The Thinker

Second Viewing: Galaxy Quest

Over the Thanksgiving 4-day weekend, because I was bored, I started sifting through our various DVDs and videotapes. I was looking for something new or, failing that, something I had not seen in a while. The few things I had not seen did not look worth my time (such as all seven seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my wife’s passions). There was however, our aging video tape collection. Among its contents was the very last videotape we purchased: Galaxy Quest (1999).

I had seen the movie in the theater of course, and found it funny and often hilarious. At the time it did not make too much of a lasting impression on me. So I was very surprised, upon second viewing, that I found it far funnier than I remembered. Maybe it was because of the mood I was in that night. I finished the film convinced that in many ways it was the funniest movie of the 1990s.

Granted there were many comedies during the 1990s and I had seen only a small fraction of them. Granted also that I grew up something of a Trekker. (I have written about Star Trek before in my blog.) During the early years of our marriage, while my wife and I attended mostly run of the mill science fiction conventions, we also made it to a few genuine Star Trek conventions. (We wisely avoided the Star Trek media conventions. They are designed to pull in Trekkies and separate them from their great gobs of cash, all in order to increase Paramount’s bottom line. We stayed with the Star Trek conventions organized solely by fans.)

Having been steeped in the fandom community for a few years, I knew what being a fan was all about. Devoted fans of any movie or television series have certain characteristics. They are, how shall we say, nice, but a bit peculiar. After a while, you can spot them a mile away. They have a certain odd mannerisms, a certain deep-rooted introversion and a certain obsessive/compulsive streak about their hobby, to the point where they can wrap their entire life around their hobby. Fen is a private term used inside the fan community to identify one of us from the unenlightened. Raising our daughter pulled us away from the fen universe, but some part of me remains there in spirit.

Galaxy Quest is a movie that was made as homage to the fen community. If you are not a fan of some of the many science fiction and fantasy series out there, it is still wholly enjoyable and often hilarious. However, if you are or have been immersed in the fen community, it should occupy a special place on your movie shelf.

The movie is, of course, a not too subtle parody of the whole Star Trek universe. It covers the lives of washed up actors of a mediocre and fictional TV space opera series more than a decade after the show was canceled. The NSEA Protector is this show’s version of the USS Enterprise. Just as the real life actors of the original Star Trek series were typecast when the show ended, so too is the cast of Galaxy Quest. In fact, they are relegated to attending Galaxy Quest conventions and opening discount stores in order to pay their bills. Only Jason Nesmith, who plays the ship’s captain, Commander/Captain Taggert (Tim Allen), seems to relish his aftermarket career. For the rest of these washed up actors, each performance before fans are like chewing marbles. In particular, Sir Alex Dane, who plays the part of the alien Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman), is practically homicidal. He is reduced to signing autographs and spouting inane things like “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!” to earn some bucks. He is an angry and bitter man. Spiritually he is near death.

Tim Allen channels William Shatner perfectly. He adroitly emulates Shatner’s pomposity, hammy behavior and recklessness. Signourney Weaver plays Lieutenant Tawny Madison, the ship’s communications officer. She is a white version of Lieutenant Uhura (with a mixture of Yeoman Rand from the first show and arguably, Deanna Troi from the second series), but with bigger breasts exposed for their maximum cleavage. Like Lieutenant Uhura, she does little more than repeat whatever the computer tells her. Tech Sergeant Chen (Tony Shalhoub) is a variant of Chief Engineer Montgomery Scott, but without the thick Scottish accent. Lieutenant Laredo (Tommy Webber) is a mixture of Wesley Crusher and Gary Coleman. Perhaps Sam Rockwell plays the funniest part. He plays “Crewman Number Six”, parodying one of the anonymous “red shirts” who were invariably the first to die in the original Star Trek series.

You probably know the plot. The actors find themselves aboard a real life version of the NSEA Protector created by an oppressed alien race that somehow caught their broadcasts. While they are smart enough to create a working version of their ship, they are also incredibly naïve. They cannot distinguish fact from fiction. So they think the actors are not acting at all. In fact, they cannot conceive of the idea of the whole series being fictional. They recruit the actors to help them save their dying species from the dreaded predator, Sarris and his loathsome alien race. It is a silly premise, of course, but one that provides an ideal tableau for high humor parodying the entire Star Trek and its fan universe.

The show’s writer (David Howard) clearly is a Star Trek fan. He writes with eerie authenticity on the whole fan culture and documents its obsessive nebbish denizens. For while fen wish they could be these valiant explorers, they must inhabit a comfortable 21st century instead. So they spend their free hours on bizarre quests like creating detailed schematics of their mythical spacecraft. What we witness is true to the post Star Trek experience. There is a mutual dependency: the fans need the actors to be their caricature, while the actors need the fans to give meaning to professional lives that otherwise ended when the series was canceled. The movie is homage to the whole fen culture, as well as an imaginative idea perfectly played out.

Consequently, the film can delight on many different levels. That is what makes it for me something of a landmark comedy. If you have not inhabited the fen universe, it is just another funny and often hilarious movie. However, if you have attended a Star Trek convention or two, if you have found yourself obsessively combing the Barnes and Noble for the latest Star Trek novel, or if you have found yourself obsessively posting on Star Trek message boards arguing about continuity errors or the recipe for Plomeek Soup, then this movie is for you.

Galaxy Quest is in many ways a classic comedy like the movie Airplane! (1980). Unfortunately, fewer of us can relate to Galaxy Quest than we can to broad parodies like Airplane! That it transcends into a higher level of comedy is only apparent to us fen. Fortunately, there are millions of Trekkers out there, so the movie paid for itself and then some. It is also a precious gift to the fen community.

I will not rate the movie. I will say it would be difficult not to enjoy it. However, if you have ever been a serious fan of any science fiction series or fantasy show, it will be hilarious, feel intimate, and leave you deeply satisfied.

 

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