Celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, the 1999 sci-fi comedy “Galaxy Quest”, written by David Howard & Ron Gordon and directed by Dean Parisot, is quite possibly the greatest Star Trek movie never made. “Galaxy Quest” really is “Star Trek,” as much as “The Orville” is also Star Trek by any other name. But unlike a more conventional Trek movie, “Galaxy Quest” has one foot in the world of sci-fi fandom, as the other steps into a galaxy-spanning adventure. Imagine if the 1997 documentary “Trekkies” had a transporter accident with “Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country” and you get the idea. The high concept works like gangbusters, sending up the world of Trek fandom and Trek-like storytelling with equal measures of fidelity and genuine affection.
****BERYLLIUM SPHERE-SIZED SPOILERS AHEAD!!****
The story begins at a convention for the early 1980s TV series, “Galaxy Quest”, which sees the desperate-for-work former cast members, Gwen DeMarco (“ALIEN” star Sigourney Weaver), Fred Kwan (“Monk” star Tony Shalhoub), former child actor Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) and Shakespearean actor turned sci-fi has-been Alexander Dane (the late, great Alan Rickman), simmering impatiently backstage for their tardy ‘commander’, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen, playing a near-perfect William Shatner-type, minus the obvious affectations).
Jason finally arrives juuuust in time to stop an angry, humiliated Alexander from bolting (“The show must go on” “Damn you!”). As a former one-time “Galaxy Quest” guest actor Guy Fleegman (future Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell) gives their intros, the actors file out to the cheers of their adoring fans.
During an autographing session, Jason plays up to his fans, acting as their ‘commander’ and eagerly answering all of their persnickety questions. A group of eager, oddly-accented, uniformly bowl-cut sporting fans ask for Jason’s help in what he is led to believe is a private paid engagement. He reminds them to send a limousine for him this time…
Later, while using a fan-crowded restroom, Jason overhears a couple of attendees openly mocking both his career and his fans. Jason returns with a bit of the wind gone from his sails… passing out autographs by rote. A young fan named Brandon (Justin Long) pesters him with a question about the inner workings of Jason’s TV starship, the NTE Protector. Jason snaps, telling him there is no “goddamn ship” and storms off. His former castmates all witness the outburst, and Gwen is particularly concerned.
After a long night spent drinking to reruns of his old show, a deeply hungover Jason awakens to the earlier-seen gaggle of oddly-accented fans standing at his door. They identify themselves as “Thermians from the Klaatu nebula” and take Jason to the limo, wherein he soon passes out. The limo is actually a disguised spaceship, which shoots upward.
Waking aboard what appears to be a real working version of his TV starship, a still-recovering and disbelieving Jason meets the enemy he is supposed to ‘negotiate’ with; an ill-tempered, genocidal crustacean-creature named Sarris (the late Robin Sachs). Impressed with the ‘realism’ of the ‘set,’ Jason orders all weapons fired at Sarris so that he can get back in time for “a gig in Van Nuys.” The Thermians are aghast that Jason so nonchalantly fired at a brutal warlord, but they agree to transport him back to Earth, per their arrangement. Jason is put into a self-sealing gelatinous pod and shot back to Earth. Still in shock from his near-instantaneous interstellar travel, he dashes off to a forgotten store opening gig to retrieve his costars and take them back to the ‘real’ NTE Protector with him. The cast doesn’t believe him, of course, but Fred reminds them that they all need the work. They accept Jason’s offer, and each find themselves suddenly cocooned in the same gelatinous transport pods, and fired off into outer space…
….one by one, they arrive at an open pod bay, in absolute shock that they have just been transported halfway across the universe in a matter of seconds. A perpetually stoned Fred Kwan handles it best (“That was a helluva thing”). They are greeted by a fully sober Jason and the “Thermians”, who accidentally reveal their ‘true’ selves (thick, squid-like creatures who communicating in high-pitched warbling). Guy handles it the worst… screaming at the top of his lungs.
As the crew begins to settle down, they realize that the Thermians mistakenly believe them to be their “Galaxy Quest” characters. To them, Jason is “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart,” Gwen is “Tawny Madison” (whose job is to repeat the computer), Alexander is Spock/Worf-like alien officer “Lazarus”, Fred is “Tech Sergeant Chen” (the ship’s engineer), Tommy is young navigator “Laredo”, and Guy is an unnamed ‘redshirt’ crewmember, whose original character was originally killed off by a rock monster in a long-forgotten episode (even the Thermians don’t remember him!). The Thermians have absolutely no concept of theater, make-believe or even lying; they believe everything they see and hear to be the absolute truth. Episodes of the TV series “Galaxy Quest”, beamed to the Klaatu nebula via TV signals from Earth were mistakenly perceived as ‘historical documents’ to the Thermians, hence their unwavering belief that the actors are their television characters.
Jason brings them up to speed on their ‘mission’ of trying to stop Sarris, who survived Jason’s earlier weapons bombardment. He then takes his ‘crew’ to the NTE (“Not The Enterprise”) Protector, which is docked at this ‘starport’ Looking out a window, seeing the ship docked before his barely believing eyes, an awed Alexander blurts out, “It’s real.” The crew of actors reluctantly take their stations up on the command deck to pilot the ship out of the starport. Tommy Webber isn’t Laredo, and he tries to remember what he did as a child to steer the massive spaceship. He barely succeeds, as the ship loudly scrapes the sides of the port during its exit…
Getting underway, the Thermian de facto leader Mathesar (a perfectly comedic alien performance from Enrico Colantani) fill the crew in on exactly why they’ve brought them to the recreated Protector, revealing that their own commander was tortured to death by Sarris, who is also systematically exterminating their species. Before his death, the previous Thermian leader was forced to reveal the existence of something once mentioned on an episode of the “Galaxy Quest” TV series…a mysterious device aboard the Protector called “the Omega 13.” Since it was only designed as a McGuffin for the show, the actors don’t know exactly what the device is, let alone how it works.
Realizing they are in way over their heads, the crew want to get the hell out of dodge but are talked down by Jason, who convinces them to live this adventure for real instead of just going home to ‘pay their bills and feed their fish.’
A space combat confrontation with Sarris’ ship in a dangerous, magnetically-charged space minefield damages the NTE Protector (with the bogus crew revealing their ineptitude), and the ship is forced to retreat to an alien planet to acquire a replacement ‘beryllium sphere’ for its engine core. The crew takes a shuttle down to the surface to find a suitable sphere. Guy gets the funniest line as the panicked ‘redshirt’ warns them not to simply open the hatch upon landing (“Is there air?!? You don’t know!”).
Complications soon arise as the crew are attacked by baby-sized fanged natives who wish to sacrifice Jason to a mindlessly aggressive giant monster, who exists as a collection of angry living rocks. The remaining crew make it back to the Protector, and try to rescue Jason by ‘digitizing’ (beaming) him back onto the ship.
A nervous Fred, encouraged by his castmates and Thermian colleagues, first tries beaming up a space pig creature as a test…it doesn’t end well. The pig is turned inside out…and explodes. At the last second, Fred finds his inner “Tech Sergeant Chen” and rescues a shirtless, sweaty Jason. Alexander quips, “I see you managed to get your shirt off.”
While they were away, the crew return to find that the ship has been overtaken by Sarris’ warriors, the Fatu-Krey, who set the ship’s engine core to overload.
Sarris brutally interrogates the Thermian leader Mathesar, as Jason is forced to reveal to the childlike Thermian that they’re all actors and that the ‘historical documents’ are all works of fiction. Mathesar is devastated to find that the heroes he’s placed his world’s safety in are nothing but frauds. This is easily one of the best acted and most heartfelt scenes in the movie, despite its comedic context. Sarris returns to his vessel, leaving a token detachment of guards behind as sacrifices to ensure that the Protector’s engines implode on schedule.
Trapped in the fight for their lives (and the lives of the surviving Thermians), the ‘actors’ find their own inner heroes in an attempt to rescue their ‘commander’ and retake their ship. Even the perpetually cynical Alexander gets into the spirit of it, teaming with a young Thermian who emulates and idolizes Dr. Lazarus, still confusing Alexander with his character. Caught off guard, Alexander’s young admirer is shockingly killed by one of Sarris’ men, and Alexander is enraged by the young Thermian’s murder. For once, without irony, he recites his old TV trope and means it: “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged.”
A freed Fred Kwan then digitizes the earlier-seen ‘rock monster’ from the planet’s surface and into a cargo bay of Sarris’ troops. The unstoppable creature smashes open the bay doors, blowing both itself and Sarris’ troops to the deadly vacuum of space. The guards are dead, and the formerly angry rock monster finds solace as it floats into the void. A proud Fred beams, “It’s the little things…”
Fred is then kissed by admiring Thermian female officer Leliari (a very memorable Missy Pyle), whose humanoid appearance melts away as her native octopoid tentacles ardently wrap around Fred…which suits the equally lovestruck Fred juuuust fine.
Gwen and Jason are forced to go into the Protector’s needlessly complicated engine core in an attempt to stop its imminent implosion. Realizing they know nothing about the ship’s inner-workings, Jason remembers that “Questarian” fanboy Brandon accidentally took his ‘real’ communicator when they bumped into each other at the electronics store opening earlier in the movie. Jason calls down to Brandon, telling the impressionable fan that “it’s all real” and that he needs the young man’s seemingly useless knowledge regarding the workings of the ship to help them stop the core implosion. Drawing upon online schematics of the ship and networking with other fans, Brandon acts as guide for Jason and Gwen to reach the core and abort the countdown, which stops only at the very last second, because the ship’s design was literally based on the show’s own hoary cliches. Gwen realizes that she and her commander have ‘a thing’ for each other after all.
With the ship back in control of the actors and the Thermians, Jason orders the ship to intercept Sarris’ vessel. Jason instructs Tommy to fly through the magnetic minefield. Dragging multiple magnetized mines in the Protector’s wake, Jason uses them to destroy Sarris’ ship in a deadly game of chicken. With the reptilian warlord’s ship destroyed, Jason is about the order the ship back to Earth until a grinning doppelgänger of Fred appears on the command deck and begins shooting the crew. In desperation, Jason activates the “Omega 13” which, as speculated earlier by Brandon, spins time backward a mere thirteen seconds. Time is instantly rewound, as the doppelgänger Fred enters the bridge and is now quickly subdued. “Fred” reverts back to his true form, Sarris, who beamed onto the Protector right before his own ship was destroyed by the mines. The Protector and her crew are saved.
Jason turns command of the ship over to Mathesar, whose once-shaken faith in his human friends is again restored. They return to Earth via a black hole, but are unable to slow down. The Protector’s smaller command module separates from the rest of the ship, and attempts an emergency landing … right smack in the middle of the ongoing Galaxy Quest convention. Believing the module’s crash into the main auditorium is an elaborate publicity stunt of some kind, the assembled fans are elated. Sarris awakens, and is immediately zapped to death by Jason. Once again, the crowd goes wild, as they believe the shootout to be part of the same fantastic stage show.
Fiction becomes reality for the cast members and the fans. The line is both erased and reinforced.
The movie ends with a trailer for “Galaxy Quest”’s return to television; the cast returning to their familiar roles with a newfound effervescence … a happy ending for the formerly unemployable and hopelessly typecast actors.
The cast are so charismatic and perfect in their roles, that I would’ve gladly watched their silly sci-fi series if it existed. As “Space: 1999” or “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century” proved, watching engaging and fun actors can often make even the screwiest of sci-fi formulae go down a bit easier.
Not really a big fan of Tim Allen’s sitcoms, I used to like his earliest standup shows, and he is absolutely perfect in the role of Jason Nesmith (aka Commander Taggart). Allen utterly nails the charisma and arrogance of Trek’s William Shatner without ever resorting to a nightclub impersonation. Allen’s Nesmith captures the essence of a leading man derisively described by some his former Star Trek costars as charming, yet tone-deaf. A man adored by fans, but almost involuntarily self-centered. Not entirely lovable, but not truly hatable either, Allen’s Nesmith/Shatner performance walks a comedic/dramatic tightrope that the actor handles with aplomb.
No stranger to sci-fi franchises (the ALIEN movies), Weaver plays a character who is as different from the self-driven, bitter Ellen Ripley as possible. Her Gwen DeMarco (aka Lt. Tawny Madison) is a cross between Star Trek’s Nichelle Nichols (“Lt. Uhura”) and the late Grace Lee Whitney (“Yeoman Rand”) with a bit of Jeri Ryan (Voyager’s “Seven of Nine”) thrown in. Gwen is frustrated by a role that has her mainly repeating the ship’s computer (voiced by “The Birdcage”’s Dan Futterman), and publicity that focuses mainly on how her boobs squeeze into her suit. De Marco is a radically different role for Weaver, which she takes and runs with. When I think of Weaver, I think of someone fiercely intelligent and authoritative, not a washed-up TV sexpot. It’s this against-type casting that seems to fuel the character’s energy.
The late (great) Alan Rickman.
I can’t shower enough accolades for the late Rickman, who first appeared on my own pop radar in 1988’s “Die Hard” and whom I’d followed off and on since. Galaxy Quest’s debut year of 1999 also saw Rickman appear in Kevin Smith’s “Dogma” (he was “Metatron,” the cynical interpreter for God, whose voice is simply too much for mortal ears to bear). The character of ‘Alexander Dane’ is a mix of Sir Patrick Stewart and the late Leonard Nimoy (author of “I Am Not Spock”, a title which led many to falsely believe he’d tired of the Spock character). Rickman gets many of the best lines in the film (“By Grabthar’s Hammer…what a savings”). The tormented, snobbish Dane is the living embodiment of the former master thespian reduced to an action figure … that unique purgatory of the forever-typecast (a curse often attributed to stars of science fiction movies and TV shows, despite their popularity or box office).
Like Rickman in “Die Hard”, “Galaxy Quest” that first put talented character actor Sam Rockwell on my personal pop culture radar (and he’s been ever since). Recently winning a long-overdue Oscar for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), I’ve enjoyed Rockwell in many roles, especially playing multiple versions of the same man in the often criminally overlooked 2009 sci-fi masterpiece “Moon” (which I saw twice theatrically). Rockwell’s “Guy Fleegman” is a spoof of the Star Trek ‘redshirt’, the briefly-lived security guard/guest-star who is typically killed off in the course of the episode. Rockwell’s Guy also channels a bit of the late Bill Paxton’s cowardly “Private Hudson” from ALIENS (1986), which might’ve been a somewhat meta experience for costar Weaver on set. Like Alexander Dane, the gutless Guy Fleegman has many of the movie’s most quotable bits (“I think we’re the green thingy”).
I remember getting into the otherwise average TV series “Monk” (2002-2009) largely due to the talent of Tony Shalhoub, an actor so good that he turned an admittedly average comedic Sherlock Holmes sendup into must-see TV for me. In “Galaxy Quest”, he plays Fred Kwan, an actor miscast as Asian engineer “Tech Sergeant Chen” (a situation akin to the late Ricardo Montalban playing Trek’s own Sikh tyrant, “Khan Noonian Singh”). T.S. Chen is a cross between George Takei’s “Mr. Sulu” and the late James Doohan’s ‘miracle worker’ “Montgomery Scott.” The ‘real’ Fred Kwan is a perpetually stoned actor whose eternally blissed-out state has no deep valleys of despair or regret…only a sunny, unambitious main drive that seems to look no further than any available snacks and a good crossword puzzle. His offsides romance with octopoid shapeshifter Leliari (Missy Pyle) is both sweet and hilarious.
Actor/musician Daryl Mitchell rounds out the main cast as Tommy Webber, a former child star (played in flashbacks by Corbin Bleu). Webber is the ship’s “Wesley Crusher”, a child prodigy turned ship’s helmsman who flies the futuristic starship while not yet old enough to legally drive a modern car. Webber seems the most grounded of the group, and spends the bulk of the movie learning how to fly the ‘real’ NTE Protector, whose control systems are all based upon the simulated flying maneuvers he mimicked as a child star. Mitchell’s funniest bits include the starport departure scene and his wildly over-the-top cries of pain after the first attack by Sarris (which leaves Tommy injured). Mitchell himself was paralyzed in real-life by a motorcycle accident only two years after the movie’s release, but he’s kept very busy on many TV series, including a role on AMC’s “Fear the Walking Dead.”
Like Rockwell, “Galaxy Quest” also put comedic actor Justin Long (“Idiocracy” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno”) on the map as well. His portrayal of Questarian fanboy Brandon (who may or may not be based on certain Star Trek fans profiled in the 1997 documentary “Trekkies”) is an affectionate salute to those fans whose unwavering love and ceaseless dissection of their favorite entertainment franchises led to many current state of hyper-passionate (and hyper-critical) pop culture.
Missy Pyle (Leliani), Enrico Colantani (Mathesar), Jed Rees (Teb), Patrick Breen (the tragically slain Quellek) and Matt Winston (son of the late makeup legend Stan Winston, who worked on the film) all deserve one humongous bow, for turning what could’ve been easily dismissible human versions of “Despicable Me”’s ‘minions’ into nuanced and even lovable alien characters. Despite their monochromatic uniforms, pale complexions and matching black haircuts, each Thermian is uniquely memorable, even if only for one scene that they manage to steal. The Thermian home of the “Klaatu” nebula is named after the visiting alien dignitary played by Michael Rennie (and later Keanu Reeves) in “The Day The Earth Stood Still” (1951/2008).
“Galaxy Quest” left me with an ear-to-ear smile when my wife and I first saw it almost 20 years ago. We both loved it so much we went back to see it a second time, catching the innumerable Star Trek and other obscure sci-fi references that may have slipped past us the first time due to our laughing and applause.
I saw the film two years before I worked up the courage to attend my first science fiction convention in Pasadena, back in 2001. I was frankly surprised at how accurately “Galaxy Quest” foreshadowed the real event for me. There were the dealer halls filled with countless tables of merchandise, celebrities signing autographs, and throngs of beautifully made fan cosplay. “Galaxy Quest” got so much of the experience right that I was surprisingly more prepared for the experience than I had expected to be. It also helped that my wife was a convention veteran when we met (having attended at least three or so, including San Diego Comic Con, before we married).
As much as I love sci-fi conventions and convention culture (see the archives of this site for all of my convention shenanigans of the past few years), there are occasional embarrassing and even humiliating behaviors from fans who ask wildly inappropriate questions at autograph tables or during open mic Q&A events. But generally the fans are well-behaved (if understandably nervous). My general rule of thumb for meeting celebrities is the same as meeting anyone I’d like to make a good impression upon. Say hello, and ask them how they’re doing first before you say anything further. Remember that they’re people, not collectible action figures. Sometimes they have bad days, like any of us, so try not to take a terse or seemingly distracted meet-and-greet personally. I remember once meeting Alan Tudyk (“Rogue One” “Firefly”) and he was on his cellphone the entire time. I didn’t get upset, because I remembered the many times my own phone has gone off at wildly inopportune moments. It happens. Take your autograph, thank them, and move on. That said, most of my celebrity encounters at conventions have been pleasant ones (some very memorably so).
The only false note that came up for me during the convention sequence of “Galaxy Quest” was when Jason Nesmith overhears the two guys making fun of his career and the fans in the restroom. Having attended a near-countless number of conventions over the last two decades, I can tell you that a high-caliber headlining attendee such as “Jason Nesmith” (the Shatner of the movie) would probably not go into a convention’s restroom by himself without a handler and in full costume. I remember attending a couple of conventions where fans were almost herded out of corridors and restrooms to make way for guests such as Stan Lee, or the cast members from 2003’s “Battlestar Galactica.” Yes, on occasion, I’ve seen a few random celebrities using the men’s room or getting some food, but not ever in full costume where they’d be instantly recognized. William Shatner once wrote (in his book, “Get A Life”) about going through a Star Trek convention in a cheap Halloween mask just to observe the event anonymously.
Summing it up.
Unwittingly or not, “Galaxy Quest” may also have been part of the inspiration for the current Fox series, “The Orville”, which began life as a semi-spoof of “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, but has (of late) found its own voice, and has struck a sincere chord of adoration with many sci-fi fans (myself included). The main starships in each have a passing similarity as well.
Unlike more cynical looks at fandom and fan culture (the indie film “Comic Book Villains” and the long past expiration-date “Big Bang Theory”), “Galaxy Quest” is a genuine love letter to sci-fi fandom served with gentle ribbing, but no malice. The film affectionately teases the tropes and fans of pop science fiction, but never fully mocks them; and yes, there is difference.