In the pantheon of science fiction filmmaking and its tradition of strong women, Sigourney Weaver may be our most plentiful – and enduring – natural resource. She’s been the anchor of one of the longest-running franchises in the genre’s history, Alien, where directors have daydreamed and retconned and reimagined its mythology to include her, and her influence is felt even in the installments in which her iconic, resilient character Ripley does not appear. She suffers fools no more readily in the Ghostbusters series, where as Dana Barrett she skillfully trades barbs with Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman before inadvertently helping unlock a portal that might bring about the end of the world. And in Avatar, she plays Dr. Grace Augustine, a no-nonsense scientist perhaps ironically trying to broker a tenuous peace with an alien species as her military counterparts try to exploit their resources for their own ends.
Weaver’s performances in these films are commanding and complex, razing expectations and transforming our understanding of what constitutes strength. All of which is why her supporting role as Gwen DeMarco in Galaxy Quest, Dean Parisot’s affectionate parody of Star Trek and its fandom, feels like such an anomaly in her own body of work, contradicting an expansive slate of formidable characters in a deliberate effort to provide a spirited, winking commentary about what is too often asked of women – while creating yet another indelible science fiction story.
Even conjuring its own mythology, Galaxy Quest gets so many details right about Star Trek, the original-series cast, and its fans that it’s regularly ranked in lists along with the actual Trek films, from the characterizations of the crew – both on and off-screen – to minutiae-spouting fans who mistake the show’s plywood-and-plaster reality for their own. But even though Parisot was clearly interested in exploring the types of characters that show had immortalized, he avoided merely copying them wholesale, starting by casting actors who were largely too skilled, if also disinclined, to copy to mannerisms of their forebears. And in a way, Weaver stepping into the shoes of one of the few iconic female characters in science fiction who preceded hers – Nichelle Nichols’ Lieutenant Uhura – feels like a closed loop in a timeline, and an homage to the frequently neglected but essential history of women in science fiction.
That said, Nichols didn’t have a whole lot to do on Star Trek playing Uhura other than look pretty – she reportedly considered leaving the show after the first season until, famously, Martin Luther King Jr. pleaded with her to stay on. Nevertheless, this was a characterization cleverly lampooned in the writing of DeMarco’s onscreen alter ego, Lt. Tawny Madison, whose job quite literally is to repeat information provided by the ship’s computer. DeMarco isn’t the only one exasperated by this singular responsibility, but Weaver owns her character’s commitment to it. “Look! I have one job on this lousy ship,” she tells her crewmates. “It's stupid, but I'm gonna do it, okay?”
In an oral history MTV assembled for the film in 2014, Weaver said that she sympathized with actors who toiled in thankless roles, seeing her work as a tribute to their efforts. “It's funny, considering my background, but I was never into science fiction,” she told Jordan Hoffman. “I'll watch ‘Star Trek’ once in a while – look at those cheap sets! But I also love to watch it as a Gwen, watching actors giving dignity to an absurd situation, speaking Klingon… I just felt Galaxy Quest, as a comedy, was such a love letter to all the insecure actors in the field who have done so many wonderful and somewhat under-appreciated projects.”
While anyone who’s watched her work a power loader suspects it isn’t true, Weaver recently claimed in a conversation with Entertainment Weekly that she’s much more Gwen DeMarco than Ellen Ripley: “I’m not very heroic,” she insisted. “I’m much more, you know, if there’s a spider in the shower, [I go] ‘Darling, come and get it!’” But watching the film, the actress takes a cheesecake role and gives it substance, both embracing DeMarco’s sex appeal and acknowledging that it affords her reductive opportunities as an actress, much less as a woman. In Weaver’s performance, it’s easy to see a revolving door of characters throughout the history of Star Trek – and dozens of other sci-fi films and movies – where actresses were recruited as scantily-clad window dressing at best, while their male counterparts were given meaty, scene-stealing moments.
Ultimately, however, DeMarco seems to have the healthiest grasp on the legacy that she and her co-stars created for themselves; at the convention that opens the film, she respects the enthusiasm of their male fans, and recognizes the importance of her role in particular to female ones. She better than anyone seems to have a clear-eyed view of the material they were working with, and the real challenge they all faced – namely, lending honest effort and dignity to material that didn’t always deserve it. Galaxy Quest is itself a tribute to that effort, and it celebrates more than just the cultural impact of Star Trek, its most conspicuous point of reference. Gwen DeMarco, filtered through Weaver’s performance, pays tribute to the quiet, underappreciated heroism of simple representation – even in the margins, with little complexity or depth – that may frequently start with repeating words that have already been spoken, but often leads others to discovering, or creating, a voice of their own.