'Galaxy Quest' Knew the Power of Fandom Before the Rest of Us Did

The 20-year-old sci-fi/comedy predicted our nostalgia-obsessed media landscape eerily well.
March 12, 2019, 1:34pm
Promo shot via Dreamworks SKG. 

Pre-production is well under way on a new Star Trek series centred on Patrick Stewart’s iconic Captain Jean-Luc Picard, last seen in the 2002 film Star Trek: Nemesis. The Next Generation, while in good company among nostalgic series revivals, comes closest to bringing to life the fantasy depicted in Galaxy Quest. Turning 20 this year, the sci-fi spoof was right on in recognizing the power of fandom to revive near-forgotten classics decades later, a phenomenon that dominates today’s TV lineups and streaming queues.

In Galaxy Quest, the stars of an old Trek_-inspired sci-fi adventure series (itself called _Galaxy Quest) reunite for a fan convention appearance and photo-op. Tim Allen plays actor Jason Nesmith and is joined by the late Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver, Tony Shalhoub, Sam Rockwell, and Deryl Mitchell, all having played recognizable archetypes in the show, from the sexy, undervalued love interest, to the disposable “red shirt,” to the composed alien general, to the precocious teen crew member. The whole thing is an affectionate homage more than a parody.

Among the fans lining up for autographs is a group of Thermians, real aliens led by Enrico Colantoni’s Mathesar, who received broadcasts of the show and took them to be historical documents. Persecuted by the genocidal bug-like alien Sarris and his henchmen, the Thermians create a replica of the fictional Galaxy Quest ship the Protector and enlist the ship’s “real” crew to help save their people.

The cast reluctantly agrees to help, realizing the power of their storytelling along the way and finding a new sense of purpose as superfans on Earth help them navigate plot holes and continuity hiccups to save the Thermians. When the mission is complete and the stars return to Earth, they develop a rebooted series of Galaxy Quest, bringing together the original cast to tell new stories.

Most critics enjoyed Galaxy Quest immediately in 1999, either appreciating it as a stand-alone comedy or as a solid spoof of Trek. But the film also hit a lot of action/adventure and sci-fi high notes in its own right too and did respectable at the box office, bringing in $90-million worldwide.

Trekkers even placed Galaxy Quest ahead of six actual Star Trek movies when ranking the official films in Gene Roddenberry’s sprawling franchise at a 2013 Star Trek convention in Las Vegas.

And in a case of life imitating art (or is that the other way around?), Paramount and Amazon were working on a Galaxy Quest series when Alan Rickman died in 2016. While the series was back in the works the following year, with comedian Paul Scheer taking on writing duties, production has reportedly stalled.

Galaxy Quest came out well before the mainstreaming of geek culture and Comic-Con, and that’s reflected in its depiction of fans as social misfit man children, dressed up in cheap costumes clearly made in their parents basements, but otherwise the film is a solid take on how fandom can be harnessed to give new life to popular shows.

It’s also a genuinely enjoyable piece of nostalgic pastiche itself. It feels like we’re watching the old team getting back together, even though we’ve never seen this particular team in the first place. The film combines familiar genre tropes, recognizable sci-fi legends like Alien’s Sigourney Weaver in a central role, and beautiful creature effects by Stan Winston, known for his work in The Thing, Aliens, Predator, Jurassic Park, Edward Scissorhands, and plenty more.

Reboots and reunions already existed before Galaxy Quest, of course, with Star Trek itself continuing storylines from completed series in feature film follow-ups, but those tended to feel far more uninterrupted, industrially, part of a continuous storytelling process—with Star Trek films in particular often roughly coinciding with new series in the franchise.

What Galaxy Quest depicted was rather a revival of something thought gone forever. A few years later, Joss Whedon’s short-lived sci-fi/western series Firefly would be cancelled by Fox during its first season. Working on a more compressed timeline than Galaxy Quest, the seemingly unsalvageable series was brought back as the film Serenity, which tied up loose ends from the show, with the entire main cast returning.

The upcoming Picard series seems even more in line with Galaxy Quest though. Star Trek: The Next Generation was never cancelled (ending with a brilliant series finale), and its fans have been ever-present at various conventions, though not necessarily clamoring for a revival of a show that ran its course in a perfectly satisfying way, to then rest in peace for over two decades.

But nothing stays dead for long in the 21st century. So far, literally dozens of shows have been brought back. Cancelled cult hits like Firefly have had their day, sometimes immediately after cancellation, like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Expanse, and sometimes after longer stretches off air, like Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, and Twin Peaks. And the list of long-gone sitcoms making a return on streaming sites or traditional broadcast after less fraught demise grows every day, including Full House, Will & Grace, Roseanne, Murphy Brown, and now Mad About You.

There’s also a dark side to these revivals that’s hinted at in Galaxy Quest, which is the toxic potential of fandom. Alan Rickman’s Alexander Dane, one of the stars of the show within the film, clearly resents being equated with his character, and only after realizing the powerful impact he’s had on fans does he fully commit to the role and the revived show. It’s a touching bit of character growth within the film, and it’s even echoed in Patrick Stewart’s own rationale for returning to Trek.

“During these past years, it has been humbling to hear stories about how The Next Generation brought people comfort, saw them through difficult periods in their lives or how the example of Jean-Luc inspired so many to follow in his footsteps, pursuing science, exploration and leadership,” he said, on Facebook, when the new series was announced. “I feel I'm ready to return to him for the same reason—to research and experience what comforting and reforming light he might shine on these often very dark times.”

It’s touching to see Stewart (and Dane) connect with fans in this way, and feel a desire to give back, though the question of what is owed to fans has also led to unpleasantness and a more forced pandering to nostalgia.

When Full House returned as Fuller House on Netflix, star John Stamos publicly expressed his disappointment in his former co-stars Marie-Kate and Ashley Olsen, who had opted not to come back. Looking back, there’s something pointedly distasteful about Stamos’s reaction, complaining on Facebook that everyone else was happy to return, that giving back to the fans wasn’t about money, and that he was “sad that a few don't share the rest of the cast's opinion.”

Are fans really owed the labour of actors whose work resonated with them? Patrick Stewart is nearly universally adored, but others don’t always get the red carpet treatment. In Galaxy Quest, Jason Nesmith is the star who hogs the limelight. By the end of the film, he has also grown, alongside his co-stars, and wants a more equal footing with them as they head into their own fictional reboot together, in newfound harmony. Real-world reboots aren’t guaranteed to go so smoothly.

As I write this, fans (or “fans”) are still whining about too much diversity in Star Wars, or just too many women in Ghostbusters. And a campaign to sink Captain Marvel’s audience score on Rotten Tomatoes has turned a blockbuster franchise film by a multinational corporation into a lightning rod for debates on—and I can’t sigh loudly enough here—whether women get to be superheroes too. One particularly baffling instance of fan overreach has seen a filmmaker fundraising to digitally remove the rat from the end of Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, because visual metaphors are bad, and nothing can be left alone. However playful the original poster was, he garnered thousands of dollars in support for what would have been, at best, a pretty weak joke.

Or sometimes stars willing to come back overstay their welcome, as did Roseanne Barr when her vocal, Trump-loving racism made it impossible for ABC to keep working with her. If the real Galaxy Quest reboot were ever to come into being, it’s not hard to imagine Tim Allen—who infamously compared being a conservative in Hollywood to fearing for your safety in Nazi Germany—messing the whole thing up à la Roseanne. Though Allen seems to be quietly thriving in the 90s sitcom bubble that is Last Man Standing, so who knows?

Galaxy Quest got a lot right about how we consume media today. And how we constantly demand more—and now often get it. Fan service gets a bad rep, for a lot of legitimate reasons. Fans can be the worst. But the post- Galaxy Quest world we live in also gives us more seasons of Gilmore Girls, new entries in the Star Wars franchise, and hell yes, a Captain Picard series.

The film was an odd, pre-emptive ode to the excesses and nostalgia of TV today, and I mean that as a compliment to both Galaxy Quest and our bonkers media landscape. It’s worth watching for that alone, if not for how genuinely fun it remains two decades on.

Follow Frederick Blichert on Twitter .