There’s something really special about Galaxy Quest that’s hard to describe. It’s not just the loving send-up of classic Star Trek that permeates the film, because if that were all it had going for it, then it wouldn’t resonate comedically with an audience that’s unfamiliar with the old sci-fi juggernaut’s quirks and foibles, and I’ve witnessed enjoyment of the film by many a non-Trekkie. My most recent re-watch of the film was at least the twentieth time that I’ve seen it in my life, including an attendance during its theatrical run the summer I turned twelve, and I still get a kick out of it every time. Other genre parodies and pastiches have come and gone, but Galaxy Quest‘s enduring popularity even led to a 2019 documentary about the film, twenty years after its initial release. I’m not surprised by how beloved it is, however, as its appeal has never worn off for me, either.
The film opens some twenty years after the unresolved cliffhanger finale of kitschy old school space opera series Galaxy Quest, at a fan convention for the show. The show’s stars have seen little success in their careers after the show ended and the fan convention circuit seems to be the only way that they provide for themselves, other than Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who portrayed Kirk-analog Peter Quincy Taggart on the show. Allen plays Nesmith pitch perfectly, with a massive ego that’s just a few degrees off of William Shatner’s real life braggadocio, pairing it with a very un-Shatner tenderness with fans that makes him more sympathetic than Shatner is (sorry, Bill). He also hints at an ongoing attraction to former castmate Gwen DeMarco (a blonde Sigourney Weaver), who played Lieutenant Tawny Madison, whose sole function on the series was to look pretty and repeat everything that the computer said. Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) is our not-quite-Leonard-Nimoy here, with a few shades of Patrick Stewart, as a classically trained British theatre actor whose role as the alien Doctor Lazarus—complete with a prosthetic rubber “head” that covers his hair—has so dwarfed anything else that he could possibly do that he openly laments that he will be repeating his character’s corny catchphrase until the day that he dies. True to his veteran stage nature, he can always be coaxed onstage with the reminder that “the show must go on.” Clearly (but for the sake of the film’s PG rating not explicitly) stoned Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub), who was the ship’s engineer Chen is also present, at least physically, as is Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell), who played the pilot of the Protector on the show as a child, like Wil Wheaton did as Wesley Crusher on The Next Generation.
Nesmith overhears some teenagers mocking him while in the bathroom at the convention, which results in him blowing up at eager young fan Brandon (Justin Long), which even the castmates who dislike him find out of character. After blowing off a group of people that are presumed to be alien cosplayers at the convention, they come to his home to pick him up for a mission, which he interprets to be the group simply maintaining character as Galaxy Quest LARPers for a side appearance that he accepted. Hungover from drinking himself unconscious the previous night over the embarrassment of being mocked and then exploding at teenagers afterward, Jason fails to notice that he has been transported up to a real spacecraft, where the leader of the group, Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni), brings him into contact with Sarris (Robin Sachs), a reptilian warlord who has attacked Mathesar’s people, the Thermians. Jason directs the aliens to fire, half-asses a
Kirk Taggart speech, declares victory, and asks to be sent home. The Thermians, worriedly, allow him to leave, but they send him back via teleportation via goo, which shocks him and makes him realize that his experience has been real. When he tries to share this news with his castmates (and bumping into Brandon again, accidentally swapping out the functional communicator that Mathesar gave him with the kid’s toy), they believe he’s having a mental breakdown, but when Fred points out that he might have been talking about a gig, they race to catch up with him and then experience their own epiphanic space transport. Also along for the ride is Guy (Sam Rockwell), a convention emcee whose sole stake in the show was playing a Redshirt credited only as “Crewman 6,” but who is also living off of the convention appearances. Once aboard the real Protector, he immediately assumes that his status as a “non-character” means that he’s doomed to die first, which sets off a great running gag in which he, as the only person who watched the show, is the only one who has any genre awareness about presuming that there’s air on a planet or that seemingly cute aliens might be vicious predators.
So how did this all happen? Why is there a real starship Protector? The Thermians received the broadcasts of the Galaxy Quest show and, having no cultural reference for fiction, presume that they are “historical documents” and reverse engineered what they saw on the show into something that actually functions. Their pacifism, however, made them easy prey for the hostile Sarris, and so they did the only thing that they could think of, which was go to Earth and enlist the help of their heroes, not realizing that they were simply actors. Upon witnessing what happened to the previous leader of the Thermians, who was tortured to death by Sarris, the actors attempt to flee back to earth, but are unable to leave due to the arrival of Sarris, and have to do in reality what they’ve only ever accomplished on screen.
There are so many little details that really make this one punchy. When we see some of the cast members’ homes, Alexander is living in squalor while Gwen’s bedroom looks comfortable but modest; Jason, in contrast, lives in a gorgeous mid century modern ranch style house with huge windows. He’s not hard up for money like the others are, which not only means that he’s been more successful but also that he doesn’t really need to go to these conventions to stay afloat financially like his old co-workers, but that he does it to stoke the fires of his own ego. Still, we remain sympathetic to him, as he does seem to truly love his old role, even being able to remember a monologue from an episode that he filmed decades before when he stumbles upon the episode on late night television. Another really great detail is the costuming in the convention; when Gwen poses with a group of fans who are all cosplaying as her character Tawny, each Tawny’s costume is clearly based on the one she wears in the show but are different from one another in ways that reveal their homemade nature. It’s really an inspired touch that the movie includes a half dozen people wearing their own interpretation of the same outfit, just like you would see at any other convention. Look at any photo of a real Star Trek convention and you’ll see the same thing, with several Doctor Crushers all posing together in variations on a style, a non-uniform uniform of black and teal and maybe a blue lab coat, but none identical. It reflects a love of not just the source material but the people who make up the community that enjoys it as well. There are hundreds of inspired choices throughout here, and you don’t have to know or care about Star Trek to get the jokes under the jokes, but if you do, it’s even more of a rewarding experience.
Somehow, the easter eggs scattered throughout the narrative aren’t distracting. A perfect example is the scene in which Jason has to fight first a desert pig/lizard hybrid and then a full on rock monster. His friends decide to use the ship’s version of the transporter device, which the Thermians have never successfully tested. Fred’s first attempt to use it, a test run on the pig thing, results in the creature being turned inside out before exploding. On the planet below, Jason somehow loses his shirt while fighting the rock monster, all while being coached through the event by Alexander. In a second attempt, Fred manages to beam Jason out of there moments before he’s squashed. The scene is funny regardless, with the gross teleporter accident explosion, Rickman’s perfect embodiment of a true thespian whose patience with a gloryhound colleague ran out years ago, and Shalhoub’s panicked performance as Fred, but if you’re versed in the deeper Star Trek lore, you know that Shatner, when directing The Final Frontier, wanted Kirk to fight a group of rock monsters, which was then reduced to a single rock monster for budgetary reasons, and was ultimately cut because of how goofy looking it was; here, not!Kirk actually does what Kirk never got to do, which adds a layer of enjoyment that’s not strictly necessary but reflects a genuine affection for what it’s mocking. And that’s not even getting into the various transporter accidents that occur over the course of the franchise, perhaps most notably in The Motion Picture, where it’s a relief to learn that two people who are horribly mutilated when the device fritzes mid-transport “didn’t live long … fortunately.”
The chemistry between the cast is great, especially between the Allen/Weaver/Rickman trio. Weaver is the one most playing against type, a role she sought out largely because she was the opposite of her most famous character, Ripley. Her rising frustration is palpable and she deals with it very unlike Ripley would, but Ripley would also never find herself on a ship that has giant, functionless, metal chomping machinery in the bowels of the ship just because a writer in the late seventies/early eighties wanted to have Taggart fight a reptile monster there in one episode. Rickman so thoroughly throws himself into the role of an actor who loathes the one person with whom he’s been forever joined in the public consciousness that his eventual grudging respect for his longtime foil packs a true emotional punch. His reactions to the Thermians’ expectation that he resemble the character that he hates are comic gold, but when he repeats his despised catchphrase in earnest after the death of an alien who respected him, it’s genuinely emotional. Some things haven’t aged well (the goo transport thing in particular stands out as a bad effect), but for the most part, it looks like a movie that could come out this summer. In fact, to give the film a little extra verisimilitude, they forsook the traditional “shake the camera and have the actors stagger around” effect of demonstrating weapon hits and built the control room set on a giant moving stage called a gimbal, and there is a noticeable uptick in the suspension of disbelief as a result.
For me, this is a comfort movie. It’s extremely well crafted, conceived, and executed, and it’s an easy pick if you’re looking for something that doesn’t take itself too seriously but gets everything right.
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond