A Review of Walter Koenig’s Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek
Walter Koenig’s most recent book, Beaming Up and Getting Off: Life Before and Beyond Star Trek, is an expanded version of his earlier book Warped Factors, about eighty percent identical to that previous volume. Before reading this autobiography, I knew very little about the man who, in the Star Trek Universe, portrayed Pavel Chekov in thirty-six episodes of the original series and seven feature films.
I knew three things about Walter Koenig beforehand:
- He’s American, not Russian (I still remember as a kid having my mind blown when I learned that actors “did” accents)
- He played Bester on Babylon 5
- He outlived his son
So, I had no idea what I was going to learn when I started reading his autobiography. I’ve been on a kick, reading the autobiographies (and biographies, in some cases) of all the Star Trek actors and personalities. But starting each book, I knew slightly more about the person for each one of them except Koenig. Shatner and Nimoy have always been in the limelight. Then there’s Takei, who has been a mainstay on social media for the last decade or more, and there have always been a handful of stories of some of the other actors like Nichols (and her lovely encounter with MLK) and Doohan (who was missing fingers) that somehow, I always seemed to know.
Growing up watching Trek, I gave little thought to the depth of most of the characters. They were just there. I mean, I liked them; I was happy they were there. Now, I know I took them for granted. They had their moments, the most endearing of which, in Chekov’s case, was when he was being held on the “noo-clee-ar wessel” in 1986 San Francisco in the movie Star Trek IV. I loved the interrogation scene and can recite it from memory (actually, I think I can recite the whole movie… but that’s neither here nor there).
What I didn’t know, and am still learning to appreciate, is how much energy an actor, and certainly Koenig, put into taking care of their character, ensuring they were given life and consistency. In Koenig’s case, what he makes clear in his book is that it wasn’t necessarily about screen time or number of lines, but the quality of those lines and the depth of the character they portrayed. All he wanted was for Chekov to have depth. I can appreciate that now, even though I didn’t when I was a kid.
Over the years, learning about the Trek characters and the actors that portrayed them, I have learned to appreciate how difficult it was to have a career beyond Trek. As an adult, I understand this, but when I was a kid, I’ll admit I just wanted more of the same. If I saw a Star Trek actor, I wanted to see their Trek character. Star Trek felt like family, and I wanted that family. It was weird when I first started going to conventions and seeing people I had come to know and love on the screen without their accents and makeup. I was fourteen when I started attending conventions and didn’t know how to process the feelings of seeing people who felt like family out of their roles. As an adult, I can make sense of this now, and I appreciate that Trek was meant to be one piece in a hopefully longer career.
Luckily, the fates conspired to make Koenig and J. Michael Straczynski friends and Straczynski wrote a character for Koenig in Babylon 5, the evil Psi-Corps dude Alfred Bester. I remember when that came out. The 1990s was a time when us sci-fi fans were starved for quality sci-fi on TV (at least that’s how it felt as a sci-fi fan; I have learned, in recent years, part of the problem was that the networks who were in charge of what we watched thought that more than one sci-fi series, Star Trek, was too much). I also remember I had to adjust to seeing Koenig without the Russian accent. I got over it, and Bester was awesome. Babylon 5 was a fantastic show (and I hope the reported plans for a remake come true!).
On the personal side, my only knowledge of Koenig, the human being, before reading this book was about how he lost his son. I was hoping to read more about this, because I am insanely curious to know how individuals survive this particular tragedy. Ever since becoming a parent myself, I worry about my kids non-stop and I feel for any parent who has experienced the Chinese curse: may you outlive your children.
But Koenig deliberately didn’t discuss it. Koenig shares a lot of painful memories with us, a lot of embarrassing memories, and he does so with humility and humor. But this one, about his son, he keeps to himself. It’s possible some things really are too painful.
Many other embarrassing and painful memories happened in his younger years and while reading about them, I couldn’t help but think of how Koenig reminds me of my father, who was close in age (my dad was about ten years younger) and also grew up in NYC. Koenig’s style of talking and writing – he’ll be in the middle of a story, mention something and then say “as you’ll soon learn,” or “I’ll come back to that later,” or “as I already told you” – is pock-marked throughout a memoir my dad wrote in the few months before he passed (at my request and primarily for friends and family).
One of Koenig’s favorite idioms is about waiting for the ‘other shoe to drop.’ It’s one he repeats throughout the book. I ended the book swearing up and down that my dad used the same idiom in his memoir. He might have, from time to time, said it out loud in life, but I couldn’t find it when I searched the memoir. I was disappointed I was unable to make that connection.
I think reading the Trek actors’ autobiographies is all about establishing a personal connection to individuals who affected our lives by instilling life in these remarkable characters who have always been, and always will be, a part of my life. To that end, this was a worthwhile read. Now, I see Walter Koenig as a complete human being, and I’m happy to know more about his story.
Inspired by Trek growing up and daily enabled by strong cups of coffee, Adeena Mignogna is a software and systems engineer working in the aerospace industry. She is also the author of Crazy Foolish Robots, a humorous science-fiction novel. Visit her website at adeenamignogna.com.