Joel Hodgson and his robot friends (Photo: Shout! Factory)

Choosing a favorite episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 is as daunting a task as, say, singling out a favorite Beatles tune or naming a favorite Shakespeare quote. When the high quality comes flying fast and furious, it’s hard to get a bead on the best — at any rate, it’s a highly subjective exercise, with no absolutes at any point along the grading scale.

Between 1989 and 1999 — over the course of 10 seasons, first on Comedy Central and then on The Sci-Fi Channel — there were a total of 176 episodes of MST3K. (Of course, there was also the recent revival, but this latest rendition of the series just doesn’t compare.) A number of great episodes were shown over that 10-season stretch, and selecting just a few to headline a list of the best proves to be a Herculean effort. How to justify leaving off Danger!! Death Ray? Or Werewolf? Or Eegah!? Or… or…

Nevertheless, here’s the cream that rose to the top — The 15 Best Mystery Science Theater 3000 Episodes. If ever there was a time to binge-watch these beauties, it’s now.

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15. The Day the Earth Froze

Russo-Finnish fairy-tale flicks don’t generally come up in conversation … unless the topic at hand is MST3K. The series tackled four such films over the years, with 1959’s The Day the Earth Froze barely edging out 1964’s Jack Frost as the best of the bunch.

The comic dismantling of this Finnish-Soviet co-production, which centers on a witch’s efforts to acquire a magical concoction known as “sampo,” is noteworthy enough, yet what pushes this episode over the top is the short that precedes the main attraction. The various shorts lampooned on MST3K are as cherished as the feature films themselves, and this episode’s “Here Comes the Circus” might be the greatest of all, even topping established fan favorites “Mr. B Natural” and “A Case of Spring Fever.” Joel and his robot friends refuse to pause for air as they bury the piece with a torrential downpour of quips, and the clown-spanking bit is pure gold.

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14. Samson vs. the Vampire Women

Over the course of two decades, the wildly popular Santo, a masked Mexican wrestler, starred as a heroic — what else? — masked Mexican wrestler in over 50 films. Santo and Blue Demon Against the Monsters and Santo vs. Frankenstein’s Daughter were just two of the many feature productions, yet among stateside bad-movie buffs, 1962’s Samson vs. the Vampire Women was his most recognizable work — and that was even before the MST3K team got hold of it.

As the title indicates, Santo was renamed Samson for American audiences, presumably because they might have been dumb enough to confuse Santo with Santa. In this entry, the beefy fighter takes down a bevy of bloodsuckers, but not before Mike et al take him down with a slew of wisecracks referencing the TV series Gilligan’s Island, the hip-hop mainstay House Party, and whatever else crosses their manic minds.

But the episode isn’t all merriment. In a three-hanky development to match the doomed Leo-Kate love affair in Titanic or the fate of Old Yeller, this proved to be the last episode featuring TV’s Frank as a central character.

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13. Racket Girls

As Crow knowingly states while watching 1951’s Racket Girls, “When Ed Wood saw this, it was like when [François] Truffaut saw Citizen Kane.”

Pegged by Crow as the Jaws of its day (“People were afraid to go to ladies’ wrestling!”), this amateurish slop stars Wood regular Timothy Farrell as Umberto Scalli, an unscrupulous wrestling manager who, when he’s not busy fending off the mob, has his paws all over his latest female wrestler. Buxom blonde wrestler “Peaches” Page woodenly plays this character, and there are numerous interminable scenes in which she and the other ladies tumble all over the mats — as Crow comments about one such sequence, “This looks like a stag film directed by the League of Women Voters.”

As the juicy cherry on top, this sparkling episode also includes 1950’s “Are You Ready for Marriage?” This educational short is so gosh-darn sincere — and so ham-fisted — that Mike and co. have no trouble devouring it alive.

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12. The Touch of Satan

The Satellite of Love crew’s takedown of the hopeless 1971 yarn The Touch of Satan is, simply put, a thing of beauty. This episode comes charging out of the gate, with the title alone prompting Mike to quip, “The Touch of Satan softens your hands while you do the dishes.” The plot revolves around a wandering doofus who lands on a walnut ranch and falls for a young woman who turns out to be a witch.

Ample TV shows (The Dukes of Hazzard, The Andy Griffith Show, etc.) are dragged kicking and screaming into the wisecracks lobbed by Mike and company, while Crow manages to fire off a naughty crack involving “peanuts.” Plus, there’s a sustained running gag in which the gang take repeated exception to the interminable … pauses … during … the … actors’ … exchanges (“Is this the same pause, or is it technically a sub-pause?”).

Incidentally, the lead actress is named Emby Mellay, leading Servo to utter the immortal quip, “Emby Mellay? That’s not a name; it’s a bad Scrabble hand.”

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11. Final Justice

One of the most famous MST3K episodes is the 1993 one featuring Mitchell, the 1975 Joe Don Baker vehicle in which the actor plays a rumpled detective out to nail drug-dealing mobsters. There’s long been a debate over how serious Baker was when he stated that he would kick the asses of those involved with mocking him and his movie — at any rate, his threats were ignored, as the gang returned to his filmography six years later and stumbled across 1985’s Final Justice. The opportunity to again flog Baker with comic barbs was apparently too great to resist — if anything, the SOL crew is even more merciless this time around.

In this clunky action yarn, Baker plays Thomas Jefferson Geronimo II, a Texas sheriff who huffs around the island country of Malta in an effort to capture the man who killed his partner. Final Justice might be more mean-spirited than the typical MST3K episode, but its comic quota is dynamite, from Mike identifying Baker as “Meatloaf: Texas Ranger” to one of the ‘bots cracking (as Joe Don), “If I don’t survive, make sure they bury me next to a Sizzler.”

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10. The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies

The Laserblast episode of MST3K found Mike repeatedly dissing Leonard Maltin for giving that awful film 2½ stars (out of four) in his annual movie guide. It’s too bad he didn’t save that routine for the show lampooning 1964’s The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies, which likewise earned 2½ stars from Mr. Maltin — higher than Blade Runner (1½ stars), Memento (ditto), The Thing (ditto ditto), even Taxi Driver (2 stars). Then again, perhaps Maltin just recognized the special brand of genius required to pull off a film as extraordinarily bad as this one.

Mike and the ‘bots certainly find its wavelength, cracking wise about this abysmal oddity in which a surly rebel (director and Nicolas Cage lookalike Ray Dennis Steckler, performing under the alias Cash Flagg) and his friends attend a carnival populated by a sultry stripper, a sneering fortune teller, her snarling assistant, and a cage full of mutilated monstrosities. Summoning the spirits of Holly Golightly, Dirty Harry Callahan and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, the Satellite of Love crew shows no mercy toward this so-called “monster musical.”

Amusingly, Maltin himself would later guest-star on the series, popping up during the Gorgo episode to defend that film.

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9. Red Zone Cuba

Forget Francis Coppola — here’s Francis Coleman, who enjoyed the rare privilege of having his entire filmography as a writer-director showcased on MST3K. The episodes built around 1961’s The Beast of Yucca Flats and 1963’s The Skydivers are entertaining enough, but it’s the show focusing on 1966’s Red Zone Cuba that’s particularly worth its weight in riffs.

Originally titled Night Train to Mundo Fine, this finds Coleman casting himself as one of a motley group of American convicts who land in Cuba and attempt to topple Fidel Castro. This grade-Z atrocity is astonishing in its ineptitude — which means it’s grade-A material for Mike Nelson and crew. Crow snags the lion’s share of the great quips, including “I want to hurt this movie but I can never hurt it the way it hurt me.” Most of the zings, though, are rightfully reserved for Coleman, and his resemblance to The Three Stooges’ Curly Howard results in a slew of priceless cracks along the lines of “Full Metal Curly.”

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8. The Final Sacrifice

Certain names are so ingrained in our pop-culture collective that there’s no chance of misidentifying the movie in which they’re featured: Norman Bates and Psycho, Scarlett O’Hara and Gone with the Wind, Atticus Finch and To Kill a Mockingbird, etc. Among MST3K devotees, Zap Rowsdower has reached similarly mythic proportions. He’s the nominal hero of 1990’s The Final Sacrifice, a howler of a film in which a young lad and a boozy drifter (good ol’ Zap) are pursued by nefarious cult members through the Canadian wilds.

Even before Trey Parker and Matt Stone chose to “Blame Canada” in 1999’s South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, Mike and the ‘bots were already laying into the country for unleashing The Final Sacrifice onto an unsuspecting world. “Go to hell!” barks Zap Rowsdower, to which Crow adds, “Or at least Edmonton!” Meanwhile, Mike helpfully reminds everyone that the country did produce the band Rush. As for the villain of the piece, it only makes sense that he’s endowed with the nickname “Garth Vader.”

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7. Outlaw of Gor

The Satellite of Love crew never got around to tackling the chintzy 1987 fantasy flick Gor, in which college professor Tarl Cabot (Urbano Barberini) comes into contact with a magical ring that transports him to the titular planet. Yet the gang was ready to serve when it came to manhandling its 1988 sequel, known alternately under the monikers Gor II and Outlaw of Gor.

Tarl Cabot is back (although Tom Servo questions the heroic credentials of someone who drives a Camaro),  returning to Gor with his obnoxious pal Watney (Russel Savadier) in tow — there, they must battle the evil Queen Lara (Donna Denton) and the equally wicked priest Xenos (Jack Palance). Is it hyperbole to state that the portly, nerdy Watney might be one of the most annoying characters in all of cinema? At any rate, his insipidness provides Mike, Crow and Servo with plenty of opportunities to go for the jugular.

Palance, stranded in this nightmare a mere three years before his Oscar-winning role in City Slickers, also takes a brutal beating, and with quips involving everything from The Empire Strikes Back to Acapulco H.E.A.T., this one’s a keeper.

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6. Space Mutiny

A tasty slab of sci-fi cheese, 1988’s Space Mutiny was seemingly created solely for the purpose of one day appearing on a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000.

The film’s hero is square-jawed Dave Ryder, whose physical presence inspires Mike et al to come up with over three dozen appropriate names (“Slab Bulkhead!” “Punch Rockgroin!” “Gristle McThornbody!”). The evil Kalgan is plotting to take control of the sizable spaceship heading toward a distant planet, and it’s up to Ryder to stop him — a task made easier by the fact that Kalgan’s minions have terrible aim (“Why do they keep missing the slow, giant, white thing?”).

Space Mutiny is the gift that keeps on giving, with the film actively aiding the SOL team through its sheer incompetence — don’t miss the great bit where a supporting character gets killed, only to reappear in the very next scene alive and well and back on active duty.

As an added bonus, there’s a terrific host segment in which Crow and Tom complain about Mike’s antiquated encyclopedia set. “The periodic table has three elements in it!” “And there’s a picture of Stonehenge … under construction!”

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5. Pod People

Season Three was when Mystery Science Theater 3000 really hit its stride, as evidenced by the likes of Cave Dweller, Daddy-O and the Master Ninja twofer. Best of the bountiful batch is 1983’s Pod People, a French-Spanish co-production that initially made the rounds under the title Extra Terrestrial Visitors.

Pod People is really two awful movies rolled into one, as the writer-director concocted a monster movie but was then forced to add a cuddly alien to siphon off some of those E.T. dollars. Thus, this hybrid finds an obnoxious child befriending an alien infant he dubs Trumpy while a grownup version of the creature goes around murdering insufferable adults.

Years before Jay Sherman coined the phrase “It stinks!” on the animated series The Critic, the SOL crew was already gainfully employing it thanks to its use in this picture. The unintentional hilarity of the movie at hand seeps into other aspects of the show, as the host segments feature nonsensical tunes inspired by the film and Joel performs magic tricks a la Trumpy. Bottom line, this is one wild and crazy episode.

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4. Manos: The Hands of Fate

Yes, it’s the one, the only, the must-be-seen-to-be-disbelieved Manos: The Hands of Fate, the 1966 abomination that’s often cited as the worst movie ever made. Atrocious on every level, this finds a vacationing family (mom, dad, daughter, dog) getting lost and ending up at the home of the diabolical Master (Tom Neyman), his bevy of brides, and his extremely odd henchman Torgo (John Reynolds).

This episode is packed with choice gems, including a gag directed at that most awful of comic strips, Bil Keane’s Family Circus. Still, Manos: The Hands of Fate is such a rotten movie that even the normally cruel Dr. Forrester and TV’s Frank separately apologize to Joel for subjecting him to its petty tortures; ever the troupers, though, Joel and the ‘bots face it with their usual aplomb, although Crow admittedly slips when he wails, “Joel, this is gonna turn into a snuff film!”

As series regular Mary Jo Pehl wrote in The Mystery Science Theater 3000 Amazing Colossal Episode Guide, this was “far and away the most loathsome, repulsive, unpleasantest, vilest, ickyest, blechiest film to come along in MST3K‘s rich film history … Manos became our standard by which all others are measured.”

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3. The Pumaman

“You know, I have almost no respect for pumas now. I now know that if I ever run into a puma, I can just push it the hell over.” So sayeth Crow as he, Mike and Servo dig their claws into 1980’s The Pumaman, one of those savory duds that would be hilarious to watch even without the MST3K treatment.

The fine British actor Donald Pleasence, best known for such classics as The Great Escape and Halloween, here hams it up as a megalomaniac whose plot to rule the world is somehow thwarted by Pumaman (Walter George Alton), a superhero who flies poorly and complains a lot. Then again, why would a man who absorbs the qualities of a mountain cat be able to up-up-and-away at all? As Mike astutely notes, “I hate to be picky, but pumas aren’t really known for flying.” The SOL tag team repeatedly returns to bashing the film’s hapless hero, and it’s a running riff that never gets old. “Easily Baboozled Man!” “Constantly Out Of His League Man!” “High Plains Weenie!”

Pound for pound, this contains a better hit-to-miss ratio than just about any other episode.

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2. Santa Claus

Jolly Saint Nick has been the marquee attraction in not one but two classic episodes of MST3K. Yet while many prefer the show featuring 1964’s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians — and it is a stellar episode — it’s the one showcasing 1959’s Santa Claus that deserves the lofty placement. Quite simply, there’s nothing else out there quite like it.

This dubbed version of a Mexican production plays like a particularly vivid fever dream, full of such disturbing sights as robotic reindeer, an oscillating fan with a human ear attached to it, and a prancing red demon who seems to perpetually be auditioning for A Chorus Line. This Santa eschews the North Pole for some undefined spot in the clouds, where he employs kids (and Merlin the Magician!) instead of elves and utilizes all manner of intrusive devices as he spies on children all over the world. The film eventually turns into a classic “good vs. evil” saga as Santa battles the dancing devil Pitch for the soul of an adorable little moppet named Lupita.

It’s cinema at its most surreal — or “good old-fashioned nightmare fuel,” according to Crow — and Mike and co. seem suitably flummoxed by its more disturbing interludes. Santa Claus might not be an influential work in film history, but it’s certainly an influential work in MST3K history, as it was referenced in at least a half-dozen subsequent episodes.

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1. Mitchell

This roasting of 1975’s Mitchell lands at the top simply for the reason that there’s scarcely a nanosecond when it’s not delivering the laughs.

As “Mitchell!” (a declaration repeated ad nauseam over the years following this episode), Joe Don Baker is hammered within an inch of his career by Joel, Servo and Crow, who make with the mirth in those moments when they’re not growing queasy over the object tumbling out of his pants (luckily, it’s just his revolver) or the notion of him receiving an oil massage from Linda Evans (“Why would anyone want to do this with Mitchell, Joel?” wails Crow).

The movie and TV references range from the silent era (A Trip to the Moon) through the 1990s (A Few Good Men), with a few mash-ups along the way — commenting on a particularly dreary car chase, Crow observes that “This makes Driving Miss Daisy look like Bullit!”

Of course, there’s also the episode’s historic worth, as it marked Joel Hodgson’s final appearance as series star and introduced Mike Nelson as his replacement on the Satellite of Love.

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