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When Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry assembled the crew of the starship Enterprise in 1966, he wanted to feature a staff that reflected the diversity of his utopian future. In Roddenberry’s vision of the 23rd century, Starfleet officers of all cultures and colors would serve alongside each other without petty conflicts interfering with their five-year missions into deep space. The inclusion of Uhura (Nichelle Nichols) and Sulu (George Takei) on the Enterprise bridge as was a progressive step forward for network television, and Roddenberry upped the ante in Season 2 by adding a new character: Russian officer Pavel Chekov, played by Chicago-born actor Walter Koenig.
Introduced at a time when anti-Russian sentiment was running high, Chekov was designed to put a human face and a country and culture many Americans only knew in the context of the Cold War paranoia. “Chekov was a benign character,” Koenig tells Yahoo Movies. “He was part of the team, not against the team. We were looking ahead to a time when all countries could coexist and work together.” Starting his career as an ensign, Chekov steadily climbed the Starfleet ladder over the course of the original series and the Trek feature films, remaining a valued and trusted member of James Kirk’s inner circle.
Offscreen, Koenig continues to be a stalwart Star Trek advocate, regularly appearing at conventions, including Star Trek: Mission New York, a 50th anniversary celebration that will take over Manhattan’s Javits Center from Friday through Sunday. We spoke with the 79-year-old actor about his near-miss with a cameo on Star Trek: The Next Generation and why The Voyage Home is his favorite Trek film.
Within the Star Trek universe, Chekov’s career has continued beyond the TV series and movies into spinoff novels. Do keep up with his adventures?
No, I’ve never read the novels; I just feel that if I couldn’t put it onscreen, than it really wasn’t my character. It wasn’t me. Conversely, when I appeared on Babylon 5 as Alfred Bester, my character was pivotal to the story, even though it was a recurring role. So when the Bester novels came out, I read those. I identified with the character so strongly, and my curiosity made me sit down with the books.
Several of the original Enterprise crew appeared on Star Trek: The Next Generation, including Spock, Scotty, and McCoy. Were there ever plans for Chekov to visit the Enterprise-D?
It’s a strange story; I have an interpretation of it, and I underscore that it’s my interpretation. I was contacted by one of the writers to talk about what kind of story they could do with Chekov. We had lunch together, and couldn’t come up with anything. So he asked me to come in and meet with all the writers; this was after Jimmy [Doohan] and DeForest [Kelley] had already been on and had both had very successful experiences. In the interim, I had come up with an idea [for Chekov], and was very much looking forward to sitting down with them. We were in a room, and they had pads and pens ready to take notes. But just when we finished the introductions, the phone rang and it was [a producer] telling them they had to leave, that they were needed somewhere else. Because I am who I am, and have a level of neuroticism that includes paranoia, I concluded that this may have been done purposefully, that the writers had contacted me without consulting [the producers] and they ordered them out of the room. I may be wrong; I never got the full story.
I recently spoke with David Gerrold, who wrote “The Trouble With Tribbles,” which had some great moments with Chekov. Do you have fond memories of that episode?
That’s a fun episode. It was done with humor, and Bill [Shatner] carried it off very well. As matter of fact, when my grandson saw his first Star Trek episode, it was “The Trouble with Tribbles.” He was 6 years old at the time, and knew I was an actor, but had never seen me in anything. When I had the big fight in the bar with the Klingons, he said to his mother, “I can’t believe my Grandpa is a table-hopping maniac!” [Laughs]
What episode of the original series are you asked about the most?
My favorite from a selfish point of view is “Spectre of the Gun.” I got to go to down to the planet, I got the girl, and I got killed! [Ed. Note: His death wasn’t permanent, of course. The episode takes place inside an Old West-themed psychic illusion.] It was an active episode for Chekov. That episode was a case of necessity being the mother of invention; we had overspent on the preceding episodes, and our budget was limited. So they had to come up with a set they could build easily and quickly, and the fact that the whole show dealt with illusion made the use of facades very advantageous. I thought it was a particularly well-conceived story.
Turning to the feature films, this year marks the 30th anniversary of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home.
I feel that’s best film we did. From my own point view, Chekov got to have some specific action, like the scene we did with the “nuclear wessels” and his interrogation by the FBI. He even got his own theme music! I had never shot anywhere but on a soundstage, and that was the first time I got to go out and shoot on the streets of San Francisco. I also think it’s the film that’s most representative of Gene Roddenberry’s original inspiration, to tell socio-political stories that spoke to what was transpiring in the world at the time. We addressed the topic of the environment with the storyline about the extinct whales. I feel we did a service for the world by addressing that subject in cinematic form and making it part of their consciousness.
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is another installment that fans love.
That’s my second favorite. I had my worst moments with Bill Shatner on that film, so that kind of stains the experience a little bit. But I loved working with Ricardo [Montalban] and Paul Winfield. At the heart of every dramatic story is conflict, so you need a strong antagonist as well as a wonderful protagonist. Ricardo was such a strong force, it made the conflict that much greater. And the death of Spock is an extraordinary scene. Those two movies for me are furlongs ahead of the other films.
Anton Yelchin, who played Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek film franchise, tragically died this year. The producers have said that the role won’t be recast. Do you agree with that decision?
I think it’s the right call; it’s paying Anton the most respect. I was devastated and still am devastated [by his death]. I spent just a couple of hours with him, but I could tell he was a very good person. He was extraordinarily talented and versatile, and a human being that I would like to be friends with.
We’re marking the 50th anniversary of Star Trek by celebrating its past, while also looking ahead to the future. What do you think the next 50 years holds for Trek?
I have no idea. [Laughs] And I had no idea when Gene Roddenberry called me in 1969 to say: “We’ve been canceled; hope to work together again sometime.” At the time, I hung up the phone and said, “What do I do with the rest of my life?” It still astonishes me that this franchise has continued over five decades the way it has. Each of the incarnations have been received so enthusiastically. I can’t begin to conjecture what will transpire with Star Trek from here on out. I hope it goes on; we always had good things to say about the word and our future. We’re still trying to attain that future. It’s such a chaotic, virulent time right now; maybe a new Star Trek will in some way heal the wounds that we have and bring us closer to the better place we’ve dreamed about.