Taking a cue from The A.V. Club, this feature is a list of ten episodes from a particular television show that more or less best represents that program.
When picking the ten most representative episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000, it basically works to just pick the ten best episodes, since every episode fully explains its premise in the theme song – a schmuck gets sent into space and is forced to watch the worst movies ever made as an experiment by mad scientists, but luckily he has his robot pals to help him get through them as they just make fun of them the whole time. On top of that, each episode is as long as a full-length feature film, giving plenty of time for each episode to show off MST3K’s full range of comedic styles. MST3K started its run on KTMA, a local Minneapolis station, then moved on to the Comedy Channel, which became Comedy Central, and when Comedy Central chose not to renew it, the Sci-Fi Channel picked it up for its final three seasons. I started watching during the first Sci-Fi season. There are many pre-Sci-Fi episodes I have yet to see, so this list covers only the Sci-Fi era, during which the host was Mike Nelson (who had taken over for original host and creator Joel Hodgson), Tom Servo was voiced by Kevin Murphy, and Crow T. Robot was voiced by Bill Corbett. While I more or less chose the ten best episodes as the ten most representative, I also sought to cover a variety of film genres. (Note: for the uninitiated, “host segments” are the names for the skits in between the movies.)
810 – The Giant Spider Invasion (Original Airdate: 5/31/97)
“They’re poor only in money … and spirit, and dignity, and moral fiber, and hygiene.”
If memory serves me correctly, The Giant Spider Invasion was my first episode of MST3K. It worked as an introduction for me, so it should probably work as an introduction for you, too. Be forewarned, this tale of alien arachnids decimating a backwoods Wisconsin town may be the most disgusting movie the Best Brains crew has ever presented. Mike and the bots often express just how put off they are by the movies’ most offensive moments, and The Giant Spider Invasion put them over the edge, with lines like, “I always wondered why you used to spank me so much,” and shots of crumpled underpants, which Tom Servo notes as director Bill Rebane’s “trademark.” (Interestingly enough, it was the introduction of one character’s back brace that was the disgusting straw that broke their will and led them to cheer, “Go spiders, go spiders, go, go, spiders!”) Luckily, this dreck is often obscured by the incompetent filmmaking skills, such as when one scene appears to have actually been “filmed inside the thumbhole of a bowling ball.” The Giant Spider Invasion is also notable for Alan Hale’s appearance as the sheriff (the movie’s first line of dialogue is, “Hey, little buddy”). This episode also features the memorable Invasion of the Body Snatchers-esque host segments.
813 – Jack Frost (Original Airdate: 7/15/97)
“I guess there’s no Finnish word for subtle.”
One of MST3K’s so-called “Russo-Finnish troika,” Jack Frost is more surreal than bad. Well, it is bad, but its humor is derived more from its weirdness than its ineptitude. Perhaps there was something lost in translation, but I imagine that it was thought of as weird in its native Eastern Europe as well. Jack Frost features an array of colorful characters: the foppishly hairstyled hero, the cherub-faced heroine (and her very old father, her evil stepmother, and her ugly stepsister – who looks like Tom Petty with clown makeup), a witch, “Grandfather Mushroom,” a group of bandits on the side of the road who look like schnauzers, and, of course, Jack Frost himself (who shows up about an hour into the movie). Jack Frost is particularly notable for its riffing’s wide and varied references (a rooster crowing prompts Tom Servo to ponder, “Peter must be walking around denying everyone this morning”; and the bandits are likened to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, the “It’s” guy from the openings of Monty Python’s Flying Circus episodes, and the seven dwarves – “Filthy, Rotting, Lousey, Skanky, Scabby, Septic and … Doc”).
816 – Prince of Space (Original Airdate: 8/16/97)
“Allow me to repeat my earlier codicil on how your weapons are ineffective.”
Prince of Space is the pinnacle of MST3K’s forays into Japanese sci-fi B-movies. The Prince – whose secret identity is a mild-mannered bootblacker and guardian to two orphans/bootblacking assistants – takes up the fight against the invading alien band of chicken-nosed Krankorians, who are led by the Phantom and his “evil” cackling laugh (“Ha ha ha ha ha”). Prince of Space is filled with those classic Japenese-style illogical quirks: children who seem to have high-level security clearance and adult characters who prove to be useless in the face of danger (the scientists practically turn into babies in the final act). But the most memorable excesses of Prince of Space are probably due to the dubbing job. There is Mickey’s tough New York accent. And then there are the Krankorians’ continual efforts of firing at the Prince with their guns, only to have him remind them that their weapons have no effect on him. But in the original Japanese version, their weapons weren’t ineffective. Oh well, the dubbed version is funnier. As Crow points out, “His power apparently lies in his choosing incompetent enemies.” Prince of Space also starts off the wormhole/Ancient Rome series of host segments – a rare multi-episode attempt at serialization.
820 – Space Mutiny (Original Airdate: 11/8/97)
“We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese.”
I hold Space Mutiny up as the best introductory episode for any MST newbie. Some MST3K movies are just so aesthetically offensive that those unused to watching bad movies for fun may not be able to handle those particular episodes. Space Mutiny is not one of those; it is hilarious enough even without the riffing, thanks to the cheap sets, F/X shots recycled from Battlestar Galactica, a severe lack of continuity (a character dies and then appears in the next scene very much alive), scenes that feel like they are missing dialogue, the ridiculously musclebound hero David Ryder, and characters who resemble Santa Claus, Debbie Reynolds, Sting, Ed Grimley, John Waters, and (a male) Billie Jean King. And of course, there is the infamous climactic chase scene with vehicles that appear to be floor buffer golf carts that reach speeds of about ten miles per hour. Mike and the bots became palpably angry at a lot of the movies they had to endure; with Space Mutiny, they were having too much fun to really be upset.
821 – Time Chasers (Original Airdate: 11/22/97)
“The adventures of the average people!”
Like most heady time travel adventures, Time Chasers at least has a decent idea. It perhaps could have been a good movie with a bigger budget or more dynamic, experienced filmmakers. The future does not look very futuristic (“So, fifty years from it’ll be three years from now”) and the Revolutionary War-era past looks like a perfect recreation of a Revolutionary War … reenactment. It does not help matters that the characters are rather bland (regarding the hero, Crow demands, “Hey wait a minute, this isn’t our star, is it? I will not accept this as our star”), with the exception of the hilariously mush-mouthed Corporate Evil Man J.K. Robertson. But there are no hard feelings over the film’s deserved decimation, as the cast and crew of Time Chasers actually took the MST3K treatment quite well and were happy to see it actually garner some attention. This episode also features some of the best host segments in the entire show’s run, in which Crow travels back in time to convince a young Mike Nelson to persevere with his music career and thus avoid a life of exile on the Satellite of Love, leading to disastrous results.
907 – Hobgoblins (Original Airdate: 6/27/98)
“Can you catch a venereal disease from a movie?”
Director Rick Sloane actually recommended his Hobgoblins to the Best Brains crew for the MST3K treatment, but he was dismayed when he discovered just how harshly he was treated. During the end credits, Tom Servo interviews “Rick Sloane” (as played by Crow) and gets him to admit that he had his brain replaced with rat droppings during the filming of Hobgoblins. Basically, Hobgoblins tries too hard to be cheesy-bad and ends up being just bad-bad, and it was appropriately ripped apart for it. This pathetic attempt at storytelling has something or other to do with alien puppets who lure people to their death by creating the illusion that their wildest fantasies are coming true. Where The Giant Spider Invasion was the most disgusting MST3K movie ever, Hobgoblins was the scuzziest, with all the excesses of the eighties: big hair, spandex. Also, there are a lot of shots of parking. Then there is the epic garden tools fight, which prompts Crow to insist, “Can we have a law that in the future films have to be made by filmmakers?”
910 – The Final Sacrifice (Original Airdate: 7/25/98)
“You got mud on your face, you big disgrace, shoving those sandwiches into your face/Singing we will, we will Rowsdower!”
The films of MST3K have featured plenty of memorable characters, but they are usually memorable in an ironic way. The Final Sacrifice, on the other hand, features the most memorable character in MST3K history, a character who is plenty awesome, no qualifiers necessary: Zap … ROWSDOWER. Yes, Rowsdower, the beer-swilling, mullet-sporting, badass Canadian drifter, who happens to have one of screendom’s best rear ends. The Final Sacrifice is a buddy movie with Rowsdower and Troy, the wispy man-child who Rowsdower begrudgingly helps in his quest to discover the truth of the death of Troy’s father (it has something to do with a cult – in Canada). Honorable mention in the area of great MST3K characters goes to Mike Pipper – the old varmint who looks like Haile Selassie and talks like Tom Waits. Besides all the cracks at Canada’s expense, there is also the extended riffing on the 1970s Miami Dolphins (thanks to Troy’s dad resembling NFL legend Larry Csonka).
1001 – Soultaker (Original Airdate: 4/11/99)
“Remember the great flashbacks we used to have?”
Soultaker stars MST3K favorites rock-jawed Robert Z’Dar and Martin Sheen’s brother, Joe Estevez. Its premise – angels of death hunt down teenage souls that were displaced from their bodies during a fatal car crash – is not terrible. But this particular film conveys the premise rather pretentiously – there’s something to do with reincarnation and flashbacks to past lives during American colonial days. The pretension probably had something to do with the fact that the star – Vivian Schilling – was also the screenwriter (a fact that is a frequent point of the riffing). The riffing is also heavy on the self-referential (when the angel of death played by Estevez refers to “my world,” Tom Servo adds “where I’m more successful than Martin”). Soultaker so wants to mean something, but it is ultimately a blob of fauxlosophical drivel.
1003 – Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders (Original Airdate: 9/18/99)
“That’s right, even your tiny soul is doomed.”
This movie in which Merlin travels to the present to set up a store on a town corner is actually two movies that were filmed separately, years apart, and then combined for this piece of MST3K fodder. This combination is “justified” by the framing device of Grampa Ernest Borgnine telling his grandson the story of Merlin. (This leads into Tom Servo’s routine during the end credits about trying to remember a Borgnine movie that happens to contain elements of just about every well-known Borgnine movie.) Merlin’s Shop is oddly and disturbingly dark – particularly the mean psychic who shows up during the climax to impatiently explain how to rid one’s house of an evil spirit. Inspired by this disturbing tone, one host segment features Mike and the bots sampling children’s books written by Borgnine with innocuous titles but graphically violent content.
1012 – Squirm (with short “A Case of Spring Fever”) (Original Airdate: 8/1/99)
“If you didn’t hate springs so much, that wouldn’t have happened.”
“Never go to the South for any reason.”
Squirm – a romantic tale of the Deep South … and worms – was apparently made as a “goof,” according to director Jeff Lieberman … in a letter that he inadvertently sent to an MST3K fan site. Lieberman seemed to be of the idea that you can’t goof a goof and that the Best Brains crew suffered from a severe lack of creativity. But as this episode proves, you can goof a goof (and as for the charge of lack of creativity, well, sometimes people don’t just get it). Squirm’s memorable bits include the very skinny southern belle heroine, her nerdy romantic interest from the North who is into antiquing, her giantess sister who looks like NBA great Kevin McHale, her very southern mother who always seems to be suffering from the vapors, and the endless search for “Mr. Beardsley.”
But the real highlight of this episode is the short. In the pre-Sci-Fi days, many episodes were padded with short films due to the limited run times of the B movies that were MST3K’s bread and butter. But in the later years, as more and more recent – and longer – films were selected for riffing, there wasn’t as much of a need for the shorts, and there were only three riffed upon during the Sci-Fi years. “A Case of Spring Fever” – the last short ever featured – is my choice for the best MST3K short ever (granted, there are plenty of Comedy Central-era shorts I’ve yet to see). This supposedly “educational” film is an It’s a Wonderful Life-style tale in which “one clod says one thing and the whole world pays” – in the form of a world without springs, as granted by the wish-making demonic sprite “Coily.” The clod learns his lesson remarkably quickly and becomes a devout convert to the Church of Coily, in the process becoming the worst golf partner ever, as he is utterly unable to shut up about the Gospel of Springs while out on the fairway. “A Case of Spring Fever” seems to last forever as the clod drones on and on about the many uses of springs in the world.
Ten More from the Sci-Fi Era: 811 – Parts: The Clonus Horror, 817 – Horror of Party Beach, 818 – Devil Doll, 819 – Invasion of the Neptune Men, 822 – Overdrawn at the Memory Bank, 903 – Puma Man, 904 – Werewolf, 905 – The Deadly Bees, 908 – The Touch of Satan, 913 – Quest of the Delta Knights
And Even Ten More! (from the pre-Sci-Fi years): 302 – Gamera, 303 – Pod People, 321 – Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, 421 – Monster A-Go Go, 424 – Manos: The Hands of Fate, 521 – Santa Claus, 611 – Last of the Wild Horses, 621 – The Beast of Yucca Flats, Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie – This Island Earth, 706 – Laserblast!