The Motion Picture, A Convention and Persis Khambatta
By David McDonnell - June 22, 2014
Do you remember where you were when you first saw Star Trek: The Motion Picture?
I’ll pause for a paragraph while you reflect.
I scurried to a theater in my then-Pennsylvania locale to see it in December, 1979. Considering the moviemaker behind the camera -- Robert Wise, director of The Day the Earth Stood Still, The Andromeda Strain, The Body Snatcher and Run Silent, Run Deep, whose career ignited when, as a young film editor, he edited Citizen Kane -- ST:TMP is a lesser effort. But I still enjoyed the movie. It was awe-inspiring to watch Scotty unveil the new Enterprise to Jerry Goldsmith’s fabulous musical score (so good it was later resurrected for The Next Generation). I loved seeing The Original Series crew again, albeit in those silly modern uniforms. And then there was Persis Khambatta, strikingly beautiful as the bald alien Lt. Ilia.
Khambatta was a former Miss India and a model-turned-actress when she got her big break as Ilia, the Deltan navigator and love interest to Captain Will Decker (Stephen Collins). Her other major movie roles came in Nighthawks (a surprisingly good thriller) and Megaforce (a startlingly mediocre adventure that, bizarrely, landed the cover of Starlog. Not my fault! I didn’t work there then!). Alas, Khambatta’s acting career soon stalled.
My one encounter with her came at a Trek convention in a New Jersey suburb a few years before her August, 1998 death. It was not a particularly good con -- being the maiden effort of a new con organizer. Reportedly, he took out a loan on his house and used up his savings to finance the con (guest fees, travel expenses, food, hotel rooms, ballroom rent, insurance, advertising, etc.). The hotel selected was under renovation (perhaps this made the facilities cheaper?). Construction detritus, scaffolding, plastic wrap and baseboard littered the ground floor. The smell of new paint and sawdust haunted the air. Unfortunately, the whole lobby area and surrounding hallways were not an inviting environment for an all-new convention.
Having guested at numerous cons; I had some sense of what worked (and what didn’t). Like other newcomers to the con game, this well-intentioned guy had booked a problematic guest line-up. Back then, you really needed a headliner, which meant one of 20 people (Gene Roddenberry and the regular casts of TOS and TNG; I think this was pre-Deep Space Nine). Episodic guest stars were fine as secondary con guests with Trek novelists, comic book people and writers comprising tertiary guests, extra added attractions that weren’t going to draw many (any?) more attendees to the event.
However, the line-up here was Mark Lenard (Spock’s Vulcan dad), Tony Todd (Worf’s Klingon brother, Candyman and later an eerie figure in the Final Destination flicks), Persis Khambatta, Arne Starr (inker of DC Comics’ Star Trek title) and me. I liked Lenard enormously and he was so beloved by fans that he could be regarded as a headliner -- but certainly not at this con, because, due to scheduling conflicts, he couldn’t be there on Saturday, the big day. Lenard would only appear Sunday. Todd and Khambatta hadn’t done many (any?) cons at the time. Starr and I were just window dressing. We didn’t really count.
Saturday arrived and the event opened and -- crickets! The place was a desert. There weren’t many people, maybe 100 tops. The dealers were unhappy. Few fans, and they weren’t buying much merchandise! Ticket revenue wasn’t going to cover the guests’ travel, much less other expenses.
So, what went wrong? Well, as I suggested, the guest line-up might be partially to blame. But there was also the hotel’s "under construction" state, inadequate advertising and promotion, potential oversaturation in the Philadelphia marketplace (which already boasted several SF and comics cons annually) and competition from local "mundane" attractions (like sporting events and concerts). I don’t recall the weather, but that too can be a crucial factor. Heavy rain, unexpected snowfall or perfect, beautiful outdoor weather can, naturally, depress indoor attendance.
Whatever the reason, it was clear that the beleagured organizer couldn’t indulge in the convention tradition of taking the guests out to a nice dinner Saturday night. So, as to not increase his expenses, I volunteered the Starlog Company card ("Don’t leave con without it!") and ushered Starr, Todd, Todd’s lady friend and Khambatta (sporting luxurious hair) to a nearby restaurant.
At the time, restaurants in New Jersey still offered Smoking sections. As a lifelong non-smoker, I avoided those areas, but over the years, I got accustomed to the ash. Family members, office-mates, roommates, friends and fraternity brothers all lit up (but almost all eventually quit). I didn’t much like it, but I wasn’t militant regarding tobacco hate.
But, here we were, at the reception area with ex-beauty queen Khambatta standing there, a pack of cigarettes and lighter in hand. Did I mention she still looked... "smokin’ hot?"
The hostess asked me, "Smoking or No Smoking?"
And I looked at Khambatta, this strikingly beautiful woman who -- I was certain -- wanted to smoke. I couldn’t be rude enough (although I was playing ad hoc host and Starlog was picking up the tab) to insist on the healthy option, could I? She smiled and I folded. "Smoking please," I said. Proving only that a lonely fanboy will always let a lovely woman get what she wants -- even if it’s harmful to everyone’s health.
So, we all dined. The only conversation topic I recall is Trek conventions. Mostly, Khambatta didn’t seem very happy that night. I don’t know why. But she smoked and smoked and smoked. I remember that.
David McDonnell, "the maitre’d of the science fiction universe," has dished up coverage of pop culture for more than three decades. Beginning his professional career in 1975 with the weekly "Media Report" news column in The Comic Buyers’ Guide, he joined Jim Steranko’s Mediascene Prevue in 1980. After 31 months as Starlog’s Managing Editor (beginning in October 1982), he became that pioneering SF magazine’s longtime Editor (1985-2009). He also served as Editor of its sister publications Comics Scene, Fangoria and Fantasy Worlds. At the same time, he edited numerous licensed movie one-shots (Star Trek and James Bond films, Aliens, Willow, etc.) and three ongoing official magazine series devoted to Trek TV sagas (The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Voyager). He apparently still holds this galaxy’s record for editing more magazine pieces about Star Trek in total than any other individual, human or alien.
Copyright 2014 David McDonnell
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