love, while it still has a little way to go, looks quite a bit better than the KTMA version. All of the people look better too – we get much better and brighter costumes, better hair styling and better accessories – all of which help cement the characters. Even the bots get a makeover as Gypsy and Tom Servo are basically reworked from scratch and Crow is refurbished and his design tweaked a bit. Sharp-eyed KTMA era viewers will recognize that the original KTMA version of Gypsy is re-worked into the new Cambot for the opening theme. All is not perfect, though, as for the first several episodes the hinge on Gypsy’s jaw squeals horribly and clanks a bit as well – making it actually hard to hear the dialogue when she’s on-screen.

And that brings up the fact that the voices have changed. Trace Beaulieu doesn’t really change the tone or tenor of the voice he uses for Clayton Forrester much but he does make it more rounded and slightly pompous. His voice for Crow also evolves slightly over the first couple of episodes until he finally locks into the tenor and pitch he would carry for the rest of his tenure on the show. For his part, Josh Weinstein doesn’t really change the Tom Servo voice he chose in the KTMA days but he drastically changes the voice he uses for Dr. Laurence Erhardt. In the KTMA days his Erhardt was a low, slightly growly affair and for this season he flips and moves in the other direction to go with something slightly nasal, higher pitched and somewhat whiney… It’s not a change for the better in my opinion. And finally, there is Gypsy. In the KTMA days Weinstein provided both the puppeteering and the voice of Gypsy (except in those occasions where both Tom Servo and Gypsy had to appear on-screen together. In those cases Weinstein provided the voice but someone else did the puppeteering… although in one notable case make-up lady Faye Burkholder provided the voice of Gypsy) but now producer Jim Mallon begins providing the voice and the puppeteering for Gypsy.

The writing staff has also gotten bigger to help with the scripting process. Notably, Josh Weinstein "discovered" Michael Nelson on the Minnesota comedy circuit and approached him about "doing some typing" -- which ended up having a very bright future...

The scripting and rehearsing of episodes shows almost immediately. The skits flow more smoothly and there are fewer miscues and flubbed lines and there are fewer ‘stepped on’ lines in the theatre segments – almost completely eliminating the old problem of Hodgson, Weinstein and Beaulieu occasionally talking over one another with different jokes and riffs. The scripting also allows the guys to act as a team more often – building jokes and passing lines from one to another and speaking in unison as well.

The guys deliberately, however, didn’t make things perfect and that’s also good. There are still a few blown lines here and there and props which fail or fall off – mistakes made which end up in the finished product in order to retain the old “raw” feeling of the old days. And often the blown lines lead to even more jokes and riffs as the guys don’t completely forget their old ad-lib training. It also gives the show that feeling of anything can and probably will happen.

On the downside, surprisingly the riff rate is pretty low and slow in the first few episodes. Despite all their practice in the KTMA days and the fact that the scripting ought to have made things easier there is still a ‘clunky’ feel to the early efforts. As the season goes on, however, they get better.

They are still experimenting with the formats and this is both a good thing and a bad thing. They add new regular segments – like the Invention Exchange (which takes the place of the Mads just generally bantering with Joel in the KTMA days) – which work well and become a staple of the show, while others – like the “Movie Reviews” at the end, don’t seem to work out quite as well and eventually fade from sight. When these things work well they are generally solid to extraordinary but when they don’t work well they are one of the worst things in the world in my eyes – boring. For example, for quite a while there was a tendency to use at least one of the host segments for Joel and the bots to just stand around and talk about the dumb/inane/nonsensical elements of the plot and this tended to be, on the whole, boring, because they’ve tended to have already either directly or obliquely riffed on this stuff already in the theatre! It’s a retread, it’s usually not that funny, and we GET it already. Likewise the “pageants”. The first one they do – on the life of Ro-Man the Robot from “Robot Monster” -- is funny, mostly because it comes out of left field and is so surreal as to be kind of divorced from reality. You really do start to question the sanity of Joel and the bots on that one… but that’s what makes it funny. Later ones, however, feel forced and are actively dull with no real payoff.

So by the end of the season things can be seen finally locking into place. The guys had pretty much discarded the things that didn’t work and kept the things which did and were starting to cement all of this into a regular format. Unfortunately this also came with a big change -- the departure of the first cast member in Josh Weinstein.

According to reports and interviews Weinstein, who was only about 18 years old at the time, was not happy with the amount of scripting being done on the show. He himself was an improv comedian and thrived on the ad-libbed nature of the KTMA era. In addition he had conflicts with other members of the team and felt that his youth was partly causing problems for himself and some of the rest of the cast and crew so he opted to leave.

From some things I’ve seen and read around the internet it seems to me that Weinstein often gets a bit of a raw deal from fans. For me, personally, I think part of the reason he is unfairly compared to his replacement, Frank Conniff, is that Conniff had a greater amount of time in which to endear himself with fans and to build his character. Discounting the KTMA days, Weinstein only had one season – 13 episodes – in which to work on his characters and show viewers what he could do. For another thing, there were changes made to one of Weinstein’s characters – namely Laurence Erhardt – which were not, in my opinion, the best thing for the character.

For one thing, the Erhardt character was actually STRONGER back in the KTMA days. Despite Erhardt being called a “doctor” in the season 1 episodes he all too often comes across as just Forrester’s lackey. Case in point, in one of Weinstein's last episodes Erhardt sings that he enjoys "working for" Forrester. In the KTMA days Erhardt proclaimed himself Forrester's partner and there was a stronger sense of that partnership between the two – Erhardt often was the one to tell Forrester to send to the movie or to “give ‘em a commercial”. The change in the voice that I mentioned above also didn’t help. The lower, rougher, tone Weinstein used to use gave his KTMA Erhardt a sinister feel while the higher, whiney tone of Season 1 made him seem wimpy.

For another thing, people often point to enjoying the… ambiguous, shall we say?... relationship between Forrester and Frank without realizing that this sort of thing actually started in the KTMA days with Weinstein and Beaulieu cooking up some skits that played around with the nature of the “partnership” between Forrester and Erhardt. For some unknown reason though this was dropped for season 1 on the Comedy Channel rather than being expanded or built upon!

In the final equation I suppose I just feel that Weinstein gets a bit short shrift sometimes from fans. Taste is personal and God knows I’m not saying that everyone should run out and watch every episode available of the KTMA stuff because some of it is… well…. That thing I hate… you know, BORING. I, myself, like everyone who has been with the show. They each have their own style and each brought something new to the table and that is true of Weinstein as well. His Servo was acerbic, occasionally smug and superior, sarcastic with a very dry wit and of course, funny. Go back and watch “Robot Holocaust” and you’ll see that Weinstein was burning down the house in that one with clever line after clever line. And really, it isn’t fair to compare him to the comedians who came after him since, after all, each was a different comedian with a different style. Instead, it’s much better to see and appreciate what he did bring to the show for the short time he was with it… and it would not be the last the movie riffing world saw of Josh “J. Elvis” Weinstein… but that is a story for another day.

So looking over the entire first season I have to say that I was left surprised that the team didn’t hit the ground running considering all of the practice they got with the KTMA days. And I was disappointed in some of their innovations but thankfully much of what I didn’t like didn’t seem to hang around too long. If nothing else the writing team seemed to have a good grasp on what was truly funny and what wasn’t. By the end of the season things were really starting to hum and from here it should just be a matter of spit and polish. There is a bit of bittersweet in seeing Weinstein leave the show and to do it without a real farewell or acknowledgement and personally, there is a part of me that will miss his characterizations.

Despite the unevenness, the first season is still interesting as it is very clearly continuing the ‘comedy lab’ aspect of the show which started at KTMA as the team experimented and grew in their craft. I also noted that, at the very end of the closing credits there is a list of “Special Thanks” to various people and organizations and one of those on that list is KTMA TV-23. It was very nice of the gang to pay that bit of tribute to the station that first gave them their break and the stepping stone they needed to reach higher.

My personal favorite episodes?
Robot Monster: By this point the guys had done several installments of a "Commando Cody" serial from the late 1940's and most fans tire of the serials quickly but I love the riffing for the two serials which come here before the main movie. There are great lines like Crow's "What's the physics of a broken jaw college boy?" and "The Cody Institute for scientists who get pummeled." There's also a fun bit in between the two serials in which Servo and Crow can't take another serial installment and try to make a break for it only to have Joel go after them and drag them back, saying in exasperation "I'm surrounded by idiots... of my own design!" Be warned, though, the host segments are kind of weak. The movie itself is.... yeah, this one is BIZARRE and believe me it deserves every single one of those capital letters. The riffing team has a great time with it and it's even easy to come up with your own jokes for stuff they missed. But as a movie... this has to be seen to be believed that someone actually got money to commit this to film.

Moon Zero Two: Again, I found a lot of the riffing on this one to be really strong. The host segments are kind of weak but there are some great one-liners... as well as plenty of double entendres. The movie itself is... okay, it hasn't aged well and it's kind of weird but it actually isn't that bad. The filmmakers were trying to do 'Westerns in Space' -- they just did it really, really ham-handedly. A lot has been written about quite a bit of sci-fi basically being like old-time Westerns. Heck, the first line you get on the Star Trek theme is "Space: The final frontier." With Moon Zero Two you have a protagonist who is mourning the loss of the "frontier" in that no one is interested in exploring or expanding anymore. So that's your 'frontiersman at the edge of the frontier' motif of later Westerns. Then you have miners and a plot about what amounts to claim jumping and a damsel in distress who is named Clementine for goodness sake! Could you GET any more Western than that?! The big problem is that the special effects haven't aged well and kind of of suck, the 'Western' theme is handled unevenly and most of the time it has all the subtlty of a pile of bricks... dropped from the top of the Empire State Building... on top of the audiece's head.

The Black Scorpion: Yet another one where I like the riffing but find the host segments to be poor. In point of fact one host segment is entirely about stop-motion animation pioneer Willis O'Brien and it isn't funny at all... and isn't meant to be. It's informative and obviously a tribute to O'Brien. Kind of nice of the guys but just not fitting well considering they spend most of the movie riffing on the effects. But it's just stereotypical, classic, 1957's giant monster style sci-fi. In this case giant, mutated black scorpions from the depths of the Earth terrorize Mexico. There are, of course, giant bugs (of actually several stripes), heroic scientists, and a really, really, REALLY annoying kind named Juanito whom, by the end, you're pretty much right there with Joel and the bots rooting for at least one of the giant insects to eat.

Women of the Prehistoric Planet: First off, the title is a lie. Second off, this one is placed fourth in the running order of the show. This is also a LIE. If you choose to watch the season in order (as I did) DO NOT WATCH THIS ONE FOURTH!!! Parts of it will not make sense. According to internet research (so take with a grain of salt) the production team WANTED to do this movie fourth but couldn't clear the rights in time. As a result they skipped it and went on. By the end of their taping season, though, they had finally cleared the rights and so they scripted and taped this episode as the last one of the season... but left it with the original production number which placed it fourth in line. Watch this one last. Trust me. Anyway... Good riffing, lots of jokes -- some of which probably barely clear the censors, and finally some pretty good host segements. It's also notable for being the first episode to feature Michael Nelson in a speaking role... as the voice of the Isaac Asimov Literary Doomsday satellite.

Now you may notice that, out of my personal favorites here, most of the ones I picked I didn't like the host segements. That's one of the catch-22's with this first season. Some of the earliest episodes have some of the slowest and less funny riffing but they have the better host segments. Go figure. Also, many of the funny host segements that appear early on are actually re-runs of segments the guys crafted in the KTMA days. Some are almost word-for-word and shot-for-shot recreations but others have been re-written and cleaned up and are the better for it.

On to Season 2!

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