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Welcome to This Week in Genre History, where Tim Grierson and Will Leitch, the hosts of the Grierson & Leitch podcast, take turns looking back at the world’s greatest, craziest, most infamous genre movies on the week that they were first released.
David Howard was sitting in an IMAX theater waiting for his movie to start when he saw a trailer for an outer space project that was narrated by a voice he knew but couldn’t place. Soon, he figured out who it was: Spock. “The voiceover for this trailer was Leonard Nimoy… Then it just struck me, ‘Aw, that poor guy,’” the screenwriter later recalled. Howard started imagining what it might be like if Nimoy were reduced to these kinds of paycheck gigs that played off his long association with that iconic Vulcan. “The idea of being trapped in that world struck me as something potentially very funny,” Howard said. “How do you walk away from that and decide, ‘No, I'm not going to do that anymore?’” And then another idea entered his brain: What if the cast of Star Trek had to face off with actual aliens?
From that moment of idle downtime came one of the most beloved sci-fi comedies of the last 25 years. When Galaxy Quest opened on Dec. 25, 1999, it was hardly the most highly-anticipated movie of the Christmas season. Al Pacino was in an Oliver Stone football drama (Any Given Sunday), Jim Carrey was doing an Andy Kaufman biopic with two-time Oscar-winner Milos Forman (Man on the Moon), and films like Stuart Little and Toy Story 2 were big with family audiences. But while it was never a blockbuster, Galaxy Quest has emerged as a singular satire of sci-fi fandom and movie-star ego, while simultaneously being a bighearted story about second chances and community. It’s a movie that can make you laugh and possibly even make you cry — all the while poking fun of the very viewers who embraced it.
Directed by Dean Parisot, the film followed the exploits of Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), a hungover, Shatner-esque blowhard who’s long been coasting on his stardom playing Commander Taggart in an old TV series called Galaxy Quest — which is clearly a stand-in for the 1960s Star Trek show. But he’s not the only one resting on his laurels: His co-stars Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) and Alexander Dayne (Alan Rickman) still cash in on their show’s sustained popularity, although they resent having to live in the past. Then, one day, Jason agrees to a promotional appearance that turns out to be more fraught than he realized: He’s been recruited by kindly aliens called the Thermians to defeat their frightening archenemy, the bug-like Sarris (Robin Sachs). The aliens have seen Galaxy Quest and thought it was real, while Jason assumes the Thermians are dressed-up fanboys and that their request is an elaborate fictional scenario. But soon, Jason and his old cohorts must play actual galactic heroes and save the day.
What could have easily been a one-joke movie proved to be a much more heartfelt and touching story. And that’s because the people who made Galaxy Quest didn’t want it to just be a goof on Star Trek. “I see comedy as tragedy,” Parisot said in 2019, “so I looked at the film as a drama that happened to be funny.”
Why was it a big deal at the time?
By the late 1990s, Star Trek was already an institution, one that had been revitalized thanks to The Next Generation, the syndicated series that introduced audiences to Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard, which ran for seven seasons and had become a film franchise in its own right. But around the time of 1998’s Star Trek: Insurrection, which was the third of the Next Generation movies, this new iteration was starting to lose steam. Maybe there was an opening to make a comedy about the world around an iconic sci-fi series.
Howard’s original script was picked up by DreamWorks and rewritten by Robert Gordon. “I didn’t read [Howard’s script] until after the film was made,” Gordon later admitted. “I heard the logline from my agent. I thought that it could be a great idea or it could be a terrible idea.” But after Gordon’s changes, the project started getting attention, with Groundhog Day director Harold Ramis signed up to make the film. But eventually, Ramis walked away — he disagreed with the studio execs, who thought Tim Allen would be the perfect Jason Nesmith — which then opened the door for Parisot, who’d mostly worked in television, directing episodes of Get a Life, Northern Exposure, and ER. (He’d also won a short-film Oscar.) But even if he didn’t have the pedigree of Ramis, Parisot certainly knew the milieu that had inspired Galaxy Quest.
“I was a huge Star Trek fan,” Parisot said in 2014. “My brother took my mother’s gray station wagon and wrote NCC-1701 on the door. We put two tubes on the roof rack that shot rockets off the top.”
The casting of Allen made sense since he was a huge star due to Home Improvement and his voice work as Buzz Lightyear in the Toy Story movies. As for picking Weaver, it was a sly wink to another popular sci-fi franchise, Alien, in which she played the steely, no-nonsense Ripley. At the time, Weaver had actually just recently finished 1997’s Alien Resurrection, and she saw her eye-candy Galaxy Quest character as very different from Ripley. “The first thing I said to Dean was that [Gwen’s TV character] Lieutenant Tawny Madison had to be blonde, and she had to have big boobs,” Weaver said. “I loved Twany from the first moment I read the part. To me, she was what a lot of women feel like, including myself, in a Hollywood situation.”
Rickman was an inspired choice for Alexander, imbuing the haughty thespian with plenty of arrogance and exasperation that this is how his life ended up. And it sounds like Rickman’s classic training rubbed off on set, initially putting him at odds with Allen. “I was a stage performer, a concert comic, and I was coming into this group of very polished thespians,” said Allen, later adding, “I went to a very different school, shitty clubs and basements and big arenas. But then, one day on the set, Alan came to me and apologized. He said he mistook my behavior for lack of commitment. And we became very fast friends.”
Beyond the A-list names, though, Parisot showed an ability to find talent on the way up, too. Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, Justin Long, and Missi Pyle filled out the supporting cast, none of them yet household names but who would all go on to bigger things, in part, because of Galaxy Quest. But as the movie awaited its Christmas release, expectations were modest. It was a funny idea for a film, but would anybody see it during a packed holiday season?
What was the impact?
Over its opening weekend, Galaxy Quest did… all right, ending up in seventh place. (It finished just ahead of a very different sci-fi film, the sappy Robin Williams robot drama Bicentennial Man.) The modestly budgeted movie — reportedly made for around $45 million — broke even, which was hardly disastrous but definitely not encouraging enough to inspire talk of a sequel.
Jeffrey Katzenberg, the head of DreamWorks, later admitted that a better marketing campaign may have made the film a bigger hit. In 2019, Parisot recalled, “Jeffrey called me during the second weekend and said, ‘I think we screwed up the advertising for this. I’m sorry.’” Also not helping matters was that the studio trimmed the film right before its release in the hopes of courting a more family-friendly crowd. (In fact, in the spirit of the internet’s fixation with the Snyder Cut, some Galaxy Quest fans are holding out hope that, one day, the original R-rated version of the film, which reportedly contained sex scenes and swearing, will see the light of day.)
But much like the original Star Trek series had to slowly cultivate a fan base, Galaxy Quest eventually found an audience on DVD and cable, and over time the movie developed a following. As much as the film skewered fanboys and the bizarro realm of sci-fi conventions, those were the worlds that most hailed Galaxy Quest, happy to laugh at their own nerdy obsessiveness. Soon, the catch-phrases uttered by the characters within the Galaxy Quest TV series — “Never give up! Never surrender!” and "By Grabthar's hammer, by the sons of Warvan, you shall be avenged!" — that were meant to be cheesy ended up becoming endearing sentiments, a way for devotees of the movie to instantly identify one another.
Just like Galaxy Quest was kind in its ribbing of Trekkers, the movie also had a lot of compassion for these over-the-hill actors, whose resentment about being tied to this dumb old sci-fi show gives way to a genuine appreciation for one another. Drafted to be real-life heroes, Jason, Gwen, and Alexander surprise themselves by rising to the moment, facing down life-and-death stakes, and saving an alien race that desperately needs their help. Ironically, by fully embracing the fictional characters that pigeonholed them, they’re finally able to do something worthwhile. Although very funny, Galaxy Quest manages simultaneously to be a sincere acknowledgment that, sure, programs like Star Trek are kinda silly, but it’s also okay that they mean a lot to people — even aliens who don’t know it’s all fiction.
Has it held up?
If you want to measure this film’s legacy, look how far it’s stretched across the culture. In 2008, a Galaxy Quest comic book came out. (“I did not know about the Galaxy Quest comic until a few months ago,” Parisot told MTV in 2014. “There was a screening and Tim and I went. At the end of it somebody handed it to me. He was dressed in a Galaxy Quest uniform, approaching me as the Thermians did to Jason, and the irony was not lost.”) Then, about a decade later, Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary, was released, celebrating the film’s enduring popularity and featuring several of the actors and filmmakers, as well as a few Star Trek luminaries.
Then, of course, there have been the attempts to do a follow-up. Earlier this year, Parisot (who recently directed Bill and Ted Face the Music) revealed that a Galaxy Quest TV show had been in development, but the sad passing of Rickman in early 2016 put those plans on hold. (“People didn’t get [Galaxy Quest] when it first came out,” the actor said a few years before his death. “It is genuinely funny, however. Extremely funny. A truly great piece of writing.”)
But, on the whole, maybe it’s better that Galaxy Quest remains a self-contained movie, unburdened by the sequels and spinoffs that often cheapen beloved sci-fi properties. Beyond the movie’s affectionate humor, fun action sequences, empathetic characters, and legitimately gripping story, it’s the modesty of the proceedings that make it so winning. Clearly, the film is the product of people who legitimately love Star Trek and sci-fi in general. (As Weaver put it in a Hollywood Reporter interview, “Frankly, it’s those of us who have done science fiction movies that know what is funny about the genre.”) And it was that sense of reverence, mixed with smart satire, that made it resonate with Trekkers and genre fans. The filmmakers and the audience were speaking the same lovably nerdy language.