A Movie Ian Likes: Galaxy Quest

Commander Peter Taggart is the legendary Captain of the NSEA Protector. He and his crew have had many adventures while exploring the galaxy. And now he’s just been contacted by a race of aliens who need his help to save themselves from an evil dictator. There’s just one catch… Peter Taggart is a character played by Jason Nesmith, and his crew of actors all hate his guts. But the aliens haven’t realised that yet…

Galaxy Quest (1999) was written by David Howard and Robert Gordon and directed by Dean Parisot. It features Tim Allen as Nesmith, with Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman as two of his disgruntled colleagues, Gwen DeMarco and Alexander Dane. Other cast include Tony Shalhoub, Daryl Mitchell, Enrico Colantoni with Justin Long and Sam Rockwell in breakout roles (and look carefully for Rainn Wilson in his first film credit as well). Howard’s original story was entitled Captain Starshine and was inspired by watching Leonard Nimoy hosting a presentation at an IMAX cinema which led him to think about how the other Star Trek actors had had limited careers possibly due to their association with such a well-known series. Co-writer Bob Gordon was hesitant about the idea but liked the idea of washed-up actors helping out aliens who believe their show to be real.

For a script written by two (at the time) minor writers and directed by someone who had more television credits than anything else to his name, securing three lead actors of the calibre of Allen, Weaver and Rickman was quite a feat and a tribute to Producer Mark Johnson. It also appears to have been quite a happy production and became quite profitable on release. It was also voted, in 2013, as the 7th Best Star Trek Film (Between the 2009 reboot and Generations, if you must know).

(I mention that last fact because the elephant in the room is that the film has become recognised as an all-too-on-the-nose retelling of what happened to the beloved Enterprise crew during the wilderness years of the 1970s. More on that later, though.)

The story is familiar to anyone who has seen The Seven Samurai. Or The Magnificent Seven. Or Battle Beyond The Stars. But it’s more akin to The Three Amigos or A Bug’s Life. A brave but inexperienced group of aliens (Thermians) led by Mathesar (Colantoni) are being terrorised by the evil warlord Sarris (Robin Sachs). However, many years ago they intercepted the transmission of what they refer to as “historical documents” which they used to transform their entire society. These historical documents are the adventures of “Commander Taggart” and his crew. Their bravery and camaraderie have inspired the Thermians to become explorers themselves, but Sarris has proved to be too much for them, and they need the help of their heroes to save them (As an aside, if you manage to get hold of a copy of the movie that has the Thermian audio track, please do take the time to enjoy that: what could have been a throwaway novelty is well worth your attention, particularly if you know the film fairly well.) They rendezvous with “Taggart” at a Galaxy Quest convention while he is in the midst of a dispute with DeMarco. They then pick him up the following morning to lead them in negotiations with Sarris. Nesmith, hungover after discovering by chance that his fellow actors hate him, believes himself to be on a film set and, after firing upon Sarris’s warship, discovers that it is in fact entirely real. Amazed by the opportunities for an actor, he tries to convince the rest of his “crew” that it would be a chance too good to knock back. They reluctantly follow him aboard the new Protector (serial number NTE-3210 – NTE standing for “Not The Enterprise“) and proceed to battle Sarris, all while in the guise of their characters.

It’s a very funny movie that becomes an exciting adventure in its own right. It plays with a lot of cliches and tropes of TV SF, but from a place of affection rather than of mean-spiritedness. The “historical documents” are filmed very much in the style of a show from the 1970s and the attitude of the Thermians towards their heroes is always played seriously and with very little mockery. Nesmith’s crew cop the brunt of the humour, most notably Dane’s contempt for the role that continues to haunt him, as well as his hatred for Nesmith’s entire oeuvre. Of course, this overshadows the fact that they work brilliantly as a team and that his character – Professor Lazarus – has inspired at least one Thermian to lead a better life. DeMarco laments that she was cast simply because she looked good in a jumpsuit (a direct shout-out to Jeri Ryan’s Seven Of Nine from Star Trek: Voyager) and also that her only role on the ship was to repeat what the computer said (or, as she tells Daryl Mitchell’s Tommy Webber, “I have one job on this lousy ship. It’s stupid, but I’m going to do it. OK?”). There are more obvious targets – the bomb countdown that always stops at one second before detonation; the inner workings of the ship that serve no useful purpose beyond putting characters in peril (“Whoever wrote this episode should DIE!”); the fact that the lead actor loses his shirt a fair amount; the lax safety protocols followed by the crew when landing on alien worlds – but most of the laughs come out of left-field (like the scene in which Nesmith must fight a rock monster and sledges Dane’s advice of “you’re just going to have to find its motivation” and then getting berated by Dane because he “never had any respect for the craft.”); but many scenes are ridiculously touching as well (Sarris forcing Nesmith to confess to Mathesar that they are only actors, or Dane’s final utterance of the catchphrase he’s come to detest).

It does, of course, end chaotically but well. One of the joys of these sorts of “fish-out-of-water” films is that the characters find themselves in situations where their normal skills are apparently useless so they then turn the situation around so that their skills are the only way that the problem can be resolved. Galaxy Quest does it beautifully, and it’s set up by the Thermians who have so immersed themselves in the historical documents that their version of the Protector’s instruments have been designed by watching the actor’s movements. This allows Tommy and Fred (Tony Shalhoub), for example, to operate the devices that their characters were famous for because – like any good actor (Paul Darrow in Blakes 7 and William Hartnell in Doctor Who, to name but two) – they had created a consistent pattern to the way they pressed the buttons or moved levers to ensure that it looked “realistic.”

This is a film full of heart. At its core there is a story about people realising that they must be their best selves and use whatever skills they have to solve a problem, which makes them better people for it. It’s a corny message but it’s sold superbly by the cast.

Even the fans that plague the opening scenes are treated with respect: Justin Long plays Brandon, a huge fan of the show who gets rebuffed by Nesmith at the convention is finally able to meet his hero and not be disappointed. He even rallies his own crew to help save the day in the climax!

And it’s become a beloved classic for it. Even the actors from the Star Trek franchise that it sets its sights on delighted in it. Jonathan Frakes (Commander Riker from Star Trek: The Next Generation, as if you didn’t know) went to a screening early on in its run expecting to hate it but then encouraged Patrick Stewart and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise-D to go and see it. It’s a movie that wears its heart very firmly on its sleeve.

That’s what I love about it. I first saw it on video and wasn’t expecting terribly much from it. I knew Tim Allen from Home Improvement and the first two Toy Story movies: I was, frankly, more interested in seeing what Sigourney Weaver and Alan Rickman would do in an SF comedy, a genre that had not done well, historically, since the Bill And Ted movies of nearly a decade previously (the third of which was directed by Parisot just a few years ago). I shouldn’t have worried. I loved it from that opening moment which showed a shabby convention hall half-filled with costumed attendees who’ve just seen the cliffhanger from the season finale of Galaxy Quest’s fourth and final season. Then it cuts to the dressing room backstage where the cast are waiting on Nesmith to appear. It’s clear that they dislike him intensely. As someone who had read a lot about how the Classic Trek crew had felt hard done by by William Shatner, this added a level of fourth wall breaking that I really enjoyed. These little nuggets kept coming, too: Dane hates his character so much he regularly has a panic attack before an appearance because he’ll have to utter his trademark catchphrase that he despises – “By Grabthar’s Hammer, by the Sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged” – which has become an albatross around his career’s neck. Even the minor characters, like Kwan, player of Tech Sergeant Chen, the chief engineer of the Protector, or Rockwell’s Guy… um, sorry, what was his last name again? – even they manage to have life-changing experiences that make them aspire to be something better than they currently are.

You may have noted that I’ve used variations of that phrase several times now. It’s because it’s a major theme of this film: it’s not quite aspirational or inspirational but it does show what can happen when people find something worth fighting for or hanging on to. The Thermians have held on to the ideals of Galaxy Quest for over a century (despite the show only having been in existence for a quarter-century or so… or maybe the Thermians have very short years); Brandon and his fellow fans use the existence of the show to fuel their creative lives in a way that pays dividends for Nesmith and his crew; Kwan finds the stress of the situation too much but manages to succeed when he discovers how much he means to one very special Thermian. It’s a story where our miscast heroes all manage to find some kind of satisfactory conclusion… even Alexander Dane who hates his part (he played Richard the III once, you know? He had five curtain calls) finds some meaning in what he does despite still not loving it. It’s something that it shares with Star Trek: the notion that the crew all belong to something bigger than themselves which makes them accountable to and for each other. This notion of service to your peers is something that you find among the military services like the one that Commander Taggart and his crew belong to… it’s also something that you find among any acting company worth their salt.

And it’s one that, if we’re lucky, we can find in other spheres of life: people who we depend on and depend on us, and who we work with for common goals and purpose. After all, as Nesmith tells a young fan in an early scene, “what good’s a commander without his crew?”

You can find out more about Galaxy Quest and its history here: https://galaxyquest.pagebox.info/

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