As the seminal Canadian sketch-show SCTV closed out its run in 1984, its insanely talented cast scattered to the winds of Hollywood. Martin Short was off to SNL, John Candy had already left the show to begin his film career, and Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara were right behind him. Dave Thomas, on the other hand, just couldn’t shake off sketch. In 1984 he was both a writer and actor for Lorne Michaels’s short-lived return to television, The New Show. It was here that he met Max Pross and Tom Gammill, legendary writers who’ve worked on The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and Late Night With David Letterman. But in 1984, they were just starting out on television. With The New Show canceled, Thomas took Pross and Gammill up North to Canada, and from there, into space with Rocket Boy.
Rocket Boy began its life in 1984, produced by Nelvana and Orion Television as a parody of the Flash Gordon–Buck Rogers space serials of the ’50s, just in time to cash in on the crest of first-wave Star Wars mania. Thomas played the titular Rocket Boy and was joined by veteran actor James Hong as Mr. Wong, the owner of the video store; Mork and Mindy’s Robert Donner as the villainous Hawkhead; and the occasional guest appearance from SCTV alumni John Candy and Rick Moranis, as well as dozens and dozens of Canadian stars.
The plan was to make 65 episodes of Rocket Boy for syndication, with Orion press materials describing the show as “a transition vehicle between animation, or other kid shows, and adult-oriented programming.” In reality, only five episodes were ever produced before the plug was pulled.
Unlike many shows of the time, Rocket Boy was serialized, and would follow the main character and his sidekick Buddy as they went after a supervillain over the course of several episodes. The first (and only) saga brought our hero up against Hawkhead, a vulturelike man-bird intent on stealing the world’s hair to serve as a nest for his eggs, resulting in more bald caps and wigs on strings than any other science-fiction story previously put to celluloid.
Each episode’s plot would take place on two different fronts: First and foremost would be Rocket Boy’s space adventures, whether he was consulting with his Obi-Wan-esque guru Palimon (Gillie Fenwick), or being rescued by an obnoxiously cute Chewbacca–Ewok hybrid named Mr. Pim. (When paired up with the character, Palimon insists he stick with him since “the merchandising potential is unlimited!”) The second setting for each episode is back on Earth at Wong’s Video, a VHS rental store, where Rocket Boy and Buddy work when they aren’t off fighting intergalactic crime. It also allows for a random guest star to pop in as a customer, as John Candy does in the third episode, without having to dress in a crazy sci-fi costume.
The show itself is strange in that it simultaneously feels completely of its time but also strangely contemporary. It doesn’t move at a modern pace, but it does cram in an awful lot of ideas for a TV show that’s nearly 35 years old. It is marred, however, by a constant laugh track that reacts to anything and everything that could be vaguely interpreted as a joke. There are some legitimately good jokes throughout the series, but they become hard to spot when a viewer trains their brain to write off anything the prerecorded laughter reacts to. The Orion press materials state that the show would “not only deliver the kids, but the all important teen and adult demos too,” and it was clear that the show was written with that intention. There’s nothing too adult about Rocket Boy’s humor, but it does carry a bit of the SCTV and Pross–Gammill cynicism. It lightly skewers the science-fiction genre while still seeming to relish the opportunity to play with those very same sci-fi tropes.
Whether intentionally referencing the early-1940s serials that inspired it, or because they were simply doing the best they could with a small budget, the special effects in the show are charmingly DIY. The ships appear to be kit-bashed from various spaceship models and are given the illusion of movement by panning a camera past them. Occasionally an animated monster will appear (possibly recycled animation from another Nelvana production) that puts their effects slightly above those of early Mystery Science Theater 3000.
For most shows, this would be the end of the story: five episodes completed, languishing in the archives. But apparently the rights-holders of Rocket Boy felt that a production with some of SCTV’s best and brightest and pretty-good special effects was too good to waste. So, in 1989, a 90-minute edit of the first five episodes was made, laugh track and all, and was then shopped around for television syndication, appearing several times on the pre–Comedy Central Comedy Channel. Though his television adventures may have been cut short, thanks to the magic of VHS and YouTube, the movie-length version of Rocket Boy can live on forever.