There have been many stories told and retold in the world of science fiction. Aliens invading. Animals being mutated into giant versions of themselves, destroying cities. Robots gaining sentience, destroying people. But there is one tale that stands above the rest… the story of a man, sent into space against his will and forced to watch terrible movies. It’s an epic tale that’s been retold countless times… well, actually three times, twice on television and once in a movie.
While there was nothing like Mystery Science Theater 3000 on television before (or since, really), the “plot” behind the non-movie segments of the show were actually inspired by the classic 1972 sci-fi flick Silent Running. Bruce Dern played an astronaut charged with maintaining a spaceship housing the last remaining plants on Earth. His only companions were three robot drones. Sound familiar?
MST3K aired its last original episode on Aug. 8, 1999, but not before the show ran on two different cable stations (Comedy Central and the Sci-Fi Channel) and produced a feature film (creatively titled Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie). While the cast and crew have moved on to other projects (such as Rifftrax, which provides MST3K-style audio commentary to play along with DVDs of Hollywood films, and Other Space, another lost-in-space comedy airing on Yahoo! Screen), the original episodes are still available on a variety of formats.
Here are four great episodes you can stream for free right now…
“Cave Dwellers” (Season 3, Episode 1)
The movie: Aside from being the Asylum (Sharknado, Snakes on a Train) of their era, Film Ventures International also repackaged internationally made genre films and distributed them in the U.S. Such was the case with “Cave Dwellers,” originally Ator l’invincibile 2 (also known as Ator 2: The Blade Master) in Italy. Released with a credits sequence that actually has nothing to do with the movie itself (in fact, the title Cave Dwellers doesn’t really fit, either), the film is essentially a Conan the Barbarian rip-off, but not one without a certain charm to it.
- Contains the first utterance of the catchphrase “Oh, bite me… it’s fun!”
- Tom Servo is wearing a fez. Fezzes are cool.
- Among the fans of this episode is the one and only Miles O’Keefe (“How much Keefe is in this movie?”), who played Ator in the movie. He reportedly liked the episode so much after it aired that he called the Best Brains studio in Minnesota to tell them so.
“Soultaker” (Season 10, Episode 1)
The movie: This is the second film on MST3K to feature Martin Sheen’s younger brother Joe Estevez (the first being Werewolf). Estevez plays the title character, a supernatural creature tasked with collecting the souls of the recently (or, at the very least, soon-to-be) deceased. The film, which was written by and stars novelist Vivian Schilling, actually won a couple of awards, including the first Saturn Award for Best Genre Video Release in 1992. It’s not a particularly bad film, especially for the time, and it features Robert Z’Dar from Maniac Cop as the Angel of Death and that’s always a plus.
- This episode features guest appearances by Joel Hodgson (series creator and original host who left the show during Season 5) and Frank Conniff (who played TV’s Frank and left the show at the end of Season 6).
- Joe Estevez isn’t the only actor in this episode to make more than one MST3K appearance. Robert Z’Dar would also star in Future War, which popped up just three episodes later.
- The link above is a video from the official Shout! Factory YouTube account. Not only is it shown ad-free, but also includes annotations that provide explanations to all of the references made during the commentary.
“Manos: The Hands of Fate” (Season 4, Episode 24)
The movie: Oh God, this movie. A lot has been written about both this movie and this episode in particular. In “Manos,” a family on vacation ends up lost and seeks refuge at an inn somewhere in Texas. The inn is run by a weird satanic cult because of course it is. As the family figures out a way to escape, the cult (led by “The Master” and his harem of “wives”) decides what to do with them in between inexplicable cat fights.
Not shockingly, this film’s existence is the result of a bet. Harold P. Warren was a fertilizer salesman in El Paso, TX who bet a screenwriter friend that he could make a horror film all by himself. He went on to raise $19,000 — a significant sum of money in 1966 but not nearly enough to produce a film — and cast local theater troupe members in major roles. In order to drum up publicity for the film, he entered lead actress Diane Mahree in a local beauty pageant that would eventually lead to the Miss Texas competition, hoping to be able to promote the film as “starring Miss Texas.” Of course, he never actually bothered to inform Mahree of this until she was accepted into the pageant. She wound up being one of the finalists but didn’t win.
Above all, this movie is really, really bad.
- The above link also leads to an annotated YouTube version of the episode, provided by Shout! Factory.
- This is one of the few MST3K films to also be riffed on by Rifftrax and live, as well.
- MST3K is also known for riffing on shorts before certain films, especially when the films aren’t long enough to fill an entire episode. This episode features part two of “Hired!” a series of films produced by Chevrolet about hiring and management practices. It’s kind of ridiculous but, hey, there is some good advice in there.
- The Master’s weird, satyr-like assistant, Torgo, would go on to become a recurring character in the host segments of the show over the next few seasons. He would be played by head writer and eventual host Michael J. Nelson.
- Believe it or not (believe it!), a mobile game based on the film is available on iOS and Android.
“Mitchell” (Season 5, Episode 12)
The movie: Joe Don Baker. Buford Pusser from Walking Tall (the 1973 original). Both an enemy (The Living Daylights) and ally (Goldeneye, Tomorrow Never Dies) of James Bond. Winona Ryder’s dad in Reality Bites. And, of course, his legendary role of Mitchell in “Mitchell.” Mitchell! He’s a cop! He doesn’t play by the rules! He’s also overweight and fairly unpleasant! Mitchell!
Mitchell suspects a notable union lawyer of murder, but the chief wants him off the case! So, he’s instead assigned to stake out a known criminal but, damn it, he won’t do things by the book! You’re a loose cannon, Mitchell! Get with the program! Eventually, Mitchell is double crossed and has to handle things the only way he knows how… with lead and fists! Pow! Mitchell!
“Mitchell” was released two years after Walking Tall with hopes it could build on the success of the previous film. It didn’t. It also features John Saxon, Martin Balsam and Linda Evans, none of which looked like they quite knew what they were doing there.
- Again annotated with facts and reference explanations.
- This would be Joel Hodgson’s final episode as host and the introduction of Michael J. Nelson as, er, Mike Nelson, who would take his place. The reasons for Joel’s leaving were discussed in this 2014 feature from Wired.
- We still have no idea what the hell a Daktari stool is. One of these days we’ll probably Google it.
- The scene with Gypsy listening in on Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank conversation is a reference to the lip-reading scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey. The same movie would be referenced in a later episode when Trace Beaulieu (Crow, Dr. Forrester) was leaving.
- This wasn’t the last time Baker was skewered by MST3K – his equally awful cop film, Final Justice, was also featured. Baker was reportedly not too pleased with either episodes.
There are plenty more episodes available for streaming or digital purchase, but these are a great start. Rifftrax also continues their tour with upcoming live riffs of The Room, Miami Connection and Sharknado 2. And, if Joel Hodgson is to be believed, we might actually see a reboot of the original show in the near future.