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Galaxy Quest Isn't Much Like Star Trek TOS
It's an ersatz imitation, but it fools the Thermians.
I had a commission to write about Galaxy Quest, so I thought I'd take a brief break this week from the Star Trek TOS recaps and talk about the film instead. We'll be back to regular recapping next week!
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It's hard to believe that there's a Star Trek fan out there who hasn't seen the 1999 tribute/parody Galaxy Quest. But somehow I am that fan. I only became aware that the movie even existed a few years back, and saw it for the first time...well, just now.
I can certainly see the appeal. The cast (Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver) is very likable, as is the gentle spoofing of TOS' technobabble and beefy pulp optimism. But the most startling thing about the film is that, despite the cosmetic similarities, it's very little like the original series.
Instead, director Dear Parisot's Galaxy Quest looks and functions a lot like a standard Hollywood adventure/comedy—it's structure is more Star Wars or even Total Recall than "City on the Edge of Forever" or "Amok Time".
Movie Innocence, TV Expertise
As in many a feature film before, the movie starts out with a group of dissatisfied, bored, squabbling rag tag misfits—in this case the actors from the original Galaxy Quest television show, now scraping together a living by reprising their costumes and make-up for convention goers. Then, through unlikely intervention, they stumble into adventure! Alien Thermians have built an entire culture and technology based on Galaxy Quest broadcasts, and they collect the actors thinking that they're their characters. Jason Nesmith (Allen) who plays the Captain thinks this is awesome—until they all realize they're expected to fight a lizardlike alien race and save the Thermians at great risk to themselves.
The movie is about how ordinary people can do extraordinary things. As such, it's a big love letter to fans and fandom; the "crew" is ultimately saved by uber-Trekkies (or Questies, I guess) who have memorized the lay-out of the ship, the tech, and all its access corridors. Believe in yourselves, believe in your dreams, and the Hollywood narrative arc—complete with moments of self-actualization for all and a romantic clasp at the end—will be yours.
Again, this is very much a Hollywood default—as just one more example, The Matrix released the same year is also about a nobody who chooses to believe in genre tropes and thereby transforms into a hero.
But it's very much not the default of Star Trek, and certainly not of the original series. The characters in TOS aren't innocents who have stumbled into adventure. They are seasoned professionals with extensive training and professional expertise. They're skill sets are referenced again and again, almost obsessively; Kirk is a tactical genius; Spock is the best science officer in the fleet; Dr. McCoy is a medical miracle worker; Scott is an engineering miracle worker.
In Galaxy Quest, as in many a Hollywood movie, the point is that the heroes are innocent dreamers. In TOS, the point is that they are the opposite of that.
Beam Me Into the Knowledge Economy, Scotty
So why is there such a thematic disconnect between the parody and the original? There could be several reasons.
Hollywood movies (especially back in 1999) mostly weren't part of long serials. Moviegoers were expected to enter the world with little background. When innocent heroes like Jason Bourne or Neo lack crucial background information, it serves as a kind of metaphor for the viewer's cognitive ignorance.
In contrast, fans of television who return to the series week after week see their own familiarity with the characters and milieu reflected back to them as Scott's or McCoy's expertise. In the movies, viewers don't know what's going on, so neither do the protagonists. In serialized television, the viewers do know what's going on, so the heroes do as well.
The difference may be formal; it might be temporal too. In the 60s, the US was just on the cusp of the knowledge economy. The automobile industry was still booming, as was, unfortunately, the Vietnam War. Heroes got their hands dirty with engine oil, extracted resources, and fought in wars. They did science and tech, but it was grimy science and tech.
By the late 90s, though, deindustrialization was well advanced, and America's economy was more and more funneled into the entertainment industry. Galaxy Quest changed its engineers and soldiers for actors because actors were increasingly what the US had to sell. The Thermians were right after all. The entertainment was the real thing, and it eventually conquered.
Better Acting Through Television
Whatever the reason for the change, there is an irony in Galaxy Quest celebrating actors rather than technicians. That irony being—the TOS performers were pretty clearly better than their big name Hollywood counterparts. Tim Allen is okay, but he's nowhere near as fun to watch as William Shatner, who threw all the ham at the ship walls all the time, but also managed to get a surprising amount of amused nuance into his banter with Spock or McCoy. Rickman can be a tremendous actor, but he doesn't have much to work with here, and certainly doesn't rival Leonard Nimoy's Spock, with his eyebrows and his vacillation between quietly intense competence and unbuttoned scenery chewing. The one exception to the qualitative diminishment, perhaps is Tony Shalhoub as Fred Kwan, whose uncertain, vacillating actor turned engineer carries on the Star Trek tradition of performers like Nichelle Nichols and George Takei who managed to create personality out of few cues and little screen time.
If I were going to give Galaxy Quest a rating, as I've been doing for the Star Trek episodes, I'd put it at around 6.8 or so I guess; closer to a classic like "Balance of Terror" than to an absolute dud like the "Alternative Factor". The Thermian's didn't exactly get the real thing, but what they got isn't bad.