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Non-Trek Worldbuilding 2: GalaxyQuest

By Tom Anderson

The NSEA Protector, boldly going.

Picture courtesy Galaxy Quest Wiki.

In my last article on this subject, I discussed how Gene Roddenberry’s Andromeda attempted to build a space opera scenario without looking derivative of Star Trek, the dominant franchise in the field (especially in the 1990s). There are many other examples of this to consider, and all of them represent useful lessons for the present-day writer seeking to world build without going where everyone has gone before (see what I did there?)

Interestingly, one of the best examples of this is a film which, on the face of it, would have every right to look derivative of Star Trek, being a parody and deconstruction of the original series: GalaxyQuest.

The word ‘parody’ often implies a mean-spirited lampoon, but this is certainly not the case with GalaxyQuest. Indeed, some people consider it to be “the best Star Trek movie”, despite not being one, because of how it affectionately captures the feel of the original series (and its actors and fandom) without ever feeling waspish about it. This is especially noteworthy because the film came at the end of the 1990s, a decade in which it had become socially acceptable in the sci-fi world (and others) to look down on and sneer at the works of previous decades such as the original Star Trek.

There are a number of reasons why it works, many of which involve the excellent casting and writing; these certainly deserve essays in their own right. However, I am going to focus on the worldbuilding in this article.

On the face of it, surely a film like GalaxyQuest doesn’t need worldbuilding. We all know that it’s a take-off of Star Trek, so just stick something on there that looks vaguely like Star Trek (without incurring Paramount’s copyright wrath) and have done with it, right? But the other reason why GalaxyQuest works, and is beloved by Trek fans as by others, is the sense of attention to detail put into it. In this, it strongly resembles its prototype, a franchise in which VFX workers would willingly work unpaid overtime just so they could make an establishing shot of the fabled Utopia Plantia Fleet Yards live up to the fans’ mental images of its glory. As well as the kind of detail we are accustomed to from Trek itself, and the special effects budget of a straight science fiction film, in GalaxyQuest, this largely manifests through creativity. The writers and design crew almost never did an obvious take-off when they could do something subtler and more interesting.

Before I go into these, I’ll briefly sum up the plot. In-universe, GalaxyQuest was a science fiction TV show that ran years ago (probably in the 1970s rather than the 1960s, judging by the time passage quoted) and, despite budget problems and being cancelled on a cliffhanger, was beloved by its fans and still has conventions to this day. The cast members who played the bridge crew attend these conventions despite internal tensions. The rest of the cast dislikes the lead actor, Jason Nesmith, who plays Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), in an obvious reference to the tensions between William Shatner and the rest of his cast from Star Trek. Amusingly, Shatner – though liking the film – claimed that this was an unrecognisable part of it, whereas other Trek actors such as George Takei thought this was accurate.

Alexander Dane plays the alien Dr Lazarus (Alan Rickman) and bemoans that he has been typecast and is only asked to give his catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer, you shall be avenged!” when he is a classically-trained Shakespearean actor – reflecting similar sentiments from Leonard Nimoy as Spock. I’ll go into some other examples later.

The actors’ handler at the convention is Guy Fleegman (Sam Rockwell), who also played a short-lived minor character on the show, a security guard who is immediately killed – in reference to Trek’s ‘redshirt’ trope.

The crew of the NSEA Protector. From left: Crewman No 6 (Guy Fleegman); Dr Lazarus (Alexander Dane); Captain Peter Quincy Taggart (Jason Nesmith); Laredo (in back) (Tommy Webber); Tawney Madison (Gwen DeMarco); and Tech Sergeant Chen (Fred Kwan).

Picture courtesy Galaxy Quest Wiki.

The plot is kicked off when Taggart is taken aside by what he assumes to be some very weird fans (again, not that remarkable) but are actually real aliens named Thermians, who have intercepted broadcasts of GalaxyQuest and – as they have no concept of lying or fiction – assume they are ‘historical documents’. As such, they try to recruit Nesmith, and later the others too, to crew a working replica of their ship from the show, the NSEA Protector, to fight their oppressor, the alien General Sarris. There is a great scene where Nesmith initially assumes it’s just an elaborate fan replica of the bridge made in a garage (commenting on past ones he’s seen) and just orders weapons to open fire on Sarris, only for a dawning realisation that this is real.

General Sarris. Ah, the detail that went into the design of this villain.

Picture courtesy Galaxy Quest Wiki.

The rest of the plot involves the crew adapting to fulfilling their on-screen jobs in real life, having to find replacement fuel on a planet and getting into a fight there, and finally facing off with Sarris before returning to Earth – with the help of their armies of loyal fans who know the ship better than they do. In the process of doing so, they come to realisations about the difference they made in the series, the Thermians become real people worth fighting for to them, and there is some degree of reconciliation between Nesmith and the others. Again, entire essays could be written about this, but I just want to briefly sum up before going into the worldbuilding.

Firstly, I should mention how the creativity I mentioned manifests in how running jokes about Star Trek are incorporated into the film. About the only time I can think of that they play this totally straight are the jokes involving Nesmith/Taggart losing his shirt while fighting a monster in some sand (Arena was a very influential episode for Star Trek in pop culture!) Otherwise, there is always nuance and thought put into it.

Fleegman is clearly worried about being killed as a redshirt in real life, but they never put it in those terms (and not just because their uniforms, which are themselves distinctively different to Starfleet ones, don’t use the same colour scheme). Instead, he phrases it as being cannon fodder “because he doesn’t have a last name” (in the show). This is especially clever because it would never be put that way in Star Trek. If anything, redshirts would lack a first name and be referred to only as Lieutenant Surname, if named at all.

The equivalent character to Uhura is Tawny Madison, played by Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver). She has similar complaints to how her role was smaller than it could have been in the show, but whereas Nichelle Nichols would complain about only ever saying: “Hailing frequencies open” on the bridge, DeMarco says her only role was “to repeat what the computer just said”. Again, this is not a situation that would arise on the original Trek, where the computer rarely spoke out loud, but it’s close enough to be immediately recognisable without looking derivative.

The writers also resisted the urge to go all-in mocking Trek’s habit of attributing more and more peculiarities to Spock and the Vulcans. Dr Lazarus’ race, the Mak’tar, are only mentioned three times in the script. A Thermian character, Quellek, represents Spock’s fanboys (and fangirls) and claims to live his life by Lazarus’ example and the code of the Mak'tar. However, because Dane shoots him down so quickly and consistently, this doesn’t become obnoxiously present as a joke as it might have. Indeed, the first time Dane says his catchphrase with feeling is when Quellek lies dying after saving him.

It is sometimes said that creativity is the art of stealing from multiple sources. GalaxyQuest’s creativity also manifests in this form, because the show is careful to take inspiration from places other than Star Trek. As I mentioned, the brief glimpses of the show we get sometimes look more 1970s than 1960s, and there is also influence from Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers in the 25th Century from that decade (and the early 1980s). Dr Lazarus’ Mak’tar appearance and in-universe culture always reminded me (slightly) more of Hawk from the latter show than Spock from Star Trek, though I don’t know if that was deliberate. The Thermians’ home planet is the Klaatu Nebula, a reference to The Day the Earth Stood Still (a reference also made in Star Wars, interestingly). The aliens on the planet the venture to for fuel are based on those seen in Barbarella. The effects for the activation of the mysterious ‘Omega 13’ device were inspired by the ending of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. An episode of Star Trek: Voyager had come out the previous year involving a mysteriously powerful blue glowing Omega Molecule, but this is probably a coincidence given the production timelines.

Amusingly, the ‘unnecessary hallway of chompers’ in front of the self-destruct cancel button, which DeMarco complains was the result of an episode being “badly written”, and which is implied by the fans to be a typical silly 1960s concept, was actually taken from the then recent 1997 film Event Horizon! A typical example of how sometimes the 1990s needed the log taken out of their own eye before complaining about the mote in past decade’s when it came to sci-fi concepts.

"This episode was badly written." Gwen DeMarco.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The aesthetics of the Protector and its interior and technology are also interestingly different to those of Star Trek, slightly evoking the silvery futurism of earlier sci-fi without looking too close to it. They also neatly capture how the shuttles in the original Star Trek were disappointingly cruder-looking in shape compared what its own designers wanted, due to limitations at the time. Rather than the angular brick-look of the actual Trek shuttle, the GalaxyQuest shuttle (or ‘surface pod’, keeping it more original) has a curved shape, but one whose landing process still looks as though it was obviously limited by a special effects budget. A similar subtle effect is obtained with the personal weapons, which are energy beams causing their targets to vaporise in a deliberately cheap-looking firework-like explosion, as though the Thermians had painstakingly replicated the look of the original SFX. One can appreciate the amount of work that went into this.

The design of the Protector is also unlike anything from Star Trek, with a slightly retro ‘ocean liner’ evocative main hull and engines which curve backwards in two half-circles. Considering Star Trek itself sometimes struggles to come up with new and distinctive aesthetics for new alien races (for instance), it is genuinely impressive that they produced a ship that looks convincing and doesn’t look anything like the Enterprise. The design is also simple enough that a child could draw it, ticking a box that some real Trek designers have in mind (and which some of their designs have occasionally failed at).

What I was most impressed by when watching the film, however, is the terminology they come up with for technology. We don’t hear much about weapons (other than what Nesmith says they should fire near the beginning), though supplementary material says the pistols are “ion nebulisers”. Ships in this setting are said to have “plasma armour” or “neutron armour”, which is interestingly different to deflector shields; instead of tricorder scanners, they have “questarians”; instead of a transporter, they have a “digital conveyor”. While this last is one of the more obvious parodies in terms of what happens on-screen, that is a very original alternative name for the process, much more so than one gets in many ‘serious’ sci-fi works! I am still tempted to steal it for my own writing, in fact.

In terms of alien race design, as I said, we don’t hear much about the Mak’tar (who, of course, don’t really exist in-universe) but the Thermians had a lot of effort put into them. Almost all of this came from Enrico Colantoni, the actor who played Mathesar, the lead Thermian. He was able to create strikingly alien mannerisms and delivery, drawing upon some vocal exercises he had been taught. The other Thermian actors were then sent to ‘alien school’ as part of the production to learn Colantoni’s mannerisms. These included developing a walk that looked deliberately unnatural to human eyes. The Thermians are meant to be tentacled aliens only taking on humanoid forms, unfamiliar to them, so the portrayal Colantoni created made them feel more alien than, again, many aliens in alleged ‘serious’ sci-fi films! In terms of the appearance of their humanoid forms, there is obviously some influence from the Vulcans in their haircuts, but they do not look derivative. In particular, their very pale skin and creepy fixed smiles are rather un-Vulcan.

Thermians. They've been to alien school.

Picture courtesy Galaxy Quest Wiki.

This kind of creativity is also reflected in the cast dynamics. Rather than holding too closely to the original cast, they changed things about. DeMarco, a white woman, has Uhura’s character arc, while Tommy Webber plays Laredo (Daryl Mitchell), a black man who was a child prodigy pilot in the original show. The use of a child prodigy character, while slightly evocative of Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: The Next Generation, is another idea that feels like it came more from Battlestar Galactica, again spreading the sources of influence to look less derivative. Instead of discussing Nichelle Nichols’ treatment due to her race as well as her gender, the focus was instead shifted to the irony that DeMarco was complaining about being sidelined whilst being played by Sigourney Weaver, who trailblazed a new kind of strong female characters in sci-fi in 1979’s Alien.

Race ended up not really being discussed in the film, but this hadn’t always been intended to be the case. The chief engineer, Chen, is played by Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) who, despite the name of both in-universe actor and character, is not East Asian. This ended up being an unexplained oddity in the film, but the intention had been to do a commentary on whitewashing and white actors being cast to play East Asian characters. The specific inspiration had been David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in the 1972 TV series Kung Fu; Carradine also allegedly spent much of the filming high on marijuana, hence Kwan’s ‘stoner’ attitude in the film – though this ended up being unexplained after the plot thread was cut.

Overall, the creativity of GalaxyQuest is measurable by how much influence it had one the worldbuilding of ‘straight’ sci-fi. Most obviously, to my mind (though I haven’t seen this discussed much), two years after GalaxyQuest, the Star Trek prequel series Star Trek: Enterprise debuted. Many fans complained that the aesthetics of the 22nd Century-set show looked more evocative of the 24th Century Next Generation era than the 23rd Century original Trek. However, to my mind the more questionable part was that much of the aesthetics seemed influenced by GalaxyQuest. The design of the “phase pistols” and other bits of technology seem knowingly influenced by GalaxyQuest aesthetics, as is the design of the shuttlepod. The look of the Thermians also seemed to feed back slightly into the Vulcans (as well as the Aschen from Stargate SG-1).

The actual model. It wasn't this big, it was that big.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

It did not bode well for the creativity of the prequel series when it was already being derivative of parodies of Star Trek, even ones as original and creative as GalaxyQuest. At least the ship had “polarisable hull plating” instead of “plasma armour” I suppose.

This has also shown up more recently with the series The Orville, which is a more played-straight homage to Star Trek. I’m not familiar with it as I don’t have any streaming service that can receive it, but I do know that as soon as the first images of it debuted, people noted that the uniforms look suspiciously similar to those from GalaxyQuest. The design of the ship and some of the aliens also shows some similarities.

I suppose that when all that effort has been put into coming up with something that is recognisably Trek-like but different, and there won’t be a GalaxyQuest TV series, someone else might as well use it. It still seems a bit cheeky though.

Join us again next time when I look at another attempt to create a space opera setting without feeling derivative of Star Trek.

Comment on this article Here.

Tom Anderson is the author of several SLP books, including:

The Look to the West series

among others.


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