These episodes have also been added to our master ranking of all 197 episodes of MST3k.
Back when Netflix and Shout! Factory announced that season 12 of Mystery Science Theater 3000 would be a mere 6 episodes, rather than the 14-episode first season of MST3K: The Return, it was hard not to be a little disappointed. Sure, we didn’t have to wait 18 years this time around, but only six episodes? It didn’t seem to suggest a whole lot of confidence in the MST3K crew, and there were certainly plenty of MSTies wondering aloud if this would be the show’s last hurrah.
Well, after making my way through the six episodes of MST3K: The Gauntlet, I can happily report that any worries I had were thoroughly misplaced. Not only is the second Netflix season a tighter, more focused and just plain funnier collection of episodes and movie riffing, but it’s also evolved the format of MST3K in ways that just plain work better for the streaming era. Just as the original MST3K made big strides between season 1 and 2, so has the Jonah Ray epoch of the show grown appreciably between season 11 and 12.
Most notably, and as so many other reviews of season 12 have already pointed out, the primary riffers (Jonah Ray, Hampton Yount, Baron Vaughn) have settled into a considerably more natural groove, presumably after digesting the feedback to season 11. Riffs are a bit more spaced out and given slightly more time to breathe, something that was desperately needed in certain season 11 episodes that felt overstuffed with rapid-fire quips that were difficult to properly digest. Likewise, episodes have been trimmed a bit in length by the removal of one host segment, which makes the in-theater segments feel longer and more robust, while still allowing for several instant classic host segments that match or trump anything in season 11. There’s still room for improvement in some facets of the in-theater portions—it irks me occasionally when the riffers are all yelling out their quips at maximum volume and intensity, which can come off as trying a bit too hard—but I laughed far more steadily in each and every episode of The Gauntlet than I did during long portions of The Return.
The result is a six-episode season in which there are quite honestly no subpar episodes. The quality level here isn’t quite on an “all-time classic” level—at least not yet—but there’s a baseline of humor present in all six films that The Return couldn’t boast. As a result, these episodes are actually quite difficult to rank—you could reshuffle these rankings pretty easily and they’d still feel more or less right. But suffice to say, every episode qualifies as “good” or better.
There’s been no word yet on the renewal of MST3K for season 13, but it’s absolutely something that deserves to happen after seeing the results of season 12. At this point, I wouldn’t even be disappointed if it was for another six-episode chunk. They’ve proven that this format works; now let them run with it. Judging by how much they’ve grown, season 13 could be the best yet.
But before we get there, let’s get to the serious business of ranking season 12.
6. Ep. 1205, Killer Fish, 1979
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “She looks like every Barbie in a Goodwill toy bundle.”
None of the season 12 episodes really deserve to occupy a sole “last place” position; nor is there a standout that is notably below the others in quality, so this ultimately comes down to which of the films was simply the least memorable on its own, and that is definitely Killer Fish. For a film with such a pulpy, exploitative type of title, this one is primarily just a bore—a yawner of a ‘70s heist drama that plays out like Oceans 11 might have if George Clooney had double-crossed all his partners by filling the Bellagio with flying piranha. Every action in Killer Fish is dragged out to twice the necessary length, while long portions feel like they consist entirely of the gang of stranded thieves smirking at each other.
The riffers don’t quite capitalize on the lack of inertia, but there are some amazing solo riffs, like Crow’s disgust at the leering sleazebag’s laughter: “Ugh, I wonder how they spelled ‘nyeghehehe’ in the script.” There’s a fine running joke about Universal Studios rides, and I very much appreciate the deep horror geek reference to Trilogy of Terror when the guys see actress Karen Black: “You just know there’s a Zuni fetish doll with a knife hiding behind that door, right?” They even try for a unique, Gypsy-fronted, in-theater musical number during the boredom of the scuba diving scene, which is more or less pulled off—but the repeated visits by Growler to the theater afterward eventually start to feel a little forced. The best stuff in the episode comes in fits and spurts, but line of the night goes to Servo during the host segment, when he appears as the ultimate “killer fish,” which he describes as “an octopus, doing cartwheels, holding razor blades.”
Bonus: Killer Fish contains my favorite actor cameo of season 12 in the form of Roy Brocksmith, who you would recognize as the histrionic psychologist in Total Recall.
5. Ep. 1202, Atlantic Rim, 2013
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “If this sub doesn’t come across an arachnoshark, I’m going to be very upset.”
Many of the MST3K faithful didn’t seem pleased to see the series tackling something this season from The Asylum, judging the Sharknado-makers to primarily specialize in making films that are “bad on purpose,” but you should have no doubt that Atlantic Rim is genuinely incompetent and poorly executed enough to deserve an MST3K episode all its own. The characters of this film are truly moronic—my mouth was hanging agape when David Chokachi breathlessly (drunkenly?) acts out an action scene we just saw to his two friends, complete with the exclamatory “buh-boom!” that becomes a season-long running gag. In particular, hip-hop artist Treach is uniquely unsuited toward performing as an actor, and particularly when the “acting” in Atlantic Rim largely just involves sitting in a chair, pretending you’re piloting a robot. In general, the appalling cheapness of this movie, and its outright refusal to show the audience anything that the characters claim to be seeing, results in a lot of strong jokes of the “I guess we’ll just have to take your word for it” variety.
Other highlights include the dour, depressed face of Graham Greene (bull butter!), who channels some of the “Captain Santa Claus” ennui of Cameron Mitchell in Space Mutiny, and the sheer “WTF”-ness of the sequence wherein the film intercuts shots of Chokachi dancing with the female lead at a banquet with images of the destruction and devastation his carelessness caused only hours earlier. Atlantic Rim seems to be cited by some of the fandom as the weakest entry in season 12, but personally, I was surprised by just how well the crew was able to salvage an Asylum film with some of that old school MST3K absurdism, as exemplified by Jonah in the opening moments: “Due to illness, the part of the Atlantic will be played by the Caspian Sea.”
4. Ep. 1206, Ator, the Fighting Eagle, 1982
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Uh, do you really want a guy who can’t get out of a net to father the future queen?”
Cave Dwellers is the #1 episode of the entire Joel era on our master ranking of every single MST3K episode, so you’d better believe I was looking forward to the return of Conan-ripoff Ator (it’s actually a prequel) in another sword-and-sorcery epic in season 12. And indeed, it’s fascinating to actually see a full version of the film that is memorably summed up in an overly long introductory montage in the beginning of Cave Dwellers, but as a film (and episode) The Fighting Eagle unsurprisingly can’t quite hold up to its sublime predecessor. This version of Ator isn’t quite the same “gentle stranger with pecs like melons and knees of fringe” that we know and love from Cave Dwellers—instead, Miles O’Keeffe plays Ator in this movie as a naive, dumb, not particularly competent child, whose only goal in life is to marry his sister. No, really! The film is actually more competently told than Cave Dwellers, but that’s a negative in this scenario, as there’s nothing here so memorably bonkers as the hang glider sequence in Cave Dwellers, although I did get a big laugh at one of the extras describing an earthquake as “The Earth trembles like a virgin being drawn to the nuptial bed!” Yeesh, nice imagery there, Mr. writer.
The riffing on The Fighting Eagle contains some great, nerdy references, such as female protagonist Roon being described as “a D&D rogue with 18 Strength and no Dexterity,” to which Crow dismissively tells Jonah “I’ll just take your word on that.” Also included: Comparisons of Ator to Lion-O of the ThunderCats, a mentor referred to as “Vlad the Adopter” and a much-too-large newborn baby, which prompts the question “Should he have a full set of adult teeth already?” Jonah has a great moment of sarcasm (and tone) when he observes that there’s “a lot of natural sunlight coming into this UNDERGROUND CHAMBER,” while internet clickbait also is skewered nicely after a witch says “I’ll show you your loved ones” and Crow replies “And then I’ll show you how the cast of Degrassi looks today. You won’t believe it!”
3. Ep. 1201, Mac and Me, 1988
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “This is like a Pixar movie, in that it exists and has a title.”
Sometimes, it’s hard to separate “the episode” from “the film.” That’s the case when you do an MST3K episode on a film like Mac and Me, which is much more famous in the bad movie circles than the likes of Killer Fish—it comes in with a somewhat inflated set of expectations. And indeed, watching Mac and Me with some friends at a bad movie night is a hilarious undertaking, especially for the sheer degree of incredibly intrusive product placement for brands such as Coca Cola and McDonalds, but here we need to give a greater degree of weight to the riffing of the episode, rather than the film’s own natural charms. Like Starcrash last season, when examined under that light, Mac and Me perhaps doesn’t translate to as great an episode as it theoretically could—but it’s still pretty charming, regardless. It makes for a very natural E.T. rip off double bill with Pod People, the riffing of which ironically mentioned Mac and Me by name. Now, we’ve come full circle.
The riffing on Mac and Me goes from classic MST3K references (“Jim Henson’s The Shining Babies”) to the nostalgic (“He’s all tuckered out from watching USA Up All Night”), to the very modern, including a bit of Last Jedi satire: “Luke, 30 years from now, overly possessive fanboys will be disappointed in your character arc.” It has, as the riffers observe, everything that E.T. was missing, like “a shootout in a grocery store,” but I found myself laughing hardest at some of the silly wordplay, like “do not ingest, even in jest.” Also amusing is Crow wondering aloud about the child star of E.T.: “I wonder if Henry Thomas went to see this when it came out, just to be sure.” Ultimately, a lot of the MSTies on the web seem to be anointing Mac and Me as the top episode of season 12, but in our eyes it’s beaten out by a few other films with lower profiles. It does, however, give us season 12’s most enduring catchphrase: Pretty niiiiice!
2. Ep. 1204, The Day Time Ended, 1980
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “This whole movie is like the cold open of a Columbo episode.”
Season 12 doesn’t have an entry that possesses quite the same level of outright “WTF is going on?” consternation as last season’s Carnival Magic, but The Day Time Ended comes pretty close. Suffice to say, this is the most purely weird entry in season 12, and it’s all the more memorable for how little idea the audience has of what the hell is happening at any given moment. Every time you think you’re finally coming to understand the dynamic of The Day Time Ended, it morphs into yet another genre and leaves everything else behind, which is brilliantly highlighted in what is easily the best song of this season, “Concepts!” It’s all the more funny for the fact that MST3K bemoaned the difficulty of replicating “Every Country Has a Monster” two episodes earlier during Atlantic Rim, because the insanely deft, impressive wordplay of “Concepts!” is definitely a contender. Seriously, just the plot summary in this song alone is practically enough to make The Day Time Ended into this season’s winner—it is that damn good. Bravo to Baron Vaughn in particular for shouldering the Harold Hill/Music Man load. It’s a humdinger of a hamdinger.
The Day Time Ended also benefits from some of the more compellingly bizarre characters of season 12, especially the family paterfamilias, who’s like a more rough-and-tumble, “steak milk”-loving version of the elderly security guard in Hobgoblins. In fact, this whole movie comes off like Eegah meets Laserblast meets Track of the Moon Beast, except with less connective tissue—it veers wildly between boredom and ridiculous sci-fi gibberish at the drop of a hat, while featuring esoteric riffs that reference the likes of The Moody Blues: “Breathe deep the gathering gloom, watch lights fade from every room.” One riff in particular that referenced Rick and Morty made me stop and think about just how novel it is to see MST3K referencing one of the modern series that most closely inherited its sense of humor. That the two now exist side by side means we’re just lucky as TV viewers.
1. Ep. 1203, Lords of the Deep, 1989
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Woke up, fell out of bed, dragged a comb across my stache.”
Before The Day Time Ended came along, it seemed like Lords of the Deep would have a surefire lock on the title of season 12’s strangest film, but it has to settle for simply being “most psychedelic” of the movies. Oh, and it’s also the best pure episode as well.
How to describe this wonderfully loopy movie? It seems so rote and blasé at first—an extremely cheap, by-the-numbers The Abyss rip-off, full of extremely ‘80s crew members wearing uniforms that look like quilted blankets with the Solo “Jazz Pattern” on them. But the longer you stick with Lords of the Deep, the more mind-bending it becomes. The lead female protagonist waltzes through every scene with a toothy grin on her face, showing reactions that seem like the opposite of whatever is appropriate at any given moment. Mind-numbingly boring conversations in hallways recall the likes of Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four, before mutating into an alien game of cat-and-mouse that seems to be ripping off the likes of Alien. Meanwhile, everyone trips balls, thanks to sentient ocean slime. It’s like the props of Space Mutiny had a baby with the “aliens want to show us a better lifestyle” preaching of Night of the Blood Beast.
Throughout it all, Jonah and the Bots deliver the season’s most steady, perfectly balanced set of riffs. The rhythmic improvements made to season 12 are on full display here, and the jokes land at a pace and timbre that feels like the best MST3K episodes of yore. Punchlines range from obvious jokes about The Magic School Bus or Yellow Submarine to some good dialog work—I cracked up at “Take your samples—but they won’t bring you true happiness!” Modern films in the vein of The Shape of Water get some great references, and the pair of bumbling comic relief crew members—referred to as “two Uncle Joeys in one movie”—are a gift for the riffers. In fact, the only surprising omission is the fact that the film’s two Roger Corman cameos don’t elicit some kind of more overt recognition. Regardless, Lords of the Deep is a great episode from start to finish.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident MST3K guru. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.