Two Drink Minimum is a comedy-based column by Vague Visages writer Jacob Oller.
Star Trek celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, inspiring examinations of the show’s democratic mission, politics, humanism and influence on science fiction. Retrospectives on cult followings and fan theory in a post-Trekkie world accompany this milestone, but the greatest relic of Star Trek’s postmodernism and humor is turning the awkward age of 17: Galaxy Quest.
Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but Charles Caleb Colton should’ve known that parody represents an even more intimate embrace of its subject. As a movie that traffics in TV nods and aesthetics (winning various sci-fi awards for its accurate homage to its Star Trek source), Galaxy Quest was the second theatrical release helmed by television director Dean Parisot.
Parisot, known for his comedy credits like Monk, Northern Exposure and Curb Your Enthusiasm, got his first feature experience directing a script that Breaking Bad’s Vince Gilligan wrote for an NYU film class. The guy knew his TV, especially when mixing genre tropes with the black humor of the complex individuals behind them.
This isn’t to say that Star Trek doesn’t have its share of funny moments. The campy laughs of fuzzball Tribbles raining down upon Captain Kirk are as goofy and warm as those encouraged by the stars of Galaxy Quest as they tackle their roles in the real world. Bumpy space rides and the nagging sexism towards chief engineer Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver) are callbacks to the original series, as the humor could often dip from camp to chauvinism in its early seasons, especially seen in the punchline of the episode “I, Mudd,” where a criminal is sentenced to a hell of nagging female androids.
Where Galaxy Quest transcends its possible fate as nothing more than a comedic fan film (something its writer lamented to one-time director Harold Ramis when saying that it “could be a great idea or it could be a terrible idea”) is in its blend of camp, meta-humor and the pathos underscoring each episode of the source. The mesh of stretchy outfits (that highlight paunches) and the clash of personalities (behind the scenes of a Comic-Con-esque touring circuit) jab at what the audience knows beyond the show. Star Trek was just the first series where the audience was rabid enough to have a personality of its own — something necessary for this postmodern take.
Chockful of references, both to the canon of the show and the warring personalities behind it, Galaxy Quest uses its narrative, stars, and clashing aesthetics (even clashing aspect ratios) to bridge viewers between reality, film and the memory logs of television that brought them to the movie in the first place. When Tim Allen (playing the egocentric captain of Galaxy Quest’s crew) swaggers onstage to greet the roaring crowd and Alan Rickman crumples under the self-loathing generated from an acting career boiled down to a hand gesture and a catchphrase, William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy occupy the same screen. The latters exist as intellectual spectres that the audience applies to what it’s seeing, enhancing the obnoxious captain with the same solo-boy-band-member ego that drove Shatner and deepening Rickman’s Dr. Lazarus with a tragic empathy.
These characters would work without being direct mirrors of real actors and their real roles (stacking the references and unrealities like Matryoshka dolls), but the darkness comes from the audience — likely composed of Star Trek fans with varying degrees of rabidity – understanding that they have helped, in some small way, create what they’re watching. They helped build the ego, they helped define a career. In these realizations, they can find both horror and humor.
Star Trek was never afraid to make direct references, even placing its crew in situations lived in history or written in culture, so the postmodernism of Galaxy Quest is the next logical step. “The Way to Eden” described the counterculture of hippies while “A Private Little War” ran as a Vietnam allegory, and from these episodes evolves Galaxy Quest as a satirical what-if, applying a fiction’s framework to a fictionalized version of reality. That the absurdity makes the film more humorous than dramatic is to be expected, but even the straight moments become tongue-in-cheek as each moment of character triumph correlates to the imagined actions of Shatner, possibly while he cuts another spoken-word album.
Galaxy Quest remains great as a testament to sci-fi filmmaking, television and reverence to Star Trek as a fandom phenomenon which can only be understood and engaged with via postmodern means. That it chooses humor (with reference points that continue to be felt in our culture) over the overly allegorical or preachy is how the film manages to remain relevant alongside, though than in a completely different way, its source material.
From AAA TV to Z-movies, Chicago-based critic Jacob Oller (@JacobOller) would like to bring the world together through entertainment, writing about it for publications like The Guardian, the Oklahoma Gazette, and his own blog. He’s a decent impressionist, semi-decent karaoke participant, and terrible dancer, although you’ll have to get a few drinks in him first.