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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Manos: The Hands of Fate is rightly remembered as one of the worst films ever made, unsurprising when one considers the director was an inexperienced fertilizer salesman who made it on a bet. Agonizingly slow, with almost no plot to speak of beyond the shambling of fan-favorite character “Torgo,” it pushed the riffers to their absolute limits. Even the normally laid-back Joel can’t help but have a small outburst in the theater as it creeps along, simply yelling “DO SOMETHING!” To push Joel so far is something really rare for MST3k.
Behind the scenes: The epic badness of Manos has made it probably the most famous episode in the entire MST3k library. It also saved Manos from obscurity thanks to fan involvement. In 2011, the original 16 mm print was discovered in an archive, revealing the original film was much better looking (although just as poorly acted). An HD Blu-ray release is forthcoming.
The episode: This Russian flick is a whole different type of cheese. It attempts to capture the same upbeat, adventuresome tone of a film like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, but comes off much stranger, suffused in a dreamy haze. The crew always seemed to enjoy these sincerely cheesy and colorful pictures, and they give it a good working over full of literary and observational humor. And of course there’s the ubiquitous musical references, like the city full of shaggy-haired people in knit caps: “Everyone looks like Michael Nesmith in this town!”
Behind the scenes: This movie is one of MST3k’s mini-cycle of Russo-Finnish fantasy pictures, which also included The Day the Earth Froze, Jack Frost and The Sword and the Dragon. They’re some of the most lighthearted and innocent features in the MST3k library, children’s adventures suitable for viewers of all ages. They certainly come off as a sharp contrast to some of the uglier and more depressing films, making them a nice change of pace.
Mitchell was the swan song for Joel as the show’s host, as he inadvertently escapes the satellite and returns to normal life on Earth. As for the film, he picked an absolute classic episode for his final appearance. Starring a bloated Joe Don Baker at his finest, Mitchell is like a slow, brainless Dirty Harry, and he receives perhaps the most savage string of put-downs in MST3k history for the film’s entire run-time. It’s brutal, and was repeated a second time in season 10 when the crew watched Baker’s Final Justice. Best moment: The utter inanity of Mitchell’s unprovoked screaming match with a small child pushes Tom Servo over the breaking point.
Behind the scenes: Obviously, the big news here was the loss of Hodgson, the show’s creator. Many theories have been advanced over the years for Joel’s departure, but his most recent interviews have reiterated it largely stemmed from ongoing disagreements with producer Jim Mallon over the program’s creative control. As he now puts it, he left to ensure the series would continue, and head writer Michael J. Nelson stepped up to become a fine host in his own right for five more seasons.
The episode: There are no hiccups as Mike steps in as host, in this dark and gritty sci-fi story about “Jan in the Pan,” a head kept alive after being severed in an auto wreck. I love the way he’s introduced in particular, after being put through rigorous bad movie training by Tom and Crow. It immediately establishes a different dynamic for the character than Joel: Less father figure and more “long-suffering younger brother” to the bots.
Behind the scenes: In the fandom, the switch between hosts ignited firestorms in the early internet era, as MST3k fans chose sides in the Joel vs. Mike flame wars. In truth, they were both great hosts, but quite different performers. Mike became a more animated figure than Joel, portraying a somewhat slow-witted Midwestern everyman obsessed with plots of escape. Meanwhile, more big changes were ahead.
The episode: The movie is nothing special, just another rehash of “The Most Dangerous Game” as a bunch of young people are hunted by a psycho on an island. The host segments, though, are notable for the first introduction of Dr. Forrester’s mother, Pearl. We learn she has an unusually close relationship with TV’s Frank and also recognizes Crow from some past rendezvous never fully disclosed, referring to him often as “Art.” She never leaves again, becoming a series regular.
Behind the scenes: Mary Jo Pehl, who played Pearl, had been with the MST3k crew since nearly the very beginning, and had long been an important female voice in the male-dominated writer’s room. She played bit parts throughout the series, but in Pearl Forrester finally found a regular chance for screen time. As Clayton’s mother she can be a little grating in season 6, but she eventually grows into the role.
The episode: There are few plot synopses that scream MST3k more than “Mexican wrestlers vs. vampire babes,” so you know you’re in good hands as far as the film is concerned. More notably, though, this is the final episode for TV’s Frank, who is finally and permanently killed by Dr. Forrester for the crime of eating all their Chinese food. Don’t worry, he has the fortune to be assumed into “Second Banana Heaven” by Torgo the White, a place where “the lackies and toadies and whipping boys are forever safe and free from their oppressors.” Clayton, meanwhile, laments in song, “Who Will I Kill?”
Behind the scenes: Frank Conniff left the series without any apparent animosity, but it was a tough loss for MST3k, as he provided the levity to balance out Dr. Forrester’s aggression. He has worked steadily in television since, on shows such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and another cult animated series, Invader Zim, as well as appearing in Joel’s movie-riffing project Cinematic Titanic. He’s very active on Facebook these days, and passes up no opportunity to crack political jokes via social media.
The episode: In 1996, MST3k came to the big screen for the first and only time with MST3k: The Movie. The film, This Island Earth, is vintage 1950s sci-fi and the most notable change is just how much higher the production values were. “The Movie” is actually several minutes shorter than one of the TV episodes and can be a good choice for newcomers to the series, as it reestablishes the premise and keeps the riffing from getting too esoteric. Plus, it’s got the “Metaluna Mutant,” one of the series’ most iconic monster costumes.
Behind the scenes: The film had a convoluted production cycle and ultimately received release in only 26 cinemas. It suffered from the unique nature of its own premise, even though it was based on a hit TV series, and distributor Gramercy Pictures had seemingly little idea of how to market it to a wider audience. The theater experiment was essentially over before it began.
Next: MST3k survives against all odds.
The episode: You can’t get through a list of bad movies without Roger Corman showing up somewhere. Blood Beast was actually produced by the dream team of Roger and his brother Gene Corman, or as Mike observes, “It’s been thoroughly Cormanized.” This episode really features the riffers’ talent for establishing running gags that pop up over and over when you least expect them, like their obsession with just how dead the main character’s lifeless corpse is, and the preponderance of people named Steve.
Behind the scenes: The show would return for an abbreviated seventh season on Comedy Central, but the writing was on the wall at this point and the crew responded with a string of some of their strongest episodes. Even with the end apparently coming, they were cranking out underappreciated series classics like The Brute Man and The Incredible Melting Man.
The episode: This is an ugly lump of 1970s sci-fi drive-in trash, painful to watch but expertly riffed, especially in the running Hank Williams Jr. jokes, which will change your perception of Monday Night Football forever. At the time it was intended as the series finale, and the host segments see the crew detached from Dr. Forrester’s control and set adrift into the universe. Dr. F. becomes a “star baby” in a 2001 parody, and Mike and the Bots become beings of pure energy, free to roam the universe. It could have been the end, but there was still life in the fandom yet.
Behind the scenes: Quite simply, MST3k’s fans refused to let it die. They staged huge write-in campaigns and bought ads in industry publications until another suitor came calling. The show would live on for another three seasons on the Sci-Fi Channel with no discernable drop in quality.
The episode: Huge changes are afoot, as Pearl Forrester has now stepped up as Mike and the Bots’ tormenter. The loss of Trace Beaulieu means there’s a new voice for Crow as well, portrayed by writer Bill Corbett. Corbett also plays “Brain Guy,” an extradimensional being who steps into a lackey role similar to the departed TV’s Frank. He’s joined by a heavily costumed Kevin Murphy as a second underling, the ape man Professor Bobo. One thing that hasn’t changed is the films—this time it’s a watered down sequel to the Universal classic Creature From the Black Lagoon. It features Clint Eastwood’s first-ever role —Crow’s assessment? “This guy’s bad, this is his first and last movie.”
Behind the scenes: The move to Sci-Fi had positives and negatives for MST3k. The network required almost all of the films to fit into fantasy, sci-fi or horror themes, which yielded some excellent movies to riff. Less successful was the instatement of an actual ongoing storyline into the host segments, which was enforced in almost all of season 8, as Mike, Pearl and the Bots traveled through time. Mercifully, this restriction was dropped for the final two seasons.
The episode: One of the show’s most famous and hilarious episodes, Space Mutiny is everything that is great about MST3k. You’ve got a wonderfully cheesy movie, memorable characters and great running jokes that transcend the whole series. The riffers take a gag they previously used in the film 12 to the Moon, giving the beefy hero dozens of silly nicknames, and this time turn it into an art form. “Dave Ryder” is rechristened everything from “Flint Ironstag” to “Punch Rockgroin” to “Big McLargeHuge.”
Behind the scenes: This episode also serves as the endpoint to the show’s experiment with ongoing plot in the host segments. It was never a good idea, considering that only 15 minutes or so of the show’s two-hour runtime was spent outside the theater. These plot segments, which end in a lame “Roman Times” story arc, also make it slightly more confusing to introduce newcomers to these episodes, but Space Mutiny is too good to pass up for any reason.
Werewolf is nothing short of a perfectly riffed movie. It’s full of so much inherent weirdness that it’s incapable of being boring. You’ve got scads of inexplicably accented scientist characters running around, unable to keep their speech patterns (or hair styles) consistent throughout the film. You’ve got a female lead who can’t even pronounce the word “werewolf” successfully. She tries on plenty of variations throughout but eventually seems to settle on “wahr-welf.”
Behind the scenes: Kevin Murphy has called Werewolf a perfect example of a film that seems to have been created specifically with MST3k in mind. It has everything their best episodes tend to replicate: cheesy effects, terrible acting, nonsensical story (guy turns into a werewolf after being clubbed with a werewolf skull) and broad characters with memorable eccentricities. This is the sort of film that made the Sci- Fi Channel years successful in their own right.
The episode: What a weird lump of “movie loaf” this is. A common style of bad movie construction (two different films stitched together to make one) results in a wonderfully whimsical journey into the depths of madness in what was ostensibly supposed to be a children’s movie. Sorry, but I’ve never seen a children’s movie where three different pets are killed. Three! The crew’s riffing is spectacular, particularly when they mimic Ernest Borgnine’s grandfather character and remind the audience that this is all supposed to be a disturbing bedtime story.
Behind the scenes:
Merlin is actually the most recent film ever featured on MST3k. It was intended to be the third episode of the final season (and is listed as episode 1003), but due to some sort of legal snafu, it was held back. Accordingly, it became the last new episode to ever air on TV, although it’s not actually the series finale.
The episode: This is it, the final MST3k. It’s a goofy and colorful spy caper, bringing back John Phillip Law, who played the memorable villain in Space Mutiny. The crew gets a proper wrap-up, as Pearl admits she won’t be able to break Mike and the Bots, leaving to become dictator of Qatar. Meanwhile, the satellite crew survive a crash landing on Earth, ready to live a new life. But of course, nothing changes in the end, as in our final images of them, they are sitting on their apartment couch, watching—what else?—The Crawling Eye. And with that, the series comes full circle.
Behind the scenes: When the Sci-Fi Channel opted not to renew the show after its 10th season, another fan write-in campaign was launched, but this time it wouldn’t be enough to keep the show going. In actuality, it was probably time to wrap things up. MST3k had a remarkably consistent run of great TV comedy writing and became a huge influence on a generation of snarky movie viewers. Its success practically established movie riffing as an entire sub-genre of humor.
Thank you to Joel, Mike, Kevin, Bill, Trace, Frank, Mary Jo and everyone else who made MST3k one of the best cult shows of all time.
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he hosted an MST3k viewing club for a while in college. You can follow him on Twitter.