The original run of Mystery Science Theater 3000 spanned multiple broadcast formats (UHF and cable) and broadcasters (Twin Cities station KTMA, The Comedy Channel, Comedy Central, Syfy) for 11 seasons, totaling 197 episodes—“experiments” in the terminology of its in-show search for the worst movie ever made. Thanks to reruns and home-video releases, MST3K never really went away, but the streaming era has given die-hard MSTies unprecedented access to their favorite show: A full decade before the Satellite Of Love Kickstarted back into orbit, collectors reinvented the show’s “Keep circulating the tapes!” credo by digitizing their VHS archives for YouTube.
Still, for anyone wanting to brush up on the show before its 11th season debuts on April 14, tracking nearly 200 90-minute episodes across a multitude of platforms is a herculean task. Fortunately, Netflix has prepared an appetizer for the first new MST3Ks of the 21st century, with a sampler platter composed of 20 classics from the not-too-distant past. And if that’s still too daunting—if your definition of “herculean” is more in line with the lazy oaf whose cinematic exploits brought Deep Hurting to Joel Robinson and his robot friends—The A.V. Club has whittled that longer list down to five essentials. Like the list as a whole, our picks span genre and era, from a Joel-era lambasting of an Italian E.T. rip-off to a late-period number in which second host Mike Nelson and the Mach II versions of Crow T. Robot and Tom Servo sink their claws into a dweeby superhero from the ’70s.
“Pod People” (season three, episode three)
There are a lot of opinions about what makes for perfect MST3K fodder, but here’s one useful guideline: Bad movies with too much crazy nonsense are better than those without enough. Case in point: the overstuffed Pod People, whose E.T.-envying producers forced a family-friendly kid-befriends-wacky-alien subplot into a low-budget horror movie that was already crammed to the gills with bad musicians, crappy new age music, and murderous backwoods poachers. The subsequent car crash of tones—and stop-motion camera tricks—provides the perfect fuel for Joel and the bots, who take turns mocking the film’s uniformly unlikable “heroes” and portraying the ostensibly adorable “Trumpy” as a potato-obsessed sociopath. Meanwhile, the host segments are MST3K at its most musical, from the Mads’ public domain karaoke machine at the top of the episode all the way to Joel’s mock-poignant farewell ballad, “Clowns In The Sky.” Plus, it contributes not just one but two vital catchphrases to the MSTie canon: the always applicable “It stinks!” and the fan-identifying call and response of “Chief?” “McCloud!”
“Teenagers From Outer Space” (season four, episode four)
To the MST3K uninitiated (who could that even be), Teenagers From Outer Space is an excellent gateway, as it’s the kind of hokey 1950s film that the team excelled at skewering. This no-star affair is even more stilted than usual, as the actors recorded their lines first, then lip-synced to match them (the opposite of dubbing), resembling those antiseptic mid-century Coronet instructional films starring Dick York. The movie tells the story of a band of supposed teenagers who come to take over Earth, except for Derek, who has a change of heart. He falls for Betty, as she and her grandpa help thwart the inevitable invasion, which includes a pathetically fake giant lobster monster. Joel, Tom, and Crow are en fuego as they take on this wannabe classic, dropping references as varied from Ingmar Bergman to Eve Arden to the frequent occurrence of The New Zoo Review theme song. But the best part may be after the movie concludes: a duct-tape-accented jumpsuit fashion show featuring our three commenters, inspired by the alien teenagers’ own makeshift outfits.
“I Accuse My Parents” (season five, episode seven)
While rubber monsters and silly moonmen are the staples of MST3K’s cheese diet, the show also found fertile riffing ground in the juvenile delinquency genre, which warned moms of the ’40s and ’50s that their teens were just a jukebox and a jazz cigarette away from turning into hardened criminals. 1944’s “I Accuse My Parents”—often named by Joel Hodgson as his favorite episode—ranks among the best of these, telling the cautionary tale of a model student who falls in with gangsters and shoe-sellers, all thanks to his boozy, neglectful, “vodka sandwich”-serving parents. Joel and the bots spend most of the movie rightfully picking on Robert Lowell’s naive Jimmy, whose early bragging about winning an essay contest becomes the rare, endlessly renewable gag (“I just won the Get The Crap Kicked Out Of You Contest!”), and firing off snappy rejoinders to every line of dialogue at a finely tuned clip. As a bonus, you get “The Truck Farmer”—perhaps not the greatest of MST3K’s shorts, but worth it for the way the gang turns it into a religious recruitment video (“Praise the Truck Farmer! Bow down before him!”)
“Space Mutiny” (season eight, episode 20)
Joel Hodgson has said that picture quality was a major factor when it came to selecting movies for season 11; produced in the 1980s, the South African sci-fi epic Space Mutiny has some of the sharpest visuals to ever appear on MST3K. Of course, its stunning outer space effects are all lifted from the original Battlestar Galactica. The plot, meanwhile, is a BSG reboot: The remnants of a civilization coexist on an interstellar ark, but a band of separatists (led by Jude Law’s deadbeat dad, John Phillip Law) want to get off the ship and onto solid ground. (Try not to think about a South African movie from the ’80s in which the villains are insurrectionists.) It always helps when an MST’ed filmmaker gets some things right, and Space Mutiny director David Winters knows how to maintain a swift pace, but the film’s costuming, locations, and one outrageous continuity error leave all sorts of openings for Mike and the bots. And then there’s the muscular hero of Space Mutiny, David Ryder, a substitute Dolph Lundgren whose boilerplate beefiness inspires an ever-growing catalog of tough-guy nicknames: Big McLargeHuge, Roll Fizzlebeef, Punch Rockgroin, etc. It’s always a treat when a riff spirals into an in-theater running gag, and this one is the most delirious of such treats.
“The Pumaman” (season nine, episode three)
1998’s “The Pumaman” has everything that makes Mystery Science Theater 3000 so endearing: silly songs, hoary pop culture references, callback riffs, and utter non sequiturs. The movie in question is a 1980 Italian cheapie filmed in London and starring a pre-Escape From New York Donald Pleasence as a supervillain who gains possession of a gold Aztec mask that gives him the power to control people’s minds via what look like Play-Doh models of their heads. The only one who can stop his evil plan is mild-mannered archaeologist professor Tony Farms, a.k.a. the Pumaman—or as Mike and the bots call him, “constantly out of his league man,” “wool over his eyes man,” “easily bamboozled man,” and “three steps behind man.” Farms is played by one Walter George Alton, whose dopey reaction shots are perfectly described by Crow T. Robot as “the look of a man who’s been hit with a fish.” All the riffs in this episode are spot on, taking the film’s ridiculous ’70s costuming (“Pumaman: Liberace with Dockers!”), sideways “flying” effects (“Pumaman, he flies like a moron”), and Pleasence’s affected pronunciation of the word “puma” and turning them into running gags, along with stray observations like “there’s a layer of nougat in this house” in response to Pumaman ripping through a “floor” seemingly made of styrofoam and cardboard. The sketches similarly combine recurring bits and random goofiness, beginning with a bit about Tom Servo’s “short man syndrome” that’s never mentioned again and ending with a sketch involving ’70s singer-songwriter Roger Whittaker. Why Roger Whittaker? If you’re asking that question, you’re watching the wrong show.