|Super Rocket Space-Adventure Cowboy Detectives|
|by Tuna Head|
I’m not sure a lot of people remember it now, but when I was a kid there used to be this show on telly called Super Rocket Space-Adventure Cowboy Detectives. It was shown on the ABC along with a bunch of other after-school programs, but none of them measured up to this one. It was weird, notoriously so, at least amongst the kids in my town. It was the kind of show that everyone talked about like, “That show is shit,” but nobody missed an episode. It was just too damn strange to pass up on.
It was live-action but was much more Round the Twist than Ship to Shore, although it really wasn’t like either of those or anything else; I just mean that it wasn’t realistic, that it dealt with fantastic elements and plots. It was about this team of kids who travelled around the universe in a rocket-powered flying Cadillac. They were led by this cowboy called Captain Jet who (like most cowboys on kids’ shows) had an exaggerated Texan accent even though the rest of the cast were Australian. In the show’s universe everyone, or at least all the good guys, seemed to be a cowboy or at least wear cowboy clothes, although the main characters usually spent each episode solving mysteries rather than roping space-cows or whatever. Usually these mysteries were related to the nefarious plotting of the show’s villain Slimy Jay, a chubby guy made-up like a panda wearing a pinstripe suit who was supposed to be some kind of interstellar gangster. At any rate he was the source of all the show’s drama and like most TV villains had a brain-dead sidekick who bumbled around the place putting his foot in it.
Every episode started off with the Cadillac flying through space being driven by Captain Jet and the gang. It was really dodgy green-screen stuff, just a car clearly sitting in a studio with a background of stars and black holes pasted on afterwards. The theme tune would be playing, of course, and I can still remember it word-for-word:
Flying through space
Then the episode would start, a weird pastiche of live-action actors in strange costumes gurning it up in front of green-screens or crudely-animated backdrops. The whole show was just totally ludicrous, chock-full of the kinds of stupid plots and characters that were widely and derisively quoted or discussed in the playground the next day. One episode I very clearly remember involved a bunch of planets mysteriously going missing, necessitating the heroic intervention of the title characters to set everything right. It turned out in the end that Slimy Jay (who else?) was attempting to turn each planet in the galaxy into a giant tooth so he could build a mouth of such enormous size that it would be able to chew up the whole universe like a piece of chewing gum. It was never explained exactly why the villain wanted to do this, what kind of benefit he would get out of it, but that didn’t really matter; what mattered in the end was that Slimy Jay was defeated, naturally enough, and Captain Jet and his personal Scooby Gang were able to leap back into their rocket car and zoom through the cosmos towards their next adventure as the end credits triumphantly rolled.
The kid characters in Captain Jet’s gang were as ridiculous as the plots but one in particular stuck out. His name was Henry and he had frizzy orange hair, a big gap in his front teeth, massive-framed coke-bottle spectacles and a green-and-purple cowboy outfit. In every episode there would be some point where Henry would take a bite out of something, look straight at the camera as it panned into a close-up shot of his stupid freckled face and exclaim: “Hey! Tastes like chicken!” Then the other characters would start rolling in the aisles, groaning, “Oh, Henry!” while Captain Jet wiped a tear of laughter from his eye or chuckled manfully or slapped old Henry on the back or whatever. Meanwhile, we viewers at home were reaching for the razor blades and throwing poison down our throats, although truth-be-told we couldn’t look away. This stuff was so bad it was brilliant, although we’d never admit it, and it wasn’t just us primary school kids who thought that way. From what my older brother said it seemed like the show was developing quite an audience amongst the stoners at the Secondary College.
The show wasn’t just content with being the most outlandish kids’ show on TV, however. As time went on it decided to really push the envelope by going where no after-school program (or at least none I’ve ever seen) had gone before. Plots startled rambling along into multiple-episode arcs with bizarre dramatic cliff-hangers, like the one where the main characters were made into a sandwich and eaten by a giant-size Slimy Jay only to tap-dance their way to freedom through his intestines in the next episode. One arc in particular really broke the mould for kids’ shows, however, by killing off a main character. There was this three-episode plotline where Slimy Jay got hold of the key to the universe’s engine: if he managed to find the controls he would be able to drive the universe off a cliff and wreck it once and for all. In typical fashion, however, his sidekick managed to completely arse things up by knocking the universe’s gear-stick into reverse, backing it right over Henry and killing the kid instantly. I’ve got to say that as shocking as it was to see the little ranga cark it I still let out an involuntary cheer of joy when he got knocked off. Never again would I have to endure his moronic antics or hear that hideous catchphrase. What’s more, we got a whole episode of all the other characters crying at his funeral. The best bit was during Captain Jet’s eulogy when he said, “If Henry was here today, I’m sure he would have accidentally eaten his own ashes and said that they tasted of chicken.” While the rest of the Cowboy Detectives nodded their teary heads in sombre agreement I nearly cracked my skull open as I spasmed to the carpet, laughing my arse off. It was great.
The day after that episode aired, however, real life started to get even weirder than the show. I’d been feeling sort of glowing and cheered-up knowing I’d never have to see Henry again, kind of the same way you feel when you’ve just knocked off a test and know everything truly unpleasant is now firmly behind you. Yet when I got to class and took my seat that day who should I see but fucking Henry standing at the front of the class talking to the teacher, an air of miserable anxiety apparent in the awkward way he held himself in his pale and freckled body. He was wearing a school uniform rather than a cowboy outfit but it was definitely him; I’d seen enough close-ups of that gormless flame-haired face to be able to recognise it anywhere. By the air of stunned silence that hung over the rest of the class it seemed I wasn’t the only one who’d come to the same conclusion: that was Henry the Super Rocket Space-Adventure Cowboy Detective up there, or the actor who played him at any rate.
“Class, this is Henry,” the teacher announced to us as the school bell went. “He’s just moved here from...?”
“From Altair,” muttered Henry, eyes downcast. A murmur of bemusement spread through the class as we realised that even his name was the same as the character’s. It was uncanny.
“Yes, from Altair. Several of you know what it’s like to be a new student in a new town so I hope you’ll all make Henry feel welcome. Please take a seat in the second row Henry, next to Jenny.”
Henry kept his attention firmly glued to his work through the entire morning’s lessons, not seeming to notice how every eye of every kid in the room was riveted on his freakishly fire-engine-red head. At recess though we made sure to corner him by the monkey bars so we could effectively pump him for info. Word had spread rapidly since the last bell, with more than just the kids from our class clamouring around to get a look at the ‘star’ who had manifested himself in our midst. I’d say at least a quarter of the school was there, with lookouts posted in case any teachers thought a fight was brewing and came to tell us to “break it up”. As we surrounded him like a pack of blood-hungry sharks we peppered the poor dork with a steady spray of interrogations.
“Are you that kid? From that show?”
“What’s Captain Jet like! Tell us!”
“Hey, say ‘This tastes like chicken’! Come on!”
“Say it! Say it!”
Henry just stared at us, face scrunched up like he was trying not to cry as he wrung his hands together, the growing volume and insistence of our inquiries only seeming to provoke him to further heights of misery. The longer he refused to answer the more determined we were to find out the truth, or at least to get him to say that infamous catchphrase that only a short while ago we’d been happy to think we’d never have to hear again. As we pressed closer and closer he was forced to climb up the monkey bars to escape us and it was there that, eventually, a teacher rescued him from our malicious attentions. By that time he had started crying and, out of a mixture of boredom and frustration, we’d started pitching juice boxes and grass clods at the inviting target that was his carrot-topped head. He was rushed off to the nurse’s office for bandaids and comforting and we, after the inevitable reprimands, dispersed to attend to more fulfilling pursuits.
Luckily for my own sense of curiosity Henry’s return during Art meant that he was forced to take the only available seat left, which was next to me. He tried to remain as unobtrusive as possible throughout the lesson but the ice was broken between us when he nearly knocked blue paint over my work and I reassuringly laughed it off. Eventually we started chatting, if only a little.
“You do look like that kid from that show, you know,” I said.
“Are you him? Were you really on the telly?”
I could get little more out of him, but the seeds for our friendship had been planted. Over the next few weeks I came to be the only kid in school, probably in the whole town, who was in any way close to Henry. Since he refused to rise to the goading of the others they eventually left him alone bar the occasional bit of teasing, teasing which served to strengthen our own bonds since it gave me the opportunity to threaten to beat up anyone who tried to take the piss out of him.
It probably sounds weird that I should try to become friendly with the little bloodnut, especially since I’d practically creamed my pants when his character had been bumped off. To be perfectly honest, though, the relationship I was forging with him was built on pretty cynical foundations. Really I just wanted to find out about the show, about what it was like to be on TV, and especially about how he felt about his career being in the toilet. To go from acting on an afterschool kids’ show back to the real world of school-desks and packed lunches must be a pretty gut-wrenching transition, and the suffering of others is always something that’s managed to hold my attention. Henry wasn’t very forthcoming, however, since he practically refused to discuss Cowboy Detectives at all. Only once did I manage to goad him into revealing anything of significance, and that was when I dropped the comment that a guy walking past the school gate “looks a little like Captain Jet.”
“No he doesn’t,” had been Henry’s immediate and firm response.
“Sure he does,” came my half-joking reply. “They both look like arseholes.”
“Shut up!” he’d hissed, face blazing as red as his hair in a sudden burst of fury. “Don’t speak about him like that, you don’t even know-” and at that he cut himself off and refused to say any more.
More than anything else Henry was as annoying as the character he’d played, and since he’d pretty much kept entirely mum on the subject of the TV show I was starting to consider kicking him to the curb and icing him out the same way everyone else had been doing. He’d even done the whole, “Hey! Tastes like chicken!” line a couple of times while eating lunch or whatever, in a totally non-self-mocking way, like he actually meant it, like it just rolled naturally off the tongue. I was starting to think the character he’d played had been based on him to some degree, which was a pretty intolerable idea, to be honest. Meanwhile Cowboy Detectives was still showing every afternoon on the telly and I was still watching, though for some reason I’d started to find it far less enjoyable since Henry had made his real-world entrance into my life.
It became apparent eventually that Henry was watching it too. One afternoon the episode had dealt with the main characters meeting this wise man with a lump of meat for a head called Swami Pastrami. Apparently Swami Pastrami knew the secrets of life and death and this gave Captain Jet the bright idea of resurrecting Henry, or “Relife-ifying Henry back to the universe!” as he put it. They needed to scrape together a couple of artefacts first, of course, necessitating the dragging-out of the pretty weedy plot into a multi-episode story arc. The next day at school Henry was almost wetting himself with excitement, finally breaking his long silence on the subject of the show by jabbering about it non-stop all day. I couldn’t figure it out personally since even at that age I’d known that shows like these were filmed months in advance of their screenings; surely as these episodes had already been made he would have been aware all along of the eventual re-appearance of his character, and there was still the matter of him currently living in a crappy town in the Goldfields. If he was stuck out back of beyond like the rest of us then either the show had been cancelled or his character’s resurrection hadn’t panned out, or he’d been killed off again. I asked him about all this, of course, but he only gave me cursory and unsatisfactory answers before returning to the subject of “how awesome is Swami Pastrami!” I eventually figured he was probably just excited to see himself on telly again, although I smugly decided that he was mistaken if he thought that would encourage the rest of the school into giving him any respect.
During that afternoon’s episode the main characters assembled the artefacts and prepared for the ginger ninja’s resurrection. As Swami Pastrami intoned his “Mystical Ressurecto Chant” and sprinkled magic dust over Henry’s urn the ashes within them started to glow and then- the familiar TO BE CONTINUED appeared and the end credits started to roll. They certainly were milking this for as much as it was worth, which in my opinion really wasn’t very much at all. The next day Henry drew me aside and quietly invited me over to his house after school since he was “kind of having a little celebration, watching the show with some Coke and chips, please come.” Part of me was pretty reluctant to accept, especially since hanging out with Henry at school had already done significant damage to my reputation as it was; if word got out that I’d actually gone to his house then it would take months for me to claw back even a semblance of my former cred. Still, curiosity got the better of me and I did eventually agree. I figured the experience of actually sitting next to the person I was watching that moment on telly was one I probably wouldn’t get again, and that it would be surreal enough an event to be worth it regardless of how much my popularity tanked as a result.
When we got to his house that arvo I found that it was big and fancy, a two-story affair in one of the wealthier suburbs of town. “Much too good a house for a dork like Henry,” I thought to myself as he pushed open the flyscreen door and we made our way inside.
“Your mum in?” I asked him as I had a look around his living room. It was pretty nice, with a wide-screen TV and leather sofas the size of mastodons. Still, I was disappointed there weren’t any family portraits about as I’d been hankering for a look at Henry’s parents ever since he’d invited me over. In my mind’s eye they were also gap-toothed red-headed freckle-faced freaks.
“No,” he murmured. “She’s... still at work.” We didn’t say much else as we sat down and waited for the show to come on. It would have been hard for me to talk much anyway, so intent was I on guzzling as much Coke and inhaling as many chips as possible; I wanted to make the most of this experience, after all, and that meant taking as much advantage as I could. By the time the familiar flying Cadillac had appeared on screen, accompanied by the insulting noise that was the show’s opening theme, I was starting to feel a bit queasy. The internal complaints of my own body did not distract me enough, however, that I failed to notice how tense Henry had become. He’d stopped eating entirely and was sitting bolt upright on the sofa, staring unblinkingly at the screen as his hands worked tensely away at the cushion in his lap.
“Maybe he’s worried he’ll look like a nob,” I thought to myself. “Too late!” I couldn’t help but smirk a little at my own wit.
Still, my good mood was wiped out pretty quickly after the end of the title sequence. The last episode had closed with Henry’s (on-screen) ashes glowing and that’s how this one began. To a chorus of silly ‘zoop-zoop’ sound effects there was a flash of light and the ashes faded out, with Henry’s all too familiar form fading in at the same moment. And, while this happened, the Henry sitting beside me started to fade out too. In fact it seemed that the real-life Henry’s fading out perfectly synchronised with the on-screen Henry’s fading in. As I sat watching, jaw-dropped and dumbstruck, Henry disappeared from the sofa seat next to me and reappeared on-screen, accidentally catching a clump of Swami Pastrami’s magic dust in the mouth and gleefully yelling, as all the other characters clutched one another in rapturous joy, “Hey! Tastes like chicken!”
I was on my feet out and out of there almost instantly, pelting home at top speed and not stopping until I was safely shut up in my own room where I sat trembling and staring at the wall until dinner. I missed the rest of the episode, of course, and was so agitated that night that I couldn’t sleep properly. I kept dreaming that Henry was reaching out of the TV and dragging me into Cowboy Detectives, that I was trapped inside the show with no way out and that all my movements would be televised for a half-hour every afternoon for the rest of eternity. At school the next day I wasn’t at all surprised to see that Henry was missing or to hear from our teacher that Henry had “had to suddenly move back to Altair”, which I finally remembered was the star system where the Cowboy Detectives’ headquarters was located. I wasn’t even very shocked when I went round his house after school to find only an old retired couple living there, people who neither had red hair nor freckles nor had never heard of a kid called Henry.
I guess that’s the end of my story, really, and I swear to God that it’s all true, word for word. The whole experience shook me up pretty badly for a while; I was eventually put on mood-stabilisers after my parents noticed how nervous and twitchy I was getting. It did cure me of watching afterschool programs on TV, however, so most of the rest of my childhood was pretty fulfilling, which is a lot more than can be said for most people. Still, I must admit that I’d rather not have gone through what I did at all. When you get right down to it, knowing that there really is a guy out there determined to bake the whole universe into a cake and feed it to a space alien, and that only a bunch of semi-moronic cowboy-hatted lunatics are standing between him and total galactic destruction... well, that’s more knowledge than anyone should have to put up with, believe me.
Also, if that shit actually exists then does that mean that Saved by the Bell, My Little Ponies and Roger Ramjet are all real, somewhere, too? The whole thing just doesn’t bear thinking about.
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