Posted on Wednesday, April 12th, 2017 by Chris Evangelista
In the not-too-distant future (this Friday, April 14, to be exact), Mystery Science Theater 3000 will return, bringing terrible movies and endless riffing along with it. The original iteration of the show ran for a whopping 10 seasons, spanning 197 episodes and a feature film, building a devoted cult following in the process. “Keep circulating the tapes!” became the show’s rallying cry, as fans would record episodes on VHS tapes (remember those?) and swap them amongst each other. Even if you weren’t familiar with what Mystery Science Theater (or MST3K, as most fans call it) was, there was a good chance that if you were flipping channels between 1988 and 1999, you likely came across it in its distinct form: a cheap-looking movie with three silhouettes down in the right-hand corner. It turned riffing on bad movies into an art form.
To celebrate the show’s return, I’ve gone ahead and assembled the best of the best – these are the greatest episodes of the series, a perfect marathon for seasoned fans and newcomers alike.
But First: Some Background
There was nothing like it at the time, and there still isn’t, really. The brain-child of stand-up comedian Joel Hodgson, MST3K originally debuted on low-budget TV channel KTMA in 1988, then jumped to The Comedy Channel (later dubbed Comedy Central) in 1991, where it would remain until 1996, before jumping a final time to The Sci-Fi Channel (or SyFy, as we know it today) in 1997, where it would remain until 1999.
The set-up is undeniably clever. A hapless working-class schlub (originally Hodgson, later replaced by Michael J. Nelson) is shot into space by two mad scientists in a fiendish plot for world domination through terrible movies. The Mads force Joel, and later Mike – trapped on the dog bone-shaped Satellite of Love with their two robot buddies Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo – to suffer through the cheesiest B-movies imaginable, believing that eventually they’ll hit upon the perfect movie to finally break the viewers’ spirit, and thus take over the world. The only way Joel, Mike and the bots stay sane is by endlessly mocking the films they’re forced to view.
It’s a premise that shouldn’t have worked so well. In reality, if you were sitting in a movie theater and three people sat down in front of you and started throwing jokes at the screen, you’d likely spring out of your seat and go get a manager. Yet MST3K struck the right balance, turning something normally perceived as rude into something endearing and difficult to recreate. Even in the age of painfully unfunny “live Tweets” over intentionally terrible junk like Sharknado, no one has ever come close to matching MST3K’s charm, not even the popular spin-off Rifftrax. The show struck a balance with its delightful DIY-nature, full of in-camera special effects, junkyard props and rather simplistic presentation.
In 2015, series-creator Hodgson worked with Shout! Factory to secure the rights to MST3K, and then launched a Kickstarter campaign intent on reviving the series. Hodgson had expected that maybe the Kickstarter would reach its goal in a month, but it actually surpassed it within a week, which shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. MST3K was always a show tailor-made for cult following. So delightfully off-beat and so hard to pin-down, MST3K spoke to outsiders and self-proclaimed weirdos who found kindred spirits in the show’s pop-culture slinging characters. The rebooted series is headed for Netflix, and whether or not it can recapture the original show’s magic remains to be seen.
For now, though, let’s take a look back at the 10 Best Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes as we prepare for the show’s return.
1. I Accuse My Parents
Season 5 (now streaming on Netflix)
While MST3K frequently dabbled in cheesy sci-fi and genre films, the funniest episode revolves around a clunky, dopey stab at film noir from 1945, I Accuse My Parents. In the film, clueless teen Jimmy lies his way through life, trying to escape from his depressing home with his alcoholic mother and his negligent father. Jimmy’s lies take him far enough that he ends up getting involved with gangsters. The movie makes absolutely no sense, but it’s so earnest in its belief that it’s telling an important story about a good boy gone bad that it’s an absolute laugh riot to watch Joel and the bots mock it. In one lengthy sequence, Jimmy – on the lam from the crimes he’s committed – comes under the protection of the friendly owner of a greasy spoon diner. The diner owner says Jimmy can live with him rent-free on one condition: he has to accompany the man to church. “FORGET IT!” Joel, pretending to be Jimmy, shouts. When the scene abruptly cuts to a rowdy nightclub, Crow, taking on the voice of the diner owner, quips, “How do you like my swingin’ church, son?!” The film is preceded by a short educational film about truck farming, which is as depressing as it is silly.
2. Time Chasers
Season 8 (now streaming on Netflix)
Time Chasers is a low-rent sci-fi thriller from 1994 about a nerd who uses his Commodore 64 and a small airplane to create a time machine. He immediately turns around and sells the time machine’s patent to an obviously evil businessman, then has to spend the rest of the movie trying to right this mistake. Much time travel ensues, where the characters end up in a future that looks a lot like a shopping mall somewhere in Vermont. This is one of the more merciless episodes, with Mike and the bots endlessly mocking almost every facet of the film’s cheapo production. This was one of differences between host eras: the seasons with Joel in the lead tended to be sillier, with the riffing more playful. The episodes where Mike took over were willing to get a little nasty. That doesn’t make the Time Chasers episode any less funny, simply because the film is so committed to its premise, no matter how inept its script may be.
Joe Don Baker is Mitchell, the laziest cop ever to put on a plaid sports coat, in this somewhat sleazy 1975 flick that Joel and the bots took on in Season 5. Mitchell is notable for being Joel’s final episode – the comedian had grown tired of being on camera and a rift had developed between him and his showrunning partner Jim Mallon. The episode ends with Joel rocketing off the Satellite of Love to freedom. Luckily for the Mads, they’ve recently hired temp Mike, who will take Joel’s place. As for Mitchell, it’s as drab as a crime thriller can be, loaded with some of the most un-thrilling car chases you’ll ever see. As Joel, Crow and Servo watch a low-speed chase, Servo observes, “This is what I’ll think of when I remember the movie Mitchell, and I will think of it.”
4. Pod People
Season 3 (now streaming on Netflix)
This 1983 French-Spanish sci-fi film follows a group of young people preyed upon by a murderous alien known as Trumpy (yes, really). Pod People was originally supposed to be a straight-up horror flick about a killer alien, but after the success of E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, the producers ordered the script changed. The end result is a schizophrenic mess about a killer alien who also befriends a young boy. Oh, also, there’s a rock band thrown in there somewhere. In one of the film’s most memorable moments, which could be used to summarize almost every film the MST3K crew watched, a recording lays down vocals on a new track, and we’re forced to watch the song run out from beginning to end. Once it concludes, his producer in the sound booth asks, “So what do you think?” The singer holds up his thumb and index finger in the international symbol for “Okay” before shouting “IT STINKS!”
5. The Final Sacrifice
The Final Sacrifice, a Canadian horror-adventure film from 1990, is notable for having a hero with the unlikeliest of names: Zap Rowsdower. To be clear: this isn’t a film set in some far-off galaxy, or in the future. It takes place here on earth, in modern times, and just happens to feature a character named Zap Rowsdower. For some reason. “Rowsdower, is that a stupid name?” Crow asks when the character first reveals his monicker. This leads to endless riffing on Rowsdower’s name, as the denim-clad hero protects an awkward young boy from a cult made up of guys who wear ski-masks and tank-tops, for some reason. In one scene, we watch the masked, tank-top wearing cultists running through the woods brandishing weapons. “Ah, any given weekend in Canada,” Servo quips.