Our 10 Favorite ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’ Episodes

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Every ranked listicle is a matter of opinion, of course. But Paste did an exhaustive ranking of every single episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 – y’know, the show where the guy and his two robots watch bad movies in space – in advance of the show’s revival (which drops on Netflix Friday), and my personal favorite episode came in at #168 out of 177. That was when I realized that, for this show in particular, considerations of “best” and “favorite” episodes are especially pliable. Sure, there are a few commonly agreed-upon classic episodes, but each viewer’s personal canon has a lot to do with what they love about the show, and what they find particularly funny in a bad movie. So take this list with a grain of salt (as you do with all lists, presumably), but these are the MST3K experiments I’ve gone back to most frequently, along with where they’re available to stream. Keep circulating the URLs.

10. The Violent Years

I’ve met people who swear up and down that the MST3K crew did Plan 9 From Outer Space, which is demonstrably false (though the post-MST alum crew at Rifftrax eventually took it on). In fact, legendarily terrible director Edward D. Wood Jr. doesn’t turn up all that often during the run; they riffed two of his directorial efforts, Bride of the Monster and The Sinister Urge, as well as this 1956 turkey, which Wood wrote for director William Morgan. But it’s just as tin-eared and clumsily executed as any of Wood’s directorial efforts, a hilariously ineffectual juvenile delinquent melodrama about a girl gang and all of their shocking exploits. Chief among them, and the film’s comic highlight, is the gang’s violent “assault” on a necking couple in the woods (above). Bonus: the ‘50s social engineering short that precedes it, Young Man’s Fancy, is a hoot. (Available on Amazon Video.)

9. Master Ninja

Okay, this one’s a bit of a cheat: I’m combining two third-season episodes, Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II. But it’s appropriate, since the movies themselves were cheats – four episodes of a 1984 television show called The Master, repackaged into “movies” for their 1992 home video release. And the show itself was a real dog, a quickie A-Team rip-off about an aging ninja and his young protégé, riding around in a van and helping people in need with their (dubious) martial arts skills. There are few things on this earth as bad as bad ‘80s television, and the Master Ninja episodes were a feast for Joel and the ‘bots, providing fertile running gags on star Timothy Van Patten’s creative speech patterns, co-star Lee Van Cleef’s rather obvious use of a stunt double, and the purpose of the pet gerbil who lives in their van. (Both Master Ninja I and Master Ninja II are available on Amazon Video; Master Ninja II is available with annotations on YouTube.)

8. Zombie Nightmare

Some of the best MST3K episodes are those in which the hosts – sometimes, it seems, out of desperation for subject matter – seize upon a minor element of the film in question, and really go to work on it. Such is the case with the season six treatment of this truly terrible 1986 Canadian zombie picture, featuring Adam West in a supporting role — which means they make his bitterness over not being in the 1989 Batman the subject of every scene West is in. You wouldn’t think that could yield as much material as it does! You would be wrong. (Streaming on Netflix.)

7. Attack of the the Eye Creatures

The MST fans in the critical community tend to gravitate towards a particular kind of episode: those that are dominated by the sheer moment-to-moment incompetence of the filmmaking. Every MST movie is bad, and most are badly made, but certain films display an ineptitude that’s so overpowering, it almost becomes endearing; these are people who had absolutely no business going anywhere near a film camera, and yet, here we are. So I hold particular affection for this 1965 AIP release, a movie so shoddily made, there’s a typo in the title card – it was originally titled The Eye Creatures, but when it was retitled for re-release (a common practice for B-movies, the better to bilk unsuspecting moviegoers), they slapped “Attack of The” above it, not noticing the repeated “the.” That should give you some idea of the level of attentiveness to detail on display here. (Apparently not streaming anywhere, but a YouTube search might yield some rewards.)

6. Time Chasers

Too often, the problem with films featured on MST3K is the filmmakers’ boundless ambition – and, conversely, lack of awareness of their own limitations. To put it another way: if you’re working with a low budget, maybe make a nice little indie rom-com, instead of trying to do a big-time sci-fi action flick. But the makers of this 1993 time-travel flick didn’t get that memo, and ended up making a would-be Back to the Future that manages to render neither the past nor the future (nor, frankly, the present) convincingly, and the MST3K crew has a ball with the obvious and hilarious shortcomings of the production. (Streaming on Netflix.)

5. I Accuse My Parents

Again, this fan has a real soft spot for the juvenile delinquent titles in the MST3K catalog, and this one is fabulously terrible, a 1944 warning to parents that if they don’t pay proper attention to their whiny teens, they could very well end up roaming nightclubs, driving getaway cars, and knocking off gangsters. There’s something about the earnestness and foreboding of these movies that really lends itself to the MST treatment, up to and including the stern lecture from the judge to the parents (and, of course, the audience) at its conclusion. (Streaming on Netflix.)

4. Manos: The Hands of Fate

Possibly MST3K’s most beloved episode, and for good reason: the crew discovered a completely forgotten 1966 cheapo from writer/director/producer/star Harold P. Warren, a fertilizer salesman (yes, really) turned first-and-only-time filmmaker. And it really is one of the worst films they ever tackled, abysmal from every imaginable perspective (technical, narrative, performative, etc.). Its brutally long pauses, brazen incompetence, and baffling storytelling make it a perfect target for the show; it’s also thankfully short, which means we also get a pitch-perfect roasting of the Chrysler training film Hired! (well, of its second part; part one aired in the previous episode, Ed Wood’s Bride of the Monster, which just missed this list). (Streaming on Netflix.)

3. Pod People

Exploitation movies are, if nothing else, adaptable, and this French-Spanish film was intended as fairly straightforward alien horror until E.T. became a mega-hit. Suddenly, predictably, Pod People was transformed into a story about a cute alien and the boy who befriends him. But that’s also just one of roughly 23 plotlines in this dizzyingly inept flick, packaged for American audiences by Film Ventures International, which frequently created “new” opening credit sequences with blurry clips from other, completely unrelated movies (they did the same for the Master Ninjas and the season 3 episode Cave Dwellers, among others). At any rate, as one of the film’s “heroes” puts it in the clip above: It stinks! (Streaming on Netflix.)

2. Mitchell

This season five episode is a sentimental favorite any way you slice it, as it was the episode in which creator and original host Joel Hodgson finally figured out how to escape the Satellite of Love, turning the show over to Mike Nelson, who fronted it for the remainder of its original run. Luckily, he went out with one of the juiciest targets of the show’s run, a slovenly ‘70s cop movie in which the intensely dislikable cop played by Joe Don Baker grunts, farts, and swigs his way through a dopey high-level drug-running conspiracy. Legend has it that Baker was so angry about the show’s treatment that he threatened its creators with physical violence, which is one of those stories that may not be true, but should be. (Available on Rifftrax and with annotations on YouTube.)

1. The Beast of Yucca Flats

If Mystery Science Theater 3000 did one thing for bad movie culture, it put to rest the Golden Turkey Awards’ contention that Ed Wood was the worst film director of all time. Nope, Wood was Orson Welles compared to Coleman Francis, a long-forgotten no-budget auteur whose entire three-film output was showcased on MST3K’s sixth season. And the best/worst was this, Francis’s very first film, apparently made before he could afford the basic cinematic necessity of “sync sound,” meaning that no one in the entirety of The Beast of Yucca Flats speaks while they are onscreen. It becomes a bit of a sport, as the film grinds on through a 54-minute running time that somehow seems to fill a full day, to spot the various ways they shoot dialogue without showing people speaking dialogue (oblique framing, overhead shots, conversations shot from a distance, close-ups of people listening to other people talk). But that’s not all Beast has to offer: it’s got Ed Wood’s favorite leading man Tor Johnson lumbering through the desert, an opening strangulation that has literally nothing to do with the rest of the movie, and a narration track that amounts to non-stop non-sequiturs. And since it’s so short, it’s coupled with not one but two terrifically terrible short films: the mind-bogglingly silly educational effort Money Talks and the uproarious Puerto Rican tourism commercial Progress Island USA. It ends up being a perfect Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode, showcasing all that the show could do, and the kind of horrors it could unveil in the process. (Available on Amazon Video.)