Film Discussion

Galaxy Quest – Throwback 20

In 1993, the first volume of William Shatner’s memoirs – entitled Star Trek Memories – was published. During the process of researching and writing the book, Shatner was surprised to discover the antipathy and hostility of some of his former co-stars from his time as Captain James T. Kirk; one of them – James Doohan – even refused to meet with Shatner. He was accused of scene stealing, cutting the lines of his colleagues, and generally being egomaniacal – charges which came as a genuine revelation to Shatner.

For the first time, the central notion of a ‘Star Trek family’ was shaken, as it became clear some of his fellow actors on the sci-fi show harboured a resentment towards Shatner; it was something which had stayed with them for decades. It seems as though any introspection on Shatner’s part about this was shortlived, as he was later to comment feeling so strongly after 30 years was “not just petty, it’s psychotic”, as well as speculating it was partly due to his co-stars working on their own books and trying to drum up some controversy for publicity purposes.

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Although Shatner would seem to have subsequently rebuilt a few bridges with some of the disgruntled members of the Star Trek cast, appearing alongside them at conventions, it was something which entered popular culture at the time, and would no doubt have informed what was to eventually reach cinema screens as Galaxy Quest. Screenwriter David Howard was very definitely influenced by Star Trek when he came up with the original notion for the movie, which was a script entitled ‘Captain Starshine’.

Howard was researching Africa for another script, and went to watch an IMAX feature documentary about the continent. During the pre-show, there was a trailer for a factual piece called Americans In Space, and he struggled to identify the voice doing the narration. Howard eventually realised it was Leonard Nimoy, and began to speculate about how closely the stars of Star Trek were still associated with the series, as well as the thought processes directors go through when deciding who to choose for a role, particularly when actors find themselves typecast.

He had the inspiration of doing a comedy about the hero of a cheesy 1970s sci-fi TV series, and had William Shatner’s distinctive cadences very firmly in mind when writing the dialogue for the character. In ‘Captain Starshine’, the villain of the piece was the equivalent of Alan Rickman’s character in the finished Galaxy Quest; here, he’s written a lot of sci-fi novels and made money doing it, but wants to actually find the real thing, so he starts doing a series of scientific experiments.

This leads to his opening a portal in time and space, which takes him to an alien world, on which he firmly establishes himself as a Ming The Merciless-type ruler. The oppressed inhabitants learn about Captain Starshine, thinking him to be an actual intergalactic hero, and they head to Earth in order to bring him back to liberate their planet. The script was sent to DreamWorks, and producer Mark Johnson read it; while not a big fan of the script itself, he liked the basic concept.

Johnson paid for the exclusive rights to the story, and asked writer Robert Gordon to come up with his own take, having explained the premise, but not actually letting Gordon read what Howard had written. After submitting his first draft in 1998, the studio greenlit the project and work got underway to turn Gordon’s script into a reality. While Johnson wanted Dean Parisot to direct, DreamWorks wanted to get more of a ‘name’ to sit in the director’s chair, so the studio went and signed up Harold Ramis in November 1998.

Ramis had difficulties casting the lead, as he’d approached Alec Baldwin, who turned the role down. Also in the frame were Steve Martin, Robin Williams, and Kevin Kline, but in spite of all his efforts, Ramis was unable to secure an actor to portray Jason Nesmith (a.k.a. Commander Peter Quincy Taggert, who it’s been speculated was named after Peter Quince from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which he is the leader of a troupe of amateurish thespians). However, a hero was to emerge in the somewhat unlikely form of Buzz Lightyear.

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In 1999, Tim Allen was coming to the end of an eight-year run in sitcom Home Improvement, during which time he’d started to make a presence on the big screen, in The Santa Clause and Toy Story. Allen was under consideration for the lead in Bicentennial Man, and had to choose between that project and Galaxy Quest. Although the studio’s pick, Ramis didn’t want Allen as Nesmith, and the situation came to a head during an uncomfortable lunch where Ramis laid out his vision for the movie, and made it clear Allen wasn’t part of it.

Ramis departed the project in February 1999, and producer Johnson was able to get original choice Dean Parisot to take over. Ramis had reportedly been intending to try and avoid using anyone who’d appeared in sci-fi previously, whereas Sigourney Weaver (who’d auditioned for the part of Gwen DeMarco under Ramis) felt that people who’d been in sci-fi knew what was absurd about it, and they could accentuate the inherent humour. As a result, she pushed Parisot to cast her, so that she could deliberately play against her image as Ripley in the Alien films.

Galaxy Quest naturally featured a number of references to the Star Trek franchise, some more obvious than others. In addition to the previously-mentioned antagonism between the classic series’ cast and its star, there was also a subtle reference to (now Sir) Patrick Stewart, in the shape of Alan Rickman’s Sir (although never mentioned as such on screen) Alexander Dane, who – like Stewart – was a Shakespearean actor concerned about the impact that appearing in a sci-fi TV show would have on his career (which Stewart did for a while after signing up to appear in The Next Generation).

In addition to this, there were more obvious allusions, from the design of the ship’s bridge to the shuttle pods, weapons and communicators, and the use of a desert location (in this case, Goblin Valley State Park in Utah) to represent an alien planet. One perhaps unintentional reference was in having Nesmith face off against a rock monster; William Shatner had planned this as the climax of Star Trek V, but he was sadly unable to pull off the desired effect with a practical costume due to budgetary constraints, and he had to then replace it in post-production. (As an aside, Robert Gordon’s original draft script was titled ‘Galaxy Quest: The Motion Picture’, making reference to the oft-maligned original Star Trek movie.)

There are also similarities between Galaxy Quest and Three Amigos!, as both feature the plot of a group of actors being mistaken for actual heroes by innocents, who mistake their fictional exploits for documentaries, and so they seek to get the actors’ help in freeing them from oppression. It hasn’t gone unnoticed by Three Amigos! director John Landis, who also noted the idea was used by films like A Bug’s Life and Tropic Thunder; Landis once said: “If Galaxy Quest weren’t so funny, it would probably bother me more”.

As part of the publicity for the film’s release in America on Christmas Day 1999, the E! network aired a mockumentary, Galaxy Quest: 20th Anniversary, The Journey Continues, which carried on the movie’s central conceit, and had all of the cast playing their actor equivalents in interviews, as if Galaxy Quest had been a real TV show; it also added some further backstory, in the shape of a Gene Roddenberry-type creator figure. Although not included on any of the DVD or Blu-ray releases to date, the featurette has been uploaded (unofficially) to the internet.

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In 2019, a feature by the people behind the Fandom website – Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary – had a one-night-only release in American cinemas, marking two decades since the film’s release. Given that the comedy had come out in the early days of the World Wide Web, and the emergence of online fandom for TV and film science fiction, there was a tie-in website for Galaxy Quest in 1999 which was intentionally designed to look as if it was run by a fan of the series, rather than something done professionally.

Galaxy Quest seems to have been something of a hard sell for the studio’s marketing people, as it’s a comedy film that doesn’t feature many of the expected comic star turns you might expect, and becomes unexpectedly dramatic around halfway through; it also starts out as a parody, which later turns into a homage to the thing it’s supposedly sending up. As a result, although it made back double its actual budget, it’s been something of a slow burner in terms of getting a mainstream following, and was something of a cult classic for many years.

One indicator of its acceptance was in 2013, when at that year’s official Star Trek Convention in Las Vegas, Galaxy Quest was voted by fans as being the seventh best out of all the Star Trek movies up to that point. Inevitably, talk turned to a sequel, and after being unable to get a movie off the ground, it was turned into a pitch for a TV series, which Amazon picked up for its Prime Video service. The project had seemed to have stalled following the death of Alan Rickman in 2016; however, reports appear every now and again, and a series might yet still materialise.

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Perhaps it’d be best if the whole thing comes to naught, as there’s a risk that any attempt at continuing Galaxy Quest may spoil the legacy of the original if it’s mishandled. With the movie having been something witty, warm, affectionate and thrilling, any sequel might lose some of the innocence and charm of the original, and potentially be a more cynical enterprise – the degeneration of internet fandom in some areas is something which may have to be reflected in all its ugliness, and this would contrast sharply with the youthful naïveté shown for this then-new outlet in the movie.

Maybe you can’t go back and capture lightning in a bottle twice; the rather mixed reaction to Star Trek: Picard has demonstrated the inherent risk in revisiting old properties and characters decades later. Who knows, though, perhaps with the right creative team and set of circumstances, the gallant crew of the NSEA Protector may once again get to quest around the galaxy. The original movie being made in the first place was seemingly against all the odds, so as the man said: Never give up, never surrender.

Galaxy Quest was originally released in Canada on 23rd December 1999, and in the UK on 28th April 2000.

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