For nearly 11 years, Mystery Science Theater was the little cult show that could: After jumping from Minneapolis-based UHF station KTMA to fledgling network The Comedy Channel (which begat Comedy Central) in the late ’80s, it survived a 1996 cancellation to be reborn on the Sci-Fi Channel—where the crew of the Satellite Of Love maintained the series’ stellar movie-mocking ways—before being conclusively knocked out of orbit during the summer of 1999. Never a hit of Nielsens-shaking proportions, it nonetheless fostered a fervent fandom that helped catch up fresh converts to the MSTie way through online forums and a VHS-trading network that followed an entreaty included in the closing credits of early episodes: “Keep circulating the tapes.”
Those tapes kept circulating, thanks to the largely nonlinear structure of the series’ first seven seasons. (At the request of Sci-Fi Channel, the interstitial “host segments” from the show’s eighth season take on a stronger sense of continuity from episode to episode—a conceit that didn’t recur for seasons nine and 10.) Even a full 13 years after the series finale, the show affectionately referred to as MST3K remains an easy TV series to jump into. It simply comes down to selecting the right episodes with which to do so. Though the onscreen talent might change throughout the 10 episodes below (which should be considered an extension of the selections made for the Gateways To Geekery feature), the premise remains brilliantly, unobtrusively simple: A human host and his robot companions watch and ridicule the worst movies ever made, as sent to them by a team of mad scientists. The specifics about who the host or his captors are or who’s manipulating the robot puppets may come into play, but those are all outweighed by the fact that MST3K maintained the same wry, Midwestern, pop-culture-damaged sense of humor throughout its entire run. That consistency made reruns of the series an easily formed late-night or weekend-morning viewing habit; this remains true today, as many of Mystery Science Theater 3000’s 198 episodes are available via handsomely packaged DVD sets—or, in a digital extension of the old tape-trading networks, on YouTube.
Show 202: The Sidehackers (season two, episode two)
The show’s producers and writers—known collectively as Best Brains, Inc.—have long kept MST3K’s UHF output and first Comedy Channel season at arm’s length, treating it like the equivalent of Joel Robinson (series creator Joel Hodgson) and the Bots reciting their high-school poetry. You can watch the show go through its awkward adolescence, or skip right to an episode like The Sidehackers, where gritty bikesploitation fare (padded with violence, love, and endless motorcycle-racing footage—the last of which is ripe for invented nicknames and a one-time-only gag involving an ESPN-style score ticker) is filtered through recurring gags like the Satellite Of Love crew’s insistence at tacking the Patton allusion “You magnificent bastard!” to every mention of the film’s hero, the vengeance-driven Rommel.
Show 302: Gamera (season two, episode two)
Rekindling a special relationship, the kaiju turtle and “friend of all children” (or, as “TV’s Frank” Conniff puts it, the closest thing MST3K has to a recurring guest star) reprises its role following a five-episode run during the KTMA era. As with its fellow country-monster Godzilla, Gamera’s adventures grow increasingly goofy with each entry in the series, and it’s a joy to watch the Brains rise to the challenge of inserting fun into what’s occasionally a serious-minded Cold War allegory starring a rubber monster. That sense of fun doesn’t prevent Joel from taking out his in-theater frustrations on poor Crow T. Robot’s spindly arms—but it’s hard to blame the guy. After all, he had four more Gamera movies to watch.
Show 306: Time Of The Apes (season three, episode six)
The nation of Japan was extremely good to the series—largely thanks to American film distributor Sandy Frank, who dubbed and repackaged the Gamera franchise as well as the time-traveling oddity featured in this episode, a distillation of a 26-episode takeoff of Planet Of The Apes. Goony human protagonists and shoddy ape makeup contribute to inspired work outside the theater, as Tom Servo presents the educational film “Why Johnny Doesn’t Care” (prompted by one character’s hostile apathy in the face of simian danger) and Crow gives a fashion report on the flamboyant, militaristic wardrobe sported by the film’s apes (“Halt! Who goes there? Why, it’s Jacques in the timeless Colonel Sanders topcoat.”)
Show 404: Teenagers From Outer Space (season four, episode four)
“When we return to our planet, the high court may well sentence you to TORTURE!” “TOR-CHA!” Sometimes, a line from a movie screened on the satellite is so clumsily written, ham-fistedly delivered, or just flat-out weird that it becomes a joke in and of itself. The bit of overacted dross above entered the canon of out-of-context MST3K exclamations like “Hi-Keeba!” and “Rowsdower!” following this episode from the fourth-season glory days, where Joel and the Bots deflect “focusing disintegrators” and killer crustaceans. The series wasn’t all B-movie invasions and strangely hat-like spacecraft, but sci-fi cheapies like Teenagers From Outer Space make for good introductory viewing—and they’re an entry point to the series’ unique vocabulary, too.
Show 512: Mitchell (season five, episode 12)
Hodgson’s swan song on the show he created is also one of the series’ finest moments, a tribute to the drier tone of the “Joel era” and the handmade look of MST3K’s early years. (Though his escape pod, the aptly named Deus Ex Machina, looks pretty sharp.) Mitchell also introduces one of the series’ great adversaries, in the lumpy, huffy form of Walking Tall star Joe Don Baker, who did not take kindly to the many cracks made at the expense of his character’s general slovenliness. (“Mitchell: Even his name says ‘Is that a beer?’”) Baker’s displeasure with the show could also be attributed to the fact that Mitchell is a halfway decent movie, an amateur-hour, feature-length Rockford Files whose uncharismatic protagonist and the lowlifes he targets (and the low-speed car chases on which they embark) are easy targets for a departing host.
Show 517: Beginning Of The End (season five, episode 17)
As hosting duties passed from Hodgson to head writer Mike Nelson, it took a few episodes for the show to regain its footing. It’s back on solid ground when considering Beginning Of The End, a creature feature starring the late Peter Graves in full-on stentorian-stiff mode. The episode’s riffs, meanwhile, are a standout example of how MST3K’s rapid-fire delivery enabled the writers to get incredibly specific while maintaining broad appeal. The show’s Twin Cities base enabled informed jests at the expense of the movie’s Chicago setting (“We’ll order your B-52 crew to deliver the bomb on the designated target.” “Start with the Shedd Aquarium.”), which are peppered among jokes about the film’s giant-grasshopper menace that anyone can understand. (“Just get a giant screen door!”)
Show 622: Angels Revenge (season six, episode 22)
And yet Best Brains rarely took the easy way out with a film; a lesser series might lean on leering gags for this jiggly Charlie’s Angels rip-off, but the jokes in Show 622 redirect the lurid, grindhouse-angling aspects of Angels Revenge back at the movie. The episode, which comes from the end of the series’ Comedy Central run, also taps into MST3K’s status as a stealth crash course in 20th-century pop culture. The presence of character actors like Jack Palance, Alan Hale Jr., and Jim Backus provides the excuse for jokes based on the actors’ résumés, but there are also allusions throughout the episode that will inspire viewers to, say, check out the two-reelers of Laurel & Hardy or watch Koyaanisqatsi in order to comprehend Servo’s Philip Glass reference. (In a more likely scenario, they’ll come back to the episode after seeing Koyaanisqatsi and think, “That’s what Servo was talking about!”)
Show 813: Jack Frost (season eight, episode 13)
Actor-writer Trace Beaulieu left the show between the end of its Comedy Central run and the beginning of the Sci-Fi Channel seasons, leaving Crow without a voice—and the show without its bad-movie-supplying villain. The serialized arcs of season eight helped supply Mike Nelson with a fresh team of antagonists, all of whom are in place to present him with the fractured fairy tale screened here: Dr. Clayton Forrester’s mother, Pearl (Mary Jo Pehl, originally introduced in MST3K’s abbreviated seventh season); Planet Of The Apes refugee Bobo (Kevin Murphy, who’d been playing Tom Servo since season two); and the omniscient-yet-bumbling Observer (Bill Corbett, who also stepped into the role of Crow). The movie itself is a winning introduction to the wild world of the series’ “Russo-Finnish saga,” a colorful, poorly dubbed bouillabaisse of European folklore that induces a hilarious state of whimsy-fatigue in Mike and the Bots.
Show 904: Werewolf (season nine, episode four)
The series spent so much time mocking the bad films of the not-so-distant past that it often glossed over the fact that the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s didn’t have an exclusive hold on cinematic trash. As if to acknowledge this blind spot, the show’s later seasons specialized in savaging more recently made turkeys like 1996’s Werewolf. Swift pacing and advances in pyrotechnics technology make Show 904 a flashy, ideal early encounter with the series; meanwhile, ludicrous monster-movie plotting, ambiguously accented bad acting, and seemingly feline werewolves provide plenty of lycanthropic grist for the MST3K mill. It is, to quote the film’s checked-out female love interest, absolutely fascinating.
Show 1001: Soultaker (season 10, episode one)
Werewolf’s fount of spiritual hoodoo, Joe Estevez, makes his second MST3K appearance in Soultaker, playing an emissary of The Angel of Death hunting four of MST3K’s favorite objects of ridicule: numbskull teenagers. It’s a reincarnation fable re-imagined as flimsy slasher flick, but as fun as it is to watch the crew tee off on the too-convenient contrivances of Soultaker’s decade-spanning love story, the falseness of which is torn down in a fantastic Crow-and-Servo tirade over the closing credits, the type of in-theater sketch that became more common as the credits of MSTed movies grew longer. The real attraction here, however, is that Hodgson and Conniff make cameo appearances, reprising their roles and providing a full-circle vibe to the show’s final season. Hodgson misses out on the movie-mocking, but his appearance acts as a stamp of approval for a show that soldiered on (and oftentimes flourished) even after the exit of the man who built it.
Availability: While copyright issues and episode length prevent the release of full-season sets of MST3K, select episodes of the series have been released in 24 multi-episode volumes (and several stray single-disc releases) by Rhino and Shout! Factory; the most recent hit the shelves on July 31, 2012. A handful of episodes are available for streaming on Netflix and Hulu, though the episodes featured by the services are largely those that mock public-domain titles. (On the bright side: You can once more sing whenever you sing whenever you sing with The Giant Gila Monster.) When it comes to online streaming, the new fan’s best option is YouTube, where countless VHS copies on non-commercially available episodes have been digitized and uploaded.
And if you like those, here are 10 more: Show 107: Robot Monster, Show 212: Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Show 301: Cave Dwellers, Show 309: The Amazing Colossal Man, Show 403: City Limits, Show 606: The Creeping Terror, Show 814: Riding With Death, Show 816: Prince Of Space, Show 903: The Pumaman, Show 1008: Final Justice
Next week: Phil Dyess-Nugent picks the 10 episodes of The Honeymooners that’ll—Pow!—hit you right in the kisser.