The 25-Episode History of Mystery Science Theater 3000

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The 25-Episode History of <i>Mystery Science Theater 3000</i>

The task of introducing someone to a cult television show they’ve never seen before can be—let’s face it—a pain. When that show is Mystery Science Theater 3000, it’s an added challenge, thanks to the unique nature of its premise. There just hasn’t ever been anything quite like MST3k on TV, with its single-minded focus on terrible movies and sense of humor that both cursed those films and sincerely delighted in their camp value or sincerity. It both hated and loved the bad movies it purported to mock.

The show’s structure is simple and can be summarized in one sentence: A man is shot up into space by mad scientists and is forced to watch terrible movies as a social experiment, maintaining his sanity by mocking the films with his robot compatriots. Any episode a first-time viewer watches will contain the crew watching a bad movie. However, given that we’re still in the middle of the show’s 25th anniversary year (dating from the beginning of the Comedy Central series), here are 25 historic episodes a viewer should watch to fully understand everything happening both on-screen and behind the scenes. This is not a list of “best episodes,” “worst movies” or anything like that. This is a list that charts the important moments in MST3k history.

Please note: MST3k episodes are available commercially in their highest-quality form via Shout Factory, which is still in the process of releasing them in lucrative box sets. With that said, many can also be found online, albeit at lower quality.

1. Time of the Apes (1987), KTMA ep. 17

The episode: Thanksgiving Day in 1988, MST3k went on the air in exceedingly humble fashion. These episodes on local Minneapolis network KTMA have never been commercially released, and the first three have no known footage. Viewing the later KTMA episodes online, though, one can see the seeds of brilliance that would later bloom into one of TV’s greatest cult shows. The production values are so low here that series founder Joel Hodgson isn’t even present for this episode—the bots just go on and riff without him while he’s “locked out of the ship.” Of all the KTMA-era episodes though, it’s one of the more interesting to watch because Time of the Apes would be revisited in a great season 3 episode, featuring the immortal song about the film’s producer, Sandy Frank, “the source of all our pain.” It’s a perfect illustration of how much the show improved in its post-KTMA era.

Behind the scenes: Early MST3k was as cheap as anything you’ve ever seen on TV, and then cheaper still. According to Joel, he completed work on the robots literally the night before filming began. For antagonists, he reached out to local Minneapolis comedians Trace Beaulieu and Josh Weinstein. Future series regular Kevin Murphy was brought on board as a cameraman at KTMA. Surprisingly, though, the show was an immediate local hit, with its initial 13-episode order extended to 21. Ultimately, it was KTMA that folded as a network, prompting MST3k’s move to a much wider audience on cable TV.

2. The Crawling Eye (1957), ep. 101

The episode: You have to include season 1, episode 1. The jokes are unfortunately sparse, and the crew members haven’t yet developed their distinct personalities. The early episodes are defined by a much slower pace in the theater segments, and the riffers occasionally trip over each other’s lines. It’s not an episode you’d use to introduce a new viewer, but it’s a serviceable origin story that establishes Joel Robinson as the likeable and gregarious target for mad scientists Dr. Clayton Forrester and Dr. Laurence Erhardt. I will say, one thing that was nice about the earliest episodes were the extent to which “the mads” would hype the film’s badness beforehand. Of The Crawling Eye, Forrester and Erhardt say: “It’s a real stinkburger of a film this week, Joel. It’s got a bad audio track, it’s in black and white, and worst of all it stars Forrest Tucker. Good name, bad actor.”

Behind the scenes: The show is still quite rough, but things have been tightened significantly since the KTMA season, with new sets and redesigned bots. More importantly, MST3k now had a stable home network. The show came along at exactly the right time in 1989, as fledgling cable station The Comedy Channel (later to become Comedy Central) was in dire need of programming to fill large chunks of airtime. At two hours per episode, MST3k was a perfect solution. Given how rough a product it was, however, it’s almost miraculous that MST3k made it to season 2.

3. Rocketship X-M (1950), ep. 201

The episode: New season, huge changes. The set is all new once again, Dr. Erhardt has been replaced by fan-favorite character TV’s Frank as Dr. Forrester’s lackey, robot Tom Servo has a new voice and production values are noticeably higher. The crew celebrate with a cheesy 1950s sci-fi B-movie, the type of film that was a major staple of the Joel years. They quickly demonstrate their depth of moviemaking knowledge by mumbling “rhubarb, rhubarb, scientific rhubarb” during an early scene of scientists talking, another name for the “background noise” known in the movies as “Walla.”

Behind the scenes: The show may have been lucky to get renewed, but it made the most of its opportunity. The biggest change is the departure of Weinstein, one of the show’s founders. He reportedly left after creative disagreements concerning the show’s shift from improvisation to scripted jokes, but his replacement Frank Conniff was a more than suitable substitute. The loss of Weinstein’s vocal talent also opened up the door for writer Kevin Murphy to step in as the voice of Tom Servo, where he would remain for the entire rest of the series. Weinstein went on to plenty of success in TV, including a role as writer and producer on another cult show, Freaks and Geeks. Servo’s new voice was largely met with acclaim, with the notable exception of the disgruntled fan who sent Murphy a six-foot banner reading “I HATE TOM SERVO’S NEW VOICE.”

4. Wild Rebels (1967), ep. 207

The episode: To me, this is the first moment when MST3k feels fully cooked, the start of the show’s sweet spot. The film is another genre staple—the “biker flick,” just another attempt at “edgy” teen entertainment. Joel and the bots are opening up with their pop culture references by now and take special delight in targeting the limp noodle hero Rod as he runs up against the “Satan’s Angels” biker club. There’s a classic host segment for “Wild Rebels Cereal” as well, featuring such wonderful prizes as “a sawed-off pool cue with a leather strap” or “a chunk of hose filled with lead shot.”

Behind the scenes: The cast was clearly beginning to gel at this point. Kevin Murphy has stopped trying to emulate Weinstein’s voice and is taking Servo in his own direction. Due to the host switch and a revolving cast, he eventually became the show’s longest-tenured member.

5. Cave Dwellers (1984), ep. 301

The episode: If Wild Rebels is the first “very good” episode, then Cave Dwellers is the first series classic. This cheap-looking Conan rip-off features the sharpest and most consistent riffing in the series to this point, targeting the aloof, empty-headed performance by Miles O’Keefe in particular, and the absurd costume design. The segment where the loincloth-wearing hero suddenly appears on a modern hang glider is one of the series’ all-time WTF moments.

Behind the scenes: Things have fully taken shape now, and from this point there’s no looking back. Season 3 also begins featuring some great short films in front of the movies, as opposed to the Republic and Universal serials of seasons 1 and 2. These “shorts” would become some of the show’s best bits, and are great for introducing new viewers thanks to their brevity. Just look at one like Mr. B. Natural.

6. Pod People (1983), ep. 303

The episode: Joel Hodgson calls Pod People one of his personal favorite episodes for good reason. Initially intended as a straightforward alien horror movie, it features a tacked-on “cute alien” designed to capitalize on E.T. and an unsettlingly dubbed child actor in a lead role. This is one of Trace Beaulieu’s best episodes as the voice of Crow, thanks to the bizarre voice and morbid humor he uses throughout as “Trumpy,” the loveable alien. His response to the little boy asking “Do you know what playing is, Trumpy?” is “Yes, it’s where I break you in half.”

Behind the scenes: This is a great example of a film that pretty much fell off the face of the Earth until it was dredged up by the MST3k crew. The show was ultimately responsible for saving dozens of films like this that certainly didn’t deserve to be saved. Thanks to the MST3k connection, their memory will live on.

7. The Amazing Colossal Man (1957), ep. 309

The episode: Good-natured cheese is the name of the game here. A better-known film than many featured in MST3k episodes, and something of a drive-in classic to those old enough to remember drive-ins. Colonel Glenn Manning is the whiniest of characters, and the Satellite of Love crew are not kind to him. The scene where the military sticks Manning with a giant syringe is purely distilled 1950s camp. Look at this thing. How else are you going to inject a colossal man, anyway?

Behind the scenes: The Amazing Colossal Man was perhaps the best-known film of director Bert I. Gordon, a man of special significance in MST3k lore. Known for his obsession with all things giant (even his initials are “B.I.G.”), he directed more films featured on MST3k than anyone else, eight in total. Despite this, he’s by no means the worst director featured on the show, simply the most prolific.

8. Gamera vs. Guiron (1969), ep. 312

The episode: What’s not to love about giant, rocket-powered, fire-breathing turtles? Gamera vs. Guiron highlights everything that is great about the Gamera films with cheesy monsters, absurd physics, surprising violence and extremely irritating Japanese children in upsetting shorts. The episode is also notable for the performance of the classic Gamera theme song by Joel and the Bots, wherein we learn that “Gamera is really neat, he is filled with turtle meat, we’ve been eating Gamera.”

Behind the scenes:   Godzilla  is by far the more famous giant monster or “kaiju,” but if there’s a monster mascot of MST3k, it’s Gamera, who was featured in five season 3 episodes. The films were all imported and re-dubbed by TV producer Sandy Frank, who was also responsible for Time of the Apes and many other poorly dubbed Japanese movies screened on American TV. Really terrible dubbing is to Sandy Frank as cameos are to Alfred Hitchcock.

9. Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), ep. 321

The episode: Undoubtedly one of the greatest film titles and dopiest Christmas movies ever made. It’s a complete lie on every level, of course, as the film is actually about Santa Claus being abducted to make toys for Martian children, accompanied by some gleefully dark riffing. It features what is without a doubt the worst bear costume in cinematic history, to which Servo can only exclaim: “You can actually see the headpiece draped over the body.”

Behind the scenes: Kevin Murphy has stated that by this point, the show’s writers were fairly certain it would be around for a while, so they decided to include a holiday episode that could be replayed by the network near Christmas. Their choice was one of the most colorfully silly films in MST3k history.

10. Teenagers from Outer Space (1957), ep. 404

The episode: Another sci-fi B-movie, and a surprisingly capable one. That is until the conclusion, when the characters are threatened by … the projected shadow of a giant screaming lobster! Also wonderful is the villain “Thor” and his ray gun that instantly skeletizes a family dog, leading Crow to note that “This couldn’t be Sparky… Sparky had skin.”

Behind the scenes: Watching an episode like this one, it’s easy to see that MST3k movies weren’t always that bad—this one is a cheap but capable B-movie featuring perfectly adequate performances. This is no coincidence. The show’s creators occasionally hint at the truly awful films rejected for inclusion—one is called Child Bride, if that gives you an idea.

11. The Magic Sword (1962), ep. 411

The episode: And speaking of genuinely decent MST3k movies, this might be as close as you’re going to get. Brimming with cheesy swordplay, magic, dragons and good old-fashioned adventure in glorious Technicolor, it’s like Avatar compared to most MST3k episodes. It’s the only film that Joel and the Bots ever THANKED their tormenters for sending, although Crow may have just been thanking them for the inclusion of Estelle Winwood, on whom he develops a certain musical fixation.

Behind the scenes: This is the high point of Bert I. Gordon, without a doubt. “Mr. B.I.G.” made plenty of MST3k stinkers such as King Dinosaur or Beginning of the End, but he simultaneously holds the honor of directing what is possibly the best film featured on the show.

Next: MST3k vs. MANOS, and a new host

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