Few things have been kept alive by love for half a century. That club will probably be growing enormously for the next few years because so much of our culture was born in the 60s and 70s, but this week, fans are celebrating that milestone for Star Trek. While anything can achieve fifty years since just by the nature of time, fifty years continuous is something special in pop culture. If the Animated Series is included, the longest hiatus in Star Trek is only around five years. There’s a new movie in theaters now and a new series coming direct to home streaming next year. And it all began before men walked on the moon.
So I came to the question of how to celebrate it here. I grew up with Trek. Trek was in the house before I was born. The number of times I’ve watched the first six movies probably adds up to dozens, and the ones worth talking about as representative of the franchise have been talked about to death. I’ve seen every episode of the original series at least once. I saw the new movie a few weeks ago. What can I talk about?
The 90s were the height of Star Trek as a franchise. From 1993 to 1999, there were always two series in production, and from 1994, there were movies on top of that. There was always something new in Trek, and as the internet grew, it became much easier to talk about it with other fans. Continuity was huge even before there was a shared universe across three productions to keep track of. And as the preeminent fandom in the public’s eye, Trekkies were the easiest target to spoof the weird fans who take the things they love maybe a bit too seriously.
And then along comes a movie that spoofs Trekkies themselves. What if somebody completely didn’t understand the concept of fiction and dedicated their lives to a show, forcing the actors to be their characters for real? What if somebody loved a show so much they made it real?
What strikes me about describing the story like that is that the idea of a fictional story colliding with the real world is actually pretty common, but it’s always through magic. Last Action Hero comes to mind, and Stranger Than Fiction is a good example of not explicitly being magic, but it’s a weird thing that is narratively indistinguishable from magic. The Thursday Next novels interestingly begin with a bit of technology to jump into the fictional worlds in the first book, but dispense with it subsequently. I’m sure there must be other examples of fiction intruding upon reality through a purely sci-fi mechanism (aliens receive TV broadcasts, model their society around the show), but I can’t think of any.
Of course, Peter Q. Taggart is clearly based on William Shatner. Ego to the brim, alienating the castmates that are stuck with him, and too stuck in the glory days to realize it. That he is the main protagonist makes him sympathetic, but it has to get pretty savage to break Taggart down to the point where a real-life space adventure is what he needs. Everyone else is a bit more vague. Tawny Matheson’s best parallel is Uhura, but they cast Sigourney Weaver and arguably her function is more of a parody of Tasha Yar at tactical. I have a dim memory of the novelization letting her find a function that wasn’t just repeating the computer and looking pretty, but unfortunately the movie doesn’t have time for it and she just ends up embracing the part. Tommy Webber is mainly a Wesley Crusher type, but casting him black invokes Geordi’s season at the helm as well. Dr. Lazarus is kind of a hybrid of Spock and Worf. Dane/Rickman is clearly emphasizing the Spock side, but his cool logic in this case is an attempt to control his hot-blooded warrior tendencies.
I really enjoy Tony Shalhoub’s performance, but they cast him as Fred Kwan/Tech Sgt Chen, and he’s not at all Asian. If they’d given Fred a surname of a more appropriate ethnicity it could’ve at least been a joke about Hollywood casting anyone vaguely not white in any ethnic role, but instead it’s an honest example. Shalhoub is of Lebanese descent, but could be mistaken for Mediterranean European, and so this spoof of a show that was promoting diversity before diversity was a watchword comes off as having a token black guy and a token woman/love interest, and everyone else is white guys. And one green monster.
But they’re just the ones having the adventure. The real heroes of this story are the fans. The alien fans who were united by their respect for the “historical documents” from another world, and the human fans whose knowledge of the show guides the crew to victory. In the end, the Thermians are encouraged to make their own adventures, to be inspired by the Protector rather than devoted to it. Fans that become creators are what keeps franchises going, spawning legacies without bound. The Thermians will make their own history, and Galaxy Quest will live again. And Star Trek, and its fans, will continue the mission.