This August, Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy will present us with the latest in a favorite subgenre of science fiction—the motley crew. These aren’t the professional space-faring crews of the Enterprise or Galactica. Or even the very semi-professional teams helming the Nostromo, Voyager or Andromeda Ascendant. The members of these crews have been brought together through a variety of means: convenient time travel snafus, mishaps in cryogenic preservation, prison meet-cutes (and other forms of non-conformist behavior). They’re mismatched, chaotic and funny. And even when they’re saving the galaxy just to have a good laugh at its expense, it’s difficult not to love them.
So in honor of Guardians of the Galaxy, here’s our list of the motliest crews in the galaxy.
Manifest: Three kids and a tilt-a-whirl
Looking back at the film debut of Ethan Hawke and River Phoenix, it’s hard to believe this family-friendly space jaunt, with special effect’s by Industrial Light and Magic, was a box office flop while Buck Rogers and Ice Pirates made profits. But Phoenix’s kid genius and Hawke’s lovelorn dreamer were funny and sweet in an era where sci-fi crews tended to be lean crude and sarcastic.
Manifest: A cocksure 20th century NASA pilot, a super-model colonel, a hawk man, a goofy robot, some smart robots and a couple of old men
Gil Gerard’s Buck—a hero only the 1980s could love—was a more chauvinistic and more Steve-Austin-like version of Han Solo flying who started out flying a retooled rebel snow speeder in defense of the Earth. His never-quite-romantic relationships with Erin Gray’s Wilma Deering or Pamela Hensley’s Princess Ardala were the thing of macho fantasy, never mind his daring in the cockpit or at un-choreographed TV fisticuffs. Star Wars’ influence is heavy on this show, but it is only in his second season (1980-1981) that Buck took flight in the Searcher with his mixed bag of heroes, a transition that more closely emulated creator Glen Larson’s other ’80s TV franchise, Battlestar Galactica.
Manifest: The fugitive crew of the Enterprise, a resurrected amnesiac Vulcan and a marine biologist
Okay, okay. I know we said “not the professional space-faring crews of the Enterprise.” But, to be fair, they’d blown up the Enterprise defeating Christopher Lloyd in The Search For Spock. In The Voyage Home, we see the familiar crew out of sorts and out of time, flying a stolen Klingon Bird of Prey back to 1980s San Francisco to woo a biologist, sneak onto a nuclear “wessel,” invent transparent aluminum, show off 23rd-century bathrobe fashion, and kidnap some humpback whales. It’s the only Star Trek movie without a clear villain, and it’s the only Star Trek movie where the crew don’t take themselves so seriously. Leonard Nimoy’s resurrected Spock, Catherine Hicks’ Gillian, and the 1980s themselves provide a great foil to the regular crew dynamic and introduce a lot of the chaos and humor we love about motely crews.
Manifest: MacGyver, an Air Force captain, an archeologist, an alien warrior with a slug in his belly, and a revolving cast of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Farscape cast members
While not a traditional space-faring crew, the ever-changing ranks of SG-1 bounced around the galaxy more than almost any group not on board a ship named Enterprise. They also commanded and crewed a variety of starships of their own—large and small, human and alien—over the course of their ten years on Showtime and Syfy. The series even signaled Amanda Tapping’s Samantha Carter as captain of the George Hammond in their hand-off to the ill-fated cast of Stargate Atlantis. And always, Richard Dean Anderson’s Jack O’Neill never took himself (or his MacGyver past) too seriously, nor did he butt heads so severely with Michael Shanks’ Daniel Jackson as his Kurt Russell counterpart did with James Spader in the film. Their adventures were always fun—if not always high budget—in large part because of the dynamics between the motley cast.
Manifest: A mercenary, a mawg (half-man-half-dog), a princess and a golden droid
A shameless and delightful spoof of Star Wars (though not half as funny as Ice Pirates), Spaceballs shows Mel Brooks transforming the Millennium Falcon into a space-faring 1986 Winnebago Chieftain 33, Han Solo into Bill Pullman’s Lone Star, Chewbacca into John Candy’s Barf, Leia into Daphne Zuniga’s Princess Vespa, and C3PO into Joan River’s Dot Matrix. And there’s a singing and dancing Xenomorph that erupts from a twice-desecrated John Hurt. A whole other entry could be given to the motley crew of Mega Maid and its sinister incompetent, Dark Helmet, but we’ve got a galaxy to save.
Manifest: Pirates, a princess, a nanny, black robots and space herpes
A cult sci-fi comedy and a Star Wars spoof, the cast is what makes this motley crew so endearing: Robert Urich (not yet Spencer for Hire), Anjelica Huston (in the same year she won the Academy Award for Prizzi’s Honor), Ron Perlman (in only his second feature film appearance), and Mary Crosby (fresh off Dallas). Oh, and space herpes—the first of two Alien homages to plague the crews on this list. The New York Times described it as a “busy, bewildering, exceedingly jokey science-fiction film that looks like a Star Wars spin-off made in an underdeveloped galaxy.” And that’s basically why we love it.
Manifest: A bunch of has-been actors, an extra, and a lot of aliens with no concept of fiction
Where most sci-fi titles of the last thirty years have played off the success and tropes of Star Wars, Galaxy Quest makes simultaneous parody of Star Trek and a motley crew of that franchise’ original series cast. Tim Allen’s Shatner/Kirk-like Nesmith/Taggart and Alan Rickman’s Nimoy/Spock-like Dane/Lazarus are the most literal stabs at Trek’s cast while Sigourney Weaver’s sex-symbol, Daryl Mitchell’s child-prodigy, and Sam Rockwell’s redshirt play off larger genre-tropes for which Trek is well known. The result is chaos and fun that even satirizes Trek fandom and the growing trend in cons and cosplay.
Manifest: A human courier, an emotionless undead assassin, a renegade love slave, a robot head that thinks it’s a love slave, a plant-woman that eats humans, and a plant-ship shaped like a dragonfly that can blow up worlds
If you think George R.R. Martin’s spins a high body count, check out Lexx. Aside from being oddly sex-charged for a B-grade space opera, Lexx sees the population of two whole universes wiped out (including our Earth), all while half the crew of this insect-shaped ship are on-again-off-again trying to kill (or eat) the other half. And they’re not even all alive to start with!
Manifest: The last-remaining human, a hologram of his dead bunkmate, the humanoid descendant of his dead cat and a robot.
The British have a unique way of turning the end of the human race into a laugh. And like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Red Dwarf sees the human race reduced to a population of one with hilarious results. More of a riff on the Odd Couple than is typical of spaceship crews, Dave Lister wakes up three-million years after the rest of the Red Dwarf’s crew are killed by a radiation leak only to find himself alone in a titanic mining ship except for a hologram, a cat and a robot. Lister and his inhuman companions navigate too many twists and turns on their way back to Earth (or to get his girlfriend, whichever happens first) to recount here, but at least the working-class Liverpudlian gets his long-sought chicken vindaloo.
Manifest: Another cocksure 20th century NASA pilot, a renegade, a warrior, a bald plant-woman, a thief and a deposed muppet Emperor. Oh, and the ship is alive.
A classic rag-tag-band-on-the-run with elements of Star Wars (the Peacekeepers and the Luxans are reminiscent of the Empire and the Wookies, respectively), Buck Rogers (Ben Browder as NASA pilot John Crichton flung into another world), and Lexx (living ships full of melodrama), Farscape made excellent use of The Jim Henson Company’s expertise with practical effects and puppets to make the motley crew even more alien and odd. The deposed Emperor Rygel and Moya’s symbiotic Pilot were both puppets, operated in real time alongside their fellow human cast members. And with no two members of the regular crew being of the same species, the inner-crew romances were sometimes tense, always fun, and usually colorful.
Manifest: A thief, a green-skinned murderer, a maniac, an anthropomorphic raccoon and an ambulatory tree
Marvel’s comic franchise and the film’s trailers have created a lot of excitement for the crew of the Milano. Chris Pratt’s turns in Parks and Recreation and The Lego Movie—or even his upcoming roll in Jurassic World—set a high bar for his performance as Peter Quill, the leader of this motley crew. Zoe Saldana’s action chops (be they from Avatar, Star Trek, or Columbiana) have us excited to see what she can do as the assassin, Gamora. So does Dave Batista’s WWE background inspire hope for the maniac, Drax. And the snippets we’ve seen of Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel voicing Rocket Raccoon and Groot tease a renaissance of non-human alien in genre film like we haven’t seen since Henson-helmed Farscape. We’ll have to see how this new crew holds up compared to our time- and space-tested favorites. But if Pratt and Cooper’s antics in the trailers are any indication, then the crew of the Milano might set a new bar.
Manifest: A winged sci-fi warrior woman, a horned spell-casting pacifist, their half-breed baby (the narrator), a combat-veteran grandmother, and the ghost of a landmine victim-turned-babysitter
The pitch to publishers called it “Star Wars meets Game of Thrones,” but that doesn’t do justice to Alana and Marco’s star-crossed adventures in parenting through a galaxy at war, their spaceship that’s a tree, and their quest to find the author of the romance novel that brought them together. Not to mention their litany of pursuers—a TV-headed robot prince, a spider-bodied assassin, a mercenary with a 6-year-old slave-girl and a lie-detecting cat, a pair of tabloid reporters, or Marco’s pissed off ex-fiancée. With amazing artistic style and a unique cross-genre flair (pitting the laser-wielding Landfallians against the arcane Moonies) Saga’s crew is more than just motley—they’re family.
Manifest: A confused Englishman, an alien travel writer, the two-headed President of the Galaxy, his American girlfriend, a depressed android, a whale and a bowl of petunias
There have been almost as many adaptations of Douglas Adams’ magnum opus—books, audiobooks, radio plays, comics, TV, video games, film—as there are destinations for the Heart of Gold’s improbability drive. And each has recast the principal roles well. But the most recent incarnation—with Martin Freeman (before he was Bilbo), Sam Rockwell (after he was Galaxy Quest’s redshirt), Mos Def, Zooey Deschanel (after Elf), and Alan Rickman as the paranoid android (concurrent with his tenure as Severus Snape)—brings a caliber of talent and confusion to the motley crew that the delirious script deserves. Throw in Bill Nighy, Helen Mirren (42!) and John Malkovich as foils for our absurd crew, and you’ve got a motley crew to carry us through until the (restaurant at the) end of the universe.
Manifest: A rogue captain in tight pants, a warrior woman, a goofy pilot, a dumb thug, a farm girl, a whore, a mysterious priest, a doctor and a telepathic secret weapon
As with Star Wars, no list of motely crews would be complete without Joss Whedon’s short-lived crew of Serenity. Very much an homage to the Millennium Falcon’s aesthetic and camaraderie, Captain Reynold’s ship and crew were at times confrontational, familial, romantic and hilarious. And a more self-aware motley crew you won’t find on this list. The differences and tensions between the crew created much of the drama and humor in the episodes and feature: Zoe’s loyalty and Jane’s opportunism, Kaylee’s innocence and Inara’s sophistication, Mal’s defiance and Simon’s determination. Survived by a series of graphic novels and the perpetual hope of a reboot by online broadcasters, fans are left hoping Nathan Fillion’s Mal and Morena Baccarin’s Inara will end up together and that Summer Glau’s River will pick up Wash’s plastic dinosaurs as well as the controls.
Manifest: An exiled hitman, a retired space cop, an amnesiac femme fatal, a pre-teen hacker, and a hyper-intelligent Welsh Corgi
Of course, there had to be an anime addition to our list of motley crews, and there’s hardly any anime ensemble quite so motley as the Bebop’s. And while the show shares an inheritance from Star Wars and the Millennium Falcon with much of this list, Cowboy Bebop’s influence on Firefly is probably most striking—right down to Spike’s tragic arc on the wrong side of love and the law, the show’s use of western themes and music, and the familiarity of the ship’s own couch and common area. More than any other crew on this list, the crew of the Bebop are struggling with their unresolved pasts—sometimes together, sometimes alone. But always with anime’s signature sarcasm, badassery, and superior visual imagination.
Manifest: The original motley crew of science fiction—a kid, a scoundrel, a princess, an aged Jedi master, two droids, and a walking carpet. Oh, and Billy Dee.
The degree to which the crew of the Millennium Falcon has influenced the ensembles of nearly every ship on this list almost can’t be overstated. From direct parodies like Spaceballs to unapologetic imitations such as Buck Rogers and Firefly, there are more derivatives than we have the space to list. And for good reason. The chemistry, the banter, and the character conflicts keep the audience on the edge of their seat and laughing from Mos Eisley to Bespin. And hopefully to new far, far away destinations in Episode VII.
Manifest: A 20th-century delivery boy, a one-eyed mutant, an alcoholic robot, a senile professor, a humanoid lobster, an Olympic-limbo-champion, the daughter of Mars’ wealthiest family, a pet that poops dark matter, and Scruffy.
Where to even begin with this crew? By far, the motliest and funniest crew on the list, their adventures have taken them through time, space and robot hell. Futurama is funnier than Spaceballs, uses real-world science as episode MacGuffins more often than Star Trek, and their romances save the universe more often than The Fifth Element’s. They also have some of the saddest (the loyal death of Fry’s dog in “Jurassic Bark”) and most touching (Fry’s desperate demonstration of love for Leela in “The Devil’s Hands Are Idle Playthings”) moments in genre TV. Like Spaceballs’ Mega Maid, a whole separate entry could be made for the crew of Zapp Brannigan’s Nimbus and it’s riff on James Kirk.