It’s funny how we all differ in terms of how we approach rare indulgences. When the new season of Mystery Science Theater 3000 arrived on Netflix, some of the fandom dove in head over heels, marathoning all of the new episodes in the first two days. For them, there was joy in messily gorging on 21 hours of new MST3K: The Return riffing, the first new episodes to air since season 10 of the cult sci-fi comedy concluded on the Sci-Fi Channel in the summer of 1999. They waited 18 years, and by god, they weren’t going to wait any longer.
But personally, I’m not really like that as a consumer of media. I like to take my time, and process things slowly. I didn’t marathon the new MST3K episodes I’d been so intently waiting for. Instead, I watched them in pieces, one or two a week, savoring the appraising the new cast’s adjustment to the iconic roles of “Guy and Bots in space.” And throughout it all, I kept notes.
Yes, I made notes. That’s what you do, when you’re the kind of obsessive fan who would rank all 177 episodes of the original series over the course of nearly 50,000 words, as I did for Paste back in April. There were some odd, overarching observations to be made (Why are there so many jokes/references to parades in almost every episode of this season?), and over the course of a season the new cast managed to assuage most of my concerns for the future of MST3K. Of course, I knew these episodes would eventually need to be added to the overall ranking, and they now have been, bringing its current total up to a robust (and fairly ridiculous) 191. Just try reading that thing in one sitting.
But, if you’re simply looking for a more easily digestible appraisal of the new season, you’ve come to the right place. You can find all of these capsules in the overall ranking of all 191 MST3K episodes, but here are the highs and lows of the show’s Netflix return, ranked from worst to best.
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “Wise wizard, please teach me how to run.”
It has often been observed by the MST3K faithful that the one genre the show never tackled in any real way was comedy, and the reason is simple: It’s almost impossible to riff a comedy, and especially a bad comedy. You can only groan, or object that “this joke isn’t funny” so many times. In fact, in the entire original run of MST3K, the only movie one might call a “comedy” is Catalina Caper. And so, the fact that Wizards II was intended to make the audience laugh already makes it a very tough riffing assignment, but it gets worse, because Wizards II also fails the sincereness test. These people were simply not attempting to earnestly make a good movie that could stand on its own merits; they were trying to make a schlocky, bad-on-purpose farce and cash in on the fact that the first film somehow recouped its costs on VHS. The movie is just dreadful, and the characters (especially our protagonist wizard and his sour-faced, bowl-cutted boy, Tyor) are excruciating to listen to, which puts Wizards II in a tie with Carnival Magic for the most painful of the films watched in season 11, albeit for very different reasons. The riffers try to zero in on the kid and build a Troy/Rowsdower-type relationship between him and his oafish wizard, but the jokes just bounce off them like so many ineffectual spells. Not even the presence of a surly, almost certainly drunk David Carradine as a master warrior can salvage this thing. This episode isn’t “bad”—it feels more like you would rate it “N/A,” and could have been replaced with an entirely different film. As is, it feels like this movie’s creators would simply shrug in response and say “Look, we weren’t really trying that hard anyway.”
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Being a chivalrous gentleman, David traps his fellow slaves with their captors in a room full of lava.”
Season 11’s two “Doug McClure movies” feel fairly close to the style of films that would have been tackled during the classic MST3K; dino films such as Lost Continent or King Dinosaur, with one small difference—they’re just not quite as legitimately bad. That becomes a running theme of sorts for season 11—it’s clear that the tier of movies they were aiming for this time involved better picture quality and relatively coherent plots. There’s just not quite as much “deep hurting,” which was to be expected in a reboot that is intended to reach a wider audience on Netflix. But I digress. At the Earth’s Core feels almost immediately like a sequel to also uninspiring Land that Time Forgot, featuring proper English types stumbling into a world of monsters. It’s impossible not to feel bad for Peter Cushing while watching—I absolutely love this man and his Hammer Horror films, but dear lord is he irritating in this one. He reminds me of the senior security guard from Hobgoblins, with his Muppet-like take on what I think was supposed to be a foppish dandy’s accent. His performance here is worse than the CGI Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One, and that is not hyperbole. The riffers, meanwhile, try to zero in on McClure, but he doesn’t offer them nearly as much substance to go on as some of MST3K’s more memorable leading man chunkheads. Big McLargeHuge, he is not, and Joel McHale’s turn impersonating McClure likewise falls flat. I did, however, love the understated return of Paul Chaplin as the leader of the Observers—his crisp, dry delivery hasn’t changed a bit. The best segment is Doug McClure’s savage battle, and then immediate bromance, with a cave dweller named “Rah.” Says Jonah, by way of introduction: “You’re not going to believe this, but I’m the protagonist!”
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: Scientists, looking at a destroyed lab: “Well, it was either the eel, Peterson, or the giant reptilian monster we grew in a tub that is now gone.”
The first episode of MST3K’s new era is a showcase for the raw enthusiasm of the new cast, but also some of the reboot’s more easily criticized points. As I wrote in my full review of this particular episode, you can almost feel the weight of expectations crushing down on the riffers’ shoulders, and their reaction to it is to turn everything up to 11. This includes the joke density, and perhaps due to the fact that the jokes were prerecorded in studio and not performed live, it leads to their riffs sometimes feeling disconnected from one another—rapid and scattershot, in a way that is inorganic and feels like they’re trying to reach a preconceived “riff quota.” On the other hand, though, there is some dynamite material sprinkled throughout Reptilicus that hints at the much better episodes to come. Most of it comes during our focus on squirrelly scientists during the film’s first half, especially when “legendary Danish comic actor Dirch Passer” is on hand playing rubber-faced buffoon Peterson, who inspires Blazing Saddles comparisons: “Peterson only pawn in game of life.” Things slow way down during the repetitive monster smashing scenes with Reptilicus, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention what is probably the single best host segment of the season: Paul & Storm’s brilliant “Every Country Has a Monster” musical number. It’s easily the best song of season 11, and it hangs right up there with any song in MST3K history, displaying fiendishly clever lyricism and vocabulary. Get these guys on staff full time, writing new MST3K musical numbers! [You can read our full review here.]
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Old Ahmski’s makin’ Encino Man look like Niles Crane.”
This is another one of those season 11 episodes where you find yourself wondering “Is this film too competent for MST3K?”—at least for the first half. The British/German submarine drama that unfolds for the first 45 minutes or so simply doesn’t provide the crew with that much material, aside from the amusing (and deadly) initial commandeering of the submarine by the Brits. You get the sense that the MST3K writers hoped that Doug McClure would be a perpetual running joke, but he’s almost always more blandly boring than he is amusing. However, things pick up pretty substantially once we reach the titular Land that Time Forgot; especially in the way that the submarine crew abducts and then immediately turns one of the local cavemen, “Ahm,” into their Man Friday. In general this is an episode that starts slow but then erupts in an unexpectedly violent, loony conclusion. There aren’t many moments in the entire season funnier than Ahm being carried away in the jaws of a Pteranodon while Doug McClure looks on uselessly. Enjoyable bits include the subtle reference to Friday the 13th’s trademark “ki ki ki mah mah mah” sound effects while gazing into the forest, or Servo’s description of a group of heavily bearded cavemen: “It’s Crosby, Crosby, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.”
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “I’m actually traveling through time, at a rate of one hour per hour.”
This is about the point in the season 11 rankings when we start taking some big steps forward in terms of quality. Like The Land That Time Forgot, The Time Travelers is more competent than your typical MST3K fare, although it has a bit more of a campy ‘60s sci-fi streak running through it that makes it slightly more interesting to watch. We’re following a crew of surprisingly horny scientists—I like the elder statesman, with his Mephistopheles beard that Gypsy compares to “Rip Torn as Dr. Strange”—and their lab tech/janitor/resident idiot Danny as they accidentally end up in Earth’s terrible future, where a small community of future scientists and their disturbingly mouthless androids attempt to escape a doomed planet before being overwhelmed by gangs of marauding mutants. If you’re thinking that sounds like a plot that would have come out looking way cooler in 1987 than 1964, then you’re right. For the most part the film is blandly watchable and boring, replete with expected time traveling references to Back to the Future and Quantum Leap, but you’ll chuckle at the crew’s repeated heckling of the Dropo-esque Danny, who happily volunteers himself as a guinea pig for dangerous experiments throughout while lusting after future women. The ending ratchets up the WTF factor considerably, rocketing our protagonists past their intended destination and into a mystery utopia—but it’s okay, because as Crow points out, the future still has “PONIES!”
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “I came here to kick butt and chew bubblegum, and bubblegum hasn’t been invented yet!”
No movie in season 11 has more whiplash-inducing tonal swings than The Beast of Hollow Mountain, or a more insane reveal than suddenly sticking a T-Rex into a Mexican cattle ranching drama after more than an hour of pointless meandering has elapsed. Beyond the hilarity of that reveal, everything you need to know about this movie’s miscalculations can be perfectly summed up by the Mexican laborer comic relief character: An alcoholic who needs to be cared for by his young son because he drinks to forget the tragic passing of his wife. Uproarious! Where else do you get to play a grieving, alcoholic single father for laughs? Says Jonah: “So this is what became of the Most Interesting Man in the World.” Immediately after, we get one of this season’s better call-backs to a oft-cited MST3K running joke, “Jim Henson’s Magnum P.I. Babies,” in reference to one of the Mexican kids and his oddly anachronistic Hawaiian shirt. Many jests are subsequently directed at the wiggly-tongued dinosaur throughout the final 15 minutes, but I really cracked up at the supremely unexpected reference to the doggedly persistent paperboy from 1985’s Better off Dead: “I want my two dollars!”
Movie pain meter: High
Best riff: “Al Adamson is the name Alan Smithee uses when he doesn’t want his name on a film.”
Carnival Magic is, quite easily, the worst and most completely inexplicable film of the Netflix season, and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible. It doesn’t receive the strongest riffing of these new episodes, but man—what a truly bizarre film this is. The “deep hurting” quotient is higher here than it is anywhere else, in a tale of a rinky-dink carnival that is saved from the brink of collapse by a cut-rate magician’s talking chimpanzee act. Sounds like some sort of lighthearted comedy, right? Nope! The movie veers in a completely different direction than any sane screenwriter would possibly recommend, into a den of sleaze, sex and the threat of vivisection for our talking ape friend, Alexander. The choice of how to portray the chimp’s vocalizations—grunted out in barely legible sentence fragments, rather than the witty banter that any audience member would be correct to expect—is a mystery to which there is no reasonable answer. Regardless, Jonah and the Bots satirize it with a sparkling host segment that expounds on Alexander’s “ordinary, unimpressive small talk,” which from Crow amounts to “Mmm, looks like rain,” and “My ankle’s sore.” The riffers don’t quite fully capitalize on the deepness of Carnival Magic’s unique sense of ennui, but they do beautifully call attention to the pathetic police officer squatting on top of his own police cruiser while a tow truck drives it down the road, so there is that. Says Jonah: “I know it’s wrong to hate an animal, but I’m in a sort of Elmer Fudd/Bugs Bunny emotional quagmire with this chimp.”
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “Do you realize how much duct tape it’s going to take for us to repair that hydra?”
I wasn’t really expecting to love this episode—the Hercules films of the original MST3K were never exactly my favorite, and the fandom’s reaction to The Loves of Hercules seems pretty divisive—but I found myself pleasantly surprised with its earnest stupidity. Nepotism plays a major part, as it gives us bodybuilder Mickey Hargitay, the husband of female lead/dress protruder Jayne Mansfield, as a particularly chunk-headed Herc who struggles to lift moderately sized objects and makes you pine for the good old days of Steve Reeves. His thick Hungarian accent and puppy dog determination to give a respectable dramatic performance are made only funnier by the fact that the impetus of the whole story is how he’s immediately on the prowl for attractive women after his wife is murdered in the opening moments. The SOL crew lambast the cheapness of production (“an international cast of nearly 25 extras!”) and Herc’s utter lack of concern for his dead wife, as soon as he spies Mansfield. There’s some clever film references as well—when a bull charges at Mansfield, Jonah quips “Russ Meyer presents Ferdinand the Bull as you’ve never seen him!”, simultaneously evoking Meyer’s penchant for Mansfield-esque buxom women and the children’s story of Ferdinand, which was memorably recounted to Tor Johnson in classic MST3K episode The Unearthly. The thing I’ll really remember about Loves of Hercules is the ending sequence, though—simultaneously one of the weirdest and funniest things from the new season, as the crew begins to shrilly sing/mimic the chorus present during the closing credits and then carries on that sustained note through the entire final host segment. Simple joke, but I couldn’t stop laughing.
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: “I gotta tell you, I didn’t see this coming. Did Werner Herzog slip in and direct this last scene?”
There’s no shortage of monster movies in season 11, but Yongary strikes me as the best and most balanced of them, without the dragging sections one finds in Reptilicus or the delayed arrival of the monster in Beast of Hollow Mountain. Much was made of comparing Reptilicus in particular to the Gamera movies when it was the first episode of this season released to the press, but it’s Yongary that far more accurately channels that classic Gamera vibe, despite being South Korean rather than Japanese. You know you’re in for a good time from the moment that you meet the film’s resident Monster Movie Kid, Icho, who is lying in wait in the middle of nowhere with an experimental ray gun, which he uses to torment his newly married sister and her husband for no particular reason. A little boy, named “Icho,” who possesses a gun that makes people violently itch and scratch? That’s some prime MST3K material right there, as when Icho sees a new device and wonders “What is this machine, and how can I use it to hurt people?” Yongary, meanwhile, is a tunneling, horned take on Godzilla who feeds on gasoline and has one hell of a hard time ambling from point A to point B in his restrictive monster suit. He has got to be the most uncoordinated, least graceful kaiju in cinema history, which leads to tons of joking about his spastic movements: “One last macarena before I die!” But it’s Yongary’s convoluted, dramatic death throes that really seal the deal—it’s hard to accurately convey how disturbing it is to watch the great beast, twitching in a pool of water and bleeding out, while the heroes smile and laugh and celebrate his destruction. It is grim as all get out.
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Grant Wood’s intergalactic gothic.”
Hands down, the most entertaining and funny-all-on-its-own film of season 11, Starcrash has absolutely no need for MST3K riffing to make it hilarious. There’s almost nothing the SOL crew can say or do to match the absurdity playing out on the screen in this infamous Star Wars rip-off shot in Italy, which follows a sexy female spin on Han Solo (Caroline Munro, who isn’t nearly as fun in At the Earth’s Core) and her partner, the insufferably smug, curly headed Akton, who manifests inexplicable magical powers on demand, whenever the script calls for them. There are too many incredible supporting characters to count: Elle to robot policeman, who speaks with an absurd southern drawl; Christopher Plummer’s nonplussed Emperor of the Galaxy; and of course David Hasselhoff as his son, who shows off a scary, laser-shooting mask before immediately ditching it and never using it again. The film just has everything: Incredibly cheap spaceships, Christmas lights for star fields, cavemen, multiple instances of stop-motion robots, the list goes on. Obviously, Jonah & The Bots let fly with the Star Wars references from out of the gate, and they also work a running joke with the toylike nature of the Starcrash space fleet. I enjoy the crew’s increasing annoyance with Akton in particular, and his propensity to explain after something bad happens that he saw it all coming. I chortled when Jonah zeroed in on a tight shot of his curly mug and unleashed a Willy Wonka reference: “We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Brought to you by Hanes comfort fit children’s nightgowns. Hanes: It’s the sack you can sleep in.”
It’s probably clear by this point that I like my MST3K movies on the absurdist side, and in that spirit, it’s safe to call The Christmas That Almost Wasn’t the straight-up silliest film shown in season 11. Its basic premise, that Santa Claus needs to make money for rent by play-acting himself in department stores in order to pay off his evil landlord at the North Pole, is on a level with MST3K’s two other Christmas episodes, Santa Claus and Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, but the delivery is even more painfully hokey. You’d call it campy, except for the fact that the film seems so damn sincere, almost impossibly so. It seems to truly delight the SOL crew, who are drawn to our peculiar protagonist/man baby Sam Whipple and especially to the Italian Scrooge Phineas T. Prune, who wants to put Santa in the poor house not because he hates Christmas, but because he despises all children and wants to see them suffer. Santa himself is also creepy as hell: The dude has a song about the fact that he’s never seen children awake before! He’s only peered at them, leaning over their beds like the grim spectre of death. I was tearing up from laughter when Santa and co. assemble a bunch of children to bail him out of trouble, who are given names that range from “Tiny Grandma” and “Actual Baby” to “Chamber Pot” and “Meat Wagon.”
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: In the middle of the avalanche mayhem: “The kitchen has a cheerleader?!?”
Avalanche can lay claim to representing a film subgenre that has more or less never been featured on MST3K in the past: The ‘70s-style disaster movie. The only classic episode that evokes a similar feel is something like San Francisco International, but Avalanche is more genuinely a part of that same movement that gave us The Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and others, starring big Hollywood names in tales of man’s hubris vs. nature or technological disaster. The amusing thing about Avalanche is the way it goes from 0—an intensely boring Rock Hudson/Mia Farrow divorce drama of sorts—to 100, as soon as the titular Avalanche finally hits at about the 50 minute mark. We go from not caring about a bunch of bland ‘70s people to howling with laughter as the resort denizens and the town utterly fail to deal with their avalanche-related issues. The fire and rescue response is amazing, as fire trucks and ambulances come streaming out of the station, only to immediately crash into buildings in town that are in no way connected to the avalanche. As Tom and Crow observe: “Okay, now we’re just seeing collateral damage from the idea of an avalanche? What’s next, someone’s going to cut their finger on a newspaper reading about it?” Also lots of fun is the host segment examining the many untrademarked ideas for hybrid monster-disaster movies, including the likes of “Triceraquake,” “Wooly Clammoth” and “Night of the Were-Dads.” All in all, Avalanche is a surprisingly successful adaptation of a film style that is a fresh novelty for MST3K.
Movie pain meter: Medium
Best riff: To Paul and his equally bowl-cutted father: “Let’s head off to SuperCuts! I’m buyin’!”
After a somewhat uneven start in Reptilicus, Cry Wilderness is exactly what was needed to show faithful MSTies that season 11 was going to rapidly ascend to a higher level. This film is the season’s most impressive “find” in terms of a riffable object—significantly more obscure than the rest, without even a Wikipedia entry to its name before the show returned to Netflix. The story of an impulsive, irritating young boy (Paul) and his mystical bond with sasquatch, it really has to be seen to be believed. All the supporting characters are dynamite, from the constantly inappropriate cackling of Jim the native American sidekick to the first time we meet our antagonist, a big game hunter who has broken into the family’s cabin and is messily devouring an entire rabbit with his bare hands. Comparisons have evoked the likes of Pod People and The Final Sacrifice in describing Cry Wilderness, but there’s an absurdist mysticism here that is even more incredulous and weird—something that reminds me of the “WTF am I watching?” quality of some of MST3K’s Russo-Finnish fantasy movies such as Jack Frost, especially when Paul meets a native American mystic who has apparently risen from the dead specifically to aid him in protecting sasquatch. The riffing, meanwhile, really begins to stretch its legs and get esoteric—I was beyond impressed with a reference to Samuel Coleridge Taylor’s 1798 romantic epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, because honestly, how many people in the audience could possibly be expected to grasp that one? Hampton Yount is great as Crow here, turning even the most simple of running jokes, “...bang!” into a punchline that gets half a dozen big laughs over the course of the episode. It’s my sincere hope that the MST3K crew dredges up more films for season 12 that are this profoundly strange and largely unknown. Unrelated: The Mads’ “Carvel Ice Cream Cake Clock” is probably my favorite invention exchange item of season 11.
Movie pain meter: Low
Best riff: “Well, we better wrap this fight scene up; the savage warrior needs to get back to his day job at Little Caesar’s.”
Of every film featured in season 11, the first Wizards of the Lost Kingdom feels the most to me like a movie that could have been a series classic during the original run of MST3K. It has elements of all the original series’ sword-and-sorcery classics, from the overly complicated opening narration of Cave Dwellers to the exact same villain (Thom Christopher) as Deathstalker and the Warriors From Hell. He doesn’t “Shatner” nearly as much in this installment, but Wizards of the Lost Kingdom makes up for it with an earnest badness that is antithetical to its jokey, painfully self aware sequel. Just look at Golfax, the … yeti? … monster tasked with keeping our young hero safe, who’s just a featureless blob of white fur on two legs, without any discernable mouth, eyes or hint of phonetics. Or “Ape-ula,” the three foot fanged monkey man. Or the villain’s seemingly endless supply of dwarves. Wizards of the Lost Kingdom is some colorful lunacy. But it’s the addition of “tortured Gordon Ramsey”/middle-aged doughy, alcoholic barbarian Kor the Conqueror to the mix that seals the deal on a classic MST3K episode—he is the closest thing to Zap Rowsdower in this new series, and it’s lovely to behold. From the moment that young Simon asks him “Where are you going?” and Crow replies “Fuddruckers!”, it’s clear we’re in good hands. Nowhere in season 11 are the members of the SOL crew more adept at riffing on the cheapness and foibles of the film, as when Crow quips “Is there even a word in the English language for how wrong this guy is for that part?”
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident MST3K obsessive. You can follow him on Twitter.