Thirteen episodes from thirteen seasons to get you ready for the next era of Mystery Science Theater 3000
A few years ago, a Kickstarter was launched to make some new episodes of everybody’s favourite movie-riffing show, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The Kickstarter was incredibly successful, and fans got to watch two seasons on Netflix. But Netflix is fickle—which is to say, it sure likes cancelling projects after the second season! So MST3K creator Joel Hodgson and his team had a better idea: What if we could create and distribute episodes on our own terms? And so another Kickstarter has been launched.
Let’s back up. We suspect that if you’re reading this, you probably know the show pretty well, but just in case: MST3K is the heartfelt tale of a man trapped in space (aboard the Satellite of Love) by some mad scientists (known as “The Mads”) and forced to watch cheesy movies as part of an evil science experiment. The test subject—we’ve had three so far—survives the ordeal by his wits, or rather, by making witty comments at the movies with his wisecracking robot companions, Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot. The show premiered on Thanksgiving Day, 1988, and has been running ever since. (Except for a twenty-year hiatus. But what’s twenty years between friends?)
Now, you could yourself excited about the prospect of fresh MST3K by rewatching the six episodes of the last Netflix season. Or you could be ambitious and try to get through the entire 217-episode run of the show so far. But we’ve got another proposition for you. Why not watch one episode from each season? It’ll be a trip down memory lane, a reminder of how the show has evolved over the years — and a refresher, in case a character who hasn’t been on the show for twenty-eight years makes an unexpected cameo (as happened last season). You’ll be ready for it!
The crew from It’s Just A Show, your deep-dive MST3K podcast, offer you Proposition Deep 13: Thirteen episodes from thirteen seasons, one per season. We didn’t necessarily pick the “best” episodes, the most popular episodes, or even our favourite episodes. Instead, we’ve crafted a balanced thirteen-course meal that will fill you up without too much deep hurting.
Oh, you think we should have chosen different episodes? Of course you do, this is the internet! And that’s cool. But here’s what we’re watching. Join us, won’t you?
K10. Cosmic Princess
Before it was cancelled by not one, but two disreputable cable networks, MST3K was first given life at Minnesota-based UHF station, KTMA. The series did not arrive fully formed, but grew into itself the way a child grows into an oversized sweater. The original incarnation of the cow-town puppet show was largely improvised, and it’s fascinating to watch the series gradually retool itself on the air until it resembles the MST3K we know and love.
Uncertainty pervades many of the 21 KTMA episodes (and its unaired pilot).* The earliest of these “season zero” episodes are sparsely riffed because the cast is essentially inventing a new form of comedy on the fly. No one knew how many jokes you could make on top of a narrative before the movies became too hard to follow. Similarly, those first few episodes seem confused as to whether MST3K is aimed primarily at children or if it’s a more adult-oriented comedy in kids’ show trappings.
One of the finest KTMA episodes was the Space: 1999 compilation movie Cosmic Princess. Comprised of two episodes of 1999’s second season, this “movie” provides a fast-paced and colourful focus for Joel Hodgson, J. Elvis Weinstein, and Trace Beaulieu to bounce off. It brings out some of the best jokes of the original KTMA episodes, inspiring riffs on Devo, Burl Ives, the Hair Club For Men, Prince, and the Land of Dairy Queen. If you want to see the show’s first cast in their element, Cosmic Princess is as good as any episode of the show’s first proper season on Comedy Central. [Adam]
* Well, 20 of the 21 episodes. The third episode of the KTMA season has never been released since its original airing, and home recordings have never surfaced.
107. Robot Monster
At the request of Best Brains (MST3K’s original production company), Comedy Central avoided re-airing season one for most of the show’s run. And for good reason: Like many beloved long-running shows of the 90s (Seinfeld, Simpsons, Star Trek: TNG), MST3K’s first season feels like an awkward dry run for the real thing. The biggest weakness might be the movies themselves, the vast majority of which were poverty-row features from the 1950s that all suffer from leaden pacing, stiff acting, and lacklustre cinematography. But that’s what the writers (they were finally scripting the show, instead of improvising) had to work with in their first year at Comedy Central, and in a few cases the movie gives enough for Joel and the bots to work with.
Robot Monster exceeds its humble roots by focusing closely on the thoughts and feelings of a single family of post-apocalyptic survivors as they’re mercilessly picked off, one-by-one, by their alien oppressor. Weirdly for a movie of this era, the humans assuredly do not win the day, and the entire planet is eventually destroyed because its invaders decide it’s no longer worth the hassle. Meanwhile, the titular Robot Monster, Ro-Man him-/itself, delivers soliloquies that are Hamlet-esque in their musings on the nature of existence, triggered by the new squishy feelings Ro-Man experiences after creeping on the family’s older daughter. Contrast the weighty subject matter with the fact that Ro-Man is a dude in an ape suit wearing a diver’s helmet who spends most of his time lumbering awkwardly through the hills of Bronson Canyon, and the riffs basically write themselves. Feel free to skip past the two Commando Cody shorts, though I have a fondness for their Rocketeer aesthetic. [Beth]
204. Catalina Caper
If season one was mostly filled with leaden black-and-white sci-fi movies, season two introduced some much-needed colour with a few 60s movies about bikers, beaches, and b’Godzilla. And look, I know we said we weren’t going to choose favourites, but Catalina Caper might be my favourite episode in the entire run. This ridiculous romp tries to cash in on the Frankie-and-Annette beach party genre. Alas, it came out in 1967, when audiences were exhausted from playing so much bingo on their beach blankets and stuffing so many wild bikinis.
And yet the movie has everything: a sunny disposition, some ridiculous music numbers (Little Richard’s goofball-infused performance is spectacular), a ton of character actors who nearly get it right, and endless, endless teen romance. It’s all tied together (sort of) by an overcomplicated plot involving an art heist, a counterfeiter, and some underwater brawling. Our unlikely lead romance is between Tommy Kirk (freshly dropped from Disney for being a little too gay) and Venita Wolf. Wolf plays the enchanting “Creepy Girl”, whose tale of an encounter with a fish inspires a heartfelt song from Tom Servo.
In another great host segment, the bots ask Joel what the sixties were like, and his rambling response digs at the darker aspects of the Mad Men era and Joel’s frustration at having been a bit too young to enjoy the good bits. I could go on. Maybe it’s the nostalgia speaking, maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been repeating some of the riffs for decades now, maybe it’s my fondness for love songs with orthography jokes in them, but Catalina Caper is my perfect MST3K episode. [Chris]
301. Cave Dwellers
By this point Best Brains was confident in MST3K’s tone, style, and humour, resulting in the terrific riffs and imaginative sketches that define its peak years. As the scope of the Comedy Central episodes increased, season three saw Joel and company embrace all the genres and sub-genres MSTies hold dear by making light of melodramas, giant monsters (both domestic and imported), and even Fu Manchu!
If season three has a theme, it’s The Year Of The Bootleg Equivalent. Since the previous season’s Godzilla double-feature proved popular, why not reintroduce America to Japan’s kaiju second-stringer with five of the original Gamera films (previously riffed during the KTMA era)? Nothing satisfies an E.T. fan quite like seeing the director of Slugs and Pieces handle a similar story of friendship between a boy and his alien. Oh, and if you liked Cannon’s Ninja movies, you’ll love Lee Van Cleef as a master of ninjitsu in two movies stitched together from random episodes of a ninja TV series he was inexplicably the star of.
So, the season begins this theme with style by giving us the dark-skinned, purple shirt Bart Simpson doll version of Conan the Barbarian in the form of Miles O’Keeffe’s Ator!* Cave Dwellers, the second of Ator’s adventures, would be the first and best example of the series’ riffing on sword and sorcery films. The Film Ventures–style opening credits inspire a strong stream of riffs out of the gate, and the episode keeps up the thrilling momentum.
But what separates the men from the boys in terms of great episodes are the host segments, and the whole cast shines here. As the mad Dr. Forrester, Trace Beaulieu is bursting with cantankerous, manic energy, recalling John Cleese at his peak. TV’s Frank Conniff is a master of playing the oafish sidekick to Forrester in one moment, then oozing out a drolly sarcastic take on The Men In My Little Girl’s Life in the next. Meanwhile on the Satellite of Love, Joel Hodgson and his two puppet pals offer a warm and off-kilter charm, punctuated by sharp quips.
There’s much discussion of how bad the movie is. It’s one of a handful of movies that “break” our leads, proving to be every bit as bad as The Mads had hoped, though a far more infamous cinematic turkey would hit the following season. [Adam]
* O’Keeffe, ever the sport, apparently wrote to Best Brains to tell him how much he liked the episode. That little anecdote makes me Smiles O’Keeffe.
424. “Manos”: The Hands of Fate
I was going to throw a curveball and recommend Bride of the Monster, which provides a more representative sampling of the esoteric wit one can expect from Joel and the bots in season four. “Manos”: The Hands of Fate’s fame, on the other hand, has in many ways eclipsed the low-budget cable show that re-introduced it to the world. To be clear, MST3K has featured far worse movies in its long history — and certainly more boring ones (see: most of season one). Yet Manos’s incompetencies seem satanically deliberate, given that this film turned out to anticipate the dark psychosis that would overtake the closing years of 1960s America. The isolated desert locale, the off-putting free jazz soundtrack, the filthy sets, and the cultish sex vibe are how I envision life with the Manson Family during their stint at Spahn Ranch.
The other reason I hesitated in recommending this episode is that the riffing is not unaffected by the movie’s influence: though in its first hour Joel and the bots deftly point out every goofy line reading and confounding directorial choice, they lose focus in the second half, particularly when the creepy yet pitiable goat-man-servant Torgo exits the movie. Without him, our riffers seem adrift, lulled by Manos’ opiate rhythms. And yet it would be disingenuous to suggest that this isn’t necessary viewing for anyone interested in the MST3K experience. Just remember to take a shower (or rewatch their masterful treatment of the accompanying short, Hired, Part II!) afterwards. [Beth]
MST3K changed dramatically midway through its fifth season, as Joel left the show to work on new projects. This episode is his last, and it’s an ideal farewell. Joe Don Baker* plays Mitchell, a soft-boiled 70s detective: unpleasant, greasy, and drunk. In classic 70s antihero style, he wins over audiences by yelling at kids, sleeping with “high-class escort” Linda Evans, and then promptly arresting her for possession of marijuana. Oh gosh, have I mentioned the sex scene? The camera lingering over half-emptied bottles of lube? The murky movement of limbs under cheap bed sheets? It’s haunting.**
To be honest, almost any episode in season five would work here: Village of the Giants, Alien from L.A., Warrior of the Lost World, I Accuse My Parents — basically, anything but that Batwoman movie. But Mitchell shows Joel leaving at the height of his game, and although his farewell speeches get a little long-winded, I wouldn’t cut a word.*** Joel created this sweet little puppet show, and he starred in over 100 episodes. He earned all the goodbye he could give.
Mitchell also introduces the show’s second host, Mike, as a slightly surly temp with no real prospects, a bland everyman who just happened to be there when Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank were in need of a new test case. There was a lot of controversy amongst the fans when Mike took over, although with hindsight the second half of season five is as strong as the first half. It wasn’t Mike that people were upset about, it was losing Joel. [Chris]
* Rumours that Joe Don Baker hated the treatment he got at the hands of MST3K, and threatened them with physical violence, have been greatly exaggerated.
** Mitchell also stars John Saxon as a John Saxon–Type Guy.
*** I might correct his pronunciation of “Dr. Lao”.
[We still haven’t done this one. We’re saving it for a special occasion. But we’ve done all the rest!]
619. Red Zone Cuba
One of the many pleasures of MST3K is the way the series introduces viewers to little-seen or lesser-known films. Sure, Godzilla fans were aware of Gamera, and films like Eegah! and Santa Claus Conquers The Martians had a legendary, Ed Wood-level reputation. But then came Manos…
I don’t think anyone would know of Coleman Francis or his masterwork, Red Zone Cuba, were it not for MST3K. The auteur (whose two other directorial efforts — Beast Of Yucca Flats and The Skydivers — would also be riffed this season) presents audiences with an unmistakable point of view: Life is pointless and violent. Each film of the Francis trilogy offers the director’s trademarks of bleak endings, inane and insane-sounding dialogue, vague character relationships, and cinematography that can only be described as “crusty”. The terminal ugliness of Francis’ films — in terms of visuals, characters, and stories — is gleefully diced apart here. [Adam]
701. Night of the Blood Beast
Though the future of the series was still an uncertainty after news of its impending cancellation on Comedy Central, the Best Brains writers nevertheless created some of the sharpest, best written experiments within season seven’s paltry six-episode run, including fan favourites Laserblast and Deathstalker and the Warriors from Hell. But Night of the Blood Beast is noteworthy for proving the power of MST3K as a creative force. In his review of the episode for Paste magazine, Jim Vorel describes this movie as a “dull speck of nothing” that, through the power of riffing, transforms into a multi-layered farce. Mike and the bots construct stories that run parallel to the movie about human-alien family planning and the challenges of running a space program via pick-up truck, the density of which, ironically, rewards multiple rewatches of this totally undeserving movie.
In contrast to Blood Beast’s grey mediocrity is the candy-coloured concoction Once upon a Honeymoon, a short that deserves a dissertation-level analysis. As Pearl Forrester notes in her introduction, it’s ostensibly about “telephones or some damn thing,” but at its core, this half-hour musical inventory of household products is a reverential homage to American corporatism (hence why heaven is depicted as a boardroom).Though the drama results from the lead couple being forced to delay their honeymoon plans so that the husband can continue labouring at The Company’s behest, the sacrifice is unquestionably worth it to have access to the new, amazing products that can only exist when the bourgeoisie owns the means of production. Mike and the bots valiantly inject some darkness into the mix with pointed jabs about the stultifying emptiness of modern suburban life, but their Gen-X cynicism does little to mar the film’s giddy optimism about a future populated with girl-boss ballerinas, space-age kitchens, and sexually satisfying marriages. [Beth]
822. Overdrawn at the Memory Bank
When the show moved from Comedy Central to the Sci-Fi network, the new overlords wanted to make MST3K a bit more…plot-driven? Weird. So season eight has Mike and the bots being chased across the universe by Pearl and the henchmen she collects along the way. Every few episodes, the Mads’ segments move to another locale, from a planet of apes to a planet of people who hold their brains in trays to, oh, let’s say Ancient Rome. It turns out a continuing plot wasn’t well suited for a show where each episode is interrupted by an entire movie.
Overdrawn at the Memory Bank is the final episode in the season, and ignores the plot arc entirely. Instead, Pearl holds a PBS-style fundraising drive, filled with a variety of PBS-style documentaries and genteel musical performances. It’s a delight. And it’s relevant: The movie was produced by PBS affiliate WNET in New York in 1983. It stars the great Raul Julia as Aram Fingal, bored out of his mind in his dystopian office job. Fingal gets caught hacking his terminal to illicitly watch old-timey “cinemas” like Casablanca. After the obligatory wacky hijinks, Fingal ends up trapped inside the computer, creating a world around him inspired by these classic films. There’s a big baddie chasing him and a young woman trying to aid him, but the finer details of the plot don’t really make sense or matter. It’s another one of those perfect obscure movies that MST3K sometimes finds. Better acted and produced than Mike and the bots give it credit for, filmed in a flat made-for-public-television way (think Doctor Who), and yet drenched in computer graphics that are both hopelessly clunky and impressively advanced (for 80s public television), the movie is weirdly charming. My life feels richer for having seen Overdrawn, but I don’t know if I would have made it through it without my riffing pals — and that’s exactly why I keep returning to MST3K. [Chris]
903. The Pumaman
An occasional joy of MST3K was seeing cinema’s biggest stars appearing in their biggest turkeys. Hey, acting’s a weird contract-to-contract vocation and sometimes an actor has to make a boat payment. We’ve seen Robert Vaughn in Teenage Caveman, Christopher Plummer in Starcrash, Jack Palance in Outlaw, and Ann-Margaret in Kitten with a Whip, to name a few. To represent the “celebrity missteps” portion of this list, we needed an actor with double the star power and sultriness of Ann-Margaret and we found it in — you guessed it — Donald Pleasence!
But we don’t just celebrate Donald Pleasence for his sonorous voice or his pin-up looks alone! Why, he was the greatest actor to ever live and we are all poorer for having to exist in the time of A.D. (After Donald). And it’s no testament to an actor’s skills to see them at their best. You can easily watch Pleasence and be marvelled by his performances, be it as the confused old drifter from Harold Pinter’s The Caretaker, Satan in The Greatest Story Ever Told, the haunted psychiatrist in John Carpenter’s Halloween, or his brilliant TV work guesting on the best episodes of The Twilight Zone and Columbo. Like all the greatest actors, Pleasence shines in dreck, too! Rather than his comparatively creepy performance as dictator-for-life of a sex mall in season five’s Warrior of the Lost World, I choose The Pumaman to see Pleasence in full-on ham mode.
The episode itself is no slouch, either. The 48 episodes of the Sci-Fi era pale in comparison to any random 48 Comedy Central shows, and there’s a bitterness and laziness that taints the three-year run. But out of this era come a handful of gems, even if those better Sci-Fi episodes tend to have weak host segments (as this episode does). Still, the riffs make up for it, and this is easily one of the best showcases of this era’s cast. [Adam]
’90s fans will remember Hamlet as being universally loathed upon its first airing. Many have since warmed up to the episode’s oddball charms, but in my opinion its remarkableness is less about content than context: Season ten was MST3K’s final year on the Sci-Fi channel, and unlike the last time they were cancelled, there was no rival cable network waiting in the wings to sweep them up. Consider this strange episode, then, as a deliberate piece of rebellious, last-ditch experimentation.
They don’t jettison the schlock entirely. Hamlet might be the Bard’s most renowned creation, but this version is utter crap: a dreary German film with bargain-basement production values and a shaky grasp of the source material. Surprisingly, Mike and the bots don’t home in on the squalid interpretation but instead take on the much tougher challenge of responding to the Shakespearean dialogue itself. The difficulty of the language requires them to slow down their joke density, but also provides opportunities to display their impressive familiarity with the play and its reputation.
Where the final season of Comedy Central felt like an injustice — an acclaimed show being cut off in its prime — in the final season of the Sci-Fi era, as my co-host Adam once quipped, “the bloom had fallen off the rose.” Perhaps the writers were chafing against the network’s restrictions on the kinds of movies they could watch (namely: old, bad sci-fi flicks) because the rapid-fire heckling in season ten occasionally takes on a disdainful tone. Hamlet provided them with a change of pace, as well as an opportunity to explore what other kinds of culture could flourish (or fizzle) under MST3K’s unique comedy form. Perhaps inspired by the results, Kevin Murphy, Mike Nelson, and Bill Corbett started RiffTrax seven years later, where they’ve notably expanded the scope of their riffings. [Beth]
1102. Cry Wilderness
Reviving the show from a near two-decade slumber presented a number of challenges and, if I’m being honest, the early news wasn’t always appealing. The bots were being recast, there’d be no appearances from Joel Robinson and Mike Nelson, not many of the old writers were involved in the season, and they were boasting that they had the writing prowess of the loathsome Ernest Cline in the writers room. It was as though fans had wished for the series return on a damn monkey’s paw. And yet, these newer episodes (dubbed “MST3K: The Return” by Netflix) proved to be a worthy continuation of the series.
As with any brand name that has more than two fans in the year of our Lord current year, a lot of the writings online tended to focus on how The Return was either the best or worst thing ever. I’d argue that the two seasons have been uneven, but the revival passed the one major test it needed to pass with only its second episode. Namely, a homerun episode worthy of being mentioned alongside Teenagers from Outer Space, The Day the Earth Froze, Laserblast, and the like. Cry Wilderness, an incoherent-yet-achingly-sincere father-son movie about a talking magic Bigfoot, is one of those treasured, little-seen duds like Manos and the Coleman Francis films, and the riffs are as sharp as anything in the preceding ten seasons.
I should also note that several season eleven episodes nearly swiped this spot from Cry Wilderness, which is proof enough that this new MST3K is a great addition to the show’s legacy. The relatively young The Return is not yet as consistent as the show was in its seasons 2–7 heyday, but remember, it took Best Brains 34 episodes to get to said heyday. [Adam]
1204. The Day Time Ended
After writing about two of the “final” seasons of MST3K, it was gratifying to engage with the revival with the knowledge that at least another season was in the works. Christened “The Gauntlet”, this second run on Netflix smoothed out most of the bumps of The Return (gratuitous cameos, overly dense and rhythmless joke delivery, Jonah’s bad haircut, etc.) while adding a fun new wrinkle to MST3K’s founding concept: the Mads are not only forcing the Satellite of Love crew to watch bad movies, but now they have to do it without a break (in the process, delivering a subtle dig on their streaming overlords’ normalization of binge-watching).
The Gauntlet starts with Mac and Me, a legendary flop from the ’80s whose wheelchair-assisted hero and butt-ugly alien have buoyed years of Paul Rudd visits on Conan. The results are fun, but the episode itself suffers from anxiety of influence: To some extent the crew pulls its punches to ensure they don’t repeat already well-worn heckles. A much more enjoyable riffing romp is The Day Time Ended. The movie’s most striking feature is that it tosses out every sci-fi trope it can think without bothering to provide any narrative connective tissue. A scene in which a benevolent alien befriends a child, for instance, is followed only only minutes later with the lead man wandering into a post-apocalyptic graveyard of rusted-out airplanes. (Are we in an E.T. universe or a Mad Max universe?) The film’s haunted house-like delivery of random spooks and special effects is lampooned in the brilliant “Concepts”, which is one of the best songs ever featured on the show. Baron Vaughn as Tom Servo does some seriously impressive voicework as a fast-talking Harold Hill type who convinces two beleaguered Hollywood scriptwriters to abandon any attempt at plot cohesion:
Premises, plot points
Anything and everything
Throw ’em all at the wall, ya’ll
Just pack in the action
Don’t care if the events
Don’t make no sense, gents!
They’re gonna flip their lids
No kiddin’ when your script’s overridden
And veritably dripping with concepts!
Mystery Science Theater 3000 itself has thrown a lot of things at the wall over its thirteen seasons — some of which indeed don’t make no sense, gents. It’s a mad science experiment after all, keeping a man up in space and forcing him to watch cheesy movies. But having dusted off the ol’ jumpsuit and putting out two seasons on Netflix (plus some live shows, plus some YouTube specials), MST3K is ready to take charge of their destiny (and, more importantly, their distribution), and we’re excited to see what concepts they come up with in the new season. [Beth]
[And hey, that link for the Kickstarter again.]
It’s Just A Show is your deep-dive MST3K podcast, hosted by Adam Clarke, Beth Martin, and Chris Piuma. We explore the movies, the riffs, and the backstories behind the show. We’re closing in on our 100th episode, so join us by subscribing in your podcast app!