Tuesday, August 2, 2011

"...There Was a Guy Named Joel; Not Too Different From You or Me"

And at last it is time to look at the second cable season of Mystery Science Theatre 3000.

Some appear to think of this season as the one with the "Biker Trilogy" -- so called because the riffing team would tear into three 1960's era biker movies in fairly close succession. Others think of this season as the "Robert Lippert Season" as four of the thirteen movies riffed here would be produced by Robert Lippert (and all would contain massive amounts of padding in the form of either long, aimless, walking scenes or long, aimless, rock climbing scenes. In point of fact, "Rock Climbing" would become a callback riff in later seasons and would crop up again almost 20 years later... but that's a story for another day...). For me, however, if I wanted to give season two a "theme" I would call it the season of nihilism... and we'll get to why in short order.

It becomes clear, right off the bat, that the show is not and really probably never will be still or static. There was almost always something changing even if the changes were small and subtle. For season two small and subtle was certainly not the case. With the departure of Josh Weinstein two new people joined the on-air cast to replace the one loss. Where Weinstein had portrayed both Tom Servo and the mad scientist Dr. Laurence Erhardt the decision was made to split the parts. Comedian Frank Conniff came on board as Dr. Clayton Forrester's new lackey, Frank, and Kevin Murphy went from behind the camera to in front of it (sort of) as the new puppeteer and voice of Tom Servo.

Despite being somewhat new to audiences both of these guys had a history with the team -- particularly Kevin Murphy. Murphy had been an old colleague of Jim Mallon, who became producer on MST3K, and Mallon had hired Murphy to help him out at the Minneapolis's KTMA where the show was born. Murphy had been on set from day one running the cameras and lights (if you watch the end credits for the KTMA episodes you will find Murphy listed as "Cambot"), helping with the scripting (what little there was back in the day) and as an extra puppeteer (since in the KTMA days Josh Weinstein operated and provided voices for both Tom Servo and Gypsy any time Servo and Gypsy had to appear on-screen together someone else had to operate Gypsy while Weinstein provided the voice. Most often that someone else was Murphy). When the show moved to cable Murphy went along, continuing to hold various jobs behind the scenes -- including being a regular member of the writing team. It was only natural, then, for him to finally move in front of the camera in the form of Tom Servo.

As for Frank Conniff, while he was not involved in early production of the show the tight knit comedian community in Minneapolis meant that he was known around. In point of fact, Trace Beaulieu knew him well enough to give him a shout-out back in the KTMA days. In the first tackle of the movie Mighty Jack Crow remarks that a character "looks like Frank Conniff". With his addition and Murphy's move to puppeteer the cast would remain stable for the next several seasons.

There were other changes for the opening of the second season as well. The Deep 13 set was given a little makeover and the Satellite of Love Bridge set was completely revamped.

As for the season itself -- the guys seemed to make an effort to vary their material. The first cable season was heavy on old sci-fi and horror films as well as featuring mostly black and white films (out of thirteen movies only three were in color... a fact that the riffing team themselves kind of acknowledged on-screen at one point). For their second season they mixed things up with seven color films out of thirteen, one (bad) comedy, three aforementioned biker films, at least one adventure film and one movie that.... well, honestly, I don't even know how to categorize Rocket Attack U.S.A. (No, seriously. It's part Cold War drama -- only badly done. Part spy story -- bdaly done. And part piece of propaganda -- really badly done). Of course, though, the tried and true movies were the sci-fi and monster flicks.

And here's where we get to the nihilism. Whether by accident or design a number of the movies shown for this season had really downer endings. I doubt I'm spoiling anything for anyone by remarking that five of the thirteen films feature deaths of either: all the main characters, the primary protagonist, significant secondary characters or, in one case, the annihilation of New York City. Not kidding on that last one.

For me, personally, films have to be really good to pull off a downer ending without leaving me with a lingering edge of depression. I'm no Precious Pollyanna who always wants the happy ending but a film has to earn the emotional payoff of a sad or bittersweet ending. And for the bad films featured on MST3K there's no way they earn that emotional weight. As a result, no matter how good the riffing is I'm always left with a lingering slightly bad taste in my mouth. The funny just rarely balances out the depressing weight of a bad film with a horrid ending.

On the whole, however, audiences can see the improvement the guys made over the first season to the second. The rate of jokes speeds up markedly and those jokes are more pointed and funnier. More to the point, the skits for the host segments take a big jump up in quality. There are still a few clunkers but most of the sketches earn a grin or a chuckle if they don't earn a belly laugh and at the very least they get points on the sheer cleverness of the writing.

The cast changes also fold in without a blip. The various members shift smoothly and quickly settle into on-screen chemistry that would become famous for years to come. It's actually a testment to the professionalism of the group despite the fact that many of them did not come up in the world of episodic TV.

In the final round up, for me, this isn't my favorite season. While I can see the improvements and I applaud them many of the movies left me cold and not even the jokes and pointed satires of Joel Hodgson, Kevin Murphy, and Trace Beaulieu could save them for me. Your actual mileage may vary though.

Favorite Episodes:

Lost Continent. The movie that would put rock climbing on the map. The film and the riffing start out kind of slow for me but as the actual action in the film picks up so do Joel and the bots' jokes. They even manage to make the interminable rock climbing scenes entertaining... mostly by threatening to lose their marbles.

Godzilla vs. Megalon. As a gal who grew up watching old Japanese monster movies on a small, local TV station on Saturday afternoons this episode is close to my heart. I was and remain a fan of all those cheesy flicks -- Godzilla and Gamera and King Kong Escapes (A.K.A. King Kong vs. Mechakong) -- but I take no offense when the MST3K team punctures them with verbal barbs. In fact, I enjoy it and there's a lot here to enjoy as the jokes are really very clever and Lord knows the movie gives them plenty of material to work with.

Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster. See above. This one isn't quite a sharp as the previous but it's still loads better than many of the other offerings this season.

There is one cautionary note which must be made here... the MST3K editions of the Godzilla movies can be difficult to find... legally. Back in the day Toho -- the studio who created and owns Godzilla -- licensed out the movies to various American companies. In turn those companies put together English dubbed versions of the films (some better translated and dubbed than others). In more recent years Toho has been not renewing those licenses when they have lapsed and thereby regaining control over their most famous movie monster.

In the last round of Godzilla films there was a concerted effort on the part of Toho to restore Godzilla to his fearsome, force to be reckoned with, status as opposed to the softer, more 'savior of mankind' status he had gained over the years. It was hoped that this would help the character be taken more seriously. Connected to that Toho has, since 2006, been digitally remastering all the old Godzilla films and releasing them on DVD in their original, Japanese, format in an effort to kind of erase the badly dubbed American versions. As a result while the MST3K team had the rights to riff the movie back in the early 1990's thanks to American distribution companies those rights have now reverted back to Toho and reportedly Toho has no desire to see either the bad English dub versions OR the MST3K comedy take on the films perpetuated. Without the rights to the films these episodes cannot be released on DVD.

While they do pop up on internet sites like YouTube or DailyMotion from time to time Toho usually quickly has them taken down for copyright violation. So while the two are some of my favorite episodes for this season watching them absolutely legally is technically impossible.

And as a personal note -- while I understand Toho's motivation I honestly don't think them allowing the MST3K versions of the film to be released would hurt them any. I've run into many fans like myself who can appreciate the movies on both levels. I actually like to watch the original versions in Japanese with English subtitles because they are often less silly and make more sense than the English dub versions -- as well as being more true to the Japanese culture that spawned the films to begin with. At the same time I get a kick out of the pure ham-and-cheese of the English dub versions which inspired the MST3K riffing team. It's not an either/or situation.

Now, on to season three... and backwards to KTMA..... Huh?

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