Galaxy Quest

In a just world, O.J. Simpson would currently be serving the 24th year of a double life sentence; Ronald Reagan would have been president during America's bicentennial instead of Gerald Ford — and Galaxy Quest would've earned half-a-billion bucks at the box office when it came out in 1999.

But inept and indifferent studio marketing (plus competition from another "sci-fi" comedy, Ghostbusters) relegated Galaxy Quest to semi-cult status. Which is ironically appropriate, given its plot:

At a science fiction convention, fans await an appearance by the cast of Galaxy Quest, a hokey interstellar TV adventure series unceremoniously cancelled in the early 1980s. The show's fatally typecast has-been "stars" (played by Tim Allen, Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub and Daryl Mitchell) are reduced to reluctantly signing autographs at tacky gatherings like this one, when they're not cutting ribbons (in full costume) at supermarket openings.

That is, until genuine aliens — who, in cargo cult fashion, have based their civilization on Galaxy Quest re-runs transmitted through space — touch down and beg "the crew of the NSEA-Protector" to help them defeat the villain bent on destroying their planet. The adorable Thermians innocently believe the program's "crew" are fearless, intrepid space warriors and technological geniuses, not just washed-up actors in laughable uniforms. Their language has no word for "pretend"...

Lazily calling this movie "a Star Trek spoof" unfairly slots it alongside broad, coarse parodies like Blazing Saddles or the soulless Mars Attacks! In truth, Galaxy Quest is a tender, big hearted valentine — more My Favorite Year than Airplane.

That the film's jokes and, more incredibly, its special effects, hold up so well twenty years later is a testament to the loving care with which Galaxy Quest was crafted. Obeying the first (yet often ignored) commandment of movie comedy, all the actors "play it straight":

Genre veteran Sigourney Weaver of Alien fame never winks "Get it?"; neither does Alan Rickman, a classically-trained Shakespearean actor stuck wearing a rubber prosthetic forehead, portraying... a classically-trained Shakespearean actor stuck wearing a rubber prosthetic forehead:

While I'd have preferred the director's original choice for the leading role — Kevin Kline — Tim Allen acquits himself surprisingly well as the pompous, Shatner-esque Jason Nesmith, a.k.a., Commander Taggart.

Cast as Thermian leader Mathesar, Yale Drama alumnus Enrico Colantoni conceived of his species' quirky gait, rictus grin and off-key speech patterns during his winning audition, then led hour-long "alien school" on set each morning to ensure uniformity and, therefore, believability; of all the Thermians, Missi Pyle's Laliari is so indelibly delightful that John Updike gave her a shout-out in his novella Rabbit Remembered.

Speaking of famous writers, David Mamet has called Galaxy Quest "a perfect film," ranking it with The Godfather (and another of my other favorites, Dodsworth.)

But all that came later. While it wasn't immediately embraced by mainstream audiences or critics, Galaxy Quest was promptly accorded both a Hugo and a Nebula (the Pulitzers and National Book Awards, respectively, of science fiction.) Notoriously touchy Trekkers voted it "the seventh best Star Trek movie of all time" — and it almost came in second. Within a pop-subculture whose battles over "canon" make the Council of Trent look like a Tony Robbins seminar, that's not nothing.

But not even these genre buffs could have realized how perceptive they'd turn out to be.

When Galaxy Quest came out in 1999, the internet was just beginning to spread something we now call "fandom" beyond the tiny, inbred cosmos of photocopied zines and amateurish airport-hotel conventions savaged in William Shatner's "Have you ever kissed a girl?" sketch on SNL. (And in the opening scene of this film.)

At the 1st World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, legendary superfan Forrest J. Ackerman and his girlfriend were the only ones who showed up in costume. Today, it's not a "con" without industrial strength "cosplay," be it inside the biggest convention centre in the state or on a four-day theme cruise. Whatever the venue, showrunners strive to wow demanding, discerning fandom with exclusive teaser trailers, selfies with the stars, and behind-the-scenes tidbits. Back home, the same fans record themselves watching the show, for the delectation of other fans. (Like me: I'm addicted to Walking Dead "reaction videos"...)

Fan- and slash-fiction, once restricted to shameful shoddy listserves, has turned some once-obscure scribblers into publishing stars. (50 Shades of Gray started out as thinly disguised Twilight fan-fic.) Collaborative worldbuilding is becoming the norm.

In other words, fandom —once onanistic and parasitical — is now not just big business, but, paradoxically, a grassroots, symbiotic two-way street:

Give Spock a beard and you're asking for death threats, but you're just as likely to hear about a dying child being visited by his favourite character, or getting a private screening of a season or sequel premier he might not live to see.

And how, pray tell, does that crew in Galaxy Quest rise to the occasion, and transform from losers into heroes?

With help from the rabid fans they'd long resented and belittled.

Only a platoon of geeky Spielbergian pubescent "Questerians," with their homemade Protector blueprints and gnostic knowledge of the TV show's arcana, can guide the beleaguered actors to triumph.

And that's why I tear up every time Tim Allen turns Shatner's other famous SNL line — "Get a life!" — inside out, and tells one of those boys the impossible, incredible truth about this (or any) enduring "pretend" mythology:

"It's all real."

If the Protector's crew are rescued from failure, the movie itself was redeemed by it. Galaxy Quest's middling ticket sales — along with (sad but true) Alan Rickman's untimely demise — saved us, in turn, from passing the last 20 years in franchise hell, suffocated by animated spinoffs, "dark" remakes, sweatshop action figures — and, frankly, boredom. (Seriously: How many more transfusions of Star Wars and Harry Potter does humanity require?)

Instead, Galaxy Quest stands solitary and (so far — fingers crossed) sequel-free, like Gone With the Wind and Casablanca.

I still wish everyone involved had banked a ton of cash.

Alas, the world is not just.

We haven't yet tried cosplay or sci-fi costumes on the Mark Steyn Cruise, though perhaps that's something to consider for the future. Though there is plenty of revelry, relaxation and review aboard the S.S. Steyn. Our second voyage will be heading up to Alaska in just a couple of months; Kathy Shaidle will be among our special guests. We're also taking bookings already for the third Mark Steyn Cruise, this one along the Mediterranean, next year. You can book your cabin for that here. If you want to let Kathy know what you think of her piece in the comments, make sure your Mark Steyn Club membership is up to date. You can pick up a membership for yourself, or buy a Gift Membership for a loved one, here.