My Favorites: Mystery Science Theater 3000


On Thanksgiving Day in 1988 a curious oddity premiered on KTMA in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The show starred stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson as Joel Robinson, a janitor at the fictional Gizmonics Institute who is launched into space by his two “evil” bosses, Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Lawrence Eckhart. Trapped aboard the Satellite of Love, Joel constructs several robots – Tom Servo, Gypsy, Crow T. Robot, and Cambot, to help him cope with the solitude and… what the hell am I doing? The theme song does such a better job in explaining the premise to this damn show than I ever could – and it’s much catchier, too.

Mystery Science Theater 3000, as I’ve explained in the past, is more or less the foundation on which I gauge whether or not I like and/or dislike just about anything in my life that isn’t a person (though if someone admits to not liking the show…). This silly ass show about a man and his robots watching bad movies shaped countless childhoods, and its influence is still felt today. An entire generation of content creators, helped greatly by the Internet, have drawn influence from MST3K, and even today – 25 years after it premiered and 14 years after its final episode – it maintains arguably the most passionate fanbase of any television program on the planet.

Sorry, Whovians. My condolences, Trekkies.

Mystery Science Theater 3000 is twenty-five years old today, and as it gears up for its midlife crisis I can think of no better way to “celebrate” (read: shamelessly talking about my favorite TV program on a platform in which none of you bastards can stop me) than by listing off my absolute favorite episodes as they stand today. Why today? Because the beauty of MST3K is that it was good so consistently for so long that every time you ask me what my favorite episodes are, I’m going to give you a different list.

GODZILLA VS. MEGALON AND GODZILLA VS. THE SEA MONSTER

I have a deeply-rooted love for Godzilla and the Godzilla film franchise. Taking out the original Godzilla (1954), which was a damn serious film about the dangers of an atomic world, the majority of Godzilla‘s outings are little morality plays wrapped around destruction porn.

But holy damn is Godzilla vs. Megalon bad.

In it, Godzilla teams up with the unfortunate-looking Jet Jaguar, a robot that goes from being remote-controlled to gaining sentience and helping the King of the Monsters battle against ocean-dwelling beings and the dual threat of Gigan and Megalon. These aren’t episodes that you find on too many peoples lists of best MST3K episodes, but because they’re Godzilla movies they’ve always held a very special place for me. Plus the gave us both the Godzilla Genealogy Bop and the totally accurate translation to the Jet Jaguar Song…

Sadly, neither episode of available on DVD, nor have they found their way to YouTube in their full glory.

SANTA CLAUS CONQUERS THE MARTIANS

MST3K-SCCtMOn the planet Mars, little green martian boys and girls have become obsessed with Earth television shows which fetishize jolly ol’ Saint Nick. In an effort to bring happiness back to their ruined alien world (or something), the Martian Kimar hatches a crazy plan to kidnap Santa Claus, bring him back to Mars, and spread yuletide joy to all the children of the red planet. Of course the tables are turned on the Martian kidnappers, because you don’t fuck with the Kringle.

The premise alone lends itself to some of the wittiest, smartest, most off-the-wall riffing you could imagine, and Joel and co. deliver in spades. This, along with the Mike-era experiment “Santa Claus,” constitutes the closest thing to an actual Christmas special that you could get with this show.

This episode also stands out to me on a personal level, because it’s one of the few movies that I’ve seen on this show which I actually saw unriffed before seeing the MST3K episode. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians was a movie that our cheap-as-hell CBS affiliate aired late at night around Christmas when I was a child, and unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to see the MST3K riff of it until well into my teens.

Thank god for the Internet.

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is one of the most widely riffed movies available. Not only is it available as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Essentials Collection (Amazon), it’s also been riffed by the Joel Hodgson-produced Cinematic Titanic (Amazon), and will very soon be riffed by Mike Nelson’s Rifftrax. Curiously, this is one of the few episodes that haven’t made their way to YouTube, though with the holidays fast approaching I would be surprised if you didn’t see its return to Netflix Instant Stream in the near future.

It’s truly the gift that keeps on giving.

“MANOS” THE HANDS OF FATE

…I fucking hate “Manos” The Hands of Fate. I hate this movie with an irrational passion. I hate, hate, hatehate, HATE this goddman movie.

Which may explain why I’ve come to appreciate the riffing of it. Don’t get me wrong – I do not “enjoy” this episode of MST3K, nor do I enjoy the Rifftrax version of it. It’s not for a lack of effort on the parts of the riffers. They’re utterly hilarious. In fact, objectively speaking this may have been Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s finest hour. But “Manos” The Hands of Fate is… awful. Just plain goddamm awful. It’s so damn bad that it doesn’t realize that “manos” is Spanish for “hands,” thus making the movie title “Hands: The Hands of Fate.”

It’s a plight upon humanity. All copies of this film should be destroyed, and its “fans” should be kept in quarantine until a vaccine can be synthesized, lest an outbreak of “Manos” defenders arise and demand a full HD restoration of this godforesaken train wreck and… and… oh, god. It’s too late.

It’s too late!

"Jazz Hands" cosplay, anyone?

“Jazz Hands” cosplay, anyone?

“Manos” The Hands of Fate is the other feature on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 The Essentials Collection, and is also available as a stand-alone DVD (Amazon). Also like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians“Manos” has been the subject of riffing outside of MST3K; Rifftraxripped it a new one, too. If you’re feeling cheap, it’s available on YouTube.

MITCHELL

Believe it or not, there was a time when a man who voluntarily called himself “Joe Don” was on top of Hollywood. Fresh off of his starring turn in Walking Tall, Joe Don Baker starred in Mitchell. Mitchell was the story of the hard-living borderline-incompetent anti-hero detective, Mitchell, who is on the case in an attempt to bring down a corrupt union lawyer. Mitchell promises action, adventure, suspense, and sex – all of which stars Joe Don Baker, unfortunately.

Mitchell is an important episode in the show’s run, as it marks the final regular appearance of series creator Joel Hodgson. His departure seems sudden, but it’s also strangely appropriate. He’d return for a brief guest spot in Experiment 1001: “Soultaker.”

Mitchell is one of the few MST3K episodes to be released as a stand-alone DVD (Amazon), though it is also included as a “special edition feature” on the Mystery Science Theater 3000 25th Anniversary Limited Edition collection (Amazon). Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the most popular MST3K episodes on YouTube.

THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE CREATURES WHO STOPPED LIVING AND BECAME MIXED-UP ZOMBIES

The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, or TISCwSLaBMUZ for short, is… strange. Shot on a shoestring budget by Ray Dennis Steckler, TISCwSLaBMUZ is about a man who falls in love with an alcoholic stripper at a carnival. The problem is that this stripper’s sister is a powerful gypsy who, after scoffed at by the man and his friends, turns him into a zombie. The rest of the movie is all about this zombie bro chasing after his friends while the audience struggles mightily to understand what anybody is saying.

I don’t have a whole lot more to say about it. If a title like The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies doesn’t grab your attention, I can’t help you.

You can find TISCwSLaBMUZ on DVD (Amazon), and as part of the ultra-rare Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume 9 DVD set. Of course, if you’re feeling cheap you can always find this experiment on YouTube and use that DVD money to donate to Helping Children Through Research and Development.

JACK FROST

This is the episode that lured me in to MST3K in the first place, and still remains as one of my absolute favorite episodes. This movie, based on a Russian fairy tale or two… or, like, nine, tells the story of Ivan and Nastenka. Ivan, a brash, arrogant, and we are told handsome man, is transformed into a bear by a magical mushroom-shaped forest pixie who tells him that in order to undo the curse, he must learn the value of kindness. So Ivan sets off to do good deeds, and in the process is accosted by an evil woodland witch who tries to cook him inside her cabin that’s standing on top of giant tree-like chicken legs. Which move.

Because Russia.

MST3K-JackFrostThis episode is the first time that the “new” voice of Crow, Bill Corbett, was allowed to really stretch his creative riffing muscles. In fact, Crow has some of the best zingers in the episode, and went a long way towards helping him win over many of the die-hard fans who were still distraught over Trace Beaulieu’s departure.

This episode is widely available to watch. Not only is it part of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XVIII (Amazon), but you can view the episode on YouTube. In fact, from time to time you can even find it on Netflix Instant Streaming.

I also think there was something in the Minneapolis water supply during this period: Jack Frost capped off a string of three all-time classic episodes – a string which would be repeated later in the season which began with…

SPACE MUTINY

What is there to say about Space Mutiny that hasn’t been said already? It’s a comically cheesy mid-1980s South African sci-fi romp in which a man named “Calgon” (and who looks like Pat Reilly) attempts to take over a human colony ship and land it on the next planet they find. His plan seems to be going as planned until one man – one very specific man – stands against him and leads the crew of the Southern Sun into battle against Calgon and his mutineers.

That man? Blast Hardcheese… or is it Dirk Hardpec… wait, no. It’s Hack Blowfist!… or is… is it Bob Johnson?

Mike and the Bots riffing into everything about Reb Brown makes this movie well worth it – along with bad fight scenes, a captain who looks like Santa, a crew member who dies only to be seen right back at her post in the very next scene, and badly-edited space combat footage lifted from Battlestar Galactica. It is widely considered to be one of the absolute best episodes of the series, and if you can find a copy of Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume 4 (Amazon), you can own it. Or you can watch it on YouTube.

OVERDRAWN AT THE MEMORY BANK

"I seem to have died. Is that okay?"

“I seem to have died. Is that okay?”

Raul Julia is one of the finest actors to ever live, so what he was doing in this piece of s… surely very, very quality film-making is beyond me. In Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, Raul Julia plays the single Aram Fingal, a “Processor, Third-Class” in a dystopian corporate future who feels a tingle for excitement in his life. After repeated attempts to mingle with his co-workers and generally causing a ruckus, Fingal is caught “scrolling up old cinemas” (an overly complicated way of saying “watch old movies”) on the central computer system and is ordered to have himself “doppled” – a forced vacation in which your consciousness is transplanted inside a technicolor plastic cube where you can live out the life of a horse, dolphin, monkey, or filthy anteater. For… reasons… Fingal loses his body and starts a rebellion against his oppressive government because, no joke, he’s bored.

This was a Made-for-PBS movie that, in all honesty, wasn’t finished because the production ran out of money anyways. A PBS affiliate in New York decided to run it anyways, and the end result is a remarkably bad movie that makes constant references to Casablanca, and a main villain who is referred to almost-exclusively as “The Fat Man” who provides some of the greatest riffing material from any episode. But the best part? Raul Julia himself. His raw on-screen charisma almost – almost – saves this movie.

Like many of the experiments on this list, you can find this episode on YouTube. You can also find it as part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 Volume 4 DVD set (Amazon).

WEREWOLF

As a general rule, “direct-to-video” movies are low-hanging fruit for the connoisseur in search of bad movies. However, once in a while you come across something truly spectacular – in this case, the 1996 movie Werewolf. At the time of its treatment on MST3K Werewolf was only two years old, but the glorious combination of absurd paranormal plot about a Native American werewolves, an evil archaeologist with seemingly sentient hair, and Joe Estevez makes this to be a glorious example of “so bad it’s bad.”

In this movie we have a man dry-humping his bed during his transformation, an “archaeologist” who sounds as if she had been injected with liquid Valium, a batshit insane housekeeper who’d fit right at home in the Tea Party, a random bystander beating the ever-loving shit out of a werewolf, and “an American Werewolf in Traffic.”

Werewolf is part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000 20th Anniversary (Amazon) and is, as of the time I click “publish,” on Netflix Instant Stream. Of course, when the day comes that it disappears from Netflix you can always turn to YouTube.

FINAL JUSTICE

I’m not done with Joe Don Baker. Final Justice was the story of the hard-living borderline-incompetent anti-hero Texas deputy sheriff, Thomas Jefferson Geronimo III, who is on a mission to see that final justice is served to the Italian mobster Joseph Palermo after Geronimo’s partner is murdered. What follows is a cat-and-mouse game across the island nation of Malta, in which all sorts of silly 1980s low-budget action movie shenanigans occurs.

Watching this experiment directly after Mitchell, and seeing how much more harshness is dished out at Joe Don in Final Justice, is pretty interesting. You see, after Mitchell aired rumors began to circulate that Joe Don was angry – very, very, violently angry – about the show’s treatment of his movie. So when it came time to dish out some harshness for Final Justice, Mike and the Bots (and the whole of the writing team) dropped any attempt to play nice and went right for the jugular. Food and fat jokes are abound, which is actually a rarity for MST3K (with the grand exception of the Fat Man in Overdrawn at the Memory Bank), and while this is certainly one of the more juvenile episodes they’ve produced, I’ll be damned if it isn’t funny as hell.

Final Justice is part of the Mystery Science Theater 3000, Volume XIV collection (Amazon). You can also freely find this episode on YouTube, and on occasion it appears on Netflix Instant Stream.

BONUS: MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000: THE MOVIE

Okay. So, while Mystery Science Theater 3000 the TV series made its name on ripping apart some of the worst films ever made, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie is known for having Mike and the Bots riff one of the greatest science fiction movies of all time, This Island Earth. Back in the 1950s, This Island Earth was a cinematic marvel for the time, and its vibrant color palette and stunning art direction still hold up today.

This Island Earth is a legitimately good movie.

MST3K-TIE

So why is it being lampooned? Because this is Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, of course! Which is, in itself, an ironic statement to make as MST3K: TM is actually a good deal shorter than your typical episode. You see, in order to gain approval from Universal to use the film in their film, more than half of the movie had to be edited out. The end result is a “film” which clocks in with a brisk 73-minute runtime, with a few host segments spliced between about 50-55 minutes of actual “movie” for riffing. It’s short, it’s sweet, and it actually serves as a pretty great introduction to the show for people you want to convert. Plus it’s a movie about a guy watching a movie, which is just wonderfully meta.

Oh, and it also happens that Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie (Amazon) is the only piece of MST3K that’s available in HD, so… yeah. That’s nifty.

“HEY, WHAT ABOUT [INSERT TITLE HERE]?!”

As I said before – if you asked me again, say, tomorrow which episodes were my favorite, you’d get an entirely different list. The beauty of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is that no two people have the exact same list of “favorite episodes,” and… hell, some of my absolute favorites aren’t on this list. After all, I don’t see…

  • The Pod People
  • Invasion U.S.A.
  • The Beatniks
  • I Accuse My Parents
  • Fugitive Alien
  • Zombie Nightmare
  • The Final Sacrifice
  • Santa Claus
  • Master Ninja I
  • Master Ninja II
  • San Francisco International
  • The Girl in Lovers’ Lane
  • Red Zone Cuba
  • The Beast of Yucca Flats
  • The Skydivers
  • Laserblast
  • Future War
  • Time Chasers (which, for what it is, isn’t terrible as a stand-alone film)
  • The Pumaman
  • Soultakers
  • Hamlet
  • The Castle of Dr. Fu Manchu

…and at least 20 more. But if you asked me in a week, or a month, or a year, and you’d probably see six or seven of them on whatever list I have you. Now if you don’t mind me, I’ve work to do.

Watch out for snakes.

MST3K Silhouette