As part of our coverage of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I talked with a dozen cast members from across the franchise about everything from Star Trek's inclusive message to how best to lampoon the Trek universe.
What if TV broadcasts of Star Trek were intercepted by a technologically advanced but naive race of aliens?
That's the premise behind "Galaxy Quest," a 1999 parody/homage that lovingly hits on every aspect of Star Trek, from the corniness of the original series to the incomprehensible technobabble to the pajamalike costumes and, of course, the franchise's dedicated fans. You didn't need to know Star Trek to get the gags, but diehards could spot many inside jokes, including Alan Rickman's masterful sendup of Leonard Nimoy's love-hate relationship with his character, Spock.
But it was Enrico Colantoni who won over many a Trekkie's heart with his portrayal of Mathesar, leader of the Thermians, the alien race at the heart of "Galaxy Quest." The civilization of octopoidal aliens was in disarray until broadcasts of the "Galaxy Quest" reached their planet from Earth.
Believing the TV episodes to be "historical documents," the Thermians modeled their lives on the show's teachings. And when they got into trouble with the evil General Sarris, they head for Earth and ask for help from the "Galaxy Quest" actors, believing them to be extraordinary space-farers.
Although Colantoni knew about Star Trek -- fellow Canadian William Shatner is a legend, after all -- he didn't know about the conventions "Galaxy Quest" would parody. "It didn't dawn on me there was a whole subculture."
To help create Mathesar, he drew from "The Coneheads," a massively popular "Saturday Night Live" sketch about aliens with conical-shaped heads stranded on Earth. He borrowed the characters' monotone speech, but replaced their robotic personalities with a heartfelt innocence.
"I made him born again," Colantoni, now 53, said of his character. "His innocence was so transparent. He wasn't hiding anything."
"Galaxy Quest" fans may remember talk of a "Galaxy Quest" TV series in the works before actor Rickman died. The death stopped any efforts, Colantoni said, and he hopes it stays that way. But if a TV series does come to be, he wants to be invited, because he enjoyed playing an alien.
"Any character where you're allowed to extend the imagination beyond the here and now is great fun," he said. "I know how much fun an actor has when they put on goofy makeup."
Of the many things he learned from playing Mathesar, Colantoni said he developed a deep appreciation for Star Trek's fans. "When I found out these people were real, I discovered compassion where I might have made fun of them before," he said. "They're no different than a sports fan or a fan of anything."
It also taught him that sci-fi is about the human spirit. "Human evolution is where Star Trek lives," he said.
Colantoni's since gotten into directing, including an episode of the sci-fi drama "iZombie." Here are edited excerpts of his answers to my questions, reproduced as historical documents in case the Thermians are reading.
What's the message of "Galaxy Quest" other than "We can do a really awesome parody of Star Trek"?
The message is so profound, and it wasn't unique to "Galaxy Quest." A lot of movies have this theme that we all can tap into that hero inside of us.
But what was so unique about our story is the parody. This was unique to the fanbase and how obsessive they are. What made it so special is that it really was an homage to everybody who has ever loved and defined themselves in some way through these shows. It's given so many people so much meaning to their lives.
To have the Thermians literally just rebuild what they saw on TV. And who's gonna help the crew? The fanboys. Who understands them? The Justin Long characters. They're gonna help you.
That moment where a cast member tells Long the TV show is actually real, and he's like, "I knew it!" is so perfect.
It's so beautiful, right? But then he still has to take out the trash.
Of course, you wanna believe. There's that part of every fanboy that really, really just wants to believe.
What do you think of the world Star Trek imagines?
Any science fiction gives us permission to really imagine where we want the future to go. And what a beautiful concept...everybody getting along in this federation that's color-blind. The next step is to really enroll the rest of the universe. Who doesn't wanna imagine a world in which we're living in peace?
And now we're really, really looking for the final frontier, and not only in our imaginations, but spiritually too. I hope we never stop craving stuff like that. And of course we're gonna keep revisiting it because we need it. We need to stuff like that.
I like the comparisons about what Gene Roddenberry had imagined all those years ago and where we are now, with communicators and things like that.
That's the fascinating thing, right? So much of Star Trek already happened.
It has. Now if we could just get to the humanity part. Cause we're all fascinated with the technological stuff. But what about the spirit? What about the goodwill?
Did you ever wish you could get involved in the Star Trek world?
I don't get invited to conventions. I hear about other guys who just do walk-ons on Star Trek and they're invited to conventions all the time. I haven't actually participated in any of them.
That's the joke of Guy from "Galaxy Quest" right? The walk-on.
Exactly. He's like everyone who's been on one of those shows. He's recognized by the fanbase.
If someone said we're putting together a new show, is that something you'd want to do?
In a second, of course.
What do you think people will find entertaining in 250 years, when Star Trek is supposed to happen? Will they have their own sci-fi?
At the core of the whole Star Trek science fiction phenomenon is the human spirit and how we need to keep evolving. The technology -- we can make up shit all the time. But human evolution is where Star Trek lives.
We'll always have conflict. We'll always meet with antagonism. But sticking together -- black, yellow, white, brown, it doesn't matter -- we can and we will persevere, and we will keep moving forward.
I'm sure that'll always be on the cusp of entertainment in 200, 300, even a thousand years from now. Have we evolved? Are we closer to a purer essence of ourselves?
That's what I loved about "Contact," the Jodie Foster movie. Did she leave? Did she travel? Did she come back? That whole sense of what are we really striving for? The stars in the physical plane or the stars in the spirit in our own spiritual evolution? Whatever that is.