How to watch every episode of ‘MST3K’ for free or cheap

Thanks to Internet’s ability to keep cultural icons alive, some 15 years after Mystery Science Theater 3000 vanished from the tube, loyal fans across generations can still delight in the show’s unduplicable, arcane, and comedic sensibility. 

With 197 episodes in various media ranging from the hard stuff (DVDs and yes, VHS tapes) to digital downloads, there more than a nonstop week’s worth of Joel, Mike, Tom Servo et al. to enjoy in the ultimate comedy binge fest. No matter your tolerance for financial pain, desire for HD viewing, and number of video on demand sites you have on your monthly payroll, there is a MST3K plan for you. 

YouTube and TV

If you want to visit the Satellite of Love on the cheap, the good news is that YouTube has two free, copyright-in-tact full episodes to enjoy. “Mitchell” (episode 512) and Manos: The Hands of Fate (episode 424) are available in all their glory on YouTube from the official MST3K channel from the Shout Factory. The good news is the price. The bad news is the quality is rather bad, especially if you are watching on your big-screen TV via the YouTube streaming app. For me, the verbose annotations in this particular version, which tie every line in the show to an on-screen comment, are annoying and take the fun out of deciphering the fast-paced spiel. 

YouTube also is home to more than 44,000 other complimentary copies (as in taken without copyright permission) of full MST3K episodes, generally in fairly crummy visual form. I considered creating an algorithm to determine how many different shows that represented, but I ran out of space on my slide rule.

And for those luddites who still have in free, over-the-air television, an upstart channel featuring programming from the bygone world, Retro TV, runs the show on a weekly basis. Retro is carried on both digital channels and local cable networks across the U.S.; set your DVRs and go to town.

Amazon, Vimeo, Netflix, and Hulu

In the pay-to-play sector, you have Amazon, legit YouTube, and Vimeo. By my count, Amazon has more than 115 MST3K episodes available. Some are in physical form (DVD), while about 80 others can be purchased or rented online for various fees ranging from $1.99 to $9.99. I presume the variation in fees may be that there appears to be more than one license holder for the series. There are myriad DVD collectors’ editions for $35-$90 with some of the special sets including the usual behind-the-scenes addendums. Amazon Prime does not offer any of the MST3K episodes as part of its Instant Video package (boo, hiss.)

Did you know you can rent videos from YouTube? Yep. As with Amazon, that’s especially handy if you want the search giant to be keenly aware of your “eclectic” tastes in media. There are 17 MST3K episodes from the Shout Factory that rent for $1.99 a shot. It’s difficult to tell if they are offered in another quality other than SD, so the big-screen experience could be grainy.

Vimeo offers all 80 available for digital distribution at a $2.99 rental or $9.99 purchase price, and if you want to go the whole enchilada, $300 will buy you all 80 shows in sparkling HD. The video on demand site will be bringing other episodes to viewers in the coming months.

But what if you already plop down a monthly fee for Netflix or Hulu Plus? 

Netflix currently has 12 episodes available for streaming and Hulu Plus has 27, making it far and away the best deal for those on a streaming plan. 

eBay, Craigslist, and beyond

But wait, there’s more. Although not an especially good bargain, eBay has tons of MST3K DVDs for sale, ranging from a low of $7.99 per title up to a 12-DVD set that goes for $125. On the other hand, Half.com, eBay’s low-cost sibling, has 84 titles for sale with some as low as $4 per title. Craigslist is surprisingly sparse in its MST3K sellers in major U.S. cities, but there were two used copies for sale in Minneapolis (where the show started) for $5 each. Caveat emptor.

Let me let you in on one of the better-kept secrets from the annals of budget video-viewing. It just so happens, while you were reading books on your smartphone, tablet, or Kindle, your public library has been stocking up on DVDs, CDs, and even books on tape. So, I checked the two public libraries to which I am a card holder: One has a four-disc MST3K collection for check out and the other (from a much larger library system) has four collections for 14-day loan including 1996’s Mystery Science Theater: The Movie which was good enough to get a 7.5 rating from Rotten Tomatoes.

If you want to be selective on how you spend your time or money, here’s a tip: Since Amazon deals in volume, after searching for MST3K, I filtered by average customer review to see which ones were most popular with viewers. The winner was MST3K Vs Gamera, a five-disc set with five stars from 78 reviewers, followed by Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Final Sacrifice, with four and a half stars from 65 reviewers. This review of The Final Sacrifice on Amazon has to be my favorite: “It is proof of God’s great mercy, or cosmic balance, or whatever you want it to be, that an unending supply of truly horrible films is available for this kind of treatment.”

Amen. Happy hunting.

Illustration by Jason Reed

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner

Allen Weiner has been a market research analyst in the area of new media and technology since 1994. He’s worked as writer, publisher and newspaper executive. He is the co-founder and publisher of Kombucha Network and the former managing vice president of Gartner.