Galaxy Quest (1999) ***˝
I’ve never yet met a Star Trek fan who didn’t agree that Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best of the feature films in the series, but there’s a fair amount of competition for the #2 spot. The Undiscovered Country, First Contact, and even The Voyage Home have their cheering sections, and I’ll grant that the cases for the first two at least are pretty strong. But my personal nominee for the title of second-best Star Trek movie isn’t actually a Star Trek movie at all. Rather, Galaxy Quest is a parody of the franchise— and anyone acquainted with the standard of quality prevailing among Trek parodies would be justified in barging in at this point to object that that’s an impossibly tall boast I’ve just made on its behalf. I mean, it’s likely that no other property in all of English-speaking pop culture has attracted more truly dire spoofing than Star Trek, especially if you add up all of the series’s incarnations over the years. Just for starters, consider the Star Wreck books, the throwaway bit with the model starship in Zapped!, and Galaxina’s Mr. Spot. To say that a parody gets the essence of Star Trek closer to right than any but the best of the official films… well, I don’t blame you in the least for being skeptical.
You’ll be even more skeptical once you realize that Galaxy Quest shares the contours of its premise with The Three Amigos. (Keep reading— it’ll become clear soon enough.) The movie’s title refers not to a literal quest across the galaxy, but to a fictional turn-of-the-80’s TV show that’s sort of a cross between the original “Star Trek” and “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” with maybe a bit of “Battlestar Galactica” sprinkled over it for period-appropriate flavor. “Galaxy Quest” enjoys a cult following similar to that of its real-world inspiration, complete with a convention circuit, a variety of merchandising tie-ins and derivative media, and so forth. Apparently it got even more thoroughly screwed by the network than the 60’s “Trek” series, too, because the last episode produced was the first half of a two-parter; understandably, that episode has rarely if ever been rerun since its initial broadcast in 1982. That’s important for two reasons. First, it means that nobody actually knows what the top-secret Omega 13 device aboard the starship NCSE Protector (which was ordered activated in the final episode’s cliffhanger ending) was supposed to do, and that’s going to be a plot point later. But of more immediate significance, a rare presentation of the episode in question is one of two big attractions at the “Galaxy Quest” convention where we begin our tale.
The other attraction, of course, is a personal appearance by all five members of the core “Galaxy Quest” cast. Mind you, only four of them are present at just this moment. Gwen De Marco (Sigourney Weaver, from Ghostbusters and Alien), who played the Protector’s computer operator, Tawny Madison, is at the convention center like she’s supposed to be. So are the perplexingly non-Asian Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub, of Men in Black and Thirteen Ghosts)— known to the fans as the Scotty-like Technical Sergeant Chen— and Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), who did much of his growing up on camera as the Protector’s teen helmsman, Laredo. Even Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman, from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), the disgruntled ex-Shakespearean who will no doubt go to his grave without ever living down his casting as the alien mystic Dr. Lazarus, has swallowed his anguished pride yet again to don the old finny latex bald cap (although he’ll be goddamned if he lets some schmuck talk him into swearing anything “by Grabthar’s hammer” this time!). But Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), the star of the show? The only one of the bunch content to keep soaking up the persistent adulation of the “Questrians” for Commander Peter Taggart? No, that jackass prima donna is nowhere to be found, and convention organizer Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell, of Clownhouse and Moon) looks to be just minutes away from a nerd riot because of it. But just like his character always did on TV, Nesmith arrives in the nick of time to save the day— and to hog the spotlight away from his former castmates.
There is one thing out of the ordinary about this convention, though. Among the freaks and obsessives dressed up like this or that species of alien-of-the-week are four who come across as extra-freakish. They introduce themselves as Mathesar (Enrico Colatoni, from Stigmata and AI: Artificial Intelligence), Quellek (Patrick Breen, of Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant and The Bleeding House), Laliari (Missi Pyle, from Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters), and Teb (Jed Rees, of Fear and Lake Placid), explaining that they represent the planet Thermia, and are in need of Commander Taggart’s services. Nesmith naturally takes them for just another bunch of overly invested Questrians attempting to hire him for a meet-and-greet, and tells them to sort it out with his agent. He still thinks that’s what’s going on when the four weirdoes come by his house the following morning to pick him up in the limo he instructed them to rent, and he unconcernedly sets about sleeping off a hangover behind his sunglasses as the Thermians launch into some long and baffling (to Jason, anyway) story about Sarris the Conqueror and his war of aggression against their peace-loving planet. Sleeping through Mathesar’s briefing also means sleeping through the limo’s capture by some kind of matter-transporter gizmo, so Nesmith continues to be none the wiser when he awakens aboard the exacting and fully functional replica of the NCSE Protector which the Thermians have built for him to command. Even when the view screen on the bridge presents him with the horrid, reptilian visage of Sarris (Robin Sachs, of Vampire Circus and The Lost World: Jurassic Park), Nesmith proceeds obliviously in his assumption that this is all an elaborate improv scene for a fan video or a TV commercial or whatever. He blithely orders the Thermian helmsman to open fire on Sarris’s ship with everything the Protector has, then scampers off to catch what he expects to be the limo ride to his next promotional gig. Only when the transporter device encases his body in an airtight blob of insulating, pressurized, oxygenated glop before launching him back to Earth does he grasp the reality of what he’s just been through.
As soon as the opportunity presents itself, Jason tells his former costars all about his adventure in outer space. They all assume he’s playing a practical joke on them (something of which Jason apparently has as long a history as Gene Roddenberry), and are in no mood to play along. That’s when the Thermians return. It seems Sarris survived Nesmith’s cannonade upon his vessel, and now he has it in for Mathesar and his people worse than ever. Knowing when they’re beaten, the Thermians are pinning their hopes on Commander Taggart’s prowess at the negotiating table; perhaps he can induce Sarris to set relatively humane terms for the Thermians’ surrender. That gets to Nesmith. Now that he knows the real score, he recognizes that the aliens’ plight is to a great extent his fault, and he determines to make it up to them. To hell with surrender— Nesmith is going to do what the Thermians wanted from him in the first place. He’s going to save their world, damnit! Alex, Gwen, Tommy, and Fred aren’t sure what to make of this surreal conversation, but De Marco eventually gets it into her head that Mathesar and his companions are hiring Jason for some manner of personal appearance. No way is she going to let him cut a deal like that in front of her and the others without including them! Thus it is that the whole Protector crew wind up in the middle of a real-life space war. So, for that matter, does Guy Fleegman, who’s been sniffing along after the main “Galaxy Quest” cast like a lost puppy ever since the convention, desperate for a little recognition for that time he played a nameless, doomed ensign in Episode 83.
Now it might seem impractical to travel who knows how many light years through space just to recruit a bunch of washed-up TV actors to fight your battles for you, but there’s one thing you have to understand about the Thermians. The poor saps have no concept of falsehood, fiction, or even mythology in their squiddy little minds (their true form is somewhere between the Mars Attacks! aliens and Minoru Kawasaki’s Calamari Wrestler), and they’ve mistaken all those “Galaxy Quest” broadcasts they intercepted way back when for the audiovisual record of an actual human space expedition. What’s more, because those broadcasts reached Thermia at a time of massive social disorder, the aliens were inspired to reshape their entire civilization according to the principles of harmony and personal virtue that they believed were expressed in those transmissions from beyond the void. There’s even a Thermian religious order devoted to the “Grabtharist” philosophy of Dr. Lazarus. So when Sarris and his hordes loomed up to threaten Thermia, where else would they turn for assistance than to the heroes who already transformed their world from afar? It’s just the aliens’ good luck that those heroes turn out to be stand-up folks, even though they aren’t really the people they used to play on television. Let’s take a moment, however, to notice that the Thermians’ inability to grasp the concepts of acting and make-believe opens several serious weaknesses in their strategy. Sarris certainly does…
The most effective parodies are always those which proceed from a deep understanding of the material being spoofed. And if that understanding is coupled with an equally deep affection, then so much the better. Most Star Trek parodies (and even a couple of the official Trek spin-offs) go awry through incomprehension and/or contempt, but Galaxy Quest was made by people who got it. Consider the ignoble art of the Redshirt joke. We all know that if a guy you’ve never seen before beams down to the Planet of the Week with Kirk, McCoy, and Spock, you can count on him being dead meat before the end of the pre-credits sequence. In and of itself, it hasn’t been funny since the second or third time somebody observed it, because by now everyone has observed it. But Galaxy Quest is not content merely to observe. It wants to play with the universal recognition that the trope of the Redshirt commands, and one of its best running gags is the morbid certainty felt by the entire crew that Guy Fleegman— ex-Redshirt that he is— can’t possibly survive the mission. As Gwen puts it when an excursion to secure a replacement for the beryllium sphere that powers the Protector’s engines starts to go bad, “We’ve got to get out of here before one of those things kills Guy!” The latter plot detour features a slew of Trek references that go beyond the easy surface gags, too, including a rock monster very like the one that had to be cut from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier on budgetary grounds, several amusing visual digs at William Shatner’s stage fighting technique, and a riff on an especially silly line from the original series fan-favorite episode, Arena. For that matter, the beryllium sphere itself is a double-score nerd shout-out; beryllium is the element that follows lithium (of which the Enterprise’s dilithium crystals are presumably largely composed) on the periodic table.
Galaxy Quest also pays loving attention to the behind-the-scenes lore of Star Trek. Most conspicuously, Alexander Dane’s thin-skinned resentment over the way Dr. Lazarus has eaten his acting career is analogous to Leonard Nimoy’s attitude toward Spock throughout the 70’s and early 80’s, although Dane has been given a background closer to Patrick Stewart’s in order to make his inability to move beyond Dr. Lazarus sting more. But Galaxy Quest actually gets more mileage out of the fabled bad blood that has flown between William Shatner and so many of his supporting players over the years. The hate-tinged friendship between Jason Nesmith and Gwen De Marco especially captures the tone of Shatner’s post-cancellation relationship with Nichelle Nichols without merely copying all of its details. Let me note as well what a terrific Shatner stand-in Tim Allen makes. Normally, I can’t stand Allen; whether on sitcom television or on the standup stage, he was a Larry the Cable Guy for a less stridently stupid time— which made his public persona still more than stridently stupid enough for me. This movie, however, makes an asset of Allen’s every arrogant chest-puff and self-satisfied smirk. It turns out he’s great as a second-rate ham who thinks he’s a superstar, yet who still gets away with everything every time because he’s so damn charismatic. The tone of Allen’s performance exactly matches the voice of Shatner’s Star Trek Memories memoirs, a paradoxical register that I can describe only as self-deprecating narcissism. That’s vital for preventing the portrayal of Jason Nesmith from coming across as mere character assassination, even though Nesmith is much worse than the real William Shatner— and that in turn is vital for the success of this movie as a whole. There isn’t a Trekkie alive at this point who doesn’t realize that Shatner is kind of a jerk, but he’s our jerk, damnit, and we love him.
On a related point, Galaxy Quest hits all the right notes in its rendition of sci-fi fandom. That may not sound like much today, but it was a more impressive feat in 1999, when the geeks had not yet inherited the pop-culture Earth. The “Galaxy Quest” conventions on which the main story both begins and ends are spot-on, a mix of festivity, cheesiness, camaraderie, ersatz glamour, quasi-religious fervor, and naked consumerism, all of it shrouded in a simultaneously attractive and pathetic penumbra of suspended adolescence. There’s a realistic range of workmanship on display among the cosplay crowd, from “I could do this for a living” to “I found some stuff that sort of looks like my favorite character’s costume while rummaging through my grandma’s attic.” And while this part is exaggerated for comedic effect, no one who’s ever been involved in fan culture will fail to recognize the obsessive intensity with which the Questrians cultivate an encyclopedic knowledge of their favorite show. Galaxy Quest charmingly makes a plot point of that, too, when Nesmith and the crew are forced to rely on an accidental com-link with a convention-goer named Brandon (Justin Long, from Jeepers Creepers and Drag Me to Hell) to find their way through the ship’s less frequented byways after the Protector is boarded and captured by Sarris and his soldiers.
Above all, though, Galaxy Quest is just plain funny, in ways that require no (or at any rate, very little) familiarity with Star Trek, or sci-fi in general— and remarkably, that remains so despite a round of last-minute re-edits meant to bring the MPAA rating down to PG. The trick is that none of these jokes depend on “adult content” for their success. It isn’t the profane phrasing (much less profane in the final cut) of Gwen De Marco’s reaction to the inexplicable synchronized smashing contraptions in one of the Protector’s service corridors that matters, but rather the almost personal offense that she takes upon finding the deadly yet patently useless things blocking her and Nesmith’s way. Fred Kwan’s unflappably easygoing demeanor earns laughs by sheer incongruity as the dangers facing him and the others mount, even without the justifying detail that he was supposed to spend the entire movie stoned out of his mind. And the romance that develops between him and Laliari generates all the “Oh, God— my eyes!” it needs just from the tentacles that slither up from the edges of the frame whenever they make out. My favorite gag of all, though, was the brainchild of Enrico Colatoni. It was his idea to give the Thermians their indescribable accents, a bit of on-set improv which rightly so charmed the director that it became a fixed part not only of Colatoni’s performance, but of all the actors’ playing the aliens. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a consistent attempt to give extraterrestrials their own foreign accent before, and Colatoni’s version is as endearingly goofy as any you could ask for in a film of this type.