Lest we forget, when we talk about fans and fandoms, the “fan” is short for “fanatic,” and harnessing that kind of energy is to capture a tiger by the tail. Few highs in entertainment are quite so high as developing a loyal and devoted fan base, but with that comes resentment through familiarity, a misplaced idea of ownership and entitlement, and worst of all…the inevitable fading of popularity that transforms even the brightest of star into the saddest of has-beens. All this and more are explored with a parody that is both deadly accurate yet affectionately employed, a deconstruction of science fiction movies and television and the fan bases that keep them going. We are talking about the movie that a 2013 IGN survey listed as the 7th most well-received installment in the entire Star Trek movie franchise: Galaxy Quest.
Once upon a time in the 80s, there was a space exploration TV show called Galaxy Quest, in which Commander Peter Quincy Taggart and the rest of the crew of the NSEA Protector explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go…well, you get the idea. And it was great while it lasted, until the show got cancelled. Now Jason Nesmith, who played Taggart, and his various co-stars all eke out a meager living appearing in costume for science fiction conventions, store openings, and other low-rent public appearances. Nesmith has clearly done better than the rest of the cast, who all resent him for his unprofessional attitude and inability to realize how much they all need these nostalgia gigs. That all changes, however, when a band of honest-to-goodness extraterrestrials gently abduct Nesmith and the gang in a desperate bid to save their civilization. Having received transmissions of the old show and mistaken them as historical documents, the aliens believe the actors to be the characters they portrayed, and have faithfully built an exact duplicate of the Protector in the hopes that it all might be enough to stop the barbaric advances of the galactic warmonger, Sarris. Feeling somehow responsible for all this, the crew must become the people they have only pretended to be while their very survival depends on obeying strange rules that they have unwittingly created themselves.
This movie is a lampoon of every long-running science fiction show, the actors who starred in them, and the infamously passionate fan bases that keep it all bumping along well after cancellation. Such a movie could easily become venomous, sneering, and punch down, but Galaxy Quest never goes there. In a brilliant act of narrative recursion, it pokes fun at the reasons why people both love and roll their eyes at these shows and the people behind them, especially those who seem to forget that they aren’t actually as important as a galactic captain. They’re just actors.
What’s especially enjoyable about Galaxy Quest isn’t relishing the downtrodden, post-fame life of the Protector’s crew, but their struggle to live up to their roles as protectors of the universe. They all prove more capable than they ought to be, largely because the aliens have built a ship that behaves as it did on the show, which is to say, it does most of the work for its crew. But one by one, they try to live up to their alter egos, knowing full well how ridiculous and serious it is at the same time. Nesmith is particularly enjoyable, especially in his opening encounter with Sarris, which he handles with hungover bravado and skill only because he doesn’t realize he’s making life and death decisions. Once that’s fully explained to him, watching his courage drain away is a terrific turn. Seeing it return, though, is even better. And that goes for the entire crew.
No aspect of the genre is safe here. Even without a female audience to play to, Nesmith’s shirt still gets ripped from his chest during moments of crisis. While there is no point in acting as a vocal intermediary between the captain and the ship’s computer, the communications officer does it anyway because she’s got a job to do, and it’s the only thing that’s helping her keep from freaking out. The engine room is an insanely complicated deathtrap because that’s how the show’s lazy writers decided it would be one time, to pad out an episode. And a bit actor who essentially invites himself along for the adventure realizes too late that on Galaxy Quest, he was just a redshirt, and can do nothing else but fixate on the inevitable fate that awaits every anonymous crewman on space exploration shows: to provide a convenient corpse that establishes mortal peril without actually endangering any of the really important characters. Seeing his breakdown in particular is a terrific time because we all kind of wonder if these poor ensigns in the show ever talk amongst themselves about their casualty rate.
But the best part of the whole thing, and what illustrates the affection with which Galaxy Quest pokes fun at its source material, is how it treats the show’s fans. Hopelessly nerdy and devoted to the show’s minutiae, the jaded Nesmith at first brushes them off until he hears a few of them mocking him for being over the hill. It’s not until the end of the movie when he is able to make contact with the show’s biggest fan – and the one he treated the worst, and has him provide the info that saves the day. When the crew finally crash lands on the main stage of a convention to the delight of the fans, the whole thing comes full circle in a moment of truth. The fans have literally saved the ship and her crew, who return triumphantly to validate the fans’ love for them, which in turn results in the show’s long-awaited return to the screen. These shows and their fans need each other more than either ever admits. They’ll never give up, and they’ll never surrender. And that’s okay.