Meet the Thermians: the biggest science-fiction nerds of all time.
They show up at a science-fiction convention dedicated to "Galaxy Quest," a campy old TV series that bears a more than passing resemblance to Star Trek. Like everyone else, they’re in uniform and in character, having adopted the look and behavior of alien extras from the old show. They’re huge fans, of course; in fact, they’ve modeled their lives on the principles of "Galaxy Quest," like the Trekkies who put up those "Everything I Really Need To Know I Learned From Star Trek" posters. And, like the obsessive fans William Shatner famously exhorted on Saturday Night Live! to "Get a life!", the Thermians are having trouble distinguishing fantasy from reality. As a matter of fact, they think of the "Galaxy Quest" episodes they’ve seen as "historical documents."
But these aren’t ordinary fans. The Thermians really are extraterrestrials (though they don’t really look like TV-show extras) who are far more advanced than humans technologically, though they’re unsophisticated in other ways. When they became "Galaxy Quest" fans (or "Questarians" as the film calls them), they didn’t just buy the action figures or even wear the uniforms like everyone else: they reverse-engineered a working life-size replica of the show’s starship, the NSEA Protector, using footage of the sets and models as a template. And when their hopes of building a society based upon "Galaxy Quest" principles are demolished by a ruthless alien conqueror (Robin Sachs), they come to Earth in the hopes that their heroes, the original crew of the Protector, might be able to save them.
Suddenly, make-believe becomes reality, obscure TV trivia becomes advanced engineering knowledge, and has-been actors have a chance to become real-life heroes. Witness how slyly Galaxy Quest manages to have its cake and eat it too: It affectionately satirizes the obsessiveness of Star Trek devoteés, while at the same time indulging their fondest wish: that the whole thing be real, and that they have a part in it.
A few years ago Men in Black created a small comic sensation with its satirical suggestion that space aliens walk among us, mostly in New York City, where of course they generally go unnoticed. ("Cab drivers?" Will Smith inquires of Tommy Lee Jones. "Not as many as you’d think" is Jones’ answer.) The "Galaxy Quest" fan convention, with which the film opens and closes, provides an even more logical setting; and the line between entertainment and reality is increasingly distorted to the point of oblivion.
Besides satirizing Star Trek’s fan base, Galaxy Quest also takes aim both at the absurdities of the show itself and also at the behind-the-scenes reality. Most of the obvious Trek conventions are targeted: the principle that any extraneous character on an away mission always dies; the shipwide crisis that requires crew members to crawl through endless ducts; the isolation of the captain on a hostile planet where he must do hand-to-hand combat with an alien monster. The ship itself provides some laughs, as characters try to come to terms with meticulously reconstructed hardware that makes no sense at all outside a TV show. In one scene two characters must cross a passageway deep in the bowels of the ship in which split-second precision is needed to avoid being smashed by a battery of giant automated metal hammers or incinerated by blasts of fire. What practical function does this equipment serve? None at all, but it was on the show, so it’s been replicated by the Thermians.
What about the characters themselves? Some have tried to draw direct parallels between each of the "Galaxy Quest" crew members and his or her Star Trek counterpart (Commander Taggart = Captain Kirk; Lt. Tawny Madison = Uhura; Dr. Lazarus = Mr. Spock; etc.); but it’s not that simple. Rather, Galaxy Quest pays tribute to the spirit of Star Trek, parodying its eccentricities and foibles without replicating each of the characters wholesale.
There is one direct parallel: Commander Taggart represents Captain Kirk. Also, actor Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played Taggart in the series, represents William Shatner. We’ve all heard stories about Shatner’s backstage arrogance and alienated co-stars; and Nesmith is all that: Watching him surrounded by fans at the convention, co-star Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) comments, "They really do love him;" but Tommy Webber (Daryl Mitchell) shoots back: "Yeah — almost as much as he loves himself."
Yet it’s also an affectionate tribute, for of course Nesmith is given the opportunity to rise to the occasion and become in reality what he’s always been in his own mind. Allen, with his dark, wavy hair and Buzz-Lightyear action-figure persona, is perfect in this role; if Galaxy Quest sparks a sequel or two, he could have a nice side line as a Shatner knockoff, the way Charlie Sheen did Tom Cruise in those Hot Shots! spoofs.
After that, though, the parallels become more ambiguous. Take Sir Alexander (Alan Rickman), a British thespian of some dignity who loathes his "Quest" persona Dr. Lazarus, and in particular his character’s famous line — which of course he’s always being greeted with and is always expected to say. Naturally we’re meant to think of Leonard Nimoy, who wrote a book called I Am Not Spock and must at times have felt that way about "Live long and prosper." (Incidentally, Rickman himself, like Nimoy and Alexander, is also a thespian of some dignity who is best remembered for a famous pop-culture role: terrorist Hans Gruber from the first Die Hard film.)
On the other hand, Dr. Lazarus is as much Klingon as Vulcan, with complicated head ridges and a warrior culture background; his stereotyped line is not a benediction like Spock’s, but a warrior oath: "By Grabthar’s hammer, you shall be avenged!" He’s not a straight Spock send-up, but a sort of cross between Mr. Spock and The Next Generation’s Mr. Worf. Likewise, Lt. Tawny is as much Next Gen’s Deanna Troi as Uhura; and so on. In a surreal bit of casting, Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub plays a Quest actor with an Asian "Quest" character (Sgt. Chen); a possible tweak of the Trek crew’s sketchy national identities — except that the actor Shalhoub’s playing also has an Asian name (Fred Kwan)!
In the end, Galaxy Quest’s goofy science fiction breaks down completely: There’s no way to rationalize how the Thermians are supposed to have created a working version of a fictional device from a lost "Quest" episode without knowing what it was supposed to have done. Even the script is unclear on this point; the episode that reveals the weapon’s function is supposed to have been a filmed and broadcast episode, not an unproduced script; yet no one — not the actors, not the Thermians, not even the diehard fans — really knows exactly what it was. Despite this irreconcilable plot hole, the script is remarkably tightly crafted in other respects, and events that at first seem to be throwaway bits later pay off in unexpected ways.
There are no great moral lessons here; or moral problems (allowing for the points noted in the content advisory above). Galaxy Quest is what it is: an entertainingly silly film that will appeal to anyone who’s a Trek fan, anyone who knows any Trek fans, or anyone who wouldn’t want to know any. That’s pretty broad appeal.
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Thank you for your “final thoughts” on the real role of the house in Up. There was something about the house’s relationship with Carl I didn’t quite get at the time (possibly because I was holding a 2-year-old on my lap, and the moment of the great house-purging occurred just as he — the 2-year-old — ran out of cherry icee — otherwise, he sat through the entire thing in rapt attention), but your comments on how [spoiler alert] the house became a burden to be dragged around and Carl’s piecemeal attempts to rid himself of it before realizing it was a real life-trap made the whole movie click for me.
And, for what it’s worth, I was one of the guys who cried in the theater (probably the only time during the movie I was glad we’d seen it in 3‑D … those tinted buddy holly glasses are good for something). Not too many animated movies deal with the unsharable grief of a miscarriage (and certainly none with that degree of economy and emotional precision).
But then, I cried in Cars (and every other Pixar movie), too, when Route 66 gets bypassed and Radiator Springs becomes a forgotten ghost town, so maybe I’m just a sucker for a good story.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.