Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Faith of Mathesar

I had the opportunity to watch Galaxy Quest again over the holidays, with someone who had never seen it before, which made the entire experience that much more enjoyable.  It is a tightly written comedy wrapped around a very passable adventure story (which apparently is how it was initially presented to the producers, with the comedy arriving later on) which is pushed to greater heights by a wonderful cast, most especially Alan Rickman.  There are even a couple of touching moments, slid deftly in between the farce and the spectacle.

It's a fun movie to watch, especially if you happen to be a bit of a nerd, because then you can catch little reflections of yourself in almost every character: from the fanboys trying to ascribe a consistency and meaning to their favourite entertainment, to the existential crisis of the actors who find themselves wondering what impression their work may have left on others, or even themselves.

I've seen it many times before, and I'm sure I will watch it again, but reflecting on it this time got me thinking about faith.

In the film, the alien Thermians have patterned their society and technology based on what they have seen on the television series Galaxy Quest, a thinly (like, we're talking onion skin here) veiled analog to Star Trek.  Unfortunately, they have no concept of art, or artifice, or even lying, so they are convinced that the contrived adventures, last minute escapes and indomitable courage they have witnessed in these 'historical documents' are all legitimate.  After convincing Jason Nesmith, the actor who plays Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen), to join them in negotiating peace with their tormentor, Sarris, the other actors (mostly begrudgingly) follow suit, only to find themselves horribly out of their element, and facing not only their own demise, but the possible destruction of an entire species looking to them for their salvation.  Heavy stuff for a spoof comedy!

The dramatic turning point comes when the sadistic Sarris clues in to the truth of the situation, and makes 'Taggart' tell the Thermian commander Mathesar (brilliantly played by Enrico Colantoni) that they have been lying to him, and that not only are they not the heroes, but there never were any heroes, there wasn't even a ship.  It's a good bit, full of existential angst, and is the emotional lynchpin that the second act uses to slingshot us into the third.  If you've never seen it, go away and watch it, then come back and finish reading this later, there's a spoiler storm a-brewing.  If you just want a reminder, take a few minutes to watch this video:

There is a lot to take in here: Sarris's declaration that the humans have far more harm to the Thermians than he ever could, Mathesar's insistence that there is a ship, and that it cannot be a model because inside he has seen many rooms, and finally, Nesmith's persistence that no, there is no ship, no crew, no agency protecting the galaxy, and that everything Mathesar and his people have staked their lives and civilization on is a lie.

In the middle of a goofy sci-fi comedy, they tune out the action and the laughs for a handful of minutes, and frankly suck all the fun out of the room, leaving the viewer, like Mathesar, in a dark and confusing place.  But then something interesting happens; in fact, a bunch of interesting things happen.

Nesmith improvises an escape plan that utilizes the talents of his colleagues, and then begins formulating a counterattack in precisely the way a good commander would.  He inspires, delegates, and takes personal risks to insure the safety of 'his' ship and crew.

Alexander Dane (Alan Rickman), who detests the sci-fi trappings he has been forced to endure in his work, especially the warrior culture of his alien race, encounters a Thermian who has not only modeled his life after them, but found meaning and success in doing so.  The catchphrase which has been a millstone around his neck becomes a touching benediction to the one person in the universe who may actually believe in it, and, we hope, can take comfort in the fact that by Grabthar's Hammer, he truly will be avenged.

The other ersatz members of the crew pull together and support each other in a manner we've seen played out on starship bridges for over four decades now; in keeping with the mantra of their own show, they never give up, never surrender.

Of course they triumph in the end, this is not a documentary, and the reason we love happy endings in our entertainments is because there seem to be all too damned few of them in real life.  Mathesar returns to the bridge, complimenting the commander on his cunning ploy to convince Sarris that these humans were not the brave and loyal crew the Thermians knew them to be.  His faith has been rewarded, and they soon part ways.

Now there are a couple of ways of looking at this situation, the easiest being that the Thermians are guileless rubes whose naivete almost resulted in their extinction, and who only manage to survive to the end credits through the barest margins of blind chance.

The harder way is to acknowledge that, in the end, the actors who portrayed the fictitious crew of a made-up spaceship are as brave and loyal and resourceful as their on-screen counterparts, and that the tools given to them by the aliens they inspired with their fictions are sufficient to win them the day.  From Mathesar's perspective, Nesmith's assertion that their ship is only a few inches long, is completely ludicrous; after all, they are standing right in it, aren't they?

Sarris's condemnation of the harm done by the humans to the Thermians is extremely short-sighted when you consider that somehow these actors (and writers, and special effects and make -up artists etc.) have inspired an alien race to build things that should not work.  Thankfully, they didn't know it was impossible when they did it.

I've felt like Mathesar at times, clinging to my belief in things I can't display or prove, sometimes in the face of overwhelming evidence.  And I should say here that I don't just mean God or religion or spirituality or the soul.   I know some philosophers think of God as a construct, a stand-in for our limited understanding of the infinite, and that if He didn't exist, it would be necessary to create Him.  But there are other constructs like that, which we cannot prove or disprove, and have to take on faith : justice, for one.  Love, for another.

After their civilization was nearly destroyed, the Thermians discovered the Galaxy Quest broadcasts, and found within their simple heroism and complicated idealism a means of re-purposing themselves.  The fact that the actual events might never have transpired has little to do with the values presented, or the benefits received.  Their ability to take something patently fake and make it real reminds me of the Discordian teaching that 'all things are true, even false things'.

On the television series Babylon 5, another science-fiction television character has said, "Faith manages."  The fact that the words were written by an atheist does not make them any less profound, or true, just ironic.

Still, we can't rule out the possibility that I have wandered into the same fanboy trap as Justin Long's character, searching through blueprints and schematics and star charts, as much a theologian as an engineer,  looking for a meaning that perhaps isn't there...

Brandon Wheeger: But I want you to know that I'm not a complete brain case, okay? I understand completely that it's just a TV show. I know there's no beryllium sphere... 
Jason Nesmith: Hold it. 
Brandon Wheeger: no digital conveyor, no ship... 
Jason Nesmith: Stop for a second, stop. It's all real. 
Brandon Wheeger: Oh my God, I knew it. I knew it! I knew it! 

...or perhaps is hidden in there after all.

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