An interview with Walter Koenig
“I do not think the world has changed in response to Star Trek. I think Star Trek has changed because of the way we tell stories, compared to how we did in the sixties.”
Best known for his role of Star Trek’s tactical officer Pavel Chekov, since the second season of the original series, Koenig has also appeared in Babylon 5 as the Machiavellian Psi-Cop, Alfred Bester.
Although his Russian accent was faked for Star Trek, Koenig has Russian ancestry, as his parents were Russian immigrants. After studying psychology at university, Koenig turned to acting and joined the Neighbourhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. It was scant years later that Koenig auditioned for the role of Chekov, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Koenig was one of the special guests at Destination Star Trek Europe (by Massive Events) last weekend, where he reminisced on storytelling in Star Trek.
How has Star Trek changed over the years?
Stories are, in many cases, secondary to the visuals and CGI that they bring to it. It is now more action-based and giving the audience a more visual pyrotechnic experience. I think our stories (in Star Trek) told were more slowly by today’s standards. But they reflected the time and reflected the way we communicated then. I think our stories were generally, as there are always exceptions, more personal and more one-on-one. You got to know the characters.
Today, we are glued to the internet and our cell phones. All of our communication is electronic and when you go to a film you are looking for a reflection of that. The scenes are full of visual effects that focus on giving the viewer a spectacular experience, rather than a personal experience.
If you look at Star Trek over the last fifty years, you probably get a sense that culture has changed, because we created the culture, but we reflected it in the way we tell stories. It is a historical document in that regard.
As well as being famous as Chekov, you are, in many ways just as famous as Bester in Babylon 5
Life is full of capricious moments and lives turn because on capricious incidents. I did not know [Babylon 5 creator] Joe Straczynski well. He asked me and my wife to re-enact a Twilight Zone episode he had written in the eighties that did not make it to the air, so we did it on a radio show he hosted at the time. Then, when Babylon 5 came along he had part for me, but a week before we were due to start shooting, I had a heart attack in Chicago, twenty-three years ago and had a quadruple-bypass.
I had to call him from the hospital to tell him he had to get somebody else. He said he would try to hold the script for me, which was amazing, but Joe is an amazing person. Unfortunately, they ran out of stories and had to shoot it. So instead, and we are not close friends, so he wrote another character, and rather than being on the show once, this character was recurring and that is how it happened.
In the blackest cloud there’s a silver lining, and that heart-attack was responsible for me having a whole new career on Babylon 5.
Walter Koenig, thank you very much.