Category: TV

The Return of MST3K -- Part 4: The Old Cast

A lot of the discussion about the MST3K reboot has centered around fans who want to see the old cast come back. Joel has said he'd like to bring them on as writers, and to appear in cameos. But the thing is, most of them don't seem to want to do it.

Here's what Mike, Bill, and Kevin said when Chris Ford asked them about it in a Diffuser interview last year:

Speaking to Wired, Joel Hodgson mentioned that he’d consider revisiting ‘MST3K.’ Is that something you’d consider?

Nelson: I probably wouldn’t. It’s just sort of a personal preference. I mean, I already have RiffTrax going, and that’s taken my last seven years, and I’m fond of how that’s working. So there’s just no need, I feel. And I wonder about revisiting something like that. But who’s to say that it couldn’t be. You know, it survived a lot of changes, so it could start again. Who knows?

Corbett: It would depend completely on the arrangement. I loved doing ‘MST3K,’ was honored to be part of such a great show and had a wonderful time during my years there. But the owners of the show cut me off as soon as it was over. Haven’t made a cent from it since I filmed my last show in 1999, and all attempts to change that arrangement have been rejected. A few attempts to revive ‘MST3K’ have already failed because of such issues. So I’d be skeptical.

Murphy: You know, I’m really not interested. As I said, where I am right now, I’m really loving what I do. We’re having great fun with RiffTrax, and to go back and do that again would … it has this ‘Return to Gilligan’s Island’ feel to it. You know, they did that again, and it just looked sad and lame because it was the same characters, except they’d gotten old. Or they’d substituted in new characters, and it didn’t really feel right. I think they had a fake Ginger in there. I don’t remember, but it just never felt right. It never felt like the real thing. We made that real thing for 10 years, so I’m really not interested in going back. It’s like going back down to your basement from when you were a kid when you’re an adult and making the same kind of car models that you did when you were a kid. It just doesn’t ring true to me anymore. What I’m doing right now with Mike and Bill at RiffTrax is a blast. We’re having a great time doing it, and people seem to like it. So I’m happy to do that. And if Joel wants to do the show again, God bless him, and I hope he has a lot of fun doing it. But I think I’m happy where I am.

Since the announcement of the Kickstarter, Mike and Bill have both reiterated their non-involvement, as have Mary Jo and Josh. Trace has ruled out even showing up in a cameo.

Joel addressed this in a Kickstarter update:

What about everyone else? Are the other MST3K writers and actors coming back?

This is the hardest question to answer, because there are several moving pieces involved.

Right now, I don't know who will agree to come back and work on the next season of MST3K… but if the Kickstarter is successful, everyone will be invited to take part.

Until yesterday, I wasn't even sure this whole Kickstarter idea would work. I've reached out and spoken with some of the old cast and writers, but until I knew how much money we'd have to work with – and when we'd start writing and shooting – there was just no way to make the specific offers that I hope will bring many of them back.

Plus – as many of you know – so far, the old cast haven't been compensated as well as they (or I) might have liked. I wish I could go back and fix that, but if I'm going to ask them to participate in the next season, I want to be certain we can pay them what they deserve this time. As soon as we pass our initial goal of $2,000,000, I'm hoping to start making the invitations official, and I hope some of them will be able to join us before we start working in January.

And guys, as much as I'd like to see the old cast and crew back, given their responses so far I really don't think it's going to happen.

I think it's great that Joel is talking about royalties. I believe that Shout! Factory should pay royalties to all the former writers and cast members, not as leverage to get them to participate in the new show but because it's the right thing to do.

But while royalties have certainly been a sticking point for some of the former cast members, I don't think they're the only reason people are holding out on participating in the new show. Look at what Mike and Kevin said in the Diffuser interview I quoted above -- it doesn't sound to me like they're holding out for a better deal; it sounds like they just plain don't want to do it. And Josh has said he's working on two documentary films, so it sure sounds like his non-participation is because he's too busy with other projects.

Aside from what they've said in public, I can't speak for individual cast members' motivations. Mary Jo has complained about the lack of profit participation in the past, while Frank has said it doesn't bother him. I've seen a lot of fans assume that the reason the old cast members aren't interested in being part of the new show is because of their lack of profit participation, and that if Joel gives them a good offer they'll be onboard after all -- but I think that's fans' wishful thinking. I've seen no hard evidence to back it up; the only thing I've seen that even looks like a "maybe" is Bill's "It would depend completely on the arrangement" in that Diffuser interview.

There are other reasons why people might not want to participate -- Mike and Kevin have suggested that they're just plain not interested. As for other former cast members, the geographical issues that brought an end to Cinematic Titanic are still present; the simple fact is that many of them don't live in the place where the new show is going to be produced. Even if, say, Mary Jo gets a profit-sharing offer that she's agreeable to, she still lives in Austin.

In short, I think that while fans are absolutely right to call for a new royalty agreement for every former cast member and writer on MST3K, they should also tamp down their expectations that this will lead to the old team returning for the new show. I just don't think that's gonna happen. Look forward to the new show for what it is, not for what you wish it was going to be.


I think that's it for now on the subject of the upcoming MST3K relaunch. The Kickstarter page, one more time, is bringbackmst3k.com; I haven't pledged yet but I plan on throwing in at the $35 level. That'll get you the first episode of the new series, plus three classic episodes as DRM-free downloads. (The three classic episodes are not currently listed in the Rewards section, but Joel said in an update that they're being added to the $35 tier as a bonus. He has not yet specified which three episodes they will be.)

And on the subject of compensation for the cast and crew of the old series: Rifftrax has just started selling MST3K episodes; as of this writing they have Mitchell, Pumaman, Final Sacrifice, and Future War, each priced at $10, with another episode going up for sale every Monday. And here's the most important part:

A significant share of the profits of all MST episodes sold on RiffTrax will be paid out directly to ALL the principal cast members of MST – Mike, Joel, Kevin, Bill, Mary Jo, Trace, Frank, Josh and Bridget. We feel it’s important that the original artists benefit directly from their awesome work. So if you want to support them, buy your MST here on RiffTrax!

There's no mention of Paul Chaplin; I wonder if that's an oversight, or if they don't know how to get in touch with Paul these days or what. I hope he gets a cut too.

At any rate, much as I love the DVD sets, I have to recommend from here on in that if you want to buy old episodes of MST3K, you buy them through Rifftrax, because right now that's the only way the cast and writers get a percentage of your purchase dollars. Again, I'm hoping that changes and the series' new owners at Shout! reach a deal to give them a piece of all purchases and streaming revenue. But for now, they only get paid if you buy them through Rifftrax. So do that.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 3: Behind the Camera

The main thing that led me to make this series of blog posts was something Mothra said over on Brontoforumus:

Haven't had time to mention how unbelievably delighted I am that MST3K is coming back under Joel. I adore Mike, but if Rifftrax has shown me anything, it's that a good amount of his MST3K-era comedy was touched up by the writers.

There's certain Rifftrax that are wonderful return-to-form gems, like Jack the Giant Killer or Mike/Fred Willard's Missile to the Moon, but nothing's quite captured the magic for me like the Cinematic Titanic ep Joel, Pearl, Frank and Trace did on The Alien Factor. So, I've got a lot more faith in Joel as a showrunner than Mike.

The Writers

Mothra's got something here: yes, Rifftrax (usually) features Mike, Kevin, and Bill, but that doesn't mean it's the same writing team as the Sci-Fi Channel years. The Sci-Fi era wasn't just Mike, Kevin, and Bill; it was also Mary Jo and Bridget (who have some Rifftrax shorts of their own), and Paul Chaplin too. Before the Sci-Fi era, Trace and Frank were in the writers' room too, and in the early days so were Josh and Jim.

There was always continuity. When Joel left the show, the rest of the writing team stayed constant, with head writer Mike Nelson taking over as host. (It does bear noting that, while Mike usually got the Head Writer credit, there was little that set the Head Writer apart from the rest of the writers; the show was collaborative to the core.) When Frank left the show, the rest of the writing team remained constant. And when Trace left, Bill joined, and the show moved to the Sci-Fi Channel, the rest of the writing team remained constant. As much as the show changed onscreen, very little changed in the writers' room.

I think that's a big part of why, even with all the casting changes over the years, MST3K still felt like it was the same show at heart.

And, as I've said, that's a big challenge the new show faces: not just that it's got a new team onscreen, but that it doesn't have any of the old writers onboard except for Joel. Joel has said he'd like to invite the old writers back to contribute, but that doesn't look very likely; I plan on getting into that in the next post.

The Movies

But aside from the writing team, I think there's something else that makes Rifftrax fundamentally different from MST3K. And it's precisely the thing that makes Rifftrax popular and profitable.

And that's that Rifftrax makes fun of Hollywood blockbusters.

As of this writing, here's what the top 10 most popular Rifftrax commentary tracks are, as listed on the rifftrax.com homepage:

  1. Twilight
  2. Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring
  3. Twilight: New Moon
  4. Jurassic Park
  5. Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone
  6. The Matrix
  7. 300
  8. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
  9. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
  10. The Dark Knight

And here's the thing: I've seen those movies. Well, more precisely, I've seen seven out of the ten, and I've heard of the other three.

And hey, that's okay! Hollywood blockbusters can be just as cheesy and bad as the B-movies MST3K used to do. Or at least as much fun to make fun of. (I mean, I don't think anybody's actually saying Lord of the Rings is equivalent to Manos: Hands of Fate.)

There's a definite draw to that. I can say, with some confidence, that if I ever watch Twilight or Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014), I'll watch the Rifftrax version. It's added a whole new category to my viewing habits: "I'll see it in the theater," "I'll wait until I can watch it at home," and now "I'll wait for the Rifftrax."

But I think a big part of the joy of MST3K was the sheer obscurity of its selection. While it had a few relatively well-known titles over its run (Godzilla vs. Megalon, Gorgo, Gumby, Hamlet), tuning in to the show usually meant seeing something I'd never seen before.

The Info Club recently had a discussion thread titled What Movies Should the Reboot Riff? From my perspective, that's an unanswerable question. The reboot should riff movies I have never heard of.

Rifftrax taps into the delight of making fun of movies we've already seen. MST3K was, usually, more about the delight of discovery. I know what Twilight is, but if not for MST3K I would never have heard of The Magic Voyage of Sinbad.

Joel gets that, too; he noted in his recent Reddit AMA:

We love The Room, but I think MST3K does best when we steer away from movies that are famous for being bad. That's why we never did "Plan 9 From Outer Space" during our original run.

To me, watching Mystery Science Theater is kind of like going to a haunted house on the edge of town with your funny friends. It works best if you don't know what's in there.

And I've spent a lot of time talking about Rifftrax's emphasis on familiar blockbusters -- but that's not entirely fair, because Rifftrax actually does a lot of those more obscure films. Especially the shorts. Many of which are available on Hulu (inconveniently and counterintuitively split up into Rifftrax Shorts and Rifftrax Features, even though some of the "features" are just collections of shorts).

Magical Disappearing Money does a perfect job of evoking that old "Where did they find this?" vibe of MST3K. So do the Christmas shorts and the baffling Norman Krasner series.

As far as feature films, I think Kingdom of the Spiders is indistinguishable from vintage MST3K. And, while House on Haunted Hill is not exactly an obscure film, it's the kind of movie the old MST3K would have done too.

I suppose there is a downside to MST3K's grab bag approach: and that's that sometimes, those old movies are just boring and drab. I must admit that, over the past couple of years, there have been several times I've pulled up an old episode and fallen asleep in the middle of it. (Lost Continent, looking in your direction.) Some of those movies are just excruciating.

Then again, you can say the same for the blockbusters Rifftrax does. I watched Attack of the Clones and, even with the riffs, it was just a long, boring, painful slog. By the end I realized something I hadn't really thought about before: MST3K really did us a favor by trimming every movie down to under 90 minutes.

Cinematic Titanic

If you accept the premise that MST3K wasn't about the puppets and the satellite and the host and the Mads and the plot, that it was really about the writers and the movies they picked, then I think that leads to a clear conclusion: the closest thing we'll ever get to a revival of MST3K as it was has already been and gone, and it was Cinematic Titanic.

(Leastways, unless Rifftrax starts doing riffs of old B-movies with Mike, Kevin, Bill, Bridget, and Mary Jo. In fact, Rifftrax should totally do that; somebody should start a Twitter campaign.)

CT reunited five of the original writers and stars of MST3K to make fun of similar obscure, cheesy movies. It ran for six years, released a dozen movie riffs, and, most excitingly, went on tour.

(A personal aside: my first date-as-a-couple with the woman who would become my wife was the Mesa showing of East Meets Watts. It was a great show, a delight to meet the cast, and I treasure my autographed copy of Doomsday Machine.)

But CT was unsustainable, simply for logistical reasons. As they noted in the E-Mail announcing that it was winding down:

We feel that with any project there is a time to move on and as 5 people living in 5 different cities with different lives and projects, it has become increasingly difficult to coordinate our schedules and give Cinematic Titanic the attention it requires to keep growing as a creative enterprise and a business.

That, in and of itself, is a reason you can't go home again: because all those writers who made the show what it was just plain don't live in the same place anymore. And I think that's a big reason why fans who are holding out hope that the old team will get back together are just setting themselves up for disappointment -- but I'll get into that in my next post.

By the way, CT is still available on Hulu for the time being. You should watch those episodes while you still can.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 2: New Cast

Before I say anything else, let's get the obvious out of the way: nobody is obligated to contribute to any Kickstarter, ever. If you don't like Jonah Ray, if you're disappointed that the old cast isn't onboard, if you're strapped for cash or saving for Christmas or more interested in that Maya Angelou documentary or just plain don't feel like it, that's your prerogative. It's your money, and it's up to you how you want to spend it. And it's your time, and it's up to you whether you want to commit to a show that runs over 90 minutes an episode. I would like to make it clear that, while I'm about to make some criticisms of online negativity and some fans' tendency to prejudge, I'm not for one moment saying that you're obligated to feel excited about the new series, let alone to contribute money to it sight unseen.

That said, if you do watch the new MST3K, you should pay for it. Pirating MST3K would be a dick move.

Jonah Ray

Joel's announcement that Jonah Ray would be the new host sounded downright defensive:

Since this is the internet, I guess some people will hear this news and rush to declare – for better and for worse – "what this means for the future of MST3K." (In fact, since a lot of people guessed that it was Jonah's voice in our first video, that's already happening!)

I can't really tell you what kind of host Jonah is going to be, but I hope you'll give him a chance to show you. And even if you're familiar with Jonah's career, remember: that doesn't mean he'll bring the same exact approach to MST3K. I think a lot of you may be surprised. Plus, like the previous members of our cast, I think Jonah has great instincts and a lot of range. He's funny, he's wicked smart, and like I said, his heart's in the right place. He loves MST3K, he seems to understand what makes it so special, and most important, I know he takes the role seriously.

And man, a lot of people seem angry about Jonah Ray. I mean, it's the Internet, and everybody's always angry about something, and the people who really really hate something are almost never a representative sample. The Kickstarter's raised another half-a-million or so since the announcement, so it sure doesn't look like most people are too bothered by it.

I don't know much about Jonah Ray. I don't listen to the Nerdist podcast and I haven't seen his standup. Maybe I'd like it and maybe I wouldn't.

But I think Joel's right here: neither of those things is likely to be a good indicator of what he'll be like as host. And while it's true that each host is different and does the show his own way, it's also true that it's still the same show under Mike that it was under Joel. (Well, I think so, anyway; there are folks who disagree.)

There is a general feeling that the Mike era was meaner than the Joel era, that under Mike there was more of a tendency to outright insult the films, where Joel's era felt more like good-natured ribbing. (And in the host segments, Joel was certainly more friendly and deferential to the Mads than Mike was -- "What do you think, Sirs?")

(I've even seen folks in the Info Club comments section complain that there was too much sexual innuendo in the Sci-Fi Channel era, and...well, Jesus, apparently MST3K fans are a sheltered bunch.)

And I think it's easy to see Jonah Ray take Mike's tack a bit more than Joel's.

But, y'know, he's still a fan.

Being a fan doesn't automatically mean he'll be good in the role. But I think it does mean he'll show deference to the original show.

I mentioned in the previous post that Joel's got to thread the needle and make a show that's fresh and new and still noticeably MST3K. That might be true even moreso for Jonah as the new host.

and Friends

We don't know who else is going to be on the show yet. I've seen several people refer to an alleged Entertainment Weekly article that calims Felicia Day is playing the new Mad and Baron Vaughn and Hampton Yount are playing Servo and Crow (not sure which is which, but since I don't know who Vaughn or Yount are that's kind of a moot point). I have never seen a link to the alleged EW article in question, nor been able to find it on ew.com, so I am skeptical.

For the record I think Day would be a great choice, not just because I've wanted to see her play a villain since Dr. Horrible but because there's simply nobody with more experience at making a cult TV show on the Internet without studio backing.

As for Servo and Crow, well. It's definitely going to take some adjustment. On Servo in particular.

I'm of two minds on this. On the one hand, it's actually a refreshing change of pace seeing an angry fandom express the importance of the creative folks. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you've seen posts where I've excoriated fanboys who think characters are more important than their creators. People who think Scourge is more important than Ken Penders, that Thanos is more important than Jim Starlin, that Iron Man is more important than Jack Kirby.

It is, at least, really refreshing to see fans who think that MST3K is more than just a couple of puppets named Tom Servo and Crow, and that it matters who's operating those puppets, dammit.

And it does! It definitely does!

But we've been through this before. There's a well-known story in the fandom that when Josh Weinstein left the show and Kevin Murphy took over as Tom Servo, a fan mailed him a six-foot-long banner saying "I hate Tom Servo's new voice."

Well, 25 years later, you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks Josh was a better Servo than Kevin. (Sorry, Josh.)

And while there are people who don't like Bill Corbett as Crow, I think he was great. I still have a "You know you want me, baby!" T-shirt around here somewhere.

I think the fans need to thread the needle too, in our own way: while it's totally commendable (and encouraged!) to acknowledge that just because a show's got Servo and Crow and a guy in a jumpsuit on the Satellite of Love riffing on cheesy movies doesn't mean it's going to be the same MST3K we know and love, that it's the people who made the show great.

But we should also acknowledge that just because there are new people in those roles doesn't mean it's going to be a bad show, either. Yes, it's going to be different. But different doesn't always mean bad. You don't have to be optimistic about the new show, but y'know, you don't have to be pessimistic about it either.

Of course, the show's not just about the people in front of the camera, either. And in my next post I plan on talking about the writers, the importance of the ensemble, and how continuity in the writers' room was one of the main reasons the old show stayed consistent even when the cast changed. That's one more challenge the new show's going to have.

The Return of MST3K -- Part 1: Our Story Thus Far

It's a great time to be a Mystery Science Theater 3000 fan -- though there are those who disagree.

MST3K is coming back. Shout! Factory bought the rights to the series, and creator Joel Hodgson is running a Kickstarter to fund new episodes. He's passed his goal of $2 million, which will be enough to set up the infrastructure and shoot three episodes; he hopes to raise at least $5.5 million, make a full season of 12 episodes, and convince TV executives that there's enough of a fanbase to pick up the series.

Joel has announced that the new host will be Jonah Ray. I'm not familiar with Mr. Ray or his work, but a lot of people on the Internet seem very angry about this. Some people are angry about the selection of Jonah Ray in particular; some are more generally uneasy that it just won't be the same show.

And it won't. And that's tricky. Joel has to thread the needle here: the reason he's bringing back the MST3K name, brand, and characters is because there's nostalgia and goodwill attached to them (both on his part and the fans'), but, at the same time, this will by its nature be a different show. I'm looking forward to it (and I haven't pledged yet but I plan to), but it is an unknown quantity.

Joel notes, rightly, that every cast member on MST3K got swapped out at one time or another. Nervous fans note, rightly, that it never happened with the entire cast at once, let alone the entire staff. So far, only one person from the old show is involved with the new one, and that's Joel himself -- and he won't be hosting it. So we're not just looking at an entirely new cast, we're also looking at an almost-entirely-new writing team.

Will it feel more like the old MST3K than Cinematic Titanic did? More than Rifftrax does?

Well, obviously that question is something we won't know until we actually see the show. It's also entirely subjective.

Over the next couple of posts, I intend to go into my subjective opinions about those topics and others. Sodium, won't you?

My Favorite Episodes of Millennium

So, as in my previous post of favorite X-Files episodes, this is a list of my favorite Millennium episodes. And, as with X-Files, I haven't finished watching the whole series yet, so I'll plan on updating this post as I go and adding more favorites as I get them.

Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

Season 2, Episode 6: The Curse of Frank Black

A pleasingly spooky, wonderfully minimalist haunted house episode where the true ghosts are loss and isolation.

While it's my favorite episode up to this point in the series, I can't recommend it as a good place to start, because it's not quite as standalone as I'd like; it relies on threads from Pilot, Lamentation, and The Beginning and the End. But you should watch those anyway; they're not just important, they're also good. (See below.)

Season 2, Episode 7: 19:19

The show gets back to the Revelation cultist arc, combining a take on the Chowchilla bus kidnapping with -- because it is 1997 -- Twister. (I was also inclined to blame a popular 1997 film for what I'm going to call the My Heart Will Go On remix of the theme song used as background music throughout the episode, but 19:19 aired a month before Titanic or the single came out, so we can chalk that up to coincidence/something in the zeitgeist.)

The ending is a goofy little bit of deus ex machina, and Lara Means is used as more of a third-act plot device than a character, but the pacing is good and the cat-and-mouse between Frank and the villain-of-the-week is engaging.

Season 2, Episode 9: Jose Chung's Doomsday Defense

While it doesn't quite live up to Jose Chung's From Outer Space, Chung's second appearance is a lot of fun, and a great showcase for Charles Nelson Reilly. While it lacks stop-motion kaiju and its unreliable narratives aren't quite so twisty, it reuses a lot of the devices from that first outing and does a great job of maintaining its tone.

Mythology Episodes

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Introduces the series: Frank Black, his wife and daughter, the Millennium Group, and his police contact Bob Bletcher. Frank having a family immediately sets him apart from Mulder and Scully over on the sister show. We also find out that he's a former FBI agent who had a breakdown and has since moved back to Seattle, and that he's got some kind of minor psychic ability to see what happened at a crime scene. The show also establishes the eponymous Millennium Group and vaguely intimates that it's involved in investigating some kind of Satanic apocalyptic cult, but then the show goes episodic and we get a bunch of forgettable serial killer episodes, and really don't get any development on that idea until episode 13.

Season 1, Episode 13: Force Majeure

I think it's pretty clear, looking at season 1, that Carter and company didn't originally intend for this show to take place in the same universe as X-Files, because they cast a lot of actors who had appeared on that show to appear on this one in completely different roles -- this episode, for example, has Terry O'Quinn, CCH Pounder, Brad Dourif, and Morgan Woodward. All of them are excellent, but it's a little jarring.

Anyhow, this episode finally picks up the Millennium Group/Doomsday Cult thread from the pilot. We get the prediction that the world will end on May 5, 2000, and a sinister old man who's breeding clones to survive the coming apocalypse.

Season 1, Episode 14: The Thin White Line

We get a good hefty chunk of Frank's backstory, and some cat-and-mouse with a serial killer who he put away during his time with the FBI.

Season 1, Episode 15: Sacrament

Introduction of Frank's brother, sister-in-law, and nephew; first signs that Jordan may have inherited Frank's psychic ability.

Season 1, Episode 17: Walkabout

This one gets off to a really strong start, with an in media res opening, the other characters not knowing what's happened to Frank, and Frank himself suffering from amnesia and not remembering what's happened to him the past few days.

The last act doesn't quite live up to the setup, but the beginning is strong enough to make for a pretty solid episode.

Season 1, Episode 18: Lamentation and Episode 19: Powers, Principalities, Thrones and Dominions

Another episode where Frank has a run-in with a killer he's faced previously and a potential copycat, this episode features a threat against his family and the death of a recurring character.

And then the second part, despite centering on Frank's quest to find the killer, appears to be completely disconnected from the first part. He matches wits with someone who may or may not be the Devil, someone claiming to be an angel, and at the end of the whole thing there's no resolution and we're left with way more questions than answers.

To put it another way, 19 episodes in Millennium finally feels like a Chris Carter show.

Season 2, Episode 1: The Beginning and the End

(While this technically picks up from season 1's finale, you can skip that episode; it's basically a middling monster-of-the-week episode with a cliffhanger ending. That cliffhanger ending is re-presented, in its entirety, at the beginning of this episode.)

This is a status-quo-changing episode where a lot happens (even if it relies too much on narrative monologues to establish that a lot is happening): Peter gets fleshed out a little as a character, we finally get a few more hints of just what exactly the Millennium Group is, and the Polaroid Man plot finally gets a resolution.

Season 2, Episode 8: The Hand of St. Sebastian

Peter Watts, Cheryl Andrews, a little more history on the Group and signs of internal struggles.

Season 2, Episode 10: Midnight of the Century

The most thorough look to date at Frank's -- and Jordan's, and Lara's, and, we learn, Frank's mother's -- gift, and the toll it has taken on his family over three generations. It's a low-key, talky one, a Christmas episode structurally and thematically similar to the Halloween episode that had recently preceded it. It's an episode about loss and estrangement and family, and it sells the human element effectively, with spare dialogue delivered impeccably by the cast.

Season 2, Episode 12: Luminary

The show literalizes the metaphor of the season arc, by putting Frank out in the wilderness, alone.

Perhaps surprisingly, separating him from the rest of the cast makes for an excellent opportunity to explore other characters' relationships with him, Catherine and Peter in particular.

We also see more of the Group than we've ever seen before, and they don't come across very well. It makes something of a striking contrast between Frank and Mulder: they're both former FBI profilers, and they're both being manipulated by a shadowy conspiracy, but where Mulder seeks to fight and expose the Syndicate, Frank is trying to join the Millennium Group. Though with this episode, he doesn't seem to be trying very hard.

My Favorite Episodes of The X-Files

So awhile back I started re-watching The X-Files. It's available on Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon (that last one's an affiliate link), and now available in a very nice HD remaster. (Apparently the entire series, except the pilot, was originally filmed in widescreen, so the remastered episodes aren't cropped, they're actually expanded -- except, again, the pilot. And also seasons 5-9, which aired in widescreen the first time, but now they're also in HD.)

I'm also working my way through Millennium (which is not available in any format other than DVD and illegal download), and I'll watch Lone Gunmen when I get to that point in the chronology.

And I got to thinking, you know, I should make a list of what episodes are worth watching -- since, let's be honest, there are a hell of a lot of them that aren't.

Now, X-Files episodes are generally broken down into two categories: mythology episodes (the continuity based ones that deal with the overarching plots about aliens and a massive government conspiracy) and monster-of-the-week episodes (the standalone, one-off episodes). Generally speaking, I like the monster-of-the-week episodes better; they have more variety in both content and tone, they're often a lot of fun, and they don't string you along with the idea that they're building toward some kind of grand resolution. (Spoiler alert: there is no grand resolution; the writers are making the mythology up as they go along.) But, on the other hand, there are mythology episodes I really like, and they're fun in their own way despite the continuity being a hodgepodge and a mess.

So I'm going to split this up into two sections: monster-of-the-week episodes and mythology episodes, and in my next post I'll tackle Millennium episodes. (So far every Millennium episode I've liked has been a mythology episode.) And I'll plan on keeping these posts updated as I work through the series, so expect more episodes to be added, and a post added for Lone Gunmen when I get around to it.

Lastly: I'd be remiss if I didn't link to Monster of the Week: The Complete Cartoon X-Files, a webcomic by Shaenon K Garrity which goes through the series one episode at a time and lampoons them. (Most of them. Some are so good that she plays them straight.) Oh, and if you want a really thorough breakdown, you could give Kumail Nanjiani's X-Files Files podcast a listen too.

Anyway, on to the actual recommendations.

Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

I thought of putting mythology first, but the monster-of-the-week episodes are easier to get into for a casual viewer, so I'm going to put those first. These episodes can, generally speaking, be watched in any order and without any knowledge going in besides "Mulder and Scully are FBI investigators who look into paranormal stuff; he's a believer and she's a skeptic."

Season 1, Episode 3: Squeeze

Introduces stretchy bad guy Eugene Tooms, probably the most memorable of the show's many Monsters of the Week, and one of the few to get a second appearance.

Season 1, Episode 8: Ice

An episode in the "People are trapped in a remote location and start turning on each other" mold.

Season 1, Episode 20: Darkness Falls

A good race-against-time episode with killer insects, albeit with kind of a disappointing ending.

Season 1, Episode 21: Tooms

Tooms's second and final appearance; first appearance of Walter Skinner.

Season 2, Episode 2: The Host

Darin Morgan plays a sewer monster called Flukeman, with some of the best monster makeup in the series; first appearance of Mr. X.

Season 2, Episode 20: Humbug

First episode written by Darin Morgan; first episode explicitly written as a comedy; features circus folk. X-Files is always a little uncomfortable when it deals with anybody who's different (be that ethnic minorities or people with disabilities), and I feel a little bit of that here, but I think it also comes across as a celebration of its guest stars.

Season 3, Episode 3: DPO

Giovanni Ribisi plays a slacker teenager with lightning powers who hangs out in an arcade (where the Sonic the Hedgehog music is inexplicably playing even though that is not an arcade game). Jack Black plays his sidekick.

Season 3, Episode 4: Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose

Okay, here we go. If you only watch one episode of X-Files, ever, it should be this one. It's pretty much perfect in every way, and it won two Emmys, one for writer Darin Morgan and the other for guest star Peter Boyle.

Boyle plays a lovable but curmudgeonly old psychic who can see the moment everyone around him dies.

I think I'd give a slight edge to Jose Chung's From Outer Space (also written by Darin Morgan) as my all-time favorite episode. But this one is more accessible.

Seriously, if you haven't seen Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose, you can skip the rest of this list until you've seen it. It's not just X-Files at its best, it's TV at its best.

Season 3, Episode 11: Revelations

Gets into Scully's Catholicism a bit; it's the second religious-themed episode where the leads reverse their roles and she plays the believer against Mulder as skeptic. (The first is Beyond the Sea; it's down below in the Mythology section.)

Season 3, Episode 12: War of the Coprophages

Another episode written by Darin Morgan. It has what may very well be the dumbest premise of any episode (people are being killed by swarms of cockroaches, which turn out to be alien robot cockroaches sent to observe us), but Morgan's script is sharp enough to overcome it. This one's got some of the funniest dialogue of the entire series.

Season 3, Episode 13: Syzygy

Mostly fun for Mulder and Scully being really bitchy toward each other. Guest starring Lisa Robin Kelly and (briefly) Ryan Reynolds.

Season 3, Episode 20: Jose Chung's From Outer Space

The final episode written by Darin Morgan (though he did a rewrite on Quagmire; see below). As noted above, I think this one edges out Clyde Bruckman's Final Repose as my favorite. It's got unreliable narratives within unreliable narratives, men in black played by surprise guest stars, stop-motion kaiju, and Charles Nelson Reilly.

Season 3, Episode 21: Avatar

Skinner episode.

Season 3, Episode 22: Quagmire

Lake monster episode. Mostly forgettable, except for a scene where Mulder and Scully get to talking while they're stranded on an island; that scene was written by Darin Morgan.

Season 4, Episode 2: Home

Okay, I'm going to say it: Home is overrated.

It's impeccably directed (by Kim Manners), and it's possibly the most memorable episode of the whole series. But it's memorable entirely because of cheap shock value.

I think it's one of those episodes you've just gotta watch once, and it will stick with you. It blew me away the first time I saw it. But when I came back to it 18 years later, I was a lot less impressed. (So okay, maybe this one shouldn't be on a list of my favorites. But it's definitely a must-watch episode, so I'm putting it here anyway.)

Season 4, Episode 5: The Field Where I Died

This one's got a few plot holes (how can the Cigarette Smoking Man be a reincarnated Nazi prison guard if he was alive during the Holocaust?), but it's got some great character moments for Mulder, and showcases Duchovny's acting range in a way that most of the rest of the series doesn't.

Season 4, Episode 10: Paper Hearts

Mulder matches wits with a child molester who he helped put in prison. Potential retcons to the story of Samantha's abduction, but then no they don't pan out and that's why this isn't under Mythology Episodes.

Season 4, Episode 11: El Mundo Gira

The Chupacabra episode!

Season 4, Episode 12: Leonard Betts

One of those "Nice unassuming man who starts killing people because he has a weird power" episodes. Also, foreshadows Scully's cancer.

Season 4, Episode 13: Never Again

A Scully-centric episode where she gets a tramp stamp of the Millennium logo and almost hooks up with a guy with an evil Bettie Page tattoo.

Season 4, Episode 20: Small Potatoes

An episode written by Vince Gilligan and guest starring Darin Morgan as a shapeshifter. The highlight of the episode, far and away, is a scene in which he shape-shifts into Mulder and then channels De Niro in Taxi Driver. This is probably Duchovny's finest performance in the show's entire run, and shows he's really got some serious comic chops; everything from his delivery to his body language to his facial expressions is brilliant.

Season 5, Episode 5: The Post-Modern Prometheus

So before I go and recommend this one, there's one caveat I need to get out of the way: this is an episode where two women are drugged and impregnated without their consent, and then the ethical implications of this premise are barely acknowledged.

And it's a shame that this episode has that ick factor hanging over it, because aside from that it's a delight. Carter handles both the writing and direction on this one, and it's an homage to classic monster movies, beautifully filmed in glorious black-and-white and guest-starring Seinfeld's John O'Hurley as its mad scientist. It delivers what its title promises: both a Frankenstein pastiche and postmodernism. It's weird, it's melancholy, it's funny, it's got Cher on its soundtrack, and there's more than one moment that feels like a Mel Brooks homage. If its morality is a little muddy, I'm inclined to be charitable and chalk it up to the episode's heightened reality. The plot doesn't make a hell of a lot of sense, but it's not supposed to; it feels like a dream and it prioritizes style over substance. And it is stylish as hell.

And man, that ending is beautiful.

Yes, there is a gap here.

I am still working my way through old X-Files and deciding which episodes to put on this list. However, I am also watching new episodes. I will be filling in the rest of seasons 5-9 as I go, but in the meantime here's one from season 10.

Season 10, Episode 3: Mulder and Scully Meet the Were-Monster

Darin Morgan's still got it. A roaringly funny monster mystery guest-starring Rhys Darby, Kumail Nanjiani, and Tyler Labine, featuring Morgan's usual narratives-within-narratives and Mulder's midlife crisis. X-Files at its absolute goddamn finest -- and a pleasingly standalone episode, though longtime fans will enjoy a couple of callbacks to Clyde Bruckman and a nice tribute to the late, great Kim Manners.

Mythology Episodes

These aren't necessarily the most "important" mythology episodes, the ones with plot details that play out through the rest of the series (though some of them are); they're just the ones I like. And anyway, even if you do watch all the mythology episodes expecting them to eventually make sense, you're just setting yourself up for disappointment.

There are some spoilers down here, including character departures.

Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Season 1 is a little rough but I love it despite (or because of) its flaws. There's a lot of stuff the show gets right right from the beginning, and the chemistry between Duchovny and Anderson is at the top of the list.

Season 1, Episode 2: Deep Throat

A fun guest appearance by Seth Green and lots of Area 51 stuff.

Season 1, Episode 10: Fallen Angel

Mulder's got fanboys! Introduces abductee Max Fenig, who's something of a template for the Lone Gunmen.

(Max also shows back up in a two-parter in season 4, but it's not on this list because it's boring.)

Season 1, Episode 13: Beyond the Sea

Guest appearance by Brad Dourif; death of Scully's father; first time Mulder is the skeptic and Scully is the believer.

(You could argue that this one's not a mythology episode because it doesn't deal with the aliens/conspiracy arcs, but I'm putting it here because it establishes a lot of Scully's background that is referred to throughout the rest of the series.)

Season 1, Episode 17: EBE

First appearance of the Lone Gunmen.

Season 1, Episode 24: The Erlenmeyer Flask

This is one of those episodes where everything changes, except that it doesn't; everything snaps right back to status quo in season 2: the X-Files get reopened, Scully goes back to being a skeptic even though she's seen an alien fetus in a jar, and while Deep Throat's departure is made out to be a big deal, Mr. X takes over and fills the exact same role in seasons 2 and 3 (after which he's replaced by Marita Covarrubias, who still pretty much fills the same role). Regardless, this one's exciting, and a lot of stuff happens; we've got human/alien hybrids, the Crew Cut Man assassinating people, and the departure of Deep Throat.

Season 2, Episode 5: Duane Barry and Episode 6: Ascension

Scully's abduction and Krycek's betrayal, two plot points that continue to come back up for the rest of the series. It's also got a guest appearance by CCH Pounder.

Season 2, Episode 8: One Breath

Scully's return. She spends most of it in a coma dreaming she's in a boat, but the rest of the cast really gets a chance to shine. There are some great scenes between the Smoking Man and Skinner, Mulder and Skinner, and Mulder and the Smoking Man, and some excellent moments from Mr. X and Frohike too.

Season 2, Episode 16: Colony and Episode 17: End Game

More hybrids; Bounty Hunters; clone colony; first return of Samantha; first appearance of Mulder's father and revelation that he was part of the Syndicate.

Season 2, Episode 25: Anasazi, Season 3: Episode 1: The Blessing Way and Episode 2: Paper Clip

Some really cringe-inducing stuff with Native Americans, but aside from that it's the first appearance of Teena Mulder, and more on Bill Mulder's history with the Syndicate. And there's some Lone Gunmen stuff and a Nazi scientist.

Season 3, Episode 9: Nise and Episode 10: 731

Mulder investigates an alien autopsy video; Scully finds an alien abductee support group (and the first hint that she may have cancer).

Season 3, Episode 15: Piper Maru and Episode 16: Apocrypha

First appearance of black oil; return of Krycek; some more stuff about CSM and Bill Mulder.

Season 3, Episode 24: Talitha Cumi and Season 4, Episode 1: Herrenvolk

More hybrids; more Bounty Hunters; more clone colonies; first hints that the Cigarette Smoking Man may be Mulder's biological father; departure of Mr. X and his immediate replacement by Marita Covarrubias.

Season 4, Episode 7: Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man

A lot of fans hate this one, and I guess I can understand the perspective that it demystifies the CSM in a way that makes him less interesting.

But I don't agree, and I love it, because it's so deliciously over-the-top. And the reason it's over-the-top is that it's all unreliable-narrator stuff; this is CSM's backstory filtered through his own fiction, published in a porno magazine (whose staff changed some of the details), and then related to Mulder by Frohike.

Basically, it's a tall tale, which ties the Cancer Man to the Kennedy and King assassinations and every other alleged government conspiracy of the twentieth century -- and all because he couldn't get his short stories published.

Season 4, Episode 8: Tunguska and Episode 9: Terma

Return of Krycek and the Black Oil; Mulder and Krycek go to Russia.

Season 4, Episode 14: Memento Mori

This is the "Scully Has Cancer" episode. It's loaded up with Chris Carter purple prose monologues. It's also got the Lone Gunmen, clones, and a callback to that episode where she met the other abductees.

Season 4, Episode 22: Gethsemane

The script is generic cliffhanger-finale fare (though the first act has some nice bits with Mulder, briefly, expressing skepticism), but it's got some truly gorgeous mountain shots that make a great argument for the widescreen HD remaster, some of the coolest creature effects of the series, and some great dramatic work from Anderson. But don't get too excited when you see "John Oliver" in the credits; it's not the John Oliver you're (probably) thinking of.

While this episode is the first of a three-parter, I don't recommend the other two parts; they are boring as fuck. All you really need to know is that Mulder isn't dead and Scully doesn't have cancer anymore.

Season 5, Episode 3: Unusual Suspects

The first episode to focus on the Lone Gunmen as its main characters (with Mulder in a minor role and Scully not present at all) tells their origin story and would eventually lead to their own spinoff. Written by Vince Gilligan, directed by Kim Manners, and for some reason guest starring Richard Belzer as Detective John Munch. (Which I guess puts X-Files, Lone Gunmen, and, by extension, Millennium in the Tommy Westphall Universe.)

Cheap DVD's: The Real Ghostbusters, vol 1

So I happened to notice, the other day, that The Real Ghostbusters, vol 1 (affiliate link) was on sale at Amazon for $10.49.

You can also get the complete series for $123.99, which is a screamin' deal if you actually want the full run. But I remember that even at the age of 6 I wasn't too impressed by the season 3 rejiggering of the show, and there's not much sense paying extra for 43 episodes I don't want.

I've watched the first few episodes, and man, it mostly still holds up, but Slimer sure is annoying. To the point where I am beginning to understand why people actually hate this show.

I wouldn't go that far -- I quite like it in fact -- but I can understand it. Slimer is one of those obnoxious comic-relief mascot characters who constantly fucks everything up and yet you're supposed to like him anyway. (He makes me think of Red Foreman's line on That 70's Show: "Gilligan screwed it up. Why don't they just kill him?")

On the other hand, Frank Welker does a great voice for him (which he'd later reuse as Nibbler on Futurama).

Also: The first episode features a group of imposter Ghostbusters. Wonder if that's another deliberate knock against Filmation's Ghostbusters cartoon series, like the show's title, The Real Ghostbusters.

Some other initial thoughts:

  • Good: If you can get over the characters looking nothing like the live-action versions, the designs are pretty great; each one clearly distinct in shape and color. I noticed Dan Riba's name in the credits; he went on to be a prominent artist in DC's animated shows.
  • Good: Great cast, including Frank Welker as Slimer and Ray, Mo LaMarche doing an uncanny Harold Ramis, Arsenio Hall inexplicably getting the part of Winston despite Ernie Hudson auditioning for it, and Lorenzo Music as Garfield.
  • Good: The animation is better than the vast majority of the show's contemporaries...
  • Bad: ...most of the time, but it can get pretty inconsistent.
  • Bad: Slimer. Mostly.
  • Good: But not always. Sometimes Slimer is good, and again, Welker's voice is a delight.
  • Good: The writing. I haven't liked everything J Michael Straczynski has ever written, but this show is solid. It does a good job of expanding the universe from the movie and creating a satisfying world of supernatural weirdness.
  • Good: Thirty episodes for under eleven bucks!

Kirbys and Marvel Settle

Today, Marvel and the Kirby Estate released a short joint statement:

Marvel and the family of Jack Kirby have amicably resolved their legal disputes, and are looking forward to advancing their shared goal of honoring Mr. Kirby’s significant role in Marvel’s history.

It's finally over.

I've revised my 2010 form post, The King's Ransom, for what I hope will be the last time.

A bit of context, since I wasn't updating the blog back in June (though I did tweak the aforementioned form post): the Kirby heirs were appealing the case to the Supreme Court, and a number of amicus briefs were filed in the case by prominent groups including the Artists' Rights Society and the International Intellectual Property Institute. Among others, Bruce Lehman, former director of the USPTO, argued that the instance and expense test that the previous judgement against the Kirby heirs hinged on violated Supreme Court precedent.

The Supreme Court was set to decide whether or not to take the case in just a few days.

Kurt Busiek says, in the comments section at The Beat:

Considering that the Kirby Estate didn’t seem to have anything to lose by going to the Supreme Court, but Marvel/Disney had a lot on the line, I’m thinking (or hoping, at least) that this was a decent settlement for the Estate. Given the timing — if the Supreme Court had chosen to hear the case, no settlement would then be possible — it virtually has to be a deal spurred on by the side that doesn’t want the case to go to the Court.

However unlikely onlookers think it might be that the Court would take up the case, and however corporate-friendly the Court may seem to be, the stakes are very high, and a settlement may have seemed a better plan than rolling the dice.

Busiek, of course, doesn't have any inside knowledge of the case, but I find he's been extremely knowledgeable about the facts and issues involved.

Mark Evanier -- who does have inside knowledge of the case -- started off this morning by joking that he can finally finish his Kirby biography, and then added, in a second blog post:

If you're coming to this page in search of details and commentary, you've come to the wrong place. I will be saying nothing about it other that I am real, real happy. And I'm sure Jack and his wife Roz, if they're watching this from wherever they are, are real, real, real happy.

I noted, back in a 2013 post about Archie v Penders, that the thing about settlements is that their terms are typically confidential. It's likely that we'll never know the precise details of the Kirby settlement. (If I were a betting man, I'd say Marvel probably agreed to give them the same profit-sharing deal that it gives current creators -- but that's just a guess, and it's worth what you paid for it.)

One thing we will know is whether the settlement involves more prominent creator credits for Kirby. Marvel's creator credits have been inconsistent up to this point -- the original 2002 Spider-Man movie has a "Created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko" credit right upfront, and Agents of SHIELD credits Lee and Kirby at the top of each episode, but other movies have buried creators' names at the bottom of the end credits under a nebulous "special thanks" section. I expect from here on in we'll be seeing much more prominent "Created by Jack Kirby" credits in comics, movies, and TV shows. Guess we'll know soon enough.

And speaking for myself -- I guess my boycott's finally over.

Which is good, because that Mike Allred Silver Surfer sure looks great.

Marketplace on NPR

So, since May I've been working a job that goes from 10 AM to 6 PM.

I like it. It gives me time to walk the dog in the morning, and getting off at 6 means I miss both the worst heat and the worst traffic of the day.

The biggest problem with getting off at 6 is that Marketplace is on NPR, and so that's what I end up listening to on my way home, because it's that or play Preset Lottery and try to find a song I like amid all the obnoxious pop and worse commercials on all the other stations.

I've been trying, for months, to figure out why I don't like Marketplace. Is it my innate disdain for the finance industry? The constant handholding on basic economics and technology?

No. I have come to realize that it's because the questions Kai Ryssdal asks are actually stupid.

Here's a bit from yesterday's interview with Amazon Studios' Roy Price:

Ryssdal: At this point, you might reasonably stop and ask, How did an online retailer end up making television shows, and, y'know, why? Roy Price is the guy with the answers; he runs Amazon Studios. Roy, it's good to have you on.

Price: Thank you, Kai; it's great to be here.

Ryssdal: So when you go to a dinner party, or your kid's soccer game, or you're hangin' out at the beach, and people say, "What do you do?" what do you tell them?

Price: I run Amazon Studios, and we develop TV shows for amazon.com. That's usually what I tell them, unless I'm in a kidding mood.

Emphasis added, because seriously, what the fuck is that? The dude says what Price's job is, and then asks him what he tells people his job is. This is, like, Tim Meadows as Lionel Osbourne-caliber interviewing.

And then he just keeps rambling on about how crazy it is that Amazon is making original TV shows.

This is not 1999. He is not asking why bookseller Amazon has started selling CD's, VHS tapes, and DVD's.

This is not 2003. He is not asking why media seller Amazon has started selling clothing, and advertising it with baffling recommendations beginning with "People who wear clothes also shop for:"

This is not 2007. He is not asking why physical media/clothing seller Amazon has started selling consumer electronics, household goods, and MP3's.

This is not 2011. He is not asking why physical goods/ebook/MP3 seller Amazon has started its own Android app store and video streaming service.

This is goddamn yesterday, and he is seemingly baffled that an online retailer that has been constantly branching out into new markets for the past 15 years has branched out into a new market.

Jesus Christ. I'd rather listen to Car Talk.

Cheap DVD's: Earthworm Jim

I was perusing Amazon the other day and, under my recommendations, I noticed that it listed Earthworm Jim: The Complete Series (affiliate link). As EWJ is easily one of my two favorite 1990's animated video game adaptations to feature Kath Soucie as a redheaded princess and Jim Cummings as the bad guy, I went ahead and ordered it.

Initial Impressions

The Good:

  • Good animation
  • Great cast
  • Still funny
  • All 23 episodes for only eleven bucks
  • Way better quality than that torrent you grabbed a few years ago that somebody made from old VHS tapes

The Bad:

  • Totally barebones; no special features or even scene selection.
  • If you buy this, part of that money probably goes to Doug TenNapel.