MST3K: The Landmark Episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000
Despite having over 200 episodes, MST3K has rarely been very story-driven. Then again, there are some that feel extra important...
Mystery Science Theater 3000 is an amazing show. There’s a reason the Kickstarter to bring it back from the abyss was such a success. Lasting for ten seasons, there are countless killer jokes, memorable movies, and harebrained characters. As wonderful as it all is, it’s also not the easiest show to really binge-watch.
Recently, Jim Vorel at Paste did a massive article where he rewatched every episode and ranked them from worst to best. It took well over a year to complete. I have a knack for latching onto massive projects like that (ie. ranking every single King of Fighters character because why not), but even I wouldn’t mess with something this crazy. Without commercials, each episode is ninety minutes long and magically marathoning the series in one go with no rest would take about a week and a half.
You could always marathon the most popular episodes, but mileage may vary on that. Pumaman is my favorite episode, but I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. I think Starfighters is one of the hardest films to sit through, but I’ve seen people rave about the episode. I even find Manos: Hands of Fate to be overrated as an episode. Sure, the movie itself is memorable for how uniquely atrocious it is, but the riffs aren’t exactly omega level.
So I came up with a different binging list to enjoy while waiting for those new episodes. I figured the best way to relive the show is to relive its very evolution. By that I mean the landmark episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 that bring new beginnings and fond farewells. For a show with a theme song that tells you that nothing essentially matters, this chunk of episodes might make you reconsider.
INVADERS FROM THE DEEP
Why It’s So Special: Recently unearthed, this is the very first MST3K episode from the old cable access days of KTMA. Watch as Joel introduces the movie and then just sits there for a while, occasionally saying a riff. Watch as the opening theme song sequence looks like a Be Kind Rewind version of any other MST3K theme song sequence. Watch as Crow just kind of shows up whenever.
Yeah, it’s a novelty, all right.
And the Movie: Invaders of the Deep is an action marionette production. Basically Team America played straight. That means the story of a team of heroes fighting villains from Atlantis is entirely stiff and creepy and…
Listen, I don’t really recommend watching this episode unless you’re a completist or curious about the early days of the show. It’s really not very good. In the first fifteen minutes – and I’m not exaggerating – Joel makes three riffs. He sarcastically says, “Suuuuure,” he calls someone, “Lettuce Man,” and he reacts to a female puppet with, “She’s hot.”
THE CRAWLING EYE
Why It’s So Special: Well, it’s the first episode! The first one that counts, at least. Like with the KTMA debut, they let the intro speak for itself. The only real exposition given in the early host segments was discussion of how Dr. Forrester and Dr. Ernhardt were fired from the Gizmonic Institute for sending Joel into space and found a new hideout in Deep 13, an underground area full of mind-harming radiation.
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Ah yes, Dr. Larry Ernhardt. Played by Josh Weinstein, Dr. Forrester’s original sidekick would be up front about what made the experimental movies so terrible. Weinstein also played the part of Tom Servo during this season, which is hard to get used to. Not just because Kevin Murphy did the voice for so long, but because Comedy Central didn’t do reruns of the first season.
Gypsy’s original personality was that she was both androgynous and incredibly dumb.
And the Movie: I know The Crawling Eye as, “That movie Freakazoid parodied to make that really dull episode about clowns.” The movie begins with a genuinely chilling and top notch scene about a mountain climber mysteriously getting decapitated. From there, it gets very, very boring and follows a girl with a psychic connection to a malevolent, giant eyeball living on a mountaintop.
Unlike Invaders From the Deep, it isn’t the hardest thing in the world to sit through this movie. There are some good laughs to be had. It’s just that the jokes are spread out far more than later episodes. Season one is a bit of a slog.
Why It’s So Special: Josh Weinstein, annoyed that the riffs were being written and not improvised, hit the bricks between seasons. Unlike all the other major players, he didn’t get a real farewell episode and instead was briefly shown on the side of a milk carton with the explanation that he went missing. The man holding that milk carton? Why, none other than TV’s Frank!
As Frank made his debut to replace Dr. Ernhardt, Kevin Murphy stepped into the role of Tom Servo, which he’d hold until the end of the 10th season. Upon the end of the intro, Joel was quick to explain the change by saying that he was tinkering with Servo’s voice.
This was the first episode for reals this time!
And the Movie: Rocketship X-M is about a bunch of astronauts going to the moon, things screwing up, things screwing up more, things screwing up even more, and all while making a point about mankind’s intent on destroying itself with war and nuclear arms. At least it’s more profound on that moral than Plan 9 From Outer Space.
The best way to describe what makes Rocketship X-M so hard to endure is to look at the Wikipedia plot synopsis. There are five large paragraphs explaining the movie. The first three sentences of that synopsis take up 3/4 of the movie. IT’S SO BORING. Even when stuff starts to happen, it isn’t the most exciting, but it’s still fine in comparison.
Why It’s So Special: Joel Hodgson, the man who created the whole damn thing, peaced out and with him went his TV self, Joel Robinson. Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank had dopey temp Mike Nelson help them audit their lab and as they discussed killing Mike off, Gypsy misread the conversation and thought they meant Joel. With Mike’s help, Gypsy was able to sneak Joel off the ship, giving him a bittersweet and incredibly cheap goodbye scene.
Then the Mads realized that they needed someone to take his place…
And the Movie: Mitchell is an absolute classic for more reasons than Joel’s departure. Joe Don Baker plays a doughy police detective positioning himself as the fly in the ointment of some corrupt individuals high up the drug chain. He’s basically an even less likeable Dirty Harry.
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The trio verbally tear Joe Don Baker apart here with jokes about how out of shape and unsavory he is, especially when it comes time for Mitchell to make love to a prostitute. Baker himself was less-than-pleased about this treatment and that led to the show lampooning another movie of his, Final Justice.
Watch Final Justice if you haven’t seen it. If anything, watch the ending credits sequence. Those guys are HARSH.
THE BRAIN THAT WOULDN’T DIE
Why It’s So Special: Even though Mike was introduced in the previous episode, this was his first time as the host of the show. Throughout the host segments and initial riffing, we’d see the robots take to him as a brotherly figure (compared to Joel being a fatherly figure). While the robots championed Mike at times and even got him prepared as a professional riffer, they also weren’t above messing with him. Behavior that would continue for several more years.
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And the Movie: An eerie horror flick, this one is totally watchable and borders on being good despite the camp. A surgeon with radical techniques to save lives is in fact a Dr. Frankenstein-type who saves his fiancée from a car crash by hooking her decapitated head up to some science stuff in his hidden lab. He then goes on the prowl for a new body, attempting to prey on attractive women while making sure there are no witnesses to make the connection. All the while, his fiancée begs for death and grows vengeful when refused.
There’s also a freakish monster thrown in just for the hell of it.
Why It’s So Special: While yet to be a major part of the show, this was the first appearance by Mary Jo Pehl as Pearl Forrester. Her appearance was more attuned to Clayton’s wild hair and glasses rather than the more normalized look she’d have during the Sci-Fi Channel years. She wouldn’t be a major player for another year, but she at least got to have the Mads segments dedicated to her friendship with Frank and her casual neglect of Clayton.
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And the Movie: Bloodlust! is a good ol’ film about hunting people for sport. Despite being an old black and white piece, it moves around fairly quickly and is actually pretty decent. Four young people and their drunk boat captain end up on an island run by a sadistic hunter with a zest for human trophies and an army of guards doing his bidding. Our heroes try to team up with the hunter’s reluctant allies to escape, only to find out that their captor is always one step ahead of them.
It gets surprisingly gruesome at times. Granted, Mike and the bots play up one major death for laughs (it shows up as the post-credits stinger), but is still rather violent for a 1961 release.
SAMSON VS. THE VAMPIRE WOMEN
Why It’s So Special: After five seasons, the show finally said goodbye to Frank Conniff’s TV’s Frank. He had a pretty awesome sendoff, which involved being led off to Second Banana Heaven by Manos: The Hands of Fate character Torgo. While Mike and the bots were in awe at Frank’s farewell, Dr. Forrester felt alone and hollow without him, leading to a touching (?) song number “Who Will I Kill?”
Frank would then be replaced with Pearl Forrester for the rest of the Comedy Central run for the sake of giving Clayton someone to play off of.
And the Movie: Frank was a fan of Mexican luchador movies, so they chose this one to go out on. Samson is in fact legendary wrestler El Santo and he does in fact fight vampire women (okay, he fights vampire men and sets vampire women on fire). It’s just that while the first half is dedicated to building up the vampire women to the point of dragging, there’s no indication outside of the opening credits that there will be a masked pro wrestler in this.
Then after the episode hits the halfway point, El Santo arrives at a character’s house unannounced and in full, bare-chested costume. Crow’s cackle makes the entire movie worth it because despite “Samson” being in the title, the whole thing is entirely out of left field.
Luckily, the movie picks up considerably once El Santo shows himself.
Why It’s So Special: This is around the time when Comedy Central noticed MST3K standing patiently in the corner and said, “Oh, you’re still here?” MST3K just came off a mismanaged theatrical release and the seventh season was reduced to a mere six episodes, less than a third of what the previous season had to offer.
Laserblast is an important episode for two reasons. First, it’s the first series finale, and while that wouldn’t stick, it would still be known as the last hurrah for MST3K’s time on Comedy Central. In this temporary endpoint, Mike and all the bots ended up drifting away from Earth and came across the edge of the universe, where they all became balls of pure energy, free to play in their heavenly existence forever.
More importantly, this was the last appearance by Trace Beaulieu, who voiced Crow and played Dr. Clayton Forrester. Clay only appeared in the opening and finale. First he was there to announce that he lost his funding and was moving back in with his mother. Then in the end, he starred in his own little parody of the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, where he grew into an old man, reaching toward a monolith-like VHS tape of “The Worst Movie Ever Made.” He was then reborn as a space baby and left in the care of Pearl Forrester.
And the Movie: On paper, I feel Laserblast sounds like a good idea. A troubled youth discovers a laser cannon left in the desert by some well-animated stop-motion aliens. He ends up using the blaster on those who messed with him, such as corrupt cops and bullies (one of which is inexplicably Mandark from Dexter’s Laboratory). Using the cannon gradually transforms the young man into a green-skinned monster and he becomes increasingly savage in his behavior.
Too bad the movie rarely makes you feel like anything is happening. There’s no drama or tension to be had and the “revenge” moments feel so brief and separate from the rest of the film that you rarely receive any satisfaction from the scummy people getting exploded.
The most memorable thing to come out of this failure of a film is a moment where our protagonist uses his laser cannon to blow up a sign showing the Star Wars logo. It’s the “Sega Does What Nintendon’t” of terrible sci-fi.
REVENGE OF THE CREATURE
Why It’s So Special: MST3K was brought out of cancellation by the Sci-Fi Channel, but the lack of Beaulieu was a massive hole to fill. The previous series finale is undone (which was really weird for me when I was younger as I hadn’t seen Laserblast yet) and now Pearl Forrester is the big bad, ruling a future Earth where apes evolved from man. Despite a plot device about Pearl being frozen for centuries, it’s still questionable how she looks so spry for someone who raised Dr. Forrester twice over. Then again, just a show, breathe, relax, etc.
The ape-filled status quo means our first look at series mainstay Professor Bobo and to a lesser extent, the Nanites.
The biggest change of all is that Bill Corbett now plays the role of Crow T. Robot, who has no memory of Mike in a needless character tic that’s phased out within a couple of episodes. While Corbett would later own the role by talking in his normal voice, his first outing is a bit forced. It’s like he’s trying too hard to be Beaulieu and sticks out like a sore thumb, even to someone who has seen practically all of the Sci-Fi era episodes.
And the Movie: Despite coming off as the usual MST3K black-and-white fare, Revenge of the Creature almost feels too famous for the show. For one, it’s a sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon, and that’s like the Zeppo Marx of the Universal Monsters. Second, it features the first movie role of one Clint Eastwood.
Revenge of the Creature’s storyline is mostly just King Kong with an added love triangle thrown in. It’s unfortunately a boring movie that moves at a snail’s pace, but at least we get to see some okay rampages later in the film.
Why It’s So Special: The first episode of the then-final season, SoulTaker featured guest appearances by Joel Robinson and TV’s Frank. TV’s Frank went on to become a soul-stealing Grim Reaper like in the movie Mike and the bots were forced to watch and while he was dismissive of Brain Guy, he went on to befriend Professor Bobo and bond over being the dopey sidekicks.
With the Satellite of Love freaking out due to a failsafe Dr. Clayton Forrester built into it, Joel appeared to fix the place up. This led to the first onscreen meeting between the two original hosts, which was perfectly mundane. Joel’s strange refusal to save Mike was a bit contrived, but whatever, they only had twelve more episodes to go anyway.
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And the Movie: B-movie giants Robert Z’Dar and Joe Estevez (Martin Sheen’s brother) are SoulTakers, meaning they’re wraiths that dress in black and remove the souls of dead people, transforming them into glowing rings. Estevez is sent to pick the souls of a handful of teenagers, but his obsessions with the female lead causes him to play by his own rules.
The fact that the female lead is also the screenwriter isn’t lost on the SOL crew.
SoulTaker is one of the more watchable movies in the MST3K library, and it’s also one of the funniest episodes, but the movie needs to be stretched a bit too much at times and the finale at the hospital goes on about thrice as long as it needs to. Even though it runs out of gas, it really is a must-watch episode.
Why It’s So Special: For nearly two decades, this was it. The finale. The last hurrah. Pearl accidentally lost control of the Satellite of Love and sent it towards Earth. Pearl had an angry fit for her ultimate failure, eventually leading to acceptance. All the while, Mike and the bots prepared to come to Earth.
If anything, this was a way better final episode than Laserblast. While Pearl’s final scene was a reference to the last episode of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, our heroes did their own unique spin on the finale of Seinfeld. Living in Mike’s apartment, Mike, Servo, and Crow sat down to watch The Crawling Eye while making the same jokes as when Joel and two different-sounding robots watched the same film many years earlier.
And the Movie: Based on an Italian comic book series, Diabolik is about what is essentially a thief version of James Bond. Using his gadgets and skills, Diabolik proceeds to steal from the wealthy, screw with the police, thwart fellow criminals, take part in capers that involve the deaths of innocent people, and have lots of sex with his girlfriend/accomplice. It’s certainly a fun jaunt that ends the series on a playful note.
Also, you’ll probably have “Body Movin’” by the Beastie Boys stuck in your head from watching it.
Why It’s So Special: Unlike the gradual changes throughout the first ten seasons, MST3K’s big return included a full-on cast turnover. Gizmonic Institute employee Jonah Heston (Jonah Ray) was lured into the clutches of Clayton’s daughter Dr. Kinga Forrester (Felicia Day) and her sidekick Max/TV’s Son of TV’s Frank (Patton Oswalt) and became their new movie-watching victim. While the bots remained part of the show, Hampton Yount took over as Crow, Baron Vaughn took over as Tom Servo, and Rebecca Hanson voiced Gypsy.
And the Movie: With the jump to Netflix with a new crew, Season 11 experienced plenty of growing pains. Reptilicus is the most notable of this as Jonah and the bots tried to get as many jokes out as possible, rapid-fire. Granted, there are some really funny lines in there, but that’s what happens when you tell jokes like it’s the machine gun scene in Predator.
The movie itself has a good first half and a meandering second half. Some scientists discover the remains of a prehistoric creature and study it. Turns out, the creature has a Wolverine-level healing factor and gradually regrows its entire body. Soon enough, Reptilicus is on the loose in Denmark and it seems purely unstoppable.
The idea of having a giant lizard movie in Denmark (considering the kaiju movies they watch tend to have a Japanese pedigree) inspires one of the better recent host segments where Jonah and the others sing, “Every Country Has a Monster.”
While those are the big landmark episodes, here are some unique ones that stand out in one way or another:
Experiment 412, Hercules and the Captive Women: Gypsy gets to join in on the fun for a little bit and hangs out in the theater. It doesn’t take too long for her to realize that this isn’t her bag.
Experiment 416, Fire Maidens of Outer Space: The crew is joined by Timmy, Crow’s dark doppelganger.
Experiment 611, Last of the Wild Horses: Due to the introduction of a mirror universe where Mike is the evil overlord, we get a couple segments of Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank riffing the movie instead.
Experiment 805, The Thing That Couldn’t Die: Both the Satellite of Love and Pearl come across a bizarre planet run by ghostly telepaths that carry brains in jars. In other words, the first appearance of Observer/Brain Guy.
Experiment 816, Prince of Space: After going through a wormhole, Mike is briefly replaced with his alternate universe counterpart who is also a robot puppet.
Experiment 821, Time Chasers: Crow uses time travel to prevent Mike from becoming a temp in hopes of saving him from his movie-watching fate. Instead, Crow creates a reality where Mike dies and his asshole brother Eddie Nelson is the one stuck on the Satellite of Love. A fourth of the movie’s runtime is riffed by Eddie until Crow sets things back.
Experiment 913, Quest of the Delta Knights: Pearl Forrester decides to get a better understanding of the experiment concept by joining the theater for a few minutes to throw out her own riffs.
Experiment 1003, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders: Due to some issues getting the rights figured out, this “lost episode” is in fact the final new MST3K episode ever shown on the Sci-Fi Channel.
Experiment 1102, Cry Wilderness: Pearl, Bobo, and Observer stop by to interact with the new villains.
Experiment 1108, The Loves of Hercules: Although he was introduced as part of an online press conference with Crow and Servo in the lead-up to the first Netflix season, this is the first episode to show off the nerdy new bot M. Waverly.
Experiment 1114, At the Earth’s Core: Another new bot Growler was introduced, acting like a mechanical Rowlf the Dog. While he and Waverly are more supporting characters, they show up in the theater a few times in Season 12.
I’m just hoping I don’t have to update this piece again with Experiment 1206 for being “the new final episode.” Renew the damn series, Netflix!
Gavin Jasper writes for Den of Geek and wonders if there’s beer on the sun. Read more of his articles here and follow him on Twitter @Gavin4L