Story Structure: Galaxy Quest (1999)
Story by David Howard Screenplay by David Howard & Robert Gordon

Introduction:  I have to admit a special affection for this film, having grown up as a fan of Star Trek and later as a writer of episodes for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Star Trek: Voyager.  But even if you're not a sci-fi fan you should be richly entertained by this film about a troupe of actors thrust into a real-life situation in which they have to become the kind of characters they made famous on screen.  But beside that clever concept, what makes the film work so well is a very solid story structure, a satisfying character arc for the hero, as well as a number of subplots that are entertaining on their own.  As such it stands up to repeated viewings, and is a great film to study.

Pitch:  The cast of a defunct sci-fi television series have to play their roles as the real thing when an alien race enlists their help to save their civilization.

Who’s Story Is It? Jason Nesmith (Tim Allen)
Act Structure: 3 Act

Act I Basic Action:
Jason Nesmith is an out-of-work actor who had starred in Galaxy Quest, a space opera that had been cancelled years before.  Along with his former cast members (also out of work) Jason attends a convention gathering of fans of the show.  It’s obvious that there is resentment among the cast toward the egocentric Jason, who apparently accepts freelance work from fans without them.  In the men’s room, Jason overhears two “fans” making fun of him and the fact that he hasn’t worked in years after his show was cancelled.  Afterward, he is seen signing autographs without emotion and then snapping at a group of fans who expect him to be as committed to the show as they are.  His cast mate Gwen (Sigourney Weaver) worries that Jason is starting to lose it.

Inciting Event 1: The Thermians, an alien group headed by Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni) visits the Galaxy Quest convention and asks for Jason’s help.  Jason thinks they're just crazy fans with a job offer.   He tells them to get a limo.

Inciting Event 2:
After a night of drinking, Jason is visited again by the Thermians and taken into their limo, and then aboard their ship where he encounters their nemesis, Sarris.  Jason thinks it’s all a simulation until he is transported through space to his home.  He now knows that he has experienced space travel and aliens that are very real.

Act I Turning Point: Jason decides to go with the Thermians and help them negotiate with Sarris.  He encourages his cast mates to go along with him.  Thinking it is a paying job, they agree to go.  

Act II Basic Action: After painfully piloting their ship, the NSEA Protector out of space port, Jason’s first real experience as a leader occurs when he encounters the alien Sarris who fires his weapons on their ship.  In desperation, Jason orders his pilot Tommy (Daryl Mitchell) to flee Sarris which leads them through a minefield, eventually burning out the engines of the ship.  Sarris’ ship doesn’t enter the minefield which gives Jason time to plan how to repair the Protector engines.  They require a beryllium sphere, one of which is located on a nearby planet.  Using a shuttle, Jason and his crew travel to the planet where they attempt to take a beryllium sphere from the locals, who are small, but quite hostile and very numerous.  Jason’s crew gets away with the sphere, but Jason is stranded on the planet.  Jason wakes up in an arena where he faces an angry pig lizard.  Back on the Protector, his crew, led by Fred Kwan (Tony Shalhoub) attempts to use a digital conveyor technology to beam Jason back to the ship.  But Fred beams the pig lizard instead and it arrives inside out.  Soon Jason encounters the real opponent, Gorignak, a giant rock beast who attacks him.  Fred is ultimately able to beam Jason back on the ship which is, by now, repaired by the Thermians and ready to go.  

Hero's Low Point: Sarris arrives on the ship and takes the crew hostage.  Sarris tortures Mathesar and forces Jason to confess that they are not really space adventurers, but actors who have been lying to the Thermians about who they really are.

Act II Turning Point: After being taken off for execution, Jason decides to use strategy from the old show to defeat Sarris.  He works with Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman) on a ruse to defeat their captors and then devises a plan to shut off the self-destruct sequence initiated by Sarris.

Act III Basic Action: Jason and Gwen head off to shut down the reactor with help via instellar vox from Brandon (Justin Long) and his geek friends back on Earth.  Meanwhile, Alexander attempts to rescue the Thermian crew while Fred and Guy are sent to the engine room.  After a number of close calls in the bowels of the ship, Jason and Gwen manage to shut off the reactor and also find out what the Omega 13 weapon is all about (a time travel device that allows a do-over).  Alexander, Fred and Guy rescue the Thermian crew from being deprived of air, but in the process, Alexander loses one of his Thermian admirers.  Jason returns to the bridge where he leads his crew against Sarris, ultimately destroying Sarris' ship via a minefield Jason has cleverly towed behind the Protector.  All looks well until Sarris, first in the guise of Fred, arrives on the Protector, and starts shooting the crew.  Jason activates the Omega 13 where he is able to go back briefly in time to defeat Sarris with the help of Mathesar.

Denouement: This is the emotional "wrapping up" of the story.  In this story, after turning over the Protector to Mathesar, Jason and his crew return to earth via the command section of the ship.  They come in hot, but, with the help of Brandon and his friends, crash land at the convention center.  Applauded as conquering heroes by the collection of fans, Jason kills Sarris with a laser gun and leads his crew to their biggest and most united curtain call. Later, we find that Galaxy Quest has been renewed and that all the crew are back together again on TV.

Hero’s Outer Need:
Take command of a real star ship Protector, defeat Sarris and save the Thermians.

Hero’s Inner Need: Become a true hero instead of an actor who only plays a hero on TV.  Accept his cast mates as true equals and earn their admiration.

Subplots: Alexander and his rivalry for screen time with Jason, Gwen and Jason’s flirtations, Tommy and his inability to connect with his younger self, Fred and his romance with Laliari, Guy and his fear that he will be killed off, Brandon, his geek friends and their belief that Galaxy Quest is real, the Thermians and their search for a true leader.

Theme:  True heroism can lie within any of us.

Central Question: Can Jason lead his TV cast mates in a real life battle against the alien Sarris and save the civilization of the Thermians?

Opponent: Sarris and his crew. 

The MacGuffin: the NSEA Protector.  Sarris wants to destroy it, Jason wants to save it.

Posted: 10.22.14

In the other files in this section, I have done an analysis of the story structures of several feature films.  My hope is that if you've learned something from this dialogue that you will show your appreciation by picking up my newest novel (link below).  And then let me know what you think of its structure! 

Houdini & Lovecraft The Ghost Writer