The nascent days of the Internet brought with it a recognizable and often critical depiction of fandom in popular culture. The most familiar representation of the modern fan comes courtesy of The Simpsons, with its obese Comic Book Guy character. Arguably, that’s also one of the more insulting depictions of fans, as the otherwise unnamed Comic Book Guy is unnecessarily obsessive, snide, immature, lonely, and virginal. But fandom takes many forms, and one form celebrates its 20th anniversary this month in a surprising package.
Fans are a key part of one of the great modern comedies, Galaxy Quest, a story all about science-fiction culture and those who are most passionate about it. But the fans in Galaxy Quest are treated with a lot more kindness than you might expect.
By Grabthar’s Hammer
Galaxy Quest is a truly distinct science-fiction comedy, a film as much about itself as it is about an actual adventure. Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, the lead actor of a 1970s-era TV show called Galaxy Quest, where the actor played the heroic captain of a spaceship. On each episode, the captain and his fellow crew members got into various scrapes with aliens, resolving things in a single installment to continue exploring the far reaches of outer space. Decades later, the show exists as a presence at fan-driven conventions where cast members like Nesmith dutifully if dully sign autographs, smile for the cameras, and otherwise bemoan their drab existences. Notably, at the start, the perpetually vain Nesmith is the only cast member who thrives off the attention. One day, Jason is met by a group of actual extraterrestrials in human form who believe Galaxy Quest to be real, and ask Jason and eventually the crew to help them fight off a cruel alien who’s attacking their people.
The film Galaxy Quest is of course a direct riff on Star Trek and its progeny. You don’t have to look hard to see Jason Nesmith as a younger version of William Shatner. Alexander Dane the late Alan Rickman, a theatrically trained British actor who’s never seen without his alien headgear, could easily be a grouchy play on Sir Patrick Stewart. The list goes on, but the Star Trek connection is worth pointing out because of its fanbase. Fans kept the spirit of Star Trek alive after the show was canceled by NBC in 1969. Not many three-season sci-fi shows went on to spawn an animated series, multiple spin-off live-action shows, plus more than ten feature films.
But fans were also an easy scapegoat to make fun of once Star Trek became a more unstoppable cultural force. Merely a year before the arrival of the first live-action TV spin-off, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Shatner appeared on Saturday Night Live as host tied to the release of the fourth feature film, Star Trek: The Voyage Home. In one sketch, Shatner appears as himself at a fan convention where he’s beset upon by stereotypical nerds trying to get him to clarify minor details about old episodes of the show. It all culminates when he angrily shouts at them to “Get a life!” At best, fans were a double-edged sword for Star Trek: they kept the show alive with their passion, but that same passion often surpassed that of the people making the show.
By the Sons of Warvan
It makes perfect sense that Galaxy Quest incorporates the tough relationship between fans and artists. Nesmith and the rest of the “crew” of the fictional NSEA Protector are often at a loss when trying to clarify to the Thermian aliens that the “historical documents” of their supposed exploits aren’t actual adventures but fictional stories. The lead Thermian Enrico Colantoni, in a truly wonderful and unhinged performance at one point replies, “You are speaking of…deception. Lies!” Presumably, it would be easier for the humans to better clarify things to their fellow human fans, but even that’s a challenge.
Though the TV show Galaxy Quest would have likely inspired lots of older fans by the time of the film’s events, the fans we see in the film are largely personified by just a few teenagers, including Brandon Justin Long, in his film debut, who know the literal ins and outs of the NSEA Protector. In the early going of the film, before Jason and the rest of the crew are beamed up to outer space, Brandon and his awkward-but-not-rude friends are on the brunt of a “Get a life!”-style rant from Jason. Said rant occurs after Jason eavesdrops on a conversation between two snarky guys mocking the Galaxy Quest fanbase and Nesmith himself. You could argue that Brandon and his friends…well, probably do need to get a life, but the important screenwriting or casting choice is to make them all teenagers. We do see a couple of adult fans, such as one dressed as Dane’s Dr. Lazarus, but most of the fans who get serious screen time are kids who seem guileless and sweet. They may be nerdy, but their passion isn’t curdled or nasty.
More to the point, those same fans are key to the rescue of Nesmith, Dane, and the other Galaxy Quest cast members. In the second half of the film, Nesmith and cast member Gwen DiMarco Sigourney Weaver, in a wry casting choice that pokes fun at her past genre work work as a team to find a mysterious device called the Omega-13. Within the history of the show, the Omega-13 device was mentioned but never shown or described in full, so not even the fans know for sure what it’s meant to do. Jason and Gwen are at a loss for how to traverse the lower bowels of the ship, and fortunately, Jason is able to contact Brandon to have the kid walk them through the process. That leads to a particularly funny setpiece as Jason and Gwen have to dive through a series of metal chomping devices that seem to exist solely for being a terrifying obstacle instead of having a real-world use on the ship. Brandon shrugs off the existence of these chompers, but Gwen in particular is furious. “This episode was badly written!” she shouts.
Never Give Up
Compare the way that Galaxy Quest treats fans to the way a number of other pop-culture objects treats fans. From just a couple years later, there’s the outrageous R-rated comedy Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, in which fans who grouse about the films of Kevin Smith are lambasted, with the title characters literally going to critical fans’ houses to beat them up for saying mean things about them online. Even in recent fare such as Rian Johnson’s Knives Out, the tendencies of vocal detractors of his earlier film, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, are manifested as -right jerks. Johnson’s soreness makes a good deal of sense, at least. You may not have heard, but people online have strong opinions about The Last Jedi, and are more than happy to share them with the writer/director, who takes them with surprising and admirable grace.
In many ways, it all goes back to the way the Comic Book Guy acts on The Simpsons in one of its very best episodes, “The Itchy and Scratchy and Poochie Show”. Upon watching the eponymous program with the loudmouth new character Poochie, the Comic Book Guy dubs it, famously, “Worst. Episode. Ever.” and implies that he’s owed for his time watching the program over the years. No doubt, the character’s actions are meant to mirror those of Simpsons superfans who grew alienated with the show over time. Within the context of the show, we’re meant to see the Comic Book Guy as entitled and wrongheaded, and without a lick of nuance, even if the character Poochie is annoying and a cynical attempt to keep fans placated.
So it’s a breath of fresh air that Galaxy Quest is the rare case of a pop-culture object that depicts fanboys without being cruel to them. Brandon, for one, is kind of a hopeless geek — when we first meet him, we learn that he and his buddies had gotten together enough dough to get Jason to visit their house, though he’s waylaid by the Thermians. But as goofy as he is even when chiding his mother for making him take out the trash instead of helping the NSEA crew, Brandon helps save the day. When Jason gives him a Galaxy Quest salute, it’s a genuinely triumphant, earned moment. The fans have become crew members themselves, deservedly so.
Maybe it’s fitting that fans have surrounded Galaxy Quest in the same way that they surrounded the show within the film. Just last month, a new fan-made documentary, Never Surrender, arrived as a way to commemorate the film’s 20th anniversary. And over the last few years, there’s been stalled talk of a Galaxy Quest TV show from comedian and writer Paul Scheer. If that show ever comes to fruition, it will be because there’s enough of a passionate fanbase. As a devoted fan of the film, I would admit to being wary. What makes the film so special is its ensemble cast. Rickman, sadly, can’t be part of any follow-up, and getting the rest of the crew together might be a little challenging.
Galaxy Quest is not entirely a film about fans — much of the humor derives from the fact that just about everyone in the cast of the show has barely any awareness or memory of the show itself. The major exception would be Guy Fleegman, the redshirt-type character played by Sam Rockwell, in the kind of comedically brilliant performance that should have garnered him an Oscar nomination. As terrified as Guy is, he’s also the savviest of the crewmembers, at one point berating them for their blithe behavior in the face of danger: “Have any of you ever watched the show?” But the way the film treats fans makes it almost seem like Galaxy Quest was made by fans.
Another movie by different filmmakers might have scorned fans of a Star Trek-like show. It would have been an easy and understandable impulse. But Galaxy Quest, now 20 years old, has maintained its delightful charm because it’s never mean-spirited. The very premise of the film feels like the kind of fan-fiction that Star Trek fans could have cooked up way back when, as opposed to a calculated story told by people who deride anyone who expresses passion for popular culture. Galaxy Quest is a hilarious film, to be sure, but it’s also a film made out of love for the people who willed it into existence.