WHAT SCREENWRITERS CAN
LEARN FROM GALAXY QUEST

by David Trottier

When I am asked what my guilty pleasure is in movies, I often respond that I like Galaxy Quest. In my mind, it does a lot of things right, and we screenwriters can learn a thing or two from it.

A strong concept
What if has-been "Star Trek" actors were called to an actual space mission? That's a pretty strong concept, and audiences enjoyed this fish-out-of-water story. Does your logline or story concept or premise statement make people say, "That sounds like a (good/fun/fabulous/peachy-keen) movie"?

Original characters
James Nesmith is loosely patterned after William Shatner/James Kirk, but the others are unique and quite different from each other. Anyone of them could be contrasted to another. For example, Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) is the only one who seems to adapt well to things alien. That pays off later when he falls for an alien chick. Contrasts help define your characters.

And the Thermians are not your typical aliens. They are childlike, honest, and totally without deception, and much more intelligent than Tribbles.

Bookends
It's not necessary to create bookends for your screenplay. It's just one tool of many that may work for certain stories. This movie is one of them. It opens with the old TV show introduction followed by a Galaxy Quest convention. It closes with a Galaxy Quest convention followed by the new TV show introduction. Can I say the story resolves into an emotionally satisfying ending? Yes. I admit; I was delighted.

Character arcs
In a nutshell, each Galaxy Quest TV show actor becomes the character he or she portrays in the TV show. Here's a rundown.

James Nesmith as Commander Taggert (Tim Allen) is narcissistic and a pretender. He resents that he can't get a high profile role. When he admits to the truth about himself to Thermian leader Mathesar, he says "All fake, like me." And then he is forced to lead...for real.  He uses tricks from past episodes, grows into his role, and becomes a true leader and team player, just like his character in the TV show.

Gwen DeMarco as Lt. Tawny Madison (Sigourney Weaver) resents being cast as a well-endowed dumb blonde, but soon embraces her role and becomes a pretty smart cookie.

Alexander Dane as Dr. Lazarus (Alan Rickman) may be my favorite. He's above this stupid sci-fi convention stuff, which makes him ripe for comedy. Good comedy often involves giving a character a pretense and then bringing him down a notch. Alexander is a former Shakespearean actor who resents hokey role and especially repeating his famous oath. But he is a given a personal motivation to grow; the Thermian who idolizes him is killed. "By Grabhar's Hammer, by the suns of Warvan, you shall be avenged.'

Fred Kwan as Tech Sergeant Chen (Tony Shalhoub) is in charge of the digital conveyor (transporter) warms up to the Thermians immediately. He grows in his role when he is forced to learn how to properly use the transporter. He comes up with a couple of useful ideas, too.

Guy (Sam Rockwell) is a disposable extra who died in Episode 81 of the original TV series. Now he is a Questarian that wants to be part of the cast. When he becomes one, he is constantly afraid of being the one who will be killed. "Maybe you're the plucky comic relief character," Fred assures him. After that, he becomes more useful, and he ends up a member of the cast of the new TV show!

Tommy Webber, the pilot (Daryl Mitchell), is forced to learn to pilot the ship. He practices. Audiences appreciate efforts made as much (or more) as successes.

Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) is the Thermian leader who grows from naive child to adult and true leader of his race.

Brandon (Justin Long), a devoted Questarian, knows everything about every show and becomes the lifeline (providing the precise information when needed). He thinks the Galaxy Quest show draws upon reality, and (in his mind) he learns he is right.

Exposition
When Laliari's translator is broken, it's not revealed in a boring line of dialogue. It is revealed in the context of action when Laliari utters babbling nonsense. 'Oh, her translator is broken." Now we know through creative means why the Thermians can speak English.

Instead of the Thermians telling us what they actually look like, we are shown their disgusting appearance when our TV heroes "beam" onto the alien ship. It's a scary moment until they push a button and look human again. Whew! Show is usually better than tell.

Economy
The teen Brandon appears three times in Act 1. I think the writer designed that because it's a long wait before we see him again when he is sorely needed. Among other things, he provides the necessary information about the Omega 13, which saves the day. If you want to know about the Omega 13, watch the movie.

The Rock Monster is used a second time against the bad aliens.

The mine field is used three times. The first time it creates problems. The second time Tommy avoids the mines. The third time, our heroic crew uses the mines against the bad guys.

It seems that nothing is wasted or used only once. That helps lend the story a sense of cohesiveness or unity.

Creative twists
Near the end, the ship is about to self-destruct, but the countdown stops at 1. I've never seen that before in another movie, but it makes sense: the Thermians built the ship based on TV shows they saw that they thought were true "historical documents," and they had never seen a countdown go past 1 in those shows. So it doesn't happen just to get a laugh. There's a reason for it.

Just when James Nesmith needs Brandon the most, Brandon is yanked out of his room by his parents to take out the garbage. His parents have no idea of the importance of what he is doing in his room.

Little, plausible twists in scenes will help your screenplay.

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Do you have any guilty pleasures, or any movies that you love that seem to resonate with you and others? Pick them apart and see what you can learn from them. It's an out-of-this-world recommendation.

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