A Tribute to Rocket Launchers on TV

To rocket or not to rocket - that is the question. We revisit some memorable appearances of rocket launchers on the small screen...

In the episode Innocence from Buffy The Vampire Slayer‘s second season, Joss Whedon provides a glorious moment of Beelzebub-busting ballistic mayhem, an explosive denouement that caps off an already robust and engaging story – the whole hour so deliciously composed that it’s rightly come to be regarded as one of the show’s best.

A pro-rocket remark Whedon makes in the audio commentary for Innocence is worth reproducing here for its sheer and utter loveliness: “The two things that matter the most to me: emotional resonance and rocket launchers. Party Of Five, a brilliant show – and often made me cry uncontrollably – suffered ultimately from a lack of rocket launchers.”

Amen, brother. The rocket launcher is perhaps the least subtle of all of the ground-based combat weapons. For that reason, among many others, there are very few shows, outside of those depicting actual wars or demonic showdowns, that can smuggle the walloping weapon into their narrative and get away with it without being accused of jumping the shark (or, indeed, blowing up the shark). On the other hand, a talented enough writing team can make anything fit if they put their minds to it. That being said, I doubt we’ll be seeing one on Transparent any time soon (although, Jill Soloway, if you’re reading this, feel free to consider this a challenge).

Like Joss Whedon, I’m unapologetically pro-rocket. I guess being raised on the action films of Arnold Schwarzenegger does things to a man. Why rock the Kasbah when you can rocket it instead, am I right? Bazooka that verruca! Bully for me, then, that 2016 appears to have been the Year of the Rocket. It’s the age-old tale. You wait long, explosion-less years for a rocket-launcher to feature prominently in one of the multitude of TV shows you follow, only for the hardy hardware to show up in four of the blighters at once: The Walking DeadGothamBanshee, and Preacher.

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Over the course of this achingly academic treatise I’m going to evaluate the effectiveness and welcomeness of rocket use in each of these four shows, and award them scores out of five (using rockets instead of stars, obviously). While there’s certainly an argument to be made that any use of a rocket should automatically hand that show a maximum rating (because rockets are awesome), I’m going to attempt to be a little more discerning in my judgement.

Without any further ado, I bid you welcome to my highly arbitrary, kaboom-based kangaroo court.

One, two, Z – blast off!

2015 also had its fair share of rockety goodness, thanks to the gloriously insane Z Nation, the show that proved to us once and for all that the end of human civilisation needn’t be a sombre and miserable affair. Z Nation’s second season stonker White Light gave us bullets, rockets and explosions galore in an episode-long gun and rocket fight – think Desperado on amphetamines with zombies – in which various bands of bad-asses and mercenaries duked it out with our heroes in order to claim the wholly-fabricated bounty on Murphy’s head. Later that season Citizen Z, under siege and facing death in his lonely polar outpost, employed an anti-tank rocket to take out a stubborn, ultra-fast, super-hungry soldier zombie. It was a desperate, balls-out gambit that almost sent his own limbs springing in sixteen directions at once, but one that – ultimately – paid off, for Citizen Z and for us.

Yes, Z Nation can pull off a rocket-launcher, my friends, because Z Nation is a rocket launcher, blasting its viewers in the face each and every week with some of the most stupendously inventive, endlessly rewarding scenes of absurdist destruction seen this side of an early Peter Jackson flick.

Rocket Rating: That’s clearly a five-rocket endorsement right there, but, regrettably, 2015 shows aren’t eligible for my prestigious awards. Thankfully, Z Nations elder step-parent, the angsty, grime-bearded behemoth The Walking Dead, made an explosive contribution in 2016.

The Seated Dead

In the first half of season six, Abraham got his swag back thanks to his expertise in the fine art of rocket-launcher extraction. We screwed up our eyes in ghastly anticipation as he plucked one from a precariously dangling deado. If we could be certain of nothing else it was that Abraham’s new toy was going to be deployed at some point during the ensuing episodes, otherwise why bother introducing it? As the old maxim concerning narrative structure goes, you can’t fire a gun in act two without first establishing its existence in act one. This was the foreplay. Someone – somehow and soon – was going to get Chekhov’s rocket straight between the teeth.

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Sure enough, when season 6b opened on Daryl, Sasha and Abraham seemingly doomed to emerge from their encounter with a bike-based band of nutcase Neganites exactly one New Alexandrian lighter, we knew at once how they were going to extricate themselves from the danger.

The only question: how were they going to be able to retrieve the rocket-launcher from their tanker while under the watchful gaze of so many heavily-armed psychopaths? The answer, of course, was with an enormous suspension of disbelief, one that would’ve caused revolt among viewers of Breaking Bad had they been asked to tolerate a similar narrative sleight-of-hand. This, however, is the world of The Walking Dead, where verisimilitude often plays second fiddle to ‘Ah, bugger it, this’ll be cool!’

Daryl is escorted to the rear of the tanker by an inquisitive Neganite, who is keen to inspect and itemise the gang’s bounty prior to stealing it. In the space of a minute, Daryl manages to incapacitate his captor, open the tanker, retrieve the rocket-launcher, arm it, and line up his shot, all off-camera, and all completely unheard and unseen by anyone, including us. Either Daryl was taught advanced stealth by Spock and Daredevil, or these are the stupidest, most incompetent baddies seen this side of an episode of Catch The Pigeon. The Neganites are too busy listening to their leader laying down some bombastic Bond-villain banter to worry about a trifling little thing like not being killed. And so, as their dear leader drones on and on and on, they’re dispatched in a whoosh-bang explosion of body-and-bike parts that is as viscerally entertaining as it is utterly, gloriously ridiculous.

It was inevitable that once Daryl had developed a taste for military-grade pyrotechnics he would seize any opportunity to break out the rocket again. When a horde of walkers is running riot in Alexandria later that episode, Daryl ignites a petrol-laced lake with his new toy to entice the horde to its moth-like doom. Yes, he probably could’ve used a lighter or a lit-rag to achieve the same effect, but where’s the cool in that? And don’t worry about limited resources. If there’s one thing I’m sure the zombie apocalypse is absolutely teeming with, it’s rockets.

Rocket Rating: THREE ROCKETS. The sight of Daryl – the James Dean of the Dead – laying down the law with a bang is certainly worth a five-rocket rating. But those nagging questions, those leaps of logic that are absent from our judgement when evaluating crazier shows like Z Nation, have forced me to knock two rockets off The Walking Dead’s total. I HAVE SPOKEN.

Gotham? No ham, I’m afraid. Gotrockets though.

Gotham‘s the sort of show that keeps trying to insist that it’s subtle enough to crack a walnut with a mere flick of a weapon-less wrist, only to whip out a sledgehammer the second your back is turned. One moment it’s proudly sporting its Nolan-icity, showing a calloused hero scowling from the shadows as the rain pelts down on a dark and dingy city street – a city knee-deep in bad-good guys and good-bad guys, all drowning together in a quagmire of corruption: the next moment you’re watching a fledgling super-villain reeling off a loud and lengthy monologue about his villainy in the middle of a crowded police station.

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Which fictional version of Gotham City are we in? The spandex-clad swing-a-long of the sixties or the grey-shaded murk of the noughties? The show can never seem to make up its mind. Somehow, it’s never quite serious enough to be gritty, and never quite camp enough to be fun. That’s the general thrust of my considered critique, in any case.

Gotham‘s biggest crime is that it eschews character development and depth in favour of hammy cliff-hangers and an endless procession of pre-origin origin stories for each of Batman’s future nemeses. If you’ve ever read any of the Batman graphic novels, you’ll know that a ‘Batman without Batman’ story can work if handled correctly. Unfortunately, in terms of both philosophical resonance and laughs, Gotham often struggles to match the impact even of the popular web-based comic strip Jon Without Garfield.

Still, hope comes in many forms, and in Gotham‘s case it came in the form of a rocket. In the second season episode Unleashed, Jim Gordon is poised to meet his maker at the hands of the unstoppable zombie ninja Azreal (or the re-animated artist formerly known as Theo Galavan, if you like), who has been brainwashed by Hugo Strange to destroy Bruce Wayne and anyone who stands in the way of his single-mindedly murderous mission. When Penguin and Butch appear from nowhere to intercede on Jim Gordon’s behalf, pricking Azrael’s stone-faced pomposity in the most decisive way possible by blowing him into a million squishy pieces with a whopping great rocket launcher, I actually applauded: partly because it was bloody funny, but mostly because Gotham had finally shown me – albeit in a tremendously unsubtle fashion – that it was capable of surprising me.

Rocket Rating: FOUR ROCKETS. That’s right, four rockets. Want to fight about it? It’s perhaps an understatement to say that Gotham isn’t exactly a critical darling. It is, however, immensely popular with the masses. A quick trawl of YouTube to watch amateur reviews of the episode, and reactions to the rocket incident, has convinced me that I’m watching Gotham in the wrong way. This show isn’t Fargo. It isn’t even Arrow. What I need to do is learn the lesson of the rocket and rein in the yah-boo-sucks-ness of my ever-engaged critical faculties, and hope – and pray – that Gotham isn’t finished surprising me. In summary: this was the rocket that Azrael deserved, and the one that I needed.

Banshee and the Bazooka

In Celtic folklore, a Banshee is a creature whose shriek presages death. Never has a town, or a series, been so aptly named. The body count in the small backwater town of Banshee rises, by the end of its fourth and final season, to rival that of most minor wars, a non-stop whoosh-bang of immolations, bullet-blasts and lethal lacerations. The screams of death, and the shrieks of its bedfellow sex, echo down the quaint little post-card streets and across the silent, ox-ploughed fields. A town of consequences. A town where the truly wicked perish and the righteous are reborn… And you thought the Merseyside street of Brookside was disproportionately violent for its size.

Welcome to Banshee, where a criminal on the run from even worse criminals masquerades as a small-town sheriff, doling out justice by day and robbing banks by night in league with a renegade ninja waitress, a grizzly and grizzled former boxer, and a wise-cracking, gun-toting, transvestite computer hacker. This identity-juggling takes place against a backdrop of meth-manufacturing white supremacists, warring Native American tribes, and serial killing cults: a landscape of perpetual chaos that is presided over by a dead-eyed Amish gangster.

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Banshee is pulpy yet authentic, cartoonish yet exquisitely gritty, sexy and violent yet ethereal and ponderous, gravely serious yet heart-thumpingly, blood-pumpingly fun: like a really good graphic novel brought to life and spliced with the DNA of several high-concept action flicks and old Japanese samurai movies. It’s not surprising to see a rocket-launcher in an episode of Banshee; what’s surprising is that a rocket doesn’t feature in every single one of its episodes.

Banshee’s rocket almost, but not quite, caps off its series finale. It certainly draws a line under the story of one character in particular. When Sheriff Brock uses a rocket launcher to blow up of a stock-pile of drugs and money belonging to the cartel, the resulting explosion serves as a violently percussive and perfectly apposite piece of punctuation to mark the end of his journey.

Back at the beginning of Banshee, the never-named protagonist of the show assumes the mantle of dead-sheriff Lucas Hood. Brock – a stiff, fastidious cop who was born with rules in his blood – is hood-winked into serving as Hood’s deputy, unwittingly playing second-fiddle to a morally ambiguous master criminal. Deliciously, over four or more chaotic years, Hood’s corner-cutting, rule-bending, law-breaking ways not only make Brock’s eventual ascension to sheriff possible, but also hand Brock the hard edge and dark magic of the soul necessary to make it as a sheriff in the unforgiving psychoclimate of a town like Banshee. When Brock learns Hood’s long-kept secret, he doesn’t burn his former boss: he becomes him. Brock’s rocket destroys not only the cartel’s plans for Banshee, but also all of Brock’s former notions of himself as a man unable to bend from the black-and-white of the world.

Rocket rating: FIVE ROCKETS. Banshee’s rocket was surprising, funny, spectacular, cool and also completed a character’s arc in a satisfying and fitting way.

Friend of a Preacher Man

Let’s go straight for the jugular here. There’s no need for preamble or scene setting when the rocket use is as exquisite as it is in Preacher. To paraphrase Jaws: “I think we’re going to need a bigger scoring system.” Plucky heroine Tulip O’Hare is being hunted by bad guys across cornfields and dusty farm tracks. A helicopter is advancing on her location. She’s inadequately armed, and time is running out. Ever resourceful, and more than a little unhinged, she enlists a random child to help her craft a bazooka from coffee cans, which she then loads with tiny, toy metal soldiers.

Rocket Rating: SIX ROCKETS. You dare question my six-rocket rating? When a kick-ass character takes down an enemy helicopter with toys and coffee cans? Well played, Preacher. Well played.

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Should you dare to question my air-tight rating system, or wish to discuss the general use of rockets in your favourite TV shows, please proceed, in an orderly yet heavily-armed manner, to the comments section below.