“By Grabthar’s hammer… by the suns of Warvan… you shall be avenged!”
Galaxy Quest is a parody and tribute to the original Star Trek (with some added flavoring from Next Generation). For those unaware of the basic “setup”, it takes place in a world like this one, in which the famous classic SF TV show was called “Galaxy Quest” which featured a fancy starship called the NESA Protector which had a crew featuring a womanizing captain, an alien science officer, and a token female communi… er, comPUTER officer,, and generated a huge fan following that continued for many years after it was cancelled. But it turns out that there are alien species out there, and some of them think that the TV episodes are reality. So naturally when a vicious alien warlord threatens them, they travel to Earth to recruit the crew of the Protector to defend them…
It should be noted that I am a very hard sell when it comes to comedy and parody. Most things that people find funny leave me blinking and either saying “so?” or being actively annoyed, since most humor is based on embarrassing (or worse) other people, and most parody is very mean-spirited, mocking the original and, often, by extension those who loved it.
Galaxy Quest is the shining exception to these rules.
Oh, there is embarrassment, but it is in service to the characters developing and becoming more than they were, which makes all the difference. There is not, at any time, a sneer, a “looking down”, either on the fans or on the show itself. The convention depicted in the movie is – surprisingly – fairly accurate. There are even ordinary-looking families there, wandering through the convention, when many attempts to show such conventions often emphasize the “freaks”.
What makes the movie, though, is the cast and the way in which they play their roles. The crew is clearly meant to echo the original Enterprise crew (with the addition of a Wesley Crusher equivalent), and they do so magnificently, with Tim Allen playing a Shatneresque actor (Jason Nesmith) at his worst, Sigourney Weaver (Gwen DeMarco) taking the Uhura-parallel as the computer officer who simply talks to the machine, and Alan Rickman (Alexander Dane) as the Token Alien equivalent of both Spock and Worf – and with the Classical Actor background that Nimoy brought to the role, plus a vast hostility for this television role that has completely overshadowed everything he has done before or since.
Thrown into an impossible situation in which they are expected not to simply act as their characters, but be their characters, they react realistically and with both humor and pathos. Even accepting that these strange aliens (“Thermians”) really do both believe that they are their characters, and desperately need their help, they know how little they really know and how hopeless the situation is (made worse by Nesmith’s first drunken encounter with the Thermians and their adversary).
But when they find they’re stuck in this position, the actors realize they have an opportunity to make their roles into something bigger, and something meaningful, in a way that they never could have elsewhere.
There are countless nods to fandom and Star Trek in this movie, ranging from the fans knowing more than the actors and having to be consulted in order to get the Protector home safely, to the fact that the controls on the original ship were operated in a consistent fashion because the actor made it so; George Takei explicitly decided on sequences of actions he would take whenever, for instance, the Enterprise left orbit, and maintained that consistency throughout the show (to the point that he would correct the directors if they tried to have him do it wrong).
The “actors frustrated with typecasting” is of course taken very much from the lives of the Trek actors; while they all appear to have come to good terms with their heritage in later years, for a while many of them truly resented Star Trek’s dominance over their careers, and understandably so. Shatner’s own behavior on the set of Trek is well-known to have annoyed and even alienated other members of the cast (though he devoted effort to trying to bridge these gaps later, and with some, though not apparently complete, success), and this is reflected in Allens portrayal of Jason Nesmith. Similarly, Sigourney Weaver expresses the same frustration with her character’s originally near-useless function as Nichelle Nichols has occasionally (and correctly) voiced with respect to Uhura, and Rickman’s Alexander Dane certainly echoes some of Nimoy’s past hostility towards the role that for years dominated any view of him as an actor.
But what makes Galaxy Quest really work is that it never laughs at itself. This is a subtle thing, in some ways, but many comedies seem to be extremely “conscious” of being comedies, to the point that they seem to be either saying to the audience “look, this is funny! It’s REALLy funny, isn’t it? Aren’t we clever to be so funny?” or “isn’t this shit stupid? What morons these people are!”. Both of these unspoken (and I suspect at times unintended) subtexts instantly turn me off. The latter is the worst – it’s mean-spirited mocking – but the former is still pretty bad because it eliminates the ability to actually have a story be told; we’re too busy being kicked out of the story to recognize how clever the filmmakers were.
Galaxy Quest takes itself seriously within its world. Oh, the situations are ridiculous… but then, so are many situations in real life. The characters aren’t above highlighting the ridiculous at times; faced with a set of pistonlike “chompers” which came from an episode in which they apparently existed purely to provide an obstacle to overcome, Gwen DeMarco says, “Well, forget it! I’m not doing it! That episode was badly written!“. But overall, it is a show with a world that has people in it, people who have problems that they have to solve and that matter to those in that world.
This means that despite our laughing at their consternation at discovering real aliens think they are real starship crew, or chortling at poor Alexander Dane forced to say “That Line” again because “the show must go on”, we feel for these people. Because this world lives, rather than just winks at us, the characters can grow, can become more than they were, and have moments of heartbreak, moments of funny, and Crowning Moments of Awesome which are accented by, rather than either diminished by, or diminishing, the comedy of the show itself.
Few indeed are the comedies that can claim to do anything like Galaxy Quest. And of those which might try, very, very few ever succeed.
If you’ve ever watched the original Star Trek, you do need to see Galaxy Quest. If you haven’t… after watching Galaxy Quest, you might just understand why so many people have loved Star Trek, because the most powerful part of the movie wasn’t the comedy, wasn’t the parody, wasn’t even the awesome.
It was the love and affection for the show that changed the lives of so many, and still does, to this day.