Never Give Up…
I’ll admit that in the wake of the seemingly never-ending bad news regarding the global COVID-19 pandemic, my urge to write about sci-fi entertainment has been somewhat diminished lately. But while perusing social media, I ran across a video recommendation from Mike Okuda (who, along with wife Denise, was Star Trek’s longtime production/graphics artist, and keeper of the Star Trek flame). Okuda mentioned the Amazon Prime release of a documentary called “Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary” (2019), which had a brief theatrical Fathom Events run late last year in November. “Never Surrender” is not just a making-of documentary of the 1999 meta-comedy/sci-fi film, but a look at its many fans, as well as its place in current pop culture. Like the original Star Trek series itself, the 1999 film “Galaxy Quest” wasn’t a huge success at the time of its release (thanks, in part, to bungled marketing), but has since gained a tremendous cult following. Playwright David Mamet and actor Patrick Stewart are among its more high-profile fans.
The film “Galaxy Quest”, to the uninitiated, is an affectionate sendup of both “Star Trek” and its fandom, yet done in a way that is never mean-spirited or condescending (the opposite of CBS’ mercifully cancelled “The Big Bang Theory”). A year ago, I wrote my own review of “Galaxy Quest”…
…and now I want to jot down a few thoughts on this documentary. As longtime fans of “Galaxy Quest,” my wife and I looked forward to jettisoning our current coronavirus anxieties for a couple of hours to revisit an old favorite.
Director Jack Bennett has put together a well-rounded production, gathering all of the surviving cast members of the 1999 film, including Tim Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Sam Rockwell, Daryl Mitchell,Tony Shalhoub, Justin Long, Enrico Colantoni and Patrick Breen, as well as director Dean Parisot, producers Elizabeth Cantillon, Mark Johnson and many others. The late Alan Rickman (1946-2016) is fondly remembered by his cast mates as possessing a dry humor similar to that of his onscreen character, “Alexander Dane” (a Shakespearean actor who resents his identification with the cheesy sci-fi TV series; a comedic mashup of both Leonard Nimoy and Patrick Stewart).
There are also interviews with ILM special effects artist/modelmaker Bill George (who has worked on at least five of the Star Trek films) as well as Star Trek cast members Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton, who are also fans of “Galaxy Quest.”
There is a cute moment in the documentary which sees actors Enrico Colantoni (“Mathesar”) Missy Pyle (“Laliari”), Jed Rees (“Teb”) and Patrick Breen (“Quellek”) recreating their multi-pitched “Thermian” screeching and warbling sounds. The synchronized hand/leg movements of the Thermians when they walked were based on the marionettes of producer Gerry Anderson’s “Thunderbirds” TV series.
Patrick Breen also tells of the moving scene between he and the late Alan Rickman’s “Dane.” Breen’s “Quellek” is dying in Dane’s arms, as Dane repeats his Lazarus character’s catchphrase, “By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the Sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged…” but with utmost sincerity for his dying admirer. The scene is one of many moments in the 1999 film which celebrates the bond between franchise and fandom. Unlike “The Big Bang Theory”, which often ridicules overzealous sci-fi fans, “Galaxy Quest” both salutes and honors them. That is a point made repeatedly throughout this documentary.
During the interview with Enrico Colantoni, we learn the actor is credited with inventing the the Thermian dialect… something he improvised right after his admittedly lackluster audition, which immediately landed him the part. Colantani wanted a voice that used a wide range of off-kilter vocalizations, even when speaking English. Director Parisot loved the result, and the rest is cult classic history. We also learn from producer Mark Johnson (“Breaking Bad”) that the Thermians’ true cephalopod nature (seen whenever their ‘appearance generators’ glitched) was almost omitted, based on a note from producer Steven Spielberg (Dreamworks Studios’ cofounder), who wanted the Thermian’s natural form to be of a more humanoid shape (much like Spielberg’s own ETs from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind”). Fortunately, a lack of time prevented that from happening, and the Thermians’ squid-like natural appearance remained in the film.
Actor/comedian Tim Allen (“Home Improvement” “The Santa Clause”) wasn’t the first choice for the role of the William Shatner-esque actor “Jason Nesmith”, who played “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” on “Galaxy Quest” (how meta is that?). Other actors considered included top-contender Kevin Kline (who de-Klined), Tim Robbins and Alec Baldwin, all of whom could’ve done the part justice, but to paraphrase a fan’s reaction to those casting options, ‘change any part of the film, and you risk ruining it.’ Allen’s lighter approach to the material also rankled costar Rickman, creating a parallel to their characters’ relationships in the film; the TV star versus the oh-so-serious Shakespearean actor. Eventually, the two would bond during the course of production, mimicking their onscreen characters’ evolution. After a particularly intense scene when Jason has to tell his devoted alien follower ‘Mathesar’ (Colantoni) that the ‘historical documents’ of the “Galaxy Quest” missions aren’t real, Allen was deeply unsettled by his own reactions to playing the scene. As Allen rushed off to his trailer to compose himself, Rickman is quoted by director Parisot as saying, “Well…I think he’s finally discovered acting.”
The legendary Sigourney Weaver (“ALIEN” “Avatar”) had to practically force her way into contention for the role of actor “Gwen DeMarco” (who played “Lt. Tawny Madison” on the fictional “Galaxy Quest” TV series). Apparently director Parisot was worried that her identification with the popular ALIEN franchise might overshadow her role in the film. In actuality, it is Weaver’s ALIEN cred which gives the film an extra dose of parodic legitimacy, while also allowing Weaver to play a role that is the polar opposite of her tough-as-nails Ellen Ripley. Her “Gwen DeMarco” is a typecast actor always on the lookout for recognition and work… something Weaver half-jokingly relates to far more than the exploits of ALIEN’s Ripley And no, the “boobs in (her) spacesuit” were not real, much like her beloved blond wig.
“Galaxy Quest” also launched successful careers for many actors working today, such as recent Oscar-winner Sam Rockwell (whom I loved in 2009’s “Moon”), Rainn Wilson (“The Office” “Star Trek: Discovery”) and Justin Long (“Idiocracy”) who admitted that his character of fanboy “Brandon” was a collection of parts, including Michael J. Fox’s “Marty McFly” from “Back to the Future,” as well as the late Chris Farley’s nervous interviewer sketches from Saturday Night Live. It’s also remarked how the character of Brandon, who is seen as being throughly connected with his fellow ‘Galaxy Quest’ fans online, was ahead of his time (1999 was a very different time for internet connectivity). That Brandon and his geeky friends help to save the day for the actor-heroes is just one of the ways the film salutes fandom instead of mocking it.
Director Dean Parisot (“Home Fries” “Monk” “Red 2”) wasn’t a first choice to direct “Galaxy Quest.” In fact, the late “Ghostbusters” costar Harold Ramis (“Groundhog Day”) was attached to the project during much of its development, but failure to settle on a lead actor, among other issues, forced him to amicably leave the project. Parisot had directed the 1998 indie comedy “Home Fries” and had little experience when he was tapped as a last-minute replacement. The director recalls his time on “Galaxy Quest” as the most fun he’s ever had working on a film.
Producers Elizabeth Cantillon and Mark Johnson also recall some of the problems with trying to fit the formerly PG-13 film into a PG-rating for a more family-friendly Christmastime release. According to the producers and actor Daryl Mitchell (“Tommy Webber”), much of the film’s cursing was immediately censored, including Sigourney Weaver’s infamously dubbed over “Well f–k this!” line (watch Weaver’s lips movements in the “chompers” scene). Mitchell also mentioned his preparatory meeting with actor/director LeVar Burton (“Star Trek: The Next Generation”) for tips on playing a ‘brother’ in a classic TV space opera.
“Star Trek: The Next Generation” veterans Brent Spiner (“Data”) and Wil Wheaton (“Wesley Crusher”) offer their own views of the movie as well. Spiner regrets that the Star Trek writers and producers hadn’t first used the brilliant meta premise of “Galaxy Quest” for their own franchise. Wheaton unabashedly loved “Galaxy Quest”, and speaks of its glowing depiction of sci-fi fans, who are defined not so much by what they love, but by how they love it. Spiner also does his wickedly funny Patrick Stewart impression as he relates Stewart’s own affection for the movie.
At the end of the day, “Galaxy Quest” tells the story of a sci-fi franchise thrust into reality with the help of both its actors and fans, who work together to save the Earth from a real-life alien warlord. That is one of the central themes of the film. Just as the original Star Trek was saved from a premature cancellation by thousands of devoted “Trekkies,” the story of “Galaxy Quest” sees its fans coming to the heroes’ rescue as well. This affection for fandom is very endearing for audiences, producing generations of new ‘meta-Trekkies.’ “Never Surrender” tells their story as well.
Some of the “Galaxy Quest” fans profiled in the documentary include a fan group who call themselves “the Thermians of Utah.” These devotees make their own costumes and attend many conventions, including the Silicon Valley Comic Con in California, where a special 20th anniversary screening of the film was held, with director Parisot and others involved with the production in attendance.
On a personal note, I once had my own “close encounter” with two of the fans profiled in “Never Surrender”; Harold and Roxanne Weir. They are the de facto leaders of the Thermians of Utah, making most of their group’s costumes. I ran into both of them in February of 2018 at the annual Doctor Who “Gallifrey One” convention in Los Angeles. They were speaking and walking like Thermians the entire time of our meeting, and whenever I saw them elsewhere at the convention, they never broke character (“Never give up” indeed!). The Weirs were as dedicated to their cosplay roles as actor Enrico Colantoni, whom they finally meet in the documentary.
I was in my “Fred Flintstone/Star Trek” mashup cosplay (Stone Trek) when I first met the Weirs at the 2018 “Gallifrey One” convention As we posed for a pic together, it immediately became a full-on photo op, with several other people clamoring to get their photographs. I was not at all surprised to see the Weirs profiled and interviewed for this documentary. “Never Surrender” is as much an ode to fandom as “Galaxy Quest” itself.
“Whenever a Targathian Baby Cries…”
So if you’re a fan of 1999’s “Galaxy Quest” and could use a 95-minute respite from the ongoing horror of the current coronavirus pandemic, “Never Surrender” offers a reminder of the inherent optimism within science fiction fandom. With so many conventions cancelled or postponed this year due to coronavirus fears, it was a vicarious treat just to see cosplaying fans in action yet again, even if only in a documentary.
“Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary” chronicles the creativity involved in creating this meta sci-fi comedy, as well as the devotees who continue to fan its flames. As a frequent attendee of conventions who is now forced into self-isolation along with nearly everyone else, I found “Never Surrender” to be a genuine shot in the arm. Thank you, Screen Junkies (and their crowdsource funders) for making this happen.
To my readers, I once again wish you and your loved ones safety and good health in this difficult time. Never give up, never Surrender!
Images: Dreamquest, Screen Junkies, Fathom Events, the author’s Flickr account.