Imagine a world in which there’s a Guardians of the Galaxy without Galaxy Quest coming first. That’s right. You can’t. To say there isn’t another science fiction movie like Galaxy Quest is both completely true and slightly false. Prior to 1999, a metafictional take on something like Star Trek had never really been attempted with the same level of seriousness and care that Galaxy Quest delivered. But since then, the idea of tongue-in-cheek-not-quite-a-parody is widely prevalent. In some ways, by being both satire and serious science fiction, Galaxy Quest reshaped the mainstream space-action movie genre as we know it. And, with each passing year, Dean Parisot — the director of the film — says he’s tickled by how much the “ironies keep stacking up.”
Den of Geek caught up with Parisot ahead of the launch of a new documentary called Never Surrender: A Galaxy Quest Documentary. If Galaxy Quest was a love letter to Star Trek fans and fledging sci-fi fandoms of the late ‘90s, then Never Surrender is a love letter to Galaxy Quest. From little-known facts (Harold Ramis’ version would have cast Kevin Kline in the lead role) to insight about how Sigourney Weaver almost didn’t get in the movie, to the overall influence of the film on contemporary genre creators, Never Surrender is slightly more than just a documentary about one movie; it’s a documentary about Star Trek fandom, Galaxy Quest fandom, and why sometimes the discussion of a thing is even more compelling than the thing itself.
Though we tend to think of Galaxy Quest as a comedic send-up of Star Trek and its actors and fans, Parisot says that he directed the film like a tragedy.
“At the heart of tragedy is great comedy, I think,” he explains. “We wanted to give Galaxy Quest serious characters arcs. And we wanted to create a movie that felt like at least a decent science fiction movie for that time.”
While this second detail might seem obvious to fans now, the fact that the special effects for Galaxy Quest were created by Industrial Light and Magic is relevant. And, one battle at the heart of the making of Galaxy Quest was to make sure that aesthetic of the science fiction struck the right tone, which, it turns out was a difficult balance.
“We did not want the movie — the sets — to look cheesy,” says producer Mark Johnson in the documentary. “We had someone who kept using that word, and we all resented it.”
The someone Johnson refers to is none other than award-winning set decorator Linda DeScenna, who, prior to working on Galaxy Quest did set decoration for both Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Blade Runner. DeScenna’s vision for the sets of Galaxy Quest was to do “Cheesy, [1960s sets…based on Star Trek, the TV series.” In the documentary, in separate interviews, Johnson and DeScenna certainly give the impression that this difference of opinion was a fairly large conflict within the film. And yet, the end result seems to have erred on the side of making the sci-fi elements more realistic-ish in order to make the overall drama believable.
“The filmmaking tools of that time were less sophisticated,” Parisot tells Den of Geek. “So I think now, we would create an even more grounded universe. At the time, we were just trying to make the best Star Trek movie we could; at least, as the background story.” Parisot also insists that despite the mild friction over set design presented in the documentary, that everyone on Galaxy Quest, more or less, got along.
“Making a movie has once been described as being pecked to death by chickens, but Galaxy Quest was the closest I got to just making a movie without those problems,” Parisot says. “It was very satisfying. Everyone was on the same page. We were all making the same movie.”
Back in 2013, at one Star Trek convention, Galaxy Quest was voted the 7th best Star Trek film of all time, despite not actually being part of the franchise. It’s easy to see why: the basic premise the film presents a kind of bizzaro-world Star Trek, one in which there was only one series, and that its actors struggled to find identities outside of their roles for years. But, as the documentary points out, the film doesn’t default to having the story focused on depressed sci-fi actors at conventions— like Bob Proehl’s brilliant novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds, nor is it a cautionary tale about fandom gone wrong, like the Black Mirror episode “USS Callister”; a kind of evil take on Galaxy Quest (which Parisot says he has never seen).
In some ways, since Galaxy Quest was released, versions of the concept have splintered into countless pieces. In the documentary, Daemon Lindelof acknowledges that he and J.J. Abrams were influenced by Galaxy Quest for the 2009 Star Trek reboot, while Parisot explains that he felt like Seth Macfarlane has “sweetly paid tribute to Galaxy Quest,” with the basic existence of The Orville. Even Rainn Wilson, who had a small role in Galaxy Quest has now been on Star Trek proper; starring as Harry Mudd in Star Trek: Discovery.
“It keeps duplicating itself. The meta of it keeps getting more and more ridiculous,” Parisot says. “It’s fun to see something last longer than the few moments you thought it would. It’s almost not mine. You don’t think it’s going to continue to have staying power. I mean we stole things for Galaxy Quest, people steal things from Galaxy Quest. It keeps going. Everything we do is the result of the other thing. And the thing before it.”
Part of what makes Galaxy Quest special probably wouldn’t have happened if the film had been helmed by its first director, Harold Ramis. Obviously, Ramis made some of the best comedies of the 20th century, and in writing Ghostbusters with Dan Aykroyd even based the character of Egon loosely on Spock from Star Trek. But would Ramis have made Galaxy Quest into the Trekkie-love letter that is is? In the documentary, former Star Trek: The Next Generation cast members Wil Wheaton and Brent Spiner make it clear that the success of Galaxy Quest lies in the concept that the fans are the people who save the day in the end. Spiner even points out that co-star Patrick Stewart was initially resistant to see the film, for fear that it would mock both Star Trek as a franchise, and the fans in particular.
“I grew up on the first series and watched it first as a kid, and then watched it in college over and over again. Because we loved it and mocked it at the same time,” Parisot says. “For me, the very first series, the entire series, was something I grew up with and love. But I loved all science fiction and all of it influenced me.”
In other words, Parisot was a real fan of not only Star Trek, but science fiction as a whole, and that loving touch is apparent both in his direction, and the script written by Bob Gordon. As someone who made Galaxy Quest, Parisot says he’s aware of the “tribal” disputes between fandoms, but won’t take a side relative to Star Trek or Star Wars. He’s also not sure that a Galaxy Quest-style send-up of Star Wars could happen.
“You have to ask Bob Gordon!” he says with a laugh. “‘I’d I love to see what he’d do with Star Wars. But, it’s a sacred cow. I don’t think he’d go after it. I think there’s sort of a tone that sets the different movies and TV shows [franchises] apart. I’m not sure I could define it. But, it’s fun to see that everyone is so invested.”
Currently, Dean Parisot is directing another beloved comedy sci-fi franchise, the long-awaited third chapter in the Bill and Ted saga; Bill and Ted Face the Music, set to be released next year. After that, he says he’s working on a movie about an “obituary writer,” but makes it clear that one won’t be as tragic as it sounds. In other words, Parisot likes looking back fondly on Galaxy Quest, but it doesn’t seem like he would make a sequel. Never Surrender makes it obvious that the promise of the Amazon-backed TV series version of Galaxy Quest never came together not because Parisot, Gordon and the rest of the cast weren’t on board, but because the tragic death of Alan Rickman seemed to put the entire enterprise on hold.
Still, as Never Surrender makes clear, the legacy of Galaxy Quest has just started to become apparent in the zeitgeist, and will likely continue to influence the science fiction and comedy genres for decades to come. “I’m completely surprised anyone is still watching it and absolutely surprised anyone would make a documentary about it,” Parisot admits. “If I made it again today, I’d just make it better.”