Captain's Blog pt. 11: Galaxy Quest

Let's turn our attention to what JJ Abrams called "one of the best Star Trek movies ever made," 1999's...

It's not, officially, a Star Trek movie, of course, just an affectionate tribute to both Trek and to fandom. Along the way and in between some fantastic special fx, it reveals profound truths about the human condition and our perception of ourselves and reality. That may seem like a stretch, but hear me out.

The plot: The cast of Galaxy Quest, an off-the-air TV show with a passionate cult following, is recruited by the Thermians, an alien race who has mistaken their on-screen adventures as non-fiction and based their civilization on the show's teachings. The Thermians need the cast's assistance in their struggle against General Sarris, a ruthless warlord who seeks their destruction. The cast must live up to their own inflated reputations as well as conquer their own self-doubts and squabbles.

That's the plot, more or less. You don't have to be a Trek fan to enjoy it, but if you are, you'll undoubtedly enjoy it more. Galaxy Quest finds humor and adventure in the concept of fandom itself. 

(As well as the illogic of tv shows in general, as the above clip shows.)

Written by David Howard and Robert Gordon (who went on to write... very little,) this was originally supposed to be directed by Harold Ramis. Ramis wanted Kevin Kline for the role of Commander Nesmith, and Kline turned the part down. Ramis then wanted Alec Baldwin, whose career at that time was in a bit of a lull. The studio suggested (read: insisted on) Tim Allen, and Ramis found that casting a bridge too far. Ramis was out; enter director-for-hire Dean Parisot.

I was as much of a Tim Allen hater as anyone else before I saw this movie. I didn't just dislike Home Improvement; I saw it (and by extension, Allen's whole comedic approach, since that show is pointedly "based on the comedy of Tim Allen") as emblematic of shit-TV in general, i.e. the type of show so brilliantly skewered by Ricky Gervais in Extras: predictable laughtrack gags with all the bite of a Bruce Vilanch sandwich. So, I can sympathize with Harold Ramis, here; I don't think anyone at that time would have predicted Tim Allen might be good in the role, much less kill it.

But kill it he did.
His performance brings to mind Shatner without being an outright parody. (Much like Chris Pine's in the 2009 film.) Jason Nesmith as a character exists at a crossroads of false perceptions: by the Thermians, by himself, by his castmates, by Quest fans, etc. Allen conveys the struggle to reconcile these perceptions and keep "himself" in the process remarkably well.
This scene, here, where he's taking a leak and overhears fans talking about how much of a clueless joke he is, is some effective pathos. He goes from indulging the fans' over-enthusiasm for all things "Galaxy Quest" in the previous scene to snarling at them in the next.
Many actors could probably nail either the character's self-loathing or the character's megalomania, but Tim Allen nails both remarkably well. It's a shame he's not given more credit for it. The story showcases both his burgeoning self-awareness and his growth as a person, first trying to "fake" being a hero, then trying to live up to that ideal, then actually being one. Great stuff. Allen doesn't just give an acceptable performance in a great movie; he is an integral part of making this story work. I haven't really enjoyed Tim Allen in anything else, but I have to give credit where credit is due. 

The "hokey" fx of the original TV show (unreal, of course - in case I wasn't clear on that point) are referenced visually a few times:

And provide a sharp contrast to the crisp CGI of the "real" aliens:

The Thermians in their real form.
And General Sarris
as played by Robin Sachs.
This is an ensemble picture, and each member of the team brings something special to the proceedings.

Alan Rickman plays Alexander Dane aka "Dr. Lazarus:"

The "serious actor" who resents being associated with the show.
He shares many scenes with Patrick Breen, who plays Quellek, a Thermian who has dedicated his life to Mak'tar teachings.
Although it's played for laughs throughout when Quellek tries to use Lazarus' catchphrases from the show,
I always get a definite lump in my throat when Lazarus recites it to him when Quellek is mortally wounded.
This is a huge part of why this film works as well as it does. The idea of people taking a show too seriously is (understandably) played for laughs. And yet such things can actually inspire us. I'll never get people who dismiss fictional things as being unable to have a real and sincere impact not just on your life but on how you choose to live, what you choose to honor, etc. Sorry, folks; reality doesn't work like that. We are what we love; we imbue our fiction with actual meaning, and vice versa. It doesn't matter that Dr. Lazarus isn't real; he's real to Quellek and that belief is what inspires him to be better than he otherwise would be. What is hackneyed to some is inspirational to others; the line between the two really is all in the eye of the beholder.

Sometimes I think the world might be a better place if drama teachers ran it. Considering how much of our idea of "what is real" comes via television (even if you don't watch it or promote it, you live in a world where public action is determined by what people see on it,) the idea has a certain amount of logic to it.
Too much fiction might have its side effects, but believing too strongly in the quantum-disproved (or "news media") determined solidity of your surroundings is not just limiting but also downright illogical.

Tony Shalhoub plays Fred Kwan, the underachieving stoner who displays heretofore-untapped ingenuity and skill:

He has a romance with Laliari, played by Missi Pyle, leading to her returning to Earth with him
and her addition to the "Next Gen" cast.
Daryl Mitchell plays:

The boy pilot wunderkind on the original show...
...who learns how to pilot the alien ship by watching his childhood self play make-believe. (Message, people, message!)
Sigourney Weaver plays:

The sex symbol of the cast with no real function on the ship, whose TV Guide interview consisted only of questions about her boobs.

Her portrayal of the "stereotypical dumb blonde" is amusingly codified by the Thermians, who design their ship's interface so that the computer only responds to her voice. (Picture a real life starship Enterprise where communications are offline until the computer hears Nichelle Nichols say "Hailing frequencies open" and you get the idea.)

Rounding out the original cast is Sam Rockwell:

From the wiki: "Guy Fleegman, the actor who played "Crewman #6" in the original series and Security Chief "Roc" Ingersoll in the revival. Guy begins the story as a "Questerian" (Trekkie) who had a small role as a disposable redshirt in many episodes of the series and was an emcee at the 18th annual Galaxy Quest Convention, greeting the actors familiarly although they don't recognize him. He spends most of the movie fretting about his imminent demise, which he believes is inevitable for minor characters such as his, showing a difficulty to separate reality from fiction when in (perceived) danger. At times his fears based on fiction cliché turn out to be reasonable, as when he prevents Gwen from approaching apparently harmless child-like aliens, who are subsequently revealed to be hostile, sadistic and even cannibalistic. In reaction to this, he exclaims 'Didn't you guys ever watch the show?'"

Finally, Justin Long plays uber-nerd Questarian Brandon, whose encyclopedic knowledge of the show finally comes in handy, when he's called on to aid the actual crew from his computer.

"No time for pleasantries, Kyle, we have a level 5 emergency."
At first he's ridiculed by the cast (or at least Jason Nesmith,) but he takes it all in stride and gets to be a vital part of the climax.
The sight gag of Brandon having to take the trash out ("and the recyclables!") thus interrupting his communication with the Commander during a crisis is pretty much perfect. "Mother, I cannot stress enough the severity of the Commander's predicament..."

Couple other things:

"You broke the ship! You broke the bloody ship!"

"What I wouldn't give to be where you are now... you're deep in the heart of the Omega 13."
One last thought about the Thermians:

(l to r) Enrico Colantoni as Malthasar, their leader, Sam Lloyd as Neru. Missi Pyle as Laliari, and Rainn Wilson as Lahnk.
Both their manner and the general way they look and carry themselves is goofy. Intentionally, of course. But they ground the film in such a sincere innocence that their predicament (and their ultimate survival) is never taken for granted.

On one level, this movie is notable simply as a cinematic production, with a strong script, fantastic special fx, and solid performances. But on a more personal (and meaningful not just to me) level, it deftly combines the passion, nerdery, nostalgia, optimism, visual delight, and unexpected poignancy of the whole Trek gestalt into an absurdly appealing package. Trekker or no, it takes a real lack of imagination and empathy not to be moved by this movie.

"Goodbye, my friends."

NEXT: Back to the countdowns soon, but first, some Trek books, memoirs, and other errata.


  1. Oh, man, I really, REALLY need to watch this movie again...

    I totally agree, by the way, that shows (or books, or movies, or music, or __________) can, and do, have enormous positive impacts on people's lives. I think maybe they are most useful for creating bonds between like-minded fans, and for giving people something to talk about. Put a hundred strangers in a room together, and you've probably got a good bit of awkward silence. Put a hundred strangers who all like "Star Trek" in a room together, and you've probably got a lot of conversation.

    1. Agreed, absolutely.

      I think that's my favorite part of that Futurama set-up discussed last time: the inevitability of a world that takes Trek as its one religion. Too funny. (And a world I wouldn't mind visiting!)

      Yeah, Galaxy Quest is just great stuff. I hope they get a sequel together, though I doubt it'll happen.