‘Galaxy Quest’: 15 Lessons Fandom Learned from the Sci-Fi Comedy Classic

     December 25, 2019

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On Christmas Day, 1999, audiences were first introduced to the burnt-out thespians of the Star Trek-like television series, Galaxy Quest, who find new purpose when they’re asked to step into their former roles in order to assist their biggest fans — who also happen to be aliens. There’s much to love about Galaxy Quest, from its hilarious dialogue, to its distinctive characters, to the way it lovingly riffs on classic Star Trek tropes, and if you haven’t watched it in a while (or ever), you should probably rectify that right now. (Go on, we’ll wait.) But one of the things that stands out the most twenty years later is the film’s oddly prescient take on fandom culture, and how it balances its unapologetic love for its inspiration with its acknowledgement that nothing should be sacrosanct, and that good-faith critique and a sense of humor can be a positive and healthy thing within fandom.

In 2019, it’s easy to imagine a version of Galaxy Quest where its parody comes across as dismissive, where its jokes make fun of the genre, and its alien characters seem designed to mock the real-life fans who wholeheartedly engage with their chosen works of fiction. After all, nowadays, it can feel as though the only way to be a “true” fan of anything is to unwaveringly support and defend every last inch of it, so an entire movie devoted to poking fun at a genre can seem contradictory to celebrating that genre. But while Galaxy Quest absolutely engages in some pointed roasting of both its fictional series and real-life sci-fi fandom in general, it is also unmistakably a love letter to both, demonstrating time and again how it’s possible to be both an adoring fan and a good-faith critic, all at the same time.

Since the film itself is set twenty years after the premiere of the fictional Galaxy Quest TV show, it seems appropriate to look back on Galaxy Quest now, twenty years after its theatrical release. Here are just a few of Galaxy Quest‘s most enduring lessons on being good fans (and good people), which are just as — if not more — relevant today as they were twenty years ago.

galaxy-quest-posterActors are not their characters

While the whole premise of Galaxy Quest hinges on the extraterrestrial Thermians being unable to separate actors from the characters they played on TV, the film’s opening scene at the Galaxy Quest convention shows that it’s not just aliens who can’t tell the difference between fiction and reality. Over and over, fans interact with the Galaxy Quest cast as though they are the real-life crew of the NSEA Protector, much to the chagrin of characters like Sir Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who laments that he will forever be known as Dr. Lazarus, and not for his five-curtain-call performance as Richard III.

While it’s definitely framed as rude when the cast brushes off their fans’ enthusiastic engagement, it’s also understandable that the actors get frustrated when fans boil them down to a single role they played. Today, with celebrities more accessible than ever through social media, it’s good to keep in mind that the actor behind your favorite character is still a real person with real emotions, no matter how famous they are.

It’s “just fiction,” but… 

Early on in the film, a teenage Galaxy Quest fan named Brandon (Justin Long) asks an episode-specific question of Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen), who played Commander Taggart on the series, and nearly gets his head bitten off as Jason snaps that he shouldn’t care so much, since none of it is real. Later, feeling ashamed and embarrassed, Brandon tries to reassure Nesmith that he knows it’s all pretend.

While Jason was — as far as he knew at the time — telling Brandon the truth, Galaxy Quest makes it obvious that being the “it’s just a television show” guy isn’t a great look. Most of the time, even enthusiastic fans know that their obsession is fictional, and don’t need to be reminded of that. Yes, it’s important to be able to differentiate fiction from reality, but if no one’s getting hurt, Galaxy Quest comes down firmly on the side of letting people enjoy things, whether or not they’re real.

Leading with full particle cannons only makes things worse 

Thinking he’s simply acting on a fan-constructed set, Jason walks into negotiations with the Thermians’ arch-nemesis Sarris (Robin Sachs) completely uninterested in talking, and instead fires every particle cannon on the ship full blast before walking away and assuming he’s won. This proves to be a near-fatal mistake, since Sarris survives and comes out of the encounter determined to inflict even more damage on the Thermians than before.

Most of us will never find ourselves in the position of having to negotiate with a genocidal space general, but we’ve all seen someone enter a fandom debate by blasting away with everything they have, then strutting off, confident in their assumed victory. Galaxy Quest shows that not only is this almost never a productive tactic, where no one really wins and everyone comes out angry, but it can make things much more difficult going forward.

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Image via DreamWorks Pictures

Deception and lies make us into villains

When the crew of the Protector attempts to explain to Thermian leader Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) and his people that the Galaxy Quest series is not, in fact, a series of historical documents, but a fictional television show, the aliens don’t understand. It’s only when Gwen (Sigourney Weaver) explains that acting is “[behaving] in a way that is contrary to reality” that the Thermians realize they’re speaking of deception, a concept that is foreign to them outside of the actions of the villainous Sarris. Later, when Mathesar learns the truth, Jason’s explanation that pretending is entertainment rings hollow, and he sincerely apologizes for the deception. While most of us probably don’t view acting as synonymous with lying, Galaxy Quest still asks us to consider who might be affected by the lies we tell, even ones we’d like to consider harmless.

Everyone has a last name

Through a comedy of errors, convention host (and one-time Galaxy Quest extra/redshirt) Guy (Sam Rockwell) winds up accompanying the Protector crew on their adventure to help the Thermians, only to be horrified when he realizes the life-or-death stakes of their mission. Panicking, Guy becomes terrified that he’s going to die, since he was the least important character on the show. When his companions try to assure him that he’s just as much a person as they are, he asks them to say his last name, which of course they don’t know, sending him spiraling into hysterics as he wonders whether or not he even has a last name.

Of course he does, which we learn at the end of the film (it’s Fleegman), but Guy’s freakout is an effective reminder of something that can be easy to forget in the digital age — everyone has a last name. When we’re interacting with people we’ve never met in real life, even if we don’t know anything about them, it’s important to remember that they’re still an actual person, not a glorified extra.

Take creator comments with a grain of salt 

“Did you guys ever WATCH the show?” Guy asks exasperatedly at one point, as the stars of Galaxy Quest attempt actions that would’ve led to certain death on the series. While the actors are familiar with the show, Guy’s comment serves as a reminder that the people involved with making a thing don’t always get the finer details of that thing exactly right. Sometimes, the artists behind a film or show can’t even agree with each other on how to interpret the thing they made. So when asking creators to weigh in on fandom debates, it’s important to allow for the possibility that they may not actually be the utmost authority on the matter, and to take their opinions with a grain of salt.

Some parts of the things we love are going to be legit bad

No matter how beloved a piece of fiction is, there’s always going to be part of it that just doesn’t work. In Galaxy Quest, Gwen — who played communications officer Lieutenant Tawny Madison on the show — shoulders the biggest nonsensical burden, as she carries out her assigned task of repeating everything the computer says. “I have ONE JOB on this lousy ship,” Gwen says when her co-star calls her constant parroting annoying. “It’s STUPID, but I’m going to do it!” Later, when Gwen and Jason have to navigate the pulverizing Chompers, Gwen furiously protests, “THIS EPISODE WAS BADLY WRITTEN.”

Gwen is never suggesting that the show itself was bad, or even that she doesn’t like it — just that there are parts of it she has (major) problems with. Galaxy Quest gives us permission to laugh at, or even downright loathe, certain aspects of the things we love, and reminds us that we’re allowed to be devoted fans and thoughtful critics, all at the same time.

Fandom can provide a useful shorthand 

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Image via DreamWorks

After being captured by Sarris and his troops, Jason and Alexander get the upper hand by referencing an episode of the show, which allows them to formulate a plan without tipping their hand to their captors. It’s a tactic familiar to any pop culture fan — maybe most of us don’t use nods and quotes to get out of life-or-death situations, but who among us hasn’t used a reference to our favorite fandom to help get a point across to others who speak the same language?

Find friends who love your fandom as much as you do

During the climax of the film, Jason and the crew of the Protector find they don’t have enough knowledge of the show to save themselves, so they call on someone who does — Brandon, and his posse of super-fans. Not only does Brandon’s nerdy network wind up saving the lives of their favorite actors and an entire alien race, but it’s evident that they’re also serving an important role in each other’s lives. None of them bats an eye when Brandon calls them up asking for spaceship schematics, which is the mark of a friend group who spends a lot of time discussing the show they all love. By surrounding himself with friends who are as invested in his fandom as he is, Brandon can always feel comfortable being himself, weirdness and all.

Your favorite lines can have real power

When we first meet Alexander Dane, he’s 110% done with fans quoting his most iconic line from the show back to him. But by the end, after forging a connection with a Thermian fan named Quellek (Patrick Breen), he repeats the line tenderly over the dying young man, offering him peace and comfort in his final moments. Earlier, the two of them recite the Mak’tar chant of strength, a fabrication from the show that still gives them a real surge of energy as they work together to save the trapped Thermian people.

Galaxy Quest and Mak’tar may have been fictional, but the impact of those lines on Quellek was very real. For today’s real-life fans, there are countless lines from books, TV, and movies that we can turn to in tough times. Even though the stories they come from are fictitious, we can still find truth, comfort, and power in their words.

Your encyclopedic knowledge of your fandom may eventually prove useful 

justin-long-galaxy-quest

Image via DreamWorks

Brandon and his friends get to live out a particularly geeky dream at the end of Galaxy Quest — they actually manage to save the lives of their favorite characters by utilizing their impressive arsenal of fandom knowledge. None of them could’ve ever imagined that logging Protector schematics or recording the exact sequence of steps needed to pass an obstacle would’ve had a practical use, but their nerdery proved to be exactly what was needed in order to save the day. Real-life applications for extensive fandom knowledge may not be quite so high-stakes, but whether your detailed recollection of fandom trivia leads to a victory at trivia night or a career writing pop culture articles on the internet, you may be surprised by the many ways your unique knowledge can pay off.

There can be truth in the bonds we form with fictional characters 

When Quellek is dying, he admits to Alexander that although they’d never met before, he’d always thought of the actor as a father figure. Rather than brushing Quellek off or reminding him that Galaxy Quest was fictional, Alexander seems honored, and recites his most famous line from the show as Quellek dies. While the character of Dr. Lazarus was pretend, the impact he had on Quellek was real, and helped shape the young Thermian into the heroic man he was at the end of his life. Similarly, when we connect with fictional characters, they can have a very real impact on how we see the world, how we act, and who we become.

The fandom you’re dismissive of could be lifesaving to someone else

Not all fandoms are for everyone, and at the beginning of Galaxy Quest, Jason overhears a pair of teenagers making fun of him and the Galaxy Quest fans. However, by the end of the film, it’s clear that their fans’ adoration for Galaxy Quest is what saved Jason and his fellow actors, as well as the entire Thermian species. After all, it was only because Mathesar and his crew fled Thermia to ask for help from the Protector crew that they survived Sarris’ genocide in the first place.

In real life, participation in a fandom may not be enough to save an entire species from extinction, but it can help get people through difficult times. Galaxy Quest reminds us that although a particular fandom may not be for you, it could make all the difference for someone else.

galaxy-quest-cast

Image via DreamWorks

Fandom can empower us to become the stars of our own stories

Mathesar and the Thermians thought they needed the crew of the Protector to tell them what to do, but by the end of Galaxy Quest, Mathesar confidently takes control of his ship, having proven himself a competent leader all on his own. While most real-life fans aren’t likely to go on a perilous space adventure with the entire cast of their favorite TV show, coming across the right fandom at the right time in life can still help us find capabilities within ourselves that we may not have realized were there. Whether it’s through finding a supportive community of like-minded fans, connecting with a character, or investing in a storyline that speaks to something you’re going through in your life, fiction and fandom can often serve as a mirror to help us see ourselves more clearly, so we can step into the spotlight of our own lives.

Never give up, never surrender 

Outside of Galaxy Quest, Commander Taggart’s iconic line can speak to any number of real-life scenarios, from difficult social interactions, to health crises, to daunting assignments for work or school. But when it comes to fandom, it’s important to consider the full context of the quote, which spoke to the Protector‘s constant fight against injustice, and its mission to help those who can’t help themselves. Galaxy Quest makes it clear that there is power in fiction and fandom, and the film’s most famous line is a charge to use that power for good — not to simply win fights and dominate at trivia, but to take inspiration from our favorite characters and stories in order to make the world a better place.

“As long as there is injustice, whenever a Targathian baby cries out, wherever a distress signal sounds among the stars, we’ll be there. This fine ship, this fine crew. Never give up… never surrender.”

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