Film

I Can Do Zat!: Anton Yelchin's 'Star Trek' Legacy

Donald Collins
Anton Yelchin in Star Trek Beyond (2016)

Remember how Yelchin wrestled with vampires, neo-Nazis, pirates, and adultery to earn his place as Chekov aboard the USS Enterprise?

The deaths of artists and actors catapult even their most obscure work into overconsumption, oftentimes in larger waves than those following their big breaks. We are all obsessed with the young dead, the famous dead (or at least, I am). As Yukio Mishima wrote in his novel Confessions of a Mask, “I was completely in love with any youth who was killed.”

When Heath Ledger died in 2008, as a result of what officials ruled an accidental drug overdose, I, like many, watched and rewatched all his films over the next week. Seeing the newly-dead alive again on screen fascinated me; my first genuine appreciation for the “immortality” of film.

How do we really mourn people we don’t really know? All I know is, we do. This pop-grief is largely symbolic, because celebrities are symbols, and it’s hard to reconcile the dead as both a person who belonged to loved ones, and a persona that belonged to everyone. Over the years after Ledger’s death, other actors, musicians, and artists died, but none spooked me as much. I was a young, impressionable trans guy obsessed with golden masculinity, and one of its most public idols had fallen.

This past June, the Hollywood vanguard lost another talented, beloved, and young actor: Anton Yelchin. Yelchin died pinned between his mailbox and Jeep Grand Cherokee, which had rolled down his driveway due to a likely transmission malfunction. A week later, his address received the official recall letter. His parents have since sued Jeep for wrongful death. It was a textbook freak accident in the vein of those that claimed actor Brandon Lee (shot by a prop gun with a real bullet on the set of The Crow) and the dancer Isadora Duncan (long scarf got caught the wheel of her convertible).

At the time of his death, Yelchin was 27 years old, a number that guaranteed his subsequent induction into the mythic 27 Club. Although originally musicians only, the group expanded to all creative types; its membership including Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimmi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Amy Winehouse among others.

When news of his death broke, Yelchin’s collaborators, friends, and fans took to Twitter to express their condolences and share their shock and grief. Zoe Saldana tweeted: “Devastated by our friend’s loss. We are mourning his passing and celebrating the beautiful spirit that he was.” John Cho ,wrote "I loved Anton Yelchin so much. He was a true artist -- curious, beautiful, courageous." During an appearanceon The Late Show, Zachary Quinto said: “I think our goal just has to be to celebrate his incredible life and honor him as much as we can.”

Yelchin’s Early Life and Pre-Star Trek Career

Born 1989 in Leningrad as the only child to Russian-Jewish figure skating parents, Anton Yelchin emigrated with his family to the US at only six months old. Despite their Soviet skating acclaim, the Yelchins wanted a better, safer life for their son, citing Russia’s oppressive political and religious climate. They started over in California. In an early Los Angeles Times article, Yelchin’s mother Korina shared a prescient anecdote: a woman came up to her and toddler Anton on the street and declared: “He’s beautiful. He will be an actor.”

Yelchin recalled lacking his mother and father’s athleticism and pursuing other endeavors: “I was a horrible athlete...I sucked. First I wanted to be a scientist, and I set our bathroom on fire.” A family friend suggested an acting class. With the support of his parents, acting became Yelchin’s passion, and his practice quickly paid off. He got his first primetime role, in an episode of ER, at age ten. In the next few years, he starred in several coming-of-age films alongside the most-respected actors in the business, including Anthony Hopkins, Robin Williams, and Diane Lane.

Yelchin’s earliest films characterize him as a lonely-son-to-dysfunctional-mother, stumbling through clichéd American boyhood. In the best of these, Hearts of Atlantis (2001), based on a Stephen King short story, his mysterious neighbor (Hopkins) serves as a surrogate father, guiding the young boy’s magical gifts. Though the film languishes as a whole, Yelchin won a Young Artist Award for his performance.

In 2007, Yelchin appeared in Charlie Bartlett and Alpha Dog, two films that received mixed critical reception. Although they are genre opposites, they both center on spiraling (white) teens and twenty-somethings. In Charlie Bartlett, a heartfelt comedy, Yelchin stars as the eponymous high schooler: a ne’er do well from a rich, dysfunctional family who is constantly getting kicked out of prep schools before being put in the public system. He soon rises to popularity by using his psychiatry sessions to get pills for his stressed, depressed peers. The film found a devoted fan-following who appreciated its offbeat sincerity and willingness to engage teen’s psychological distress. Yelchin’s buoyant performance proved he could answer the same call as '80s male darling leads like Michael J Fox, Emilio Estevez, and Matthew Broderick.

By contrast, Alpha Dog, based on the 2000 real life murder kidnapping of Nicholas Markowitz, is a portrait of greed and hedonism in rich suburban Hollywood. Drug dealer Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch) has beef with another drug dealer (Ben Foster) and kidnaps the latter’s innocent younger brother Zack (Yelchin) as collateral. Despite its wild story and some good acting, Alpha Dog is just a really easy movie to dislike, a rehash of the spoiled-brats-gone-too-far genre. Yelchin’s performance was singled out, however, as “heartbreakingly endearing”.

In 2009, his career changed tracks completely and Yelchin starred in two blockbuster reboots, Terminator Salvation (as Kyle Reese) and Star Trek (as Pavel Chekov). Terminator Salvation, a generic Armageddon flick, fell flat on its cyborg face, but Star Trek, directed by J.J. Abrams, invigorated, a summer smash hit ensuring the health of its franchise.

The Influence of Walter Koenig’s Pavel Chekov

Created by Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek: The Original Series, aired for three seasons on NBC from 1966 to its cancellation in 1969. Lead by the virile captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and his half-Vulcan first officer Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), the show’s premise was a cocktail of camp, adventure, and optimism, tracking the starship “Enterprise” and her crew as they undertook a five-year exploratory mission into deep space.

Ensign Pavel Chekov (Walter Koenig) appeared on screen for the first time in The Original Series’ second season premiere of “Amok Time”. Although only a few years younger than his co-stars, Russian-Jewish actor Walter Koenig was brought on to inject some hipness into the show. There's still controversy over which rumors are true and how true they are, but Koenig’s addition appears to be a combination of several factors. Roddenberry wanted to capitalize on the swooshy-haired popularity of the Monkees’ Davy Jones, and the show had reportedly received flack for not including a Soviet crewman.

Chekov, a swooshy-haired Soviet, was introduced in 1967, just five years after the Cuban Missile Crisis, at a time when nuclear warfare seemed very possible, and global relations were in turmoil. The Enterprise and its “international” crew, including black actress Nichelle Nichols and Japanese-American actor George Takei, provided viewers with a contextually radical vision of a peace-keeping future that celebrated diversity and discovery on a grander scale. Early Chekov also provided viewers with a truly legendary hairpiece, until Koenig grew out his own locks.

Like Yelchin, Walter Koenig’s Russian accent was not his natural way of speaking. Fans and detractors have argued against both accents, citing them as stereotypical or hammed up for comedic effect. Yelchin described the similarities between the two Chekovs’ speaking patterns as a specific choice on his part. “As a person familiar with a Russian accent, and someone with Russian roots who can speak Russian and knows what Russian people sound like,” he elaborated in a 2009 interview, “it was fun to purposefully mess around with the Russian accent ... to suit that stereotype they had in the sixties.”

As with the current Star Trek ensemble, The Original Series Chekov isn’t so much a fully developed character as he is a familiar face in a sci-fi dynasty. Star Trek’s cultural mythos looms so large that its most recognizable characters cast long shadows despite going many episodes with minimal lines. Koenig served up exposition and comic relief, his dialogue consisting of routine recitations about the ship’s speed and altitude. Multiple TOS episodes, including “I, Mudd”, “The Apple”, and Koenig’s favorite, “Spectre of the Gun”, feature Chekov on the arms of beautiful women. The show also has an odd running gag that Chekov believes the Russians are responsible for every modern invention and discovery. 2016’s Star Trek: Beyond references this in one of the very last scenes, when Yelchin’s Chekov attempts to charm a partygoer by imparting, “Did you know Scotch was actually invented by a little old lady in Russia?”

Fodder aside, The Original Series Chekov is also characterized as observant, loyal, and easily riled; when a Klingon insults the captain in “The Trouble with Tribbles”, Chekov is the first out of his chair to defend Kirk’s honor. In “The Deadly Years”, Chekov is the only landing party member unaffected by a strange illness that ages the others decades in mere hours. McCoy puts him through an exhausting series of tests, and Chekov complains to Sulu, “I’m going to run out of samples.” Elaborating on his view of the original series’ cheesiness, Yelchin remarked, “Chekov is, like, the weirdest guy. Like, watching the old show really makes you realize just how strange, but incredible it was.”

The two Chekovs apparently only mingled once for a few hours. Walter Koenig said of their meeting; “I walked away thinking — this is a good person.”

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