Friday, August 10, 2012

5 Best Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes You Probably Haven't Seen - The Joel Years

Reading through a recent AV Club article, it occurred to me that despite it being my favorite TV Show of all time, I had never composed a list of my personal picks for the greatest episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000. Further contemplation caused something else to occur to me - I had no idea what movies I'd put on such a list!

"Greatness" is largely subjective, particularly with a show like MST3K which attracts viewers for a variety of reasons. As a famous fictional character I'm rather fond of once noted, everyone has a favorite Woody Allen movie or a favorite superhero that isn't the best of the bunch. Sure, everyone knows Annie Hall and Batman are the best... but that doesn't stop you from liking Radio Days or Green Lantern better. Similarly, everyone agrees "Manos" The Hands of Fate is a great MST3K episode... but damnit, you laugh so much harder at every "HE TRIED TO KILL ME WITH A FORKLIFT!" in the Fugitive Alien movies.

So rather than twist my brain trying to narrow the field down, continually correcting myself muttering "Wait, this one is good too!", I've decided that instead I'm going to give you a different list. I'm going to pick out ten of my favorite episodes that - for one reason or another - I don't think get the credit or attention they deserve. And to spare myself having to rank any of these episodes, I'm going to list them off in chronological order from Season 1 to Season 10.

1. Robot Monster (Episode 107)

A frequent nominee for the title of Worst Movie Ever Made, Robot Monster has little going for it besides its' title character - Ro-Man the Ro-Man. Played by expert gorilla actor George Barrows (who actually had a distinguished career after this movie) , Ro-Man is quite the sympathetic figure if only because the humans he is attempting to destroy are so incredibly annoying. The plot isn't worth going into. Suffice it to say it's the end of the world as we know it, except it's all a dream... OR IS IT?!

Why Is This A Great Episode? : It's no secret that The Best Brains team asked for Comedy Central to take all their Season One episodes out of the rerun rotation, believing the entire season to be of inferior quality. Even the most die-hard of MSTies typically think the show didn't start to be consistently good until the second season, at earliest. And Josh Weinstein reportedly objected to this movie being used in the first place, believing it was too infamous to be properly riffed and that it was ridiculous enough on its' own without commentary.

Personally, I agree with all of the above viewpoints.

And yet... this episode has moments of greatness that indicated the heights that were yet to come. While the riffs are often unnecessary and frequently are limited to Joel adding dialogue over bits where there is none or Crow pointing out flaws in continuity such as an unconcious hostage apparently tying themselves up, there are a couple of great lines here.

More importantly, the host segment skits - usually the weakest point of any MST3K episode - are amazingly effective this time around. There's just something unashamedly fun about The Bots attempting to roleplay Ro-Man and his commander before play-attacking Joel, who defends himself a bit too well with the conveniently placed break-away furniture. And the closing skit, in which Joel and The Bots don garbage-bag tunics and hum a dirge while pointing out Ro-Man's general incompetence and stupidity ("Ro-Man the Ro-Man used a cosmic ray that kept the cities of the world intact, to be enjoyed later by all Ro-Man. Yet, he lived in a cave. And not even a very good cave." ) was an indicator of just how very strange yet hilarious the show would become.

2. Catalina Caper (Episode 204)

Originally released as Never Steal Anything Wet, this film marked an attempt by American International Pictures to mix the beach party musical and crime-caper comedy genres in one film. The fact that The Best Brains felt they could riff this movie gives you some idea of how successful they ultimately were.

Why Is This A Great Episode? : I picked this one for three reasons. First, there's a fair chance that most of you haven't seen this episode. Best Brains lost the rights to the movie during the middle of the original MST3K run, so there was a goodly amount of time when you couldn't see this episode in reruns. A similar situation came along years later, when the movie was optioned for a VHS/DVD release and then went out of print.

Secondly, this episode is notable as the first episode from the Comedy Central days that wasn't a low-budget B-Movie. Of course MST3K is synonymous with bad science-fiction, exploitation and horror/thrillers but Catalina Caper proved they could apply their riffing talents to other genres. Indeed, it proved that they could even tackle a musical comedy.

Finally, this episode contains Kevin Murphy's first turn lending his splendid singing voice to Tom Servo. The song he sings - a tribute to the film's heroine - has rightfully become a standard among MSTies and it is said that many a MSTie has serenaded many a confused woman with it. I speak, of course, of The Creepy Girl Song.

3. Teenage Caveman (Episode 315)

A timeless tale of youthful enthusiasm versus traditional conservatism, made slightly sillier in that the whole thing is set in caveman times, everyone is wearing costumes made from fake fur car-seat covers and the titular teenage caveman is closer to 30 than 20. Still, Roger Corman got it made on-time and under-budget, so presumably it was a success by his notoriously low standards.

Why Is This A Great Episode? : Another episode that has yet to be released for sale in any form (Roger Corman has apparently become much more protective of licensing his older works in recent years), this episode is a hoot and a half. There's a lot to make fun of - the cheapness of the costumes and sets, the haminess of most of the performances and the twist ending, which would be a good deal more effective if it were not so damned preachy.

This leads into a delightful skit where The Bots take on the role/roles of the closing narrator, in costume, and continue to try and "tie up a few loose ends" even as Joel (bemused as any parent might be, walking in on his kids playing pretend) tries to get down to the serious business of reading the fan mail. There's also a brilliant running gag with The Mads attempting to kill each other for the privilege of introducing this episode's Invention Exchange... complete with Star Trek fight music.

But what really makes this episode a must-see is the two shorts that accompany the main feature. Aquatic Wizards is a fairly standard 50's Sports Montage, made more enjoyable by the standard dark riffing. But Catching Trouble - depicting the "real life" (i.e. obviously staged) exploits of hunter Ross Allen attempting to capture several animals alive- will leave you howling with laughter even as you write out a check to the SPCA.

4. Being From Another Planet (Episode 405)

The world's worst Egyptology professor has to deal with the theft of his newly discovered mummy, a humorless dean who is convinced the mummy's disappearance is a plot to justify more grant money, a strange fungus that is slowly killing his students and reports of a killer dressed like a mummy. Originally released in 1982 under the title Time Walker, the new title gives away the "shocking" twist of this movie. Namely, that the murderous mummy that wasn't quite as dead as previously believed is actually an alien who REALLY overslept after a hard day of helping build the pyramids.

Why Is This A Great Episode? : Following immediately after the classic Teenagers From Outer Space, this episode has become the neglected middle child of MST3K's Fourth Season. Surprisingly, Being From Another Planet was widely held by many MSTies to be the worst movie the show had ever tackled until it covered Monster-A-Go-Go and "Manos" The Hands Of Fate later that season. Indeed, Tom Servo spends the entire closing credits arguing this point with the rest of the cast and it's not hard to see why.

The "twist" ending is obvious to the audience long before anyone in the film works out what is going on. The characters who aren't idiots are loathsome, with even our professor hero carrying on a relationship with one of his students. All the performances are lackluster. And the effects are laughable, with the "trick" used to show things from the monster's point of view (i.e. a blue-green gel over the camera lens) making much of the film as hard to see as it is to watch.

5. Hercules (Episode 502)

Steve Reeves in the role that made him a household name and a Rocky Horror song lyric. Set against the story of Jason and the Argonauts quest for the Golden Fleece, Hercules renounces his immortality to win the acceptance of his fellow men and the love of a good woman. Basically it's like Superman 2, only with more dancing amazons in mini-togas and big, well-oiled Greek guys.

Why Is This A Great Episode? : With this episode, The Best Brains team proved that they could riff anything. They had tackled Hercules movies before. Heck, they even tackled the sequel to this movie - Hercules Unchained - first. But in all honesty, this movie isn't that bad. It isn't a great movie but it is good for what it is.

And out of all the movies based on Greek Mythology, it's probably the truest to the source material if you ignore little touches like Ulysses playing Robin to Hercules' Batman. Even then there's some cute touches that will have the mythology geeks chuckling, like Ulysses sending homing pigeons to his girlfriend assuring her he'll be home soon.

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