Galaxy Quest (1999)


By Jonathan Beller

The Enterprise of Galaxy Quest

In the guise of a spoof of Star Trek, Dean Parisot’s cheesy and pleasurable Galaxy Quest delves deeply into the social relation known as fandom. What, the film seems to ask, is a fan? According to Galaxy Quest, a fan, in its raw form, is a multi-tentacled, large-eyed land octopus of biomass approximately equivalent to that of homo sapiens. As well, this creature is capable of appearing in human form. Indeed, its fanatic identification with the media text creates a fantasy of becoming human to which the alien aspires.

Why, you may wonder, would alien creatures want to take on human form? Simply look within, and perhaps you will see that the answer is simple. Aliens like us conform to the codes broadcast by a variety of media, from TV to schools to family. These codes and conformity offer to redeem a free-floating alien life into the world of meaning. To use a word from another social register, we could say that conformity to mainstream codes is a form of assimilation. Also a cooptation, this redemption into meaning (which is simultaneously an assimilation into sanctioned, “human” forms) is possible because the programming, in this case the television programming, provides a set of imaginary structures which operate as a schematic for survival, or, in the phrase of literary critic Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living.” Fortunately, this “equipment” is not completely monological: adopting it to their own purposes, the aliens create a world.

If some of these riffs sound familiar, that is due in part to the growing literature on fandom. Constance Penley’s lithe and witty book NASA/TREK shows the ways in which fans adapt Star Trek episodes in order to give body to their own desires. Also engaging the Star Trek legacy, Galaxy Quest tracks the fate of a group of TV actors whose TV show, a variant of Star Trek called Galaxy Quest, had a four-year run during the seventies and is now defunct. If you’ve already seen the film, you’ll know that the film opens at a Questerian fan convention, where the aging Captain Kirk figure is approached by real aliens who request his presence to settle an intergalactic dispute. If you haven’t seen the film, the rest of this analysis shouldn’t get in the way of your having a riotous good time in the theater, even if it might offer a theory about why you laugh.

Keeping in mind Adorno’s notion that laughter “is the echo of power as something inescapable,” we could note that Galaxy Quest shows us a universe of fans in which fandom is universal: no one exists without a relation to the media script, or scripture, here represented in its entirety by the Galaxy Quest series. The TV show broadcasts are picked up by aliens light-years from earth, who in turn construe the episodes as “historical documents,” as it appears that this species cannot distinguish fact from fiction.

Struck by the can-do spirit and moral values represented on the show, the extraterrestrial fans set out to duplicate the series’ world. Ironically however, it turns out that these broadcasts indeed are historical documents, because they become the very materials out of which “the next generation,” to coin a phrase, will be made. The alien society, whose form takes its basis from a television show, in effect makes this show into its history. Out of their “misreading” they remake their world. Their recruitment of the Galaxy Quest actors to transform their reality exactly mirrors the logic of belief exhibited by Galaxy Quest‘s earthbound fans, and testifies to the reality transacted between text and fan. This reality of desire testifies to the history-making power of belief and the material agency of fantasy.

Needless to say, the film ends with the cast of Galaxy Quest performing their roles to the letter, saving the good aliens and blowing up the bad. No longer jaded and cynical, the actors see the transformative power of their work, and thanks to the creativity and support of their fans, they set out to make a new series of Galaxy Quest episodes. The cycle is complete: television organizes life and life gives new life to television.

But before we all walk away satisfied with the logic of this closed system of media, fanatic performance, and remediation, we should query this system’s conditions of possibility. First, we live in a society in which mass-mediated codes override and denature previous values. Effectively, mass media makes aliens of us all, because it severs our links with the past and reprograms the ways in which we position ourselves spatially, morally, historically, etc. Our laughter at this Star Trek spoof is the mark of an uneasy recognition that media forge our perceptions and possibilities and thus structure our realities.

This is the second point, fantasy has a material agency. Paul Valery’s nineteenth-century observation that each epoch dreams the next, suggested more than a century ago that the fan in fantasy would fantasize a world into being with the values and aspirations emerging from the current epoch. The dreams of a culture have a social and historical agency; the increase in the sheer quantity of these dreams, to say nothing of their investment by capitalism, only intensifies their social force.

And third, in today’s programming of fantasy, there are heroes, extras, and villains. While it is true that most everyone finds his or her place in Galaxy Quest, if you turn out to be a lobster-alien who has no desire to take on human form, that is the end of you. While the system includes and indeed liberates some, it radically excludes others. By and large, liberation is achieved through conformity to the narrative and aesthetic program of universal conquest. That is why the Enterprise is simultaneously a bastion of progressive liberal aspirations and a recipe for racism and imperialism. In the enterprise which has been the historical project of U.S. capitalism and today finds its highest formation in capitalist media-logic, liberalism and imperialism are inseparable. Those of you driving around with bumper stickers that read, “I’d rather be smashing imperialism,” better have a whack at liberalism as well.

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