For Walter Koenig, attending Star Trek conventions remains a joyous occasion. Except for one part of the process.
“I’m at the point now where I’m just not that crazy about traveling anymore,” said Koenig in a phone interview with Blastr. “Walking through terminals a half mile long with a suitcase, and all that time in the air makes me a little jumpy.”
Koenig, who has played Lt. Pavel Chekov for five decades, including 36 episodes of the original Star Trek television series, seven feature films and a handful of video games, just made the cross-country jaunt to take part in this weekend’s big 50th-anniversary celebration of the franchise, “Star Trek: Mission New York” at the Javits Center on Manhattan’s West Side.
And despite the inevitable awkward questions from star-struck fans at events like this, the 79-year-old actor still enjoys the interaction with the people who have kept Trek at the forefront of pop culture all these years.
“The conventions are always fun. Initially they were a little … startling,” he laughed. “I didn’t know what to expect. It’s become a very positive and reinforcing experience. Every actor wants to be appreciated. I’ve never had a problem.
“The things I love hearing now … we all want to feel that we’ve contributed something after all these years. That we’ve somehow made our culture a better place. It’s a very presumptuous statement to make about a TV show. But people always say to me, ‘My father and I used to hang out and watch Star Trek together. My mother and I, that’s what we did together.’ That’s wonderful to hear,” said Koenig.
Never one to take himself too seriously, Koenig joked that “Deforest Kelly used to talk about people who were inspired to go into medicine because of Dr. McCoy, and Jimmy Doohan would talk about all the folks who came up to him and said they wanted to become engineers [because of Scotty]. I only had one person who came up to me and said they learned Russian because of me!”
Turning serious again, Koenig admits that the legacy of Star Trek, 50 years later, is still as relevant as ever. “Just by the nature of our cast, we always embraced the nature of a one-world environment where all kinds of people got along and took care of each other,” he said. “Something that we have not yet succeeded in achieving, it’s still in the future. It’s a message that we hoped to impart and hope to see fulfilled.”
Koenig has spent decades reflecting and looking back on the franchise, so Trek’s golden anniversary hasn’t inspired too much nostalgia for him. But he did allow himself a moment to observe just how amazing it is that the show has endured as long as it has. The actor spoke about the time in the mid-1970s when the late Gene Roddenberry tried numerous times to revive the series.
“We had a couple of false starts. First it was going to be another TV series, and that didn’t happen,” he said. “Then we were going to have a B movie, we were actually fitted for that, but that was canceled. So it took a long time.”
The fan interest certainly was there. Koenig recalled attending the early Star Trek conventions in New York City, fan-run gatherings that proved wildly popular. “The first conventions in NYC, the lines were literally around the block twice. The fire marshals had to put a halt to number of people coming in. The energy and enthusiasm was quite extraordinary,” he said. “I thought to myself, 'Paramount should have someone here to observe this. Why are they sitting on their hands?' Hand to God, if Star Wars had not been such a huge success, they might never have gotten the hint. “
Even after Star Trek: The Motion Picture was greenlit, Koenig said he remained skeptical.
“I didn’t really believe we were doing the first movie until the second shot. The first shot was a panoramic sweep of all of us at our stations,” he remembered. “The second was Captain Kirk stepping up out of the lift. When they were setting the lighting for that shot, I looked at my compatriots and my … captain, and I said, ‘my God, we’re really making this movie!’
Koenig also remembers critics skewering the first film. Not that he disagreed. He admits that first movie was not very good and lacked energy. He said he was so certain the franchise was done for good, he bet an associate producer on the movie $50 there would never be another Star Trek movie. Fortunately, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan proved him wrong.
The Trek features also provided Koenig with his most satisfying onscreen work. He calls Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home his most rewarding work as Lt. Chekov. “I’m an actor so I’m selfish, and I think of myself first,” he joked. Koenig said that movie gave Chekov his best moments in the Trek film world, and added that the environmental message in that movie is another reason why the movie resonates with him.
Koenig has always been quite blunt about his time in the Trek universe. He’s often expressed frustration at Chekov not getting enough to do onscreen, even referring to himself and other supporting characters as ‘moving furniture’ behind the lead actors, William Shatner and the late Leonard Nimoy. Trek fans would disagree with that comparison, no doubt, and Koenig appreciates that.
But with this year’s 50th anniversary, Koenig says this is the perfect time to put Lt. Pavel Chekov in his rear-view mirror. Koenig has talked in the past about how the fan-produced online series Renegades would mark the end of his time portraying Chekov. So is Renegades Episode 2 actually happening? According to Koenig, the answer is yes … sort of.
Due to legal reasons based on Paramount’s new restrictions for Trek fan films, it won’t be called Star Trek: Renegades anymore. But Koenig says it will be quite obvious what the production is about and who the characters are.
“It’s a very satisfying episode. It’s called Renegades 2: Requiem,” Koenig said, adding that it is currently in post-production. “I feel like I’ve come full circle with this character. I’m happy with letting this be the last appearance of this character I’ve played. I’m proud of it. “
Whether Chekov gets the blazing sendoff Koenig has talked about in the past, he would not say.
When asked about the upcoming new series Star Trek: Discovery, Koenig admitted to not having given it much thought. “But I do think hiring Nicholas Meyer (Director of Star Trek II and Star Trek VI) was the wisest thing they could do. He’s a consummate writer. He’s really brilliant. I just hope they listen to his input. I don’t know all the other folks involved, but I do know Nick. With him involved, they have a good chance of pulling it off and making it a successful enterprise, pardon the pun.”
When the topic of his current relationship with the other surviving members of the original series, Koenig was refreshingly candid.
Trek fans know that relations between William Shatner and several of his co-stars have been strained, to say the least. With several big Trek celebrations planned this year to mark the 50th anniversary, the actors will obviously be running into each other at panels, photo-ops and autograph signings. Would Koenig be up for catching up with his old Starship captain at Mission New York?
“I’m candid as you’ve mentioned, so … we’re not going to get together,” Koenig said. “Maybe if I get to see Nichelle, that would be terrific. But we’ve all gone our separate ways, we really aren’t operating in the same worlds anymore.”
“Star Trek: Mission New York” takes place Friday through Sunday at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan.