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Galaxy Quest

Entry updated 1 August 2022. Tagged: Film.

Film (1999). DreamWorks Pictures, Gran Via Productions. Directed by Dean Parisot. Written by Robert Gordon and David Howard. Cast includes Tim Allen, Enrico Colantoni, Daryl Mitchell, Alan Rickman, Sam Rockwell, Tony Shalhoub and Sigourney Weaver. 102 minutes. Colour.

There is no point in Galaxy Quest where it can be forgotten that the film is an affectionate, mildly Satirical Parody of the first Television Star Trek series (1966-1969) (see also Humour), told within the frame of a recounting of the fate of the original Star Trek cast. Eighteen years after the cancellation of the television series here called Galaxy Quest, its stars still find it impossible to get acting jobs after their career-swamping eidetic roles in the cult sf epic, and have been reduced to making personal appearances at Galaxy Quest conventions, where they appear in the guises of their famed personae. Jason Nesmith (Allen) as Captain Peter Quincy Taggart [ie William Shatner's Captain Kirk in the original series] finds the task to his liking, and hilariously camps his role as Taggart (just as Shatner camped Kirk camping the role of Captain). But the rest of the cast – Gwen DeMarco (Weaver) as Lt Tawney Madison [ie Nichelle Nichols's Uhura], Sir Alexander Dane (Rickman) as Dr Lazarus [ie Leonard Nimoy's Mr Spock], Fred Kwan (Shalhoub) as Tech Sergeant Chen [ie James McDoohan's Scotty], Guy Fleegman (Rockwell) as Guy Fleegman, a Red Shirt [ie a guy or Red Shirt], and others – variously despise their fate. Dane's loathing for the tag that his fans force him to repeat – "By Grabthar's Hammer, by the Suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged!" – achieves genuine dramatic intensity, though Dane is in reality no Hamlet (see Quotations).

The plot plays cleverly on the real-life half-delusional half-gamer-like ambivalence in fans' minds as to the actual reality of a wish-fulfilment universe, a category of "confusion" that increasingly marks creative initiatives in art and media and science over the decades since 1999. In Galaxy Quest, it turns out that the Alien Thermians – a civilization deeply familiar with the original telecasts, which have reached their home world; but lacking any awareness of the nature of fiction – have taken the programme as a presentation of fact. As their world is currently facing Invasion by an aggressive enemy, a Thermian embassy has come to Earth for help, headed by Mathesar (Colantoni), who approaches Nesmith during a Galaxy Quest convention. He is of course indistinguishable from any other fan, and it is not until Nesmith is taken on board the alien Spaceship – the NSEA Protector, whose registration number is NTE-3120 [ie Not The Enterprise] – that he begins to suspect something like the truth: for the alien ship is an exact replica of the cardboard original from the original series, except for the fact that it seems entirely real. The sense of reality here is gently mocked but fully dramatized by a second switch in aspect ratio. The film begins with a short passage in 4:3 ratio, which shows the original television show; then expands to 1.85:1 for the next twenty minutes, which are set on an Earth lacking almost any special effects to lift the visuals beyond 1990s television; then expands to a full-bore Sense of Wonder 2.40:1 ratio when the action moves into the "reality" of CGI-constructed space, and remains at this ratio.

Soon enough, the rest of Nesmith's fellow thespians join him, and a beamed full-screen interview with General Rot'h'ar Sarris (Sachs) – who echoes Star Trek's various villainous Aliens and leads the horrific invasion fleet – goes disastrously wrong, as Nesmith, still refusing to believe he is not in an extremely sophisticated game world, parries the warlord's deadly threats with camp braggadocio; and the film darkens marginally, for we now believe (rightly) that real deaths may be the consequence of his behaviour, and that he must help save the Thermians for real. The film moves rapidly through the required action sequences including Monster fights, which seem convincing mainly in contrast to their 1966 models; and the crew find that if they act their original roles, the real ship will respond as though they knew what they were doing: as it is an American film designed for a PG-12 audience, the crew gain in self-esteem by playing these roles for real. The enemy is defeated, though one of the Thermians dies in a moving scene where Dent must at last speak his hated catchphrase in earnest: "... you shall be avenged."

Galaxy Quest is intricately engineered and signposted throughout, with not a visual wasted, nor a quip without function; and the aspect ratio changes (detailed above) are an exceedingly neat Body English of the argument of the film itself: television is fake and belated; film is heartpoundingly real. But this unrelenting meaningfulness could have weighed heavily upon viewers. Without the geniality that marks every moment, Galaxy Quest would never have maintained its delicately satisfying balance between spoof and earnest, tall tale and consequence, and its not particularly profound but all the same telling scrutiny of the relationship between actor and role, a scrutiny basically (and economically) restricted to Allen. The other roles have less to do with acting as such than with performing an engaging and vital task with actorly dignity; neither Rickman nor Weaver resemble the actors who played the original Star Trek roles, and nothing is made of that tripartite dynamic. Nor is there room for a Gene Roddenberry figure to problematize any relationship between actor and script. Left alone, as though he had made it all up himself, Allen camping the camp Shatner camping the camp Kirk is not only extremely funny, but also, at its level of seriousness, revelatory. Allen is the heart of a film which is about nothing if it is not about knowing how to perform itself.

Robert Gordon and David Howard won a Nebula for best screenplay, and with Dean Parisot won a Hugo for best dramatic presentation. The film was novelized as Galaxy Quest (1999) by Terry Bisson. [JC]

see also: Wayne Douglas Barlowe; Matter Transmission; Recursive SF; Greg Strause.


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