In the increasingly distant future — more than a quarter-century ago this Thanksgiving, A.D. — the greatest Thanksgiving gift of all time was unleashed on the world. On Thanksgiving Day 1988, Twin Cities station KTMA (channel 23, now operating as The CW in town) aired the first episodes of what would eventually turn into arguably the biggest, most culturally significant cult TV show of all time.
Once the show moved to Comedy Channel (eventually Comedy Central), Mystery Science Theater 3000 enshrined its status as an alternate universe holiday tradition, with all-day “Turkey Day” marathons providing families with warped senses of humor an alternative to the Rockettes kicking away in front of Macy’s or the Cowboys on the gridiron. Plopping down on the couch with Cousin Alastair and Great Aunt Chaka to watch back-to-back-to-back episodes of robot puppets riffing away at some of the worst movies ever made? Pass the cranberry sauce!
Though goodness knows there have been enough bad movies made to keep the show running forever, MST3K is not currently on the air. (Neither, for that matter, is its live-theater antecedent Cinematic Titanic.) But the traditional “Turkey Day” marathon is back again. It kicked off on the show’s ersatz 25th anniversary, and they’re carrying on once again this year. Plus … in case you’ve been living under a rock, you probably heard about Joel Hodgson’s Kickstarter campaign to get an 11th season of MST3K off the ground. (Talk about your early holiday gifts!)
In honor of the holiday and the show’s contribution to our love for it, Steve Swanson and myself have come up with a list of our top 10 episodes. Because we, like many MSTies, are deeply split about which era actually represented the show’s peak, we honed in our choices on the two distinct chapters. No, not Joel vs. Mike — any true MST3K fan has love for both hosts. No, instead we went full nuclear option and squared off between the Comedy Central era (seasons 1-7) and the Sci-Fi Channel (seasons 8-10).
THE COMEDY CHANNEL/COMEDY CENTRAL ERA
by Eric Henderson
For me, there is no compare between the episodes of the first half of the ’90s and the episodes of the second half.
But it’s not because I’m a ride-or-die Joel stan. To the contrary, I think the show reached it peak right down the middle of the divide, from seasons 4 through 6, during which Joel Hodgson and Mike Nelson are represented just about equally. Yes, I think the host segments benefitted from Joel’s sleepy-eyed, deadpan charm more than Mike’s occasionally too-eager chipper demeanor. But I also think the writing of the all-important riffs during the movie segments was at its apex during that mid-series stretch. (It’s a classic Bell Curve, really.)
In that sense, my list of the top 5 episodes of the Comedy Central era are split between both hosts, as well as between obvious fan favorites and under-heralded personal faves. And, because I also believe the show’s format worked even better for short subjects than feature films, I present a list of the 10 greatest shorts in MST3K history. (Though they’re all practically perfect little gems of snark.)
- Godzilla Vs. Megalon (1973, episode 212): “Rex Dart: Eskimo Spy!” MST3K’s largest undertaking was tackling basically every Gamera movie ever made, and I applaud them for their efforts. But really, they got every great Toho joke out of their systems with this one episode, one of the Godzilla series’ most ridiculous entries, during which the main human characters spend roughly one-third of the running time running up and down the endless stairs to their bachelor pad.
- Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964, episode 321): “Droppo, you’re the laziest man on Mars!” Both Joel and Mike got their own Christmas episodes, and they’re both wonders. But this painfully stuck in the ’60s relic, which marries bargain basement department store production values with a bunch of Space Age buzzwords, is unquestionably one of the most memorable crapfests ever endured by Joel and the ‘bots. And, as an added bonus, the host segments are all top-notch (“A Patrick Swayze Christmas” IS a holiday standard) and ultimately filled with as much nostalgia and pathos as the Christmas specials they otherwise mock.
- Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966, episode 424): “Every shot looks like someone’s last-known photograph.” No, Manos isn’t the actual worst movie they’ve ever done on MST3K. If you ask me, the movie they tackled just a few episodes prior — the plotless, hopeless Monster-a-Go-Go — wins that dubious title. But the sights Joel, Crow and Servo endure during this episode, being forced to contemplate what exactly is floating around in Torgo’s knees, and fretting that at any point the entire scuzzy enterprise will suddenly devolve into a snuff film, add up to an indisputable classic.
- The Creeping Terror (1964, episode 606): “The creeping part is apt, but the terror’s just not happening.” Also arguably worse than the legendary Manos is this Cold War-era alien invasion cheapie, in which a giant quilted piece of carpet with a crowd of people crawling underneath are meant to represent an interstellar monster whose only purpose is to eat every human that crosses its path … which isn’t too hard since everyone obediently crawls into its mouth. Virtually the entire movie’s soundtrack was destroyed during filming, leaving most dialogue-driven scenes to be paraphrased by a narrator. Which also gives Mike and the ‘bots ample space to let loose. They’re more than up to the task in this brilliant episode.
- Racket Girls (1951, episode 616): “Strut, pout, put it out, that’s what you want from grandma!” Of all the bimbo cheesecake movies MST3K tackled — Angels’ Revenge, The Sinister Urge, and two Mamie Van Doren epics — none yielded a more entertaining collection of riffs than this thinly-veiled excuse to film the beyond buxom Peaches Page as she trains to become a champion lady wrestler. As Peaches’ rack, um, gets in the way while she attempts the rowing machine, Crow muses: “I’m being turned on by a woman who is long dead.” Of all the episodes not widely cited by MSTies, Racket Girls deserves a second look.
Honorable Mentions — 10 Best Shorts: “Catching Trouble” (episode 315); “The Home Economics Story” (episode 317); “Mr. B Natural” (episode 319); “Junior Rodeo Daredevils” (episode 407); “Circus on Ice” (episode 421); “Hired!” (episodes 423 & 424); “Last Clear Chance” (episode 520); “Design for Dreaming” (episode 524); “Why Study the Industrial Arts?” (episode 609); “The Chicken of Tomorrow” (episode 702)
THE SCI-FI CHANNEL ERA
by Stephen Swanson
I got into MST3K as an 8-year-old in the summer of 1989, when the show was still in its infancy on KTMA Channel 23.
Joel Hodgson as host was, well, irreplaceable. I thought Michael J. Nelson was great, and I was well aware that he was the head writer, but I lost interest for whatever reason (girls) by season six. Thankfully, my younger brother dutifully recorded the final three seasons on what was then called the “Sci-Fi Channel,” which I really didn’t fully discover until my late teens.
Season eight from 1997 is, for my money, the finest season of MST3K. Coincidentally (or not), this is the first season to feature playwright, screenwriter and theater actor Bill Corbett on the writing team full time — and as the replacement for the much-beloved Crow T. Robot after Trace Beaulieu left the show following season seven and “Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie” – both in 1996.
Four of my top five — on a list that was as difficult to craft as a really tasty grape salad — come from that unparalleled eight season.
- Space Mutiny (1988; episode 820): “Wow, I am on the edge of my seat! I better scoot back a little.” A beefy blond guy tries to repel a mutiny aboard what can only be described as a dodgy South African space station with the help of his girlfriend – a sexy grandma – and her Santa-like father. From start to finish, this is perhaps the most masterfully-crafted episode of the entire series, and provides the biggest laughs.
- Werewolf (1996; episode 904): “He’s dreaming about slimy cat puppets!” This gem from season nine (1998) is right up there with Space Mutiny. Archaeologists (including the Winnie the Pooh-like brother of Martin Sheen), find the skeleton of a werewolf. A psychopath scientist, whose hair changes color/style every scene, slashes a colleague with the bones – turning him into a lycanthrope. Mike even turns into a were-Crow for an entire segment. This episode also marks the quickest turnaround in MST3K history, as the movie was released within two years of it ending up on the show!
- The Giant Spider Invasion (1975; episode 810): “The Packers won the Super Bowl!” Wisconsin, the ’70s, rednecks, spiders, stained back braces, booze AND the skipper from Gilligan’s Island. ‘Nuff said.
- Riding With Death (1976; episode 814): “Don’t come back here, Sam. I’m doing naked burpees.” This is two episodes of the short-lived TV series Gemini Man packaged together as one “cohesive” movie, much like two of my favs from season three: Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II. Like every great thing in the ’70s, Riding has truck driving, guys calling other guys “turkeys” and the dreamy Ben Murphy. This episode also features one of my favorite MST3K songs, with Tom Servo singing about the funky ’70s, but confusing the disco decade with the 70s A.D.
- Parts: The Clonus Horror (1979; episode 811): “She really was on top of old smokey!” Yes, another ’70s flick from season eight! Parts features former Biography host Peter Graves as a presidential hopeful who’s hiding a terrible secret: he’s part of a clandestine project that clones the elite, raises them in a guarded facility and then releases them into “America” when the time is right – which actually is code for putting them into deep freeze and harvesting their organs. Grim yet hilariously ’70s. DreamWorks even settled with the filmmakers decades later, who thought Parts was just a little too similar to Michael Bay’s The Island. Steal from the best, I say!
Honorable Mentions: The Incredibly Strange Creatures That Stopped Living And Became Mixed-Up Zombies (episode 812), Hobgoblins (episode 907), The Girl With The Gold Boots (episode 1002), Agent for H.A.R.M. (episode 815), Overdrawn At The Memory Bank (episode 822), The Puma Man (episode 903), The Final Sacrifice (episode 910), Soultaker (episode 1001), Merlin’s Shop Of Mystical Wonders (episode 1003)