No matter how many times he saved the universe as Captain James T. Kirk, William Shatner’s finest onscreen moment may still be the 1986 Saturday Night Live sketch in which, playing himself, Shatner castigated an audience full of Kirk-worshippers at a Star Trek convention. Fed up with inane technical questions about dilithium crystals and trans-warp drives, as well as the incessant picking apart of the show’s continuity errors, Shatner unleashed the pent-up fury of a raging egomaniac trapped in a hell of his own making. "It’s just a TV show! For God’s sake, get a life!"
The new comedy Galaxy Quest takes off from that very premise, though Kirk and his cohorts have been replaced by Commander Peter Quincy Taggart and the crew of the NSEA Protector. Fifteen years after the cancellation of the early 80’s sci-fi program Galaxy Quest, the washed-up stars of the show are reduced to appearances at conventions and used car lot openings. This particularly rankles Shakespeare-trained Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who wears a prosthetic bumpy head in his role of Dr. Lazarus, and Gwen DeMarco (Sigourney Weaver), whose primary function as the chesty Lt. Madison appears to be repeating whatever the ship’s computer says. But Jason Nesmith, who starred as Commander Taggart, revels in the fans’ adulation and enthusiastically spouts his tired old catch phrases ("Never give up! Never surrender!") over and over. Tim Allen plays Nesmith with his Buzz Lightyear brand of bravado and self-delusion, but there’s an echo of Shatner too, particularly in Nesmith’s obliviousness to the rest of the cast’s long-simmering resentment.
The movie’s plot carries echoes of Star Trek as well: The Thermians from the Klaatu nebula have stumbled upon broadcast signals of old Galaxy Quest episodes, misconstruing them as historical documents and basing their entire civilization around them. Facing an imminent invasion by the hideous Sarris (following in the sci-fi movie tradition of villains named after well-known movie critics), a team of Thermians is dispatched to Earth to round up Taggart and his crew for assistance. Finding themselves in the midst of an interstellar incident, the aging actors are forced to call upon their half-remembered knowledge of science fiction conventions to defeat Sarris and return safely to Earth.
This all makes for an agreeable time-killer of a movie, albeit one that never rises above a sit-com level of entertainment. Home Improvement vet Allen is right at home, and Tony Shalhoub gets some of the biggest laughs as a chief engineer as laid back as Scotty was high-strung. Rickman and Weaver do their best with essentially one-joke roles, and the Thermians, with their sing-song way of speaking and herky-jerky movements, are good for a few chuckles as well.
But there is an odd time-warp quality to Galaxy Quest that suggests it may have been a lot funnier if made fifteen or twenty years ago. Parodies of anal, obsessive sci-fi fans who desperately need lives are at least as old as the aforementioned SNL sketch, and this school of humor probably reached its zenith with The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy. Likewise, the freshness date has passed on many of the Trek-specific jokes (such as "Crewman #6", a character who is certain he will meet a horrible death within five minutes of landing on an alien planet, since he doesn’t even have a proper name). What a hoot it would have been, though, if the original cast of Star Trek had assembled a decade or two ago to make a goof like Galaxy Quest. Oh, well. Maybe in an alternate universe.