One of my favorite scenes involving the Squadron Supreme is in Mark Gruenwald’s follow-up to the SS miniseries, the graphic novel Squadron Supreme: Death of a Universe. In Death, a mysterious growing blot threatens to erase the entire universe, a danger that brings former enemies together for the sake of survival. Dr. Emil Burbank, alias “Master Menace,” who has been established as the Lex Luthor to Hyperion’s Superman (although his armor makes him look more like Dr. Doom—this is still a Marvel book, after all) volunteers to travel forward in time in order to develop a solution using the future era’s advanced technology. (It’s one of many possible futures; as one character points out, the universe they’re in may not have a future.) Nearly an hour after his departure, his time machine returns. Burbank steps out, an old man: he has spent fifteen years of intense labor in the future perfecting his device. Hyperion is shocked at the sacrifice his old enemy has made. “At last he treats me with the respect one of my stature is entitled to!” thinks Burbank.
It’s a little too on-the-nose, but it’s of a piece with Gruenwald’s interest in illuminating the relationships between comic book archetypes. It’s also, in a way, a rare moment of understanding between two antagonists; comic book narratives depend on direct conflict, and have historically placed emphasis on action, not détente. It’s clear that Master Menace is acting from self-interest as usual, but he also seems intrigued by the possibility of playing hero, if just this once. If we accept the notion that villains are most compelling when they reveal something about the hero*, it suggests that what Hyperion and Master Menace share is both a higher purpose and a natural superiority to others (why deny it?), but in Burbank’s eyes only Hyperion has received the acclaim he deserves. Burbank has had to work for his success, and has seen his ambitious visions thwarted (usually by Hyperion, obviously), but all Hyperion has to do is flex his muscles and punch a few bad guys and he is universally beloved. What Master Menace really wants is to be seen as a worthy opponent instead of just another criminal, to have his greatness recognized. I’m probably reading some of the shared history of Lex Luthor and Clark Kent into this scene, but isn’t that the point? (For a similar take from the villain’s point of view, see Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog.)
Although they aren’t cast as hero/villain, Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen) and Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) have a similar dynamic in the 1999 film Galaxy Quest. Bound together by their roles on the long-cancelled television series of the same name, as “Commander Peter Quincy Taggart” and “Dr. Lazarus” respectively, Nesmith relishes the adulation of fans and the chance to relive his glory days as the boyish, heroic starship captain, while Dane mourns that a classically-trained Shakespearean such as himself has become trapped in a one-dimensional, prosthetic-forehead-wearing role defined by a single catchphrase: “By Grabthar’s Hammer. . . .” To Dane, Nesmith is a hammy showboat; to Nesmith, Dane is a snob who needs to lighten up.
Of course, it’s immediately obvious that “Nesmith/Taggart” is William Shatner playing James T. Kirk, and “Dane/Lazarus” is Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock, and indeed the entire setup, from the canceled cult TV show to the easily mocked conventions, is a pastiche of Star Trek and its real-life fandom. An early moment in the film, when Nesmith lashes out at his fans, snarling “It’s just a television show,” is undoubtedly inspired by the well-known Saturday Night Live sketch in which William Shatner tells his fans to “get a life;” Dane’s self-loathing is a comic exaggeration of Nimoy, who was so famously ambivalent about his best-known role that he published two autobiographies, one called I Am Not Spock and, twenty years later, I Am Spock. Galaxy Quest gets a lot of story across in a short amount of time because we already know its premise and characters in broad outline, and the casting adds more layers to the joke. Rickman surely knew a thing or two about lending his theatrical gravitas to B-movie genre roles; Gwen DeMarco (the eye-candy communications officer Tawny Madison, whose job is to repeat everything the computer says) is played by Sigourney Weaver, Ellen Ripley herself; Sam Rockwell plays Guy, the unnamed crew member terrified he’ll be as expendable as Star Trek’s “red shirts;” my favorite is Fred Kwan (Tech Sergeant Chen), who admits Kwan isn’t even his real name, played by the Lebanese-American Tony Shalhoub (himself frequently cast in Italian, Arab, or Russian “ethnic” roles).
It’s a testament to the strength of the performances and the attention to detail that the pastiche works as a commentary on Star Trek without descending into simple parody. As the story unfolds, with the cast of the TV show mistaken for actual space explorers and drafted into an alien war**, there are stakes, and there is character growth; there are jabs at cheap sets, formulaic writing, and rubber masks, but they are, in a sense, coming from inside knowledge, an elbow nudge from one fan to another. The writers and director clearly have an affection for the subject, and like fans everywhere have earned the right to point out the more risible aspects of the show without giving up the reasons they fell in love with it in the first place.
It’s also hilarious. Based on the films that have already been made, it would seem to be difficult to make a humorous science fiction film, at least one in which the comedy and science fiction elements are given equal footing. Sure, humorous elements have been present in written science fiction almost since the beginning, Fredric Brown being an early practitioner, but when it comes to putting fantastic visions on celluloid, there has historically been a divide between the self-seriousness of sci fi and the tendency of TV and movie comedians to deflate, to tear down artifice (or at least there was through much of the twentieth century; a balanced combination of comedy and genre elements isn’t quite the rarity it was in 1999). Galaxy Quest finds a lot of its humor in the backstage bickering and self-delusion of actors, as well as lazy writing that amps up tension at the expense of believability (like the self-destruct timer that only stops at 0:01, or ridiculous obstacle courses that would be safety hazards in a supposedly utilitarian spaceship***). The phoniness on display is that of show business in general, not science fiction specifically. When the film finally turns its attention to cheesy special effects, usually the lowest hanging fruit for satire, it’s the deepest moment of pathos, a point of complete disillusionment.
One thing Galaxy Quest doesn’t do is so much as whisper the names Star Trek, Kirk, Spock, Enterprise, Klingons, or anything else that would tip us off; you either get it or you don’t. Doing so wouldn’t just throw the pastiche into relief as a copycat (who would ask for Brand X when they could have the real thing?), it would rob it of the superlative element that, as I’ve said, is an important element of this kind of storytelling. It’s one thing, for example, to create a fictional Senator, astronaut, car company, or NFL team, and have them mingle with real-life figures: in that case, they are part of a class, and adding one more doesn’t change things too much. Cultural objects like television shows or books, however, are trickier: they generally occupy niches from which they must be displaced, not simply added to. One would think this is obvious, but it happens all the time: Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, a behind-the-scenes look at a distinctly Saturday Night Live-like sketch comedy show, had a lot of problems, but an easily avoided one was constant mentions of Saturday Night Live. If, in the show, Studio 60 was such a groundbreaking program, what was SNL? In Mike Carey’s ongoing comic book series The Unwritten, Tom Taylor is the unwitting star of a series of fantasy novels clearly based on the Harry Potter series, the success of which is an obvious point of inspiration. The originality and influence attributed to the Tommy Taylor series is undercut, however, by references to Harry Potter and its author, J. K. Rowling. It comes down to the old problem of a work-within-a-work having to live up to the claims characters in the story make for it: it’s easier to suspend disbelief if we can imagine the work standing in for something we already know to be successful, but if we’re confronted with both the original and the pastiche existing within the fiction, how can the pastiche not seem like a pale imitation?
Finally, Galaxy Quest connects to Star Trek through the moral division of its characters: Star Trek confronted this literally with the Mirror Universe (“Mirror, Mirror”), a parallel world full of evil versions of the Enterprise crew, very much in the spirit of the Crime Syndicate of America or Squadron Sinister. In Galaxy Quest, the division is internal: the actors aren’t evil, but fallible, and the doubles they must face are the heroic characters they play and for whom they are mistaken. Nesmith, who loves playing the hero, is forced to bear the burdens of leadership and consequences that real leaders face, and is forced by circumstance to admit that it’s all fake; Dane, who already feels like a fraud playing the one-dimensional Dr. Lazarus, comes to realize how much he has meant to his fans, and embraces his role. Interestingly, it is the villain, General Sarris, who articulates the themes of theatricality most clearly: despite his reptilian appearance, he is more human in temperament than the literal-minded Thermians. It is Sarris who immediately grasps that Nesmith and his crew are actors, and forces him to explain it to the Thermian leader “as you would a child.” The final role-reversal occurs when Sarris accuses the actors of “playing war,” and Nesmith, fully embracing the role of Commander, tells him “It doesn’t take a great actor to recognize a bad one.” Ultimately, Galaxy Quest redeems its characters by showing that, as ridiculous as they may be, audiences believe in them, perhaps not literally like the naïve Thermians, but as ideals. It’s that optimistic spirit that most closely unites Galaxy Quest to its model.
* Batman is generally thought to have the best rogue’s gallery because the villains mirror Bruce Wayne/Batman’s qualities in distorted ways: the Joker reflects Batman’s psychosis, and his reaction to tragedy is to use violence and pranks to unravel the social order Batman strives to uphold; the Riddler mocks Batman’s pretensions as the Great Detective; the Penguin is the plutocratic face of Bruce Wayne’s inherited wealth; Two-Face is as divided as Wayne/Batman, but in an unmistakably public and troubled way, and so forth. (These observations are indebted to Richard Reynolds’ Superheroes: A Modern Mythology and Geoff Klock’s How to Read Superhero Comics and Why.)
** The element of mistaken identity in Galaxy Quest is a standard comic trope, of course, and the specific element of actors mistaken for the roles they play is as old in film as To Be or Not to Be. Galaxy Quest’s basic plot had already been used in Three Amigos and A Bug’s Life, but recognizing the similarity doesn’t ruin the enjoyment. As with all the pastiches I’ve discussed (or Campbell’s monomyth, or any analytic framework that reduces works to an underlying recurrent pattern), the pleasure is in how the story unfolds rather than recognition of the universal pattern: we first attend to the surface, the specificity of this story, and can then proceed to the middle ground, where comparisons can be made between competing realizations of the underlying myth.
*** A trope still in use, by the way: “chompers,” or some variation, show up in the Star Wars prequels and in the revived Doctor Who series, to cite examples off the top of my head.