Cinematic Titanic: the riff show you probably forgot about

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Aug 8, 2017

Hey, remember that time Mystery Science Theater 3000 came back?

No, not the new series with Jonah Ray.

No, not Rifftrax.

No, not the Turkey Day Joel does every year.

The other, other, other one.

Cinematic Titanic!

Maybe you remember, maybe you don't. But there was, in fact, a time after MST3K was cancelled but long before it returned through Netflix when series creator Joel Hodgson reunited with the original mads, Trace Beaulieu and J. Elvis Weinstein, to (at least temporarily) bury the hatchet over some old creative differences and put together a whole new riff show.

Did I mention that Mary Jo Pehl (my favorite MST3K writer) and TV's Frank Coniff (my favorite TV's Frank) were also in on the project?

They were. And they all performed at once as themselves and not as robots.

But the reason you might not remember this series is because it's been out of print for a little while. And, in fact, I remember when I got my very first disc back in 2007 it arrived not in a DVD case but in a paper sleeve and nothing more.

It was a different time for riffing, folks. And there were plenty of people who never ordered these discs the first time around.

But times they are a'chang-ed. And by that, I mean Shout Factory has collected the original studio run of 7 Cinematic Titanic studio episodes and five live shows, too. That's 12 episodes released on August 8, 2017, you fancy scamp! Not a baker's dozen, no, but then you don't look much like a baker to me, so ...

Anyway, you might be asking yourself, "What's the deal with this show?" You know, much in the way Jerry Seinfeld used to do, except replacing "these people" with "show." And that's a fair question.

Much like the original MST3K, a group of people has been gathered and is "forced" to watch movies for some manner of experiment. However, in this case, there are a few differences ...

On the story end, there's some shadowy organization (maybe evil, maybe they just don't like the sun) that is having the team watch movies because ... there's a tear in the electron scaffolding.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Anyway, they watch, they riff, they put the results on a nanotated disc and fire it off in a time tube to who knows when.

As concepts go, it is not the best.

But who cares, honestly? The plot of Cinematic Titanic is the least important thing we'll talk about today.

The thing that's most interesting about Cinematic Titanic as a show is that it represents the in-between time when most of these talented people at least kind of got along.

Looking back on the original MST3K days, you might recall that J. Elvis Weinstein did not depart on the happiest of terms. In the cable access days of the show, the riffs were more improvisational and off-the-cuff. Weinstein had left in part because of the stricter adherence to scripting the show grew into.

And not to air the dirty laundry of others, but Joel's deal with Shout Factory a few years ago didn't exactly leave the other players involved in the creation of MST3K particularly jazzed.

So from about 2007 through 2013 we got a rare moment in time where people involved with MST3K's original run decided to get back in the saddle together and ride once more.

It was a big saddle. Very roomy.

And while the visual style is somewhat different (the cast silhouette's are located on the sides of the screen rather than the bottom) you can immediately identify Cinematic Titanic as a true inheritor to the MST3K throne. One of many inheritors. Rifftrax is also great. As is the new MST3K on Netflix. It's a real Game of Thrones with these shows, now that I think of it.

But, specifically, if what you loved most about MST3K was the earlier stuff, from Joel and J. through to Trace and Frank's departure, then Cinematic Titanic is, I would say, designed to scratch your particular itch.

I love Mike and Bill and Kev. Rifftrax is fantastic. But they have their own distinctive patter that, I think very purposefully, doesn't feel quite like MST3K. And Cinematic Titanic is its own animal, too. After all, this is the first time J., Mary Jo and Frank were consistently in the room riffing along with everyone else, long before the live shows that would combine everyone later on. And every single riffer was scripting, too.

Cinematic Titanic is a series created by people all living in different cities, working independently and then putting their scripts together before paring the work down to the best bits and assigning the lines. So, in that way, it does have a voice all its own -- it just so happens that voice is the closest I think you'll ever hear to the original MST3K.

Despite five voices in the room, the show never goes full joke-a-rama, a criticism you'll often hear levied against the new MST3K. Which makes sense. Five writers and performers may be a lot, but there are so many more working on MST3K now and it shows.

And the 12 episodes deal with some tasty Velveeta so far as movies go. With stuff like The Wasp Women, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians and one of my absolute favorites, The Doomsday Machine (where the world ends and lady astronauts have to be impregnated), there's more than enough for everyone to enjoy.

And while, yes, the studio recordings can sometimes slam you a little bit with joke after joke after joke, that's what makes the live shows such a breath of fresh air.

In the one new interview featuring J. Elvis Weinstein, he talks about the merits of those live shows. Whereas the studio stuff was performed in a bubble, the live shows provided an audience so the performers knew when to let a joke breathe and when a particular type of bit wasn't working. Like the old days when J. started, the live shows feel more improvisational.

And, to be honest, I'm just so happy that there's a series where a woman actually gets to riff throughout the whole movie. I appreciate that Gypsy has some skin in the new MST3K game, but she's still only allowed a few gags at most per movie. Mary Jo Pehl is there in every episode of Cinematic Titanic from start to finish. And, again, this isn't a matter of filling a quota -- this is Mary Joe @#$ing Pehl, maybe one of the best comedy writers of all time, for my money.

I wish we had gotten even more episodes, but sometimes the great stuff is just destined to be fleeting. Trace and Frank still do their schtick as the mads on their own (and occasionally join up with Rifftrax), Joel has his new team and J. has become one of those solid TV writers over the years that everyone loves even if they don't realize it.

But from 2007-2013 Cinematic Titanic was the show the original MSTies longed for and got. And if you never watched it before (or you weren't able to nab the discs as they were coming out back in the day), I heartily recommend it. Full disclosure, Shout Factory sent me a review copy a few weeks ago, and I ripped through 'em like I was shredding the gift wrapping off a new pair of loafers.

I like comfortable shoes, okay?

The full series includes:

The Oozing Skull
The Doomsday Machine
The Wasp Woman
Legacy of Blood
Santa Claus Conquers the Martians
Frankenstein's Castle of Freaks
Blood of the Vampires

East Meets Watts (Live)
The Alien Factor (Live)
Danger on Tiki Island (Live)
War of the Insects (Live)
Rattlers (Live)

The complete Cinematic Titanic is available as of August 8, 2017.