Tuesday, August 14, 2012

5 Best Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes You Probably Haven't Seen - The Mike 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.

Click Here for Part One - The Five Best Episodes of The Joel Years.

6. Radar Secret Service (Episode 520)

Notable as the first episode to abandon the Invention Exchange at the start of the show since Joel's departure, this episode isn't notable for much else. Both Kevin Murphy and Frank Conniff decried Radar Secret Service as the dullest movie they ever covered, the movie basically being the 1950s equivalent of the many thriller films from the 1990s that were based around the amazing power of The Information Superhighway. Just swap "radar" with "Net" and you'll have some idea of what we're dealing with.

And yet, despite a duller than usual movie, there's so much about this episode that makes it work. For one thing, the host segments are all top-notch. Mike starts to stand out as a character apart from Joel, the skits establishing him as being totally incompetent as a robot doctor and being far more concerned with escaping from the Satellite Of Love than his red-jumpsuited counterpart. The Deep 13 skits where "Dr. Felix Frankenkeister (i.e. TV's Frank in a fake-beard) extols the power of Hypno-Helio-Static-Stasis With X-4 are gleefully insane. And the short before the film - a vehicle safety short sponsored by Union Specific Railroad titled Last Clear Chance - is one of the finest shorts the MST3K team ever tackled.

7. Village Of The Giants (Episode 523)

While many MSTies extoll the 3rd and 4th seasons as the show's Golden Age, this critic would also include the 5th season. Mike Nelson was fortunate to have a run of great episodes immediately after taking over the hosting duties but none of these episodes better showed that Mike had filled Joel's shoes than Village of the Giants.

Loosely based on the H.G. Wells story Food Of The Gods and overseen by writer/director Burt I. Gordon (the master of movies where things are made bigger through SCIENCE!), the cast of this film is a mishmash of actors who you probably saw somewhere else but can't place now. The one exception to this is Ron Howard, who plays a boy genius creatively named Genius. The movie is campy fun that takes itself far too seriously. But what really sells this episode is the alternatively touching and hilarious host segments where Dr. Forrester fires TV's Frank, hires Torgo of "Manos" The Hands Of Fate fame as a replacement henchman and it honestly appears that Frank might be leaving the show. This leads to the SOL Crew wishing him well with one of MST3K's finest songs - "The Greatest Frank Of All".

8. Deathstalker And The Warriors From Hell (Episode 703)

Produced by Roger Corman in response to the popularity of Conan The Barbarian, The Deathstalker Series is rightfully infamous. Any one of the Deathstalker movies might have made a fine MST3K episode yet the only one they ever tackled was Deathstalker And The Warriors From Hell a.k.a. Deathstalker 3. I suspect this may have been because this this film had the least nudity to edit out out of the entire quadrology. Or perhaps it was because this film - unlike the rest of the films in the series - seemed to be take itself completely seriously.

Either way, most people agree this was definitely the weakest of all the Deathstalker films - an impressive accomplishment when you consider that the fourth and final Deathstalker movie was 50% stock footage of other fantasy movies. But that is neither here nor there. What is here is some truly wicked host segments about Renaissance Fairs and a skit between Crow and Pearl Forrester that hints at their future implied friendship in the Sci-Fi Channel days.

9. Pumaman (Episode 903)

Perhaps the most well known episode on this list, Puma Man was continually rerun throughout the Sci-Fi Channel era. And yet, it hasn't been released for sale in any form. Reportedly this is due to difficulties Shout Factory is having in tracking down whoever currently holds the rights to this movie - one of the few superhero movies to make Batman and Robin look well-made.

The special effects are a mess, clearly meant to replicate those in Superman: The Movie with a lower budget. Our "hero" is a whiny twerp who has to be bullied into action by his Aztec-American sidekick, who is the real hero of the film. And the love interest - mind controlled by the villain for much of the movie - somehow manages to seem more vacant and empty headed in the scenes where she isn't being controlled.

10. Merlin's Shop of Mystical Wonders (Episode 1003)

Notable for being the final episode of MST3K to be aired but not the last one to be filmed (apparently there were issues with securing the film rights that came up after filming of the episode was finished), everything about this episode screams "cheap". Borrowing footage from a horror movie made by the same director several years earlier, this was apparently meant to be the pilot for a TV show based around the concept of Merlin and his wife running a magical mystery shop and helping people solve their problems in the modern day.

It's not a bad concept for a story but it's oddly framed. Rather than having a narrator or Merlin himself set up the concept of the show... er, movie... we have Ernest Borgnine explaining the concept of TV pilots to his grandson and then telling him the story of this pilot he read once. So... yeah. Basically the whole movie is a really weird story-time session. This would be weird enough if the stories being told were at all appropriate for young audiences but all of the stories contain dark elements like evil toys from the Twilight Zone and a woman being granted the baby she always wanted after her crybaby husband is magically de-aged.

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