Film reviews

Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary – Review

December 25th 2019 will mark the 20th anniversary of Galaxy Quest first hitting cinema screens in America. A Christmas Day release is somewhat unconventional, but that perfectly fits what was an unconventional movie: it straddled the traditional genre divides, mixing in comedy with drama and action, and combining comic stars with actors better known for playing straighter roles. It also took what could have been an out-and-out mockery of nerd culture, and turned it into a passionate celebration instead. Pretty good for a flick that’s basically The Three Amigos in space (don’t say you hadn’t noticed).

It’s something of a minor miracle Galaxy Quest even got made in the first place, as it had to contend with the loss of its original director over a casting dispute before filming commenced, as well as a set fire during production. Despite all of these issues, the cast and crew never gave up, and never surrendered, resulting in us now marking two decades of a movie which made a relatively minor impact at the box office on original release, but has since become something of a cult hit in its own right, and garnered a very devoted following.

Galaxy Quest was part affectionate parody of, and part loving homage to, the original Star Trek, and it’s been held in such high esteem by Trekkies (or Trekkers , if you prefer) that at the 2013 Star Trek convention in Las Vegas, fans actually voted it as the seventh best Star Trek movie of all time. Given that it’s such a glowing appreciation of fan culture, it seems appropriate a celebratory documentary all about Galaxy Quest should be put together by the team behind the Fandom website. In a suitably meta twist, this is literally a documentary about fandom, literally by Fandom, for fandom.

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It’s an interesting quirk of timing that this should come out within a year of a documentary – What We Left Behind – marking the 25th anniversary of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, a series which was rather under appreciated at the time of its original run on TV, but has since become highly regarded in its own right, being out from under the shadow of both The Next Generation and Voyager. What We Left Behind also showed the power of a devoted fanbase, as it was crowdfunded by the show’s aficionados, and has a similar appreciation of fan culture. As such, it’s actually a nice – albeit unintentional – companion piece for Never Surrender.

Amongst all the usual suspects you might expect to see in a feature like this, we also get to hear from people like Greg Berlanti (the supremo behind the CW’s slate of ‘Arrowverse’ DC Comics adaptations) and Damon Lindelof (showrunner on Watchmen, as well as co-writer and producer of Star Trek Into Darkness, and co-creator of Lost); both get to tell us about their own personal experiences of being fans, and how things have changed since then, thanks in no small part to Galaxy Quest’s portrayal of nerds and geeks, using them in a positive way for the first time, instead of as the constant butt of the joke and regularly derided.

It’s nice to hear from industry professionals just how much fandom means to them, as they can speak as poachers-turned-gamekeepers, having moved over to the other side of the screen and being involved in producing TV shows and movies with cult appeal. It’s almost inevitable that you’d get to hear from Star Trek cast members, and both Brent Spiner and Wil Wheaton are on hand to tell us about how much they – as well as others not present, like Patrick Stewart – love the movie; Wheaton is a particularly good choice, as he’s heavily immersed in fan culture himself, and can testify as to the transformative effect of Galaxy Quest on how fandom’s now viewed in the mainstream.

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The story of how Galaxy Quest came to be is a fascinating one, starting out as a script called ‘Captain Starshine’, which had the same basic premise of aliens mistaking the star of a cheesy ‘70s sci-fi show for a real hero. The studio kept the core idea, and had another writer produce a script based on the notion alone, ending up with what we saw on screen. Harold Ramis was originally hired to direct, but dropped out after he and the studio had differing views over who to cast in the lead – he apparently didn’t want Tim Allen, and the part had been offered to a number of other actors, including Kevin Kline, Robin Williams and Steve Martin.

One of the documentary’s triumphs comes with learning just how much of the finished product came out of a truly collaborative process between cast and crew, meaning the script was only a starting point, and director Dean Parisot gave the actors creative freedom to experiment and move beyond what was on the page. A prime example of this comes with the work Enrico Colantoni (Mathesar), Missi Pyle (Laliari) and the other main Thermians contributed to developing how they spoke, walked, and generally came across on screen, none of which was in fact detailed in the script.

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It’s wonderful to see that all of the main cast (except the late Alan Rickman, of course) chose to take part in the documentary, and it comes across not just how much they enjoyed the experience, but also how much of an ensemble they became. It’s also clear how much love was felt for Rickman, and while it’s certainly sad that he wasn’t able to be interviewed for the documentary, it still feels as though he’s suitably represented, through the anecdotes of his colleagues, some of which are genuinely laugh out loud hilarious.

Never Surrender doesn’t shy away from the controversial or contentious issues which cropped up during Galaxy Quest’s production, and its candour is quite refreshing, as it would have been easy to present a whitewashed account of events. It’s a truly worthy and heartfelt study of a classic movie; while it doesn’t need reappraisal due to it already being highly regarded, this will make you want to go back and rewatch Galaxy Quest, as well as wondering just why you haven’t done it more often. Surely there can be no higher tribute than that.

Here’s hoping Never Surrender gets to be seen by a wider audience. By Grabthar’s hammer, what a documentary.

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