Movie Sign: The TFS Staff on Their Favorite MST3K Episodes
Mystery Science Theater 3000 has returned. Running for nearly 200 episodes, the original series was a seminal one for young film buffs. The new season is now on Netflix and it's perfect time for the TFS staff to look back on their favorite episodes from the original series.
S5E12 - Air Date: October 23, 1993
My two favorite episodes of the original series feature my favorite non-movie-riffing character moments. When I was a lot younger, and a lot dumber, I used to watch episodes of MST3K online and I would fast forward past breaks in the movie, totally ignoring the moments Joel or Mike would interact with the Bots or the Mads. Looking back at it now, and after seeing the new series embrace the out-of-the-theater antics, those little sketches and musical numbers, along with all the miniature scale work, really made MST3K work for me. It's a high-concept variety show, that spends a majority of its time riffing on movies. As much as I love RiffTrax, it really doesn't come close enough to replicating what I loved about the original series.
The Mitchell episode in the middle of Season 5 represents the passing-of-the-baton between the series' two leads, with the introduction of Mike (Michael J. Nelson) and the final regular appearance of Joel (Joel Hodgson). For all its silliness, the show made Joel's exit quite touching, while also setting up Mike’s inclusion into the MST3K world. The out-of-the-theater hijinks bring an end to Joel’s arc and his final film to skewer is the perfect swan song. Mitchell stars legendary character actor Joe Don Baker as Mitchell, an alcohol-soaked cop, bumbling his way through a case involving murder and drug dealers. The film is a take on Dirty Harry—but just imagine, instead of slick and cool Clint Eastwood it’s sloppy and constantly-hung-over Joe Don Baker. Fat jokes and slow chase scene tomfoolery follow. A pivotal episode in the series and a “tribute” to less-than-ordinary ‘70s action hero Baker, this episode is one I constantly go back to.
S10E01 - Air Date: April 11, 1999
The opening credits of Soultaker are in a bizarre ‘70s font and come towards the screen with a feverish disco speed. Tom Servo shouts “Sooooooultaker!” in the cadence of the Soul Train opening as the film’s title flashes across the screen. This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen; I think about this moment constantly and I chuckle just about every time. That’s the everlasting magic of MST3K—those one-liners stay with you and start becoming part of your vocabulary. Some people may not totally get it, but seeing this show on Saturday mornings on the Sci-Fi Channel while I was in middle school really meant something to me. Like The Simpsons, MST3K shaped by sense of humor. Not only that, it helped me love movies.
I totally understand the criticism tossed at the show, but for someone like me, who didn’t have many friends and family who were into movies, I had to make my own way and MST3K helped me connect with a cross section of movies I would not have previously known about. I would later see Soultaker actor, the chin-ful master Robert Z'Dar, star in amazingness like Samurai Cop and Maniac Cop, and I don't think I'd be holding him in as high of esteem if it wasn't for this episode. Not only that, we get an Estevez in the mix. Score. Out of the theater, the Bots and Mike were treated to the return of Joel for a brief cameo. TV's Frank (Frank Conniff) also made an appearance, making it perfect opener for what would be the original series' final season.
- Marcelo Pico
Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie - This Island Earth
Release Date: April 19, 1996
“Every year Hollywood releases hundreds of movies. This is one of them!”
Ah, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie, the source of laughter over many nights of my youth hanging out with friends. I've lost track of how many times I've seen this ingenious film, but I've certainly seen it enough that every time I sign for a delivery I use the name Wilt Chamberlain. The Movie, essentially a 70-minute episode of the show, was released in theaters in 1996 and was a box office dud, but that didn't stop it from gaining cult status over the years. It's also one of the rare times where the movie they're riffing is actually really good! 1955's This Island Earth was one of the biggest budget sci-fi pictures of its time and even though the special effects are laughable by today's standards, they were revolutionary for the time. Featuring one of the last great creature designs of the 1950s with the dreaded Metaluna Mutant and a cast of solid actors across the board, including The Professor from Gilligan's Island, This Island Earth is a blast of a sci-fi adventure, even without the constant jokes by Mike Nelson & Co.
As is par for the course, the laughs can be hit or miss, but luckily for The Movie, they pulled out all the stops. Constantly funny and endlessly quotable, The Movie, much like most of the original series, has been released on home video by Shout! Factory, in this case with a great Blu-ray transfer with some awesome special features to sweeten the pot. It's required viewing for any fan of the Satellite of Love, so grab a seat, hang a painting of a hamburger on your wall, and initiate the Secret Government Eggo Project.
Manos: The Hands of Fate
S4E24 - Air Date: January 30, 1993
One of the most popular episodes in the history of Mystery Science Theater 3000, episode 424, Manos: The Hands of Fate, is a veritable treasure trove of comedy. Starting with a another ridiculous subplot featuring a chocolate bunny guillotine (Happy Easter!) and Dr. Forrester revealing his most evil plan yet, a film so terrible that the human brain cannot even comprehend its very existence.
Before the main feature however, we get Joel and the Bots riffing on Hired!, essentially a 1940s version of Glengarry Glen Ross featuring an old man and a handkerchief and his sage advice to his protege. The clip is easy fodder but it works as the non-sequiturs are on point. Of course, Hired! is just the appetizer for the wonderful meal that is Manos: The Hands of Fate, a movie I've seen numerous times both unaltered and with the hilarious MST3K commentary.
A disaster of filmmaking hubris, Manos was made on a dare and, oh boy, it shows. Inept in almost every way possible, from the performances (every actor was dubbed over by the director), the production design, to the props and music, Manos is a complete disaster but I love it nonetheless. The tale of a family vacation gone terribly wrong, Manos is legendary in the annals of bad movies. The highlight of the film and the episode has got to be Torgo, manservant to The Master. Torgo was supposed to be a Satyr, but the actor, due to confusion thanks to heavy drug use, put his fake goat legs on backwards and underneath his pants, leading to an awkward gait and even more bizarre performance by actor John Reynolds. As with most episodes, the film is the star and in this case it shines brighter than most.
- Matt Curione
Prince of Space
S8E16 - Air Date: August 16, 1997
Among the brilliantly offbeat handful of shows that were on Comedy Central (Dr. Katz, Absolutely Fabulous, Kids in the Hall) I stumbled onto the silhouette of what looked like three people riffing on some old sword and sandal picture and it was utterly hilarious. Later, I learned that this was Mike, and his robot friends, launched into space, by way of his former employers Gizmonic institute, and they were watching a cheesy movie so his bosses could monitor his mind.
I usually tended towards Joel but there’s some gems throughout the entirety of the series regardless of the host; among the standouts is episode 816, where Mike, Tom, and Crow have to sit through the ridiculously bad Japanese sci-fi film Prince of Space.
This is the type of movie MST3K was made for, the awful dubbing, lousy special effects, nonsense story, and goofy makeup. The whole thing is remarkably terrible thus making every frame rife for lampooning—each line of dumb dialogue (believe me, there’s plenty) was immediately snapped back with characteristically witty banter. There's a standout moment when a young Japanese girl is on screen, Crow quips “Woody Allen asked me out!”, gotta love that timely zinger. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wildly distinctive about this episode, but it’s a testament to how consistently funny the series could be and will hopefully continue to do so with this new season.
- Alex Miller
The Final Sacrifice
S9E10 - Air Date: July 25, 1998
Possibly the best Mike-hosted episode in the series, The Final Sacrifice sees Nelson and the Bots riffing on a tried and true tradition of direct-to-video, low budget cheese: Canadian horror films. Lensed on the mean streets of rural Alberta, the film’s “threat” to its protagonists is a cult of balaclava-clad (say that three times fast) toughs with machetes, and rifles (which they largely never use, since bullets ain’t cheap). This episode also provided the most enduring running gag of Mike’s tenure on the show, which is to randomly screech “ROWSDOWER!” in the most obnoxious voice possible. It’s funnier than the description sounds, I swear.
Other prime jokes include the trio hammering on main character Troy’s appearance as a 25-year-old who hasn’t yet hit puberty, and how all the iconography looks like it ripped off Georgia O’Keefe paintings.
Meanwhile, Mike and the Bots deal with Pearl Forrester and her machinations toward world domination…one person at a time. The jokes at the Neighbor to the North’s expense come fast and frequent here, as in the midst of her scheme, Pearl, Professor Bobo (think Planet of the Apes, but way less capable) and Observer (“Brain Guy”) all come down with cases of Hockey Hair. Complemented on the Satellite of Love’s part with a rousing, mildly offensive rendition of “I Wish I Was Back in Old Canada,” and The Final Sacrifice truly earns the distinction of “worst thing to ever come out of Canada,” at least until Justin Bieber about twenty years later.
- Sean Beattie
S8E20 - Air Date: November 8, 1997
On a mission to reach a new planet for the purposes of colonization, a spaceship known as the Southern Sun is taken over by a rogue crew member, with plans to redirect the mission coordinates towards the location of a gang of pirates. If only the plot were this simple, as we’re treated to an overly convoluted series of minor developments that get in the way of this, not to mention a host of battle scenes re-used from episodes of Battlestar Galactica. It’s nice to have an actual outer-space film for the crew to riff on, and even in one segment we see Tom Servo mock the number of deaths incurred from people falling over rails by installing some on the S.O.L. deck. The episode itself has also found a place near and dear to many MST3K fans’ hearts, ranking #2 on the list of the top 100 episodes from the "Bring Back MST3K" Kickstarter campaign, on the most recent Turkey Day marathon held in 2016. At the very least, the Space Mutiny episode is worth watching for the endless masculine riffs on the protagonist’s name.
I Accuse My Parents
S5E07 - Air Date: September 4, 1993
Opening with a short titled The Truck Farmer (Second Edition), that relays the technological advances that have come into play for agriculture in an extremely hokey fashion, I Accuse My Parents relishes in common conventions of the '40s teen melodrama – this one centered around Jimmy, a boy who has grown up in a household undermined by substance abuse from his mother and father. A blossoming relationship with Kitty, a singer, turns into a job for Jimmy, becoming a delivery boy for his girlfriend’s gangster squeeze Charles Blake. A later incident of being in the wrong place in the wrong time forces him to escape his small town, falling deeper into a life of crime before realizing his mistakes and reforming himself. Returning home, he settles one last score with Blake that turns deadly and winds up in a courtroom, where, as the title dictates, Jimmy accuses his parents of not providing a good enough life and shifting the blame to them. A personal favorite of Joel Hodgson, this episode is ripe with riffable material, coming from its moralistic viewpoint that can easily be subjected to scrutiny, and should not be missed.