“…only the size of my head”
“Perhaps you know Russian epic of Cinderalla….”
I may not know Russian epics, but I do know an epic Russian – once removed, of course. Walter Koenig turns 80 years old today, and all Geeks salute him and the extraordinary work he has contributed to science fiction, pop culture, and humanity in general. The iconic role of Star Trek‘s Chekov is larger than life and Koenig has often struggled with the long shadow he cast for himself; however, it’s my hope that he views this as a testament to his skillful, nuanced performances. After all, if the shoe fits…
Pavel Chekov is one of the best known characters in all of science fiction, beloved by generations of Star Trek fans. Just an arm’s length from the cultural icons of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy, Chekov is one of Star Trek’s most memorable faces. Koenig infused Chekov with humour, tension, and a world-weary wisdom. He was the sort of character who would stare down a life-and-death showdown with Klingons, Romulans, or Greco-Roman obsessed space gods with a sigh, a shrug, and a, “here vee go again”. Chekov was one of the touchstones of my childhood but, as I got older, I came to know him in another guise… Alfred Bester – terrifying psy-cop and recurring villain on Babylon 5. Although I have nothing but love and respect for Starfleet’s plucky Russian navigator, Bester subverted my expectation entirely and demonstrated how a nuanced, complex character can tear the guts out of an audience.
The son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, the man who would be Checkov, Walter Koenig, grew up in Manhattan. He started his post-secondary education in pre-med but transferred to UCLA to pursue psychology; while there, a professor encouraged him to give acting a go and he found himself back in New York at the Neighborhood Playhouse. From there, he worked with on The Lieutenant, a military drama created by Gene Roddenberry – an association that would lead to Star Trek (three seasons of TOS and seven feature films) and Walter’s (like it or not…) defining role as Pavel Chekov.
When Babylon 5’s first season came around in 1994, landing an actor from Star Trek must have been a big coup. Although series creator J. Michael Staczynski has long maintained that was no (little?) ill-will between the shows, the competition in fandom was fierce. To have one of the original series actors come over to the an untried property whose future was anything but certain was a huge shock…and the first of many for Trekkies who followed Walter’s guest spot into Babylon 5. Although Bester presented many of Chekov’s familiar traits – the accent, the self-deprecation, the world-weariness – there was another side to him: a calculating manipulator with a superiority complex, the sort of role that Koenig’s background in psychology made him uniquely suited for. Bester quickly became a fan-favorite and found his way into the master-narrative for Babylon 5, playing an instrumental role in an epic spanning five seasons.
I met Walter at FanExpo in Toronto in 2009. It seemed utterly mundane to him – another signing on another convention floor sandwiched between Billy Dee Williams and Lou Ferrigno.
(comp pic of Lando, Hulk, and Chekov)
That afternoon, I’d asked a few questions of JM Straczynski, shook hands with Lou, chatted up Billy Dee about his favorite spots in Toronto, but when it came to Walter, I was actually tongue tied.
Unlike the others, Chekov had been one of my favorite characters. He was the wise clown, high-status comic relief, a smooth criminal who tripped himself up. In person, he was reserved but patient (at least with this stammering man-child) and if he was at all surprised that someone chose a Bester photo instead of Chekov, he made no sign of it – a reaction perfectly in line with how he has conducted his personal life; he kept it personal – as in, not public.
He has, however, shown remarkable public empathy and kindness. He served as best man in fellow Star Trek alum George Takei’s wedding – supporting both his friend and rights of gay men to marry. When Anton Yelchin, the actor playing Chekov in the rebooted Star Trek films, was tragically killed in June, Walter publicly expressed his sympathy for the young actor’s parents, referring to the tragic loss of his own son in 2010: