There’s a long history of fan fiction that plays with the idea of the actors on a Science Fiction show actually ending up in a real life Science Fiction situation, most notably Jean Lorrah’s “Visit to a Weird Planet.” “Galaxy Quest” is likely the only piece of fanfic to actually make it to film. Originally written by a “Star Trek” fan and intended to showcase the real life “Star Trek” cast, the script eventually evolved into a story about a Star Trek-like classic SciFi series, whose actors bear a certain amount of resemblance to the Original Series cast.
Like “Star Trek”, “Galaxy Quest” is a canceled classic network series that became a cult classic in reruns. (Galaxy Quest was canceled at the end of its second season. “Star Trek” was nearly canceled at the end of its second season, but survived to continue in a disastrous third season on Friday nights sans creator Gene Roddenberry, before being canceled.) Like the Star Trek cast, its actors have become sufficiently identified with the roles they played, as to seriously damage their ability to find other work.
Star Trek relaunched with a new motion picture. So does “Galaxy Quest”, but it’s a motion picture inspired by a “real life” adventure that begins when a naive race of aliens which has modeled itself on the television broadcasts of “Galaxy Quest” reruns seeking aid from the actors. The idea of an alien race picking up fictional material from humanity to reshape their own societies has been done quite often. The original “Star Trek” series itself featured an episode titled “A Piece of the Action” that had an alien race transform itself into a gangster culture (Al Capone not Snoop Dogg) based on a book carelessly left behind. This proceeds from the idea that our concept of fiction might itself be foreign to an alien race.
The Thermians on “Galaxy Quest” follow this model, having no other way to comprehend fiction, except as lies. In that way the Thermians become the diametrical opposites of the society that rejected the fiction of “Galaxy Quest.” Where the mundane approach is that fiction is worthless because it is unreal and believe nothing, the Thermian approach is to believe everything.
“Galaxy Quest” begins and ends with a Science Fiction convention filled with fans whose devotion to the show is gently mocked. The Thermians are the ultimate fans. If the faith of the fans occasionally wavers, as when passionate fan Brandon (Justin Long) is temporarily shaken by Jason Nesmith’s (Tim Allen) rant that the show is not real, the faith of the Thermians never wavers. Being human, the fans believe in the show as an act of faith. The Thermians naturally believe, because faith is innate to them. Throughout the movie the actors are called upon to prove worthy of that faith by saving the Thermians, to be in turned saved by their fans, led by Brandon, who provide crucial technical information and even landing directions for the returning NSEA Protector.
“Galaxy Quest” is essentially a story of faith packaged as an action movie. Much like the two upcoming Star Wars fan movies, “1977” and “Fanboys”, “Galaxy Quest” spoofs the devotion to a SciFi movie or TV show, even while affirming it.
Tim Allen’s Jason Nesmith is part William Shatner and part every TV leading man whose time has come and gone, but still can’t let go of his glory days. Ultimately he learns the same lesson that Shatner did, that a Captain is nothing without his crew.
Tim Allen channels not just Shatner’s arrogance but his boundless self-confidence, the energy and focus that causes Shatner to be parodied endlessly. A good deal of the ribbing aimed at Shatner comes about precisely because he is so serious about himself, that it becomes funny. The popular clip of Shatner interpreting Elton John’s “Rocket Man” comes about because with the seriousness of an actor who spends a lot of time breaking down the most trivial things in terms of his studies in acting, Shatner interpreted the artistic “ideas” of a silly pop song in terms of ego, superego and id. That is also why Shatner never quite understands the parodies of himself. Allen thankfully avoids any all too obvious vocal Shatner parody, instead he captures the sense of faith that underlies an actor, who in believing in his own performance, believes in himself. Unlike the rest of the crew, Nesmith does not need to learn to beleive. He needs to learn a sense of proportion and to believe in others besides himself.
Alan Rickman lends dignity to Alexander Dane, echoing Leonard Nimoy’s discomfort with being typecast as a SciFi character, who comes to realize the effect his performance which he has held in contempt, has had on the character of his fans. Rickman is best remembered for his turn in “Die Hard” as Hans Gruber, here he manages to convey the petty arrogance and condescension which he infuses into his villains, and yet allow such a man to grow and learn, as Dane does throughout the course of the movie.
Sigourney Weaver brings style and life to a character that could have easily fallen by the wayside, just as her fictional counterpart did on the screen. Weaver’s Gwen DeMarco isn’t well written, but she is well acted. Weaver is one of those few actresses who can easily dominate a scene no matter what she is wearing or what her character is, and she duplicates that feat here as well.
Tony Shalhoub’s Tech Sergeant Kwan is the weak point of the movie. Besides wondering why an Asian actor was not cast in an Asian part, Shalhoub’s performance is weird, but not particularly entertainingly so. Another actor might have made it work, but he does not.
The always excellent Enrico Colantoni turns in a stand out performance as Mathesar, the leader of the Thermians. Full of naive goodness and yet vulnerable and capable of being hurt, Matlhesar is the alien as a child writ large.
Daryl Mitchell isn’t as irritating as he usually is, though his role is yet another minstrel show of cheesy racial stereotypes. Sam Rockwell overplays his part, but that’s almost expected in a character who was killed off and is desperate for the spotlight. Justin Long plays pretty much the same part he plays everywhere else and isn’t nearly as irritating as he is in the Apple commercials. Also look for Rainn Wilson, The Office’s Dwight Schrute in a small part as one of the Thermians.
What is particularly startling about “Galaxy Quest” is how much better of a movie it is, than all of the “Star Trek The Next Generation” cinematic features combined. With the Star Trek franchise, that “Galaxy Quest” is based on, in severe decline. Perhaps it’s time for Paramount to look back to “Galaxy Quest” in order to recapture the Star Trek spirit.