Walter Koenig wasn’t happy with me. And who could blame him? He was calling from the set of Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, a soundstage nestled on the Paramount Pictures lot in California. I was in my Starlog office in New York City (Park Avenue, 32nd Street). I had no idea why Koenig wanted to chat with me. After all, we had met once but extremely briefly at a Boston Starlog Festival convention engineered by Creation Entertainment a year earlier. He knew Starlog Publisher Kerry O’Quinn and our ex-columnist David (“The Trouble with Tribbles”) Gerrold, but me? As Starlog’s Editor, I was just a name on the magazine’s masthead.
Let’s break here for two paragraphs of explanatory matter. Skip them if you want to Choose Your Own Anecdotal Adventure. Everyone else, here’s the thing: As a product of the Watergate-spawned wave of young journalists in the 1970s, I was all Bob-Woodward-and-Carl-Bernsteined up! While at West Virginia’s Bethany College, I even took an independent study course on, yes, Communications Ethics. Topics included “checkbook journalism” (paying folks to talk) and granting interviewees (or their reps) pre-publication story/quote approval. Both were big no-nos!
But, back to Koenig. He asked to see the article. And I didn’t even pause to think. “NO. We don’t do that! It’s against company policy,” I declared in a particularly idealistic, incredibly arrogant, certainly smug manner. And I added, “We don’t show stories to George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, so we can’t show you your story.” Even then, that addition sounded condescending, which wasn’t my intent, but...
Now, I was taken aback — and riding tall on my sanctimonious journalistic high (hobby) horse. “Fine!” I exclaimed. “Then, we won’t!”
“All right. They need me on set,” Koenig announced and said goodbye. “Bye,” I said and hung up, too. Uhhhmm, that went well.
But... what had the actor declared in the interview that had caused him enough post-conversation concern so as to ring me? Had he inadvertently revealed some plot twist from The Voyage Home? (SPOILER ALERT: Here Be Whales! Kirk & Company Save Earth, Get New Enterprise) Had Koenig been too candid or overly critical? Apparently, he had second thoughts about something he said, fearing (I was later told) that his comments might be misinterpreted. But what had been said? There was only one way to find out. I called my writer, briefed him on the situation and requested that he give me the cassette tape the next time he was in town. I wanted to listen to the interview and find out what’s what. Maybe if I knew what was specifically the problem, I could call Koenig and find a middle path to a solution satisfying to all. Maybe even (like Newsweek or The New Yorker) “readback” only the quotes?
That troublesome talk was gone, but life went on. Afterwards, as fate would have it, I increasingly kept running into Koenig at SF conventions. We were frequently fellow guests. We sat side-by-side at autograph tables, judged costume contests together and dined with con staffers. All those times, I was on my best behavior. I still had regrets about that incident and no desire to remind him of any unpleasantness. And I didn’t want to commit any new felonies, either.
So, I got to know Walter Koenig. Many, many of you have had a similar opportunity because he’s been such a frequent convention guest since the 1970s. If you haven’t gotten his autograph and/or chatted with him at a con, a cruise or some personal appearance, you just haven’t been trying. Koenig has been a warm, charming, if sometimes world-weary, presence at so many Trek conventions. I’ve witnessed firsthand as he was extremely generous to eager fans, gracious to clueless media and kind to perfect strangers; I’ve also seen him deal firmly with the occasional idiot (uhhhmm, you know, like me).
Wrapping up, let me share a kaleidoscope of Koenig encounters here and there over the years: In 1989, in Florida, Seatrek organizers Joe Motes, Ruthanne Devlin & Carroll Page took a busload of guests and staffers on a post-cruise airboat tour of the Everglades. After the alligators, we stopped at a restaurant (where Starlog Managing Editor Eddie Berganza informed on me, revealing my new status that May Monday). That’s when Koenig, Takei, Jimmy Doohan, Grace Lee Whitney and assembled friends and celebrities sang “Happy Birthday” to me.
We had our brush with death in Canada. Peter Bloch-Hansen (Starlog’s Canadian Correspondent) chauffeured me on a tour throughout Toronto of my favorite places (used bookstores!), and Koenig opted to come along. I sat shotgun upfront, Koenig in the rear passenger seat. And Bloch-Hansen, bless him, made a left hand turn from the right lane just as the stoplight changed against us, across three lanes of impatient traffic. Yes, he did. Unbelievably, this was my second or third near-accident while a vehicle passenger alongside a Trek celebrity. The next came soon after when (much to our open-mouthed incredulity) Bloch-Hansen repeated that same kind of turn at another intersection. Yes, yes, he did. Two nods with death in less than 90 minutes. Baboom!
Australia is where, over a crowded dinner with the Starland gang, I finally brought up that seven-year-old incident, noted my regrets and privately apologized to Koenig. Also, we discussed Babylon 5, then debuting as a TV movie. Koenig was hopeful it would go to series since B5 creator J. Michael Straczynski had promised him an eventual role. I felt the human characters weren’t as intriguing as the aliens, wondering if this would affect the show’s prospects. I was slightly right (a few human roles were reconceived and recast) but fortunately mostly wrong. B5 soon became a beloved SF TV saga, giving Koenig his second best role ever (after Chekov)—as Psi Corps’ Alfred Bester. Actually, Koenig believes it's been his best role.
Over in Pennsylvania, he did a con where my Mom & Dad were on hand to assist our friend the promoter (their only stint at an admissions table). Koenig charmed them, dining at a local Applebee’s with them and other staffers. I was at a Walt Disney World press event and didn’t even attend this con. Still, he was especially nice to my parents.
Back in New York, Koenig and wife Judy dropped by Starlog’s Manhattan offices, joining the select group of celebrities who toured the place (Takei, de Lancie, Arthur C. Clarke, Clive Barker, Paul & Linda McCartney, David Prowse, etc.). We had coffee downstairs and talked about Broadway, conventions and mutual friends.
Like most of his TOS colleagues, Koenig wrote an autobiography. Relaxing in New Jersey, I read Warp Factors: A Neurotic’s Guide to the Universe (Taylor, 1998). It’s a candid memoir. And who knew that Koenig, as a youngish summer camp counselor, had known a frequent camp visitor, one of my heroes, legendary folk singer Pete Seeger? Good company! And a good book! Recommended reading.
What did I learn from all this? Well, it’s what you all already knew: Walter Koenig is a great guy. I’m (still) sorry we started off as inadvertent adversaries, but I’m glad that our bad beginning was overcome by better days. Like legions of Star Trek fans worldwide, I’m pleased to have made his acquaintance.
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.
©2015 David McDonnell