Mystery Science Theater 3000, the venerable '90s sci-fi comedy jam, has always defied expectations. Its two-hour episode runtime demanded attention in a television landscape that loved the 30-second soundbite. Its Midwestern roots offered a distinctive sense of humor, sharper and nimbler than whatever was coming out of L.A. and New York at the same time.
I discovered MST3K in high school, and for a someone like me, MST3K was a mind-altering experience, an epiphany where I finally discovered that I was not entirely alone. I grew up in Hawai'i, isolated and too nerdy for my own good. I had a handful of acquaintances, but no one I could really call a best friend. I had no one who adored Monty Python as much as I did, or old movie musicals, or Bugs Bunny cartoons, or Stephen King books. I subsisted on a diet of cable TV, ingesting reruns of '60s sitcoms and obscure movies like so much sugary candy. I couldn't get enough of it, to the point where my parents began to worry as I passed hour after hour with my eyes glued to that glowing screen. But my grades were excellent, so they allowed me my TV habit.
For me, watching MST3K felt like hanging out with your cool older siblings' goofy friends. They were into the same stuff I was into, and they didn't tease me for knowing too much. They rewarded me for it. But, there was always something troubling lingering at the fringes of my favorite show.
Original flavor MST3K was a big old sausage party. The main human test subject was male, and Crow and Tom Servo, the two main robot cohorts, were male. The mad scientists who torment the test subject, also male. There was Gypsy, the female snake-like robot who tended to the higher functions of the Satellite of Love, but she was always voiced by a male puppeteer. Sometimes her personality - paired with a woeful, mooing voice - leaned towards simple-mindedness and even downright stupidity. My heart lay heavy knowing that my favorite show lacked positive female representation.
Watching MST3K was an enlightening experience, but when Pearl Forrester was introduced as one of the main characters of the show, it became downright formative. Pearl began as a hackneyed version of the overbearing mother. She had nothing but criticism for her disappointing son, Clayton, whose pathetic science experiment hadn't, so far, given him any more insight into taking over the world. Pearl was not conventionally pretty. She had overly-coiffed hair, heavy makeup, and colorful plastic glasses. She was the very model of the stereotypical Midwestern housewife and mom. And yes, she was fat.
And yet, she was hilarious.
She was overbearing and annoying, but one glimpse of Pearl Forrester was all audiences needed to figure out where Clayton Forrester came from. While Clayton was an all-powerful, all-evil mad scientist when dealing with his test subjects, he transformed into a cowering, submissive yob when interacting with his mom. It's clear that he adored his mother. Clayton controlled the experiments, but Pearl controlled Clayton, and that, to me, was revelatory. Even Doctor Forrester had something that he was afraid of, and it was a woman.
Comedy Central eventually canceled MST3K and the show ended its series finale by making Clayton revert into a Star Baby 2001-style, with Pearl given a second chance to raise her son right. Once the Syfy Channel (then, the Sci-Fi Channel) picked up the show, Pearl really came into her own as the major evil antagonist. In the first episode of the first Sci-Fi season, she admits that she was going to raise her son lovingly for once but never got around to doing so, meaning that he turned out just as twisted as before. Pearl ended up killing her son, blamed the Satellite of Love crew for his death, and vowed vengeance by resuming her son's lifework of torturing test subjects with really bad movies.
Sci-Fi Channel-era Pearl is my favorite version of Pearl. She collected a couple of lackeys, Professor Bobo (a sentient chimp hailing from Earth's inevitable Planet of the Apes future) and the Observer (or Brain Guy, as Pearl nicknamed him because Observers carry their brains around with them in large Petri dishes filled with blue goo). Pearl was determined to make her son's experiments work, and she revealed that the Forresters were actually an ancient clan of evil-doers, and her quest to continue the terrible movie torture became less about avenging her son and more about living up to her family's ancient legacy. Pearl's overbearing and crass nature balanced perfectly with her lackeys' ineptness, causing hilarity to constantly ensue. Her frustrations with trying out schemes to take over the world, in accordance with family tradition, are surprisingly relatable. How many people have had difficulties living up to family expectations? I know I did.
And this ultimately brings us around to the new version of MST3K. After a hiatus of nearly twenty years, the show is back with a new cast and a new pair of Mad Scientists, including Clayton Forrester's daughter (thus Pearl's granddaughter), Kinga, who dubs herself, with a great deal of pride, as a "third generation supervillain and inevitable master of all profit-making media."
Kinga is played by Felicia Day, who has made a comfortable career out of being an awkward, funny, nerdy lady. As a huge fan of the original show, and whose sense of humor feels forged from the fire that MST3K stoked, she seemed like a perfect match for the new reboot. Yet, some have criticized the casting of Day as an evil character. She's "too cute." She's "too nice." Someone told me that they don't mind Day as Kinga, but "her voice is too soft" during the opening theme song, which is a bizarre thing to say. Why is her singing volume even an issue?
Day herself has seen these criticisms, and she posted this on Twitter:
But why is "too pretty" a criticism? There are evil ladies in genre fiction who are physically attractive. The White Witch of Narnia. Maleficent. Mystique. Catwoman. Cersei Lannister. So what's the difference between these characters and someone like Kinga Forrester? Kinga's in a comedy, and comedy often requires characters to be funny-looking as well as exhibiting a funny personality. Clayton Forrester himself started out as a fairly ordinary-looking guy in a lab coat, but over the course of the seasons, he started to resemble a prototype version of Rick Sanchez, with thick, caterpillar-sized eyebrows and wild, spiky hair. Pearl Forrester never met a shade of rouge she didn't like, she eagerly laid her eyeliner and her eyeshadow, and her lipstick was as red as the blood of her enemies. Her makeup was warpaint.
As Kinga, Day appears decidedly normal when compared to her two predecessor Forresters. Her uniform is intimidating and spartan, and the only hint of whimsy on her person are her bony hairsticks. There's a frustrating, completely misguided, and misogynistic belief that attractive women can't be funny, that there has to be something physically wrong with a woman before she's allowed to do comedy, and this is where the heart of the criticism of Day lives. The other Forresters were bizarre-looking and hilarious to look at, and Day doesn't fit this profile. Therefore, she doesn't fit the show. It's ridiculous that how a character looks, especially a "pretty" character, gets to dictate whether or not they're allowed to be in a comedy. Funny ladies are funny, no matter what they look like.
Kinga is depicted as a different kind of evil than either of her predecessors. Clayton was the prerequisite mad scientist simply torturing his test subjects for fun. Pearl had a legacy to protect and live up to, a grander meaning to her evil existence. Kinga admits that she's all in it for the money. Hers is perhaps the most selfish pursuit of all, and in today's online media landscape, where money can be made by taking advantage of other's creative content, her co-opting and exploiting of the Satellite of Love crew's jokes for pure profit is particularly relevant.
Kinga is, more than any other MST3K baddie, allowed to have interests outside of villainy, but this isn't without consequences. Her delightful duet with online boyfriend Neville ends in heartbreak, and after continuous frustrations which produce setbacks in both her personal and professional life, Kinga seeks solace in her grandmother Pearl's wise words. Pearl just flat out tells her, "You can't have it all." Pearl's reminder that a Forrester should always be about the pursuit of evil and nothing else is heartfelt. It's decidedly rare to see a family of evil ladies allowed to console each other without backstabbing, so Pearl's support of her granddaughter is astonishing. Grandma Pearl does love her granddaughter, kind of.
Kinga's normality makes most of the comedy work. Like when she's telling her sidekick Max (played by Patton Oswalt) that she hates him: "And I didn't mean that to hurt your feelings. I just mean that just as a fact." She minces no words when she's bluntly asking test subject Jonah Heston (played by Jonah Ray) to marry her as a ratings stunt for the show. "I'm just a megalomaniacal girl, standing in front of a kidnapped boy, asking him to love her. Or she will shut off his oxygen." Her evil is direct and divine. She doesn't need to look mad. She just is mad.
Perhaps no other scene captures Kinga's unique mix of adorable and macabre as the Punt Bunny Invention Exchange. In a scene reminiscent of the Dish of the Day from Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Kinga creates cute, plush bunnies that desperately want you to kick them.Kinga: Our invention goes straight for the unevolved lizard brain in all of us. Max: Ever see a cute widdle bunny wabbit wiggling its little itty-bitty nose? Kinga: And thought, "I wanna punt that"? Well now you can, with Punt Bunnies. The only bunny you can punt!
It's cute. It's ridiculous. And it's just a little mean. In other words, it's an invention that greatly appeals to Kinga, who loves to indulge her id. Kinga's version of evil is like a cruel child's. And what purer and more subversive version of evil can there be? She is just plain fun to watch, and this new season is determined to give her a bit more character development than her predecessors as well. Finally, it's greatly inspiring to watch the actress whose character was famously fridged in Doctor Horrible's Sing-Along Blog return with a vengeance to wreak havoc on a bunch of unsuspecting dudes.
Rock on, Kinga Forrester. Rock on.