By Scott Meeker
He’s fawned over tribbles, endured mind-control bugs with a thing for the ear canal, and time-traveled back to the 1980s in search of whales and nuclear “wessels.”
But when he signed on in 1967 to join the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise in boldly going where no man has gone before as ensign Pavel Chekov, actor Walter Koenig had no idea how far it would take him.
“Even the circumstances of my casting (on ‘Star Trek’) were so modest that it didn’t portend anything extraordinary,” he said. “I was informed while I was still there at my audition that I had the role. It seemed like an engagement that might work out over several episodes, but I had no idea that it would totally shape my career and my life.”
Four decades later, Koenig is still riding the wave of fandom that followed the original “Star Trek” series’ brief run and his subsequent appearance in seven of the big-screen adventures that followed.
He will appear Saturday and Sunday at Planet Comicon in Overland Park, Kan., one of the region’s largest pop-culture and comic-book conventions.
In a recent phone interview, Koenig talked about the pleasure he gets from meeting fans of “Trek” — and those of “Babylon 5,” on which he appeared in a recurring role as Alfred Bester — the enduring appeal of the series and his thoughts on the upcoming film featuring new actors in the classic roles.
His regular appearances at conventions such as Planet Comicon are “always positive,” he said.
“Of course, you’re preaching to the choir,” Koenig said. “(Fans) are always enthusiastic and supportive. They either remember seeing ‘Star Trek’ during its original run or caught up with it along the line. They have fond memories, or else they wouldn’t be there.”
The original series debuted in 1966, but suffered from low ratings. A letter-writing campaign by devoted fans convinced NBC to keep it on the air for a total of three seasons. Thanks to syndication, the show continued to grow an audience, leading to a successful run of feature films and four spin-off series — “The Next Generation,” “Deep Space Nine,” “Voyager” and “Enterprise.”
Koenig credits the show’s longevity to the quality of the writing and the vision of creator Gene Roddenberry.
“First of all, I think that it was well-written,” Koenig said. “They used science-fiction prose writers to write their teleplays. They had fertile and active imaginations that could bring the adventure and excitement that people were looking for.
“It also had some intellectual nuances and a social consciousness at a time when we were having to deal with Vietnam and civil rights. It showed the concerns of thinking people.
“It’s a testament that after four decades that it resonates for people. But those concerns are still in front of us — racial and religious issues, war, economic and family issues. They’re still a part of our lives, and we’re struggling with them.”
Koenig said that he’s excited to see what “Lost” creator J.J. Abrams does with his revamping of the “Star Trek” franchise. Due out in May 2009, a younger cast will take on the roles of Kirk, Spock, Dr. McCoy and others from the original series and chronicle their first adventure aboard the Enterprise.
“I think it’s great,” Koenig said. “I’m sure they’ll do a terrific job. I visited the set at J.J.’s invitation and watched the actors work. I thought they were on to something good. Only time will tell, but I can’t believe that with their conscientiousness and loyalty to the original concept that it can’t be anything but a success.”
While it was “odd” to see another actor — 19-year-old Anton Yelchin — in the role of Chekov, Koenig said he doesn’t have any proprietary feelings toward the character.
“I suppose the only way it would have been upsetting would be if they had cast a 71-year-old,” he laughed. “But I told J.J. that we only leased these roles ... I’m rooting for them. I feel that if they succeed, it carries ‘Star Trek’ on. Being part of that mythos and legend is very gratifying.”
Want to go?
Planet Comicon will be held from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday at the International Trade Center, 6800 W. 115th St., in Overland Park, Kan. Tickets are $15 for a weekend pass, $6 for kids ages 7 to 14 and free for children under 7. Guests will include Walter Koenig, Kenny Baker of “Star Wars,” comic-book creators Bernie Wrightson, Eric Powell and many others.