star-trek-i-can-do-zat-anton-yelchins-legacy
Anton Yelchin in Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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

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.”

Checking-off Chekov

Anton Yelchin’s Pavel Chekov

Director Justin Lin: “We would huddle up, and [Yelchin would] have a hundred ideas.”

Yelchin, on the edge of taking adult leads in films, stepped into a supporting role as Pavel Chekov for Star Trek (2009), Paramount’s prequel reboot of The Original Series. It was more massive than anything Yelchin had been associated with before. The actual baby of the cast at age 20, he attracted scores of enthusiastic new fans. They dug into his other filmography and raised his name into near-household orbit.

While Kirk and Spock are still the stars of the show, Star Trek (2009) doesn’t take ensemble familiarity for granted. As Abrams pointed out in a documentary, “We couldn’t be making this movie for fans of Star Trek, we had to make it for fans of movies.” Since The Original Series was really a star vehicle for its leads, the ‘60s ensemble cast sometimes found themselves the equivalent of set decoration. They had few lines, no substantial backstory, and certainly no character-centric episodes. So it fits the bigger and budget-enriched world of Star Trek (2009) that the film’s writers, Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, give these ensemble characters more moments to shine.

We meet Yelchin’s Chekov on the bridge of the Enterprise, which has been loaded with Starfleet cadets and sent to investigate a distress signal from Vulcan. Captain Christopher Pike assigns Chekov the ship-wide mission broadcast, which he delivers, including Vulcan’s report of a “lightning storm in space.” This description spurs Kirk, doped up in the sick bay after being smuggled aboard by McCoy, into action. He recognizes the “lighting storm” as the same phenomenon that occurred the day of his birth, when his father died stopping a surprise Romulan attack.

The Enterprise is indeed ambushed by Romulans, using some kind of giant space drill to create a black hole inside Vulcan. Pike instructs 17-year-old Chekov to take the conn while he shuttles over to the enemy ship, buying time for Kirk and Sulu to dismantle the drill. Chekov, under absurdly escalating pressure, figures out what the Romulans are up to, and has the unfortunate task of telling Spock his home-world is a goner. Then, Chekov manages to manually lock onto Kirk and Sulu, who are plummeting without parachutes, and safely beam them aboard. This moment of heroism begets his pseudo-catchphrase, “I can do zat! I can do zat!”

In The Original Series, Kirk relies heavily on the skills of his cohorts, particularly Spock, to solve problems and save the day (Shatner even complained about it). Abrams’ reboot does well to convey the amount of heavy lifting Chekov, Sulu, Uhura, Scotty and Spock must do to make Kirk’s heroism possible. So while Star Trek worships the uniqueness of its golden boy captain, it also firmly embraces the concept that no one accomplishes anything alone.

In addition to the film’s sharp writing, audio design, and special effects, there was an off-screen factor that compounded its charm: cast chemistry. Although it’s never clear how people really get along behind the scenes (as evidenced by rumors regarding certain members of the original cast), the 2009 Enterprise appeared to be one big family. They entertained fans with on-set pranks, photos, tweets, and an intense obsession with the lip-syncing app Dubsmash. If Star Trek (2009) was about the coming-together of the Enterprise family, then its 2013 follow-up, Star Trek: Into Darkness, was about testing that cohesion to its limit.

From a Bright Start and Onward Into Darkness

In between his first and second outing as Chekov, Anton Yelchin was typically busy. He starred in Fright Night (2011), a remake of the 1986 cult horror classic, and my unabashed favorite among his films. He then acted opposite Felicity Jones in Like Crazy (2011), an improv-heavy romantic drama about a long-distance relationship that packs a surprising emotional punch. Like Crazy boasts one of Yelchin’s signature adult performances, and is perhaps his second-most-known title after Star Trek. He also lent his voice to the ensemble of two animated movies: the cloying, star-studded Smurfs (2011), and a hilarious, yet weirdly sexist, film from Aardman studios called Pirates! Band of Misfits (2012).

Star Trek: Into Darkness premiered in spring of 2013, and centered on the Enterprise’s antagonism with one of the franchise’s most iconic villains: Khan Noonien Singh (originally played by Mexican actor Ricardo Montalban across the Original Series and Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan[1982]). Into Darkness begins by dissolving the Enterprise family; Kirk disobeys the Prime Directive to save a planet’s inhabitants (and Spock’s life). However, when Khan wipes out the majority of Starfleet high command, Kirk and Spock once again find themselves at the helm, trying to hunt him down.

After a moral and ethical clash with Kirk over transporting weapons, Scotty resigns. Chekov, who’s been shadowing the Chief Engineer, dons a red shirt and incredulously takes his place, reflecting the can-do attitude of the aspirational Starfleet crew. Soon, however, the ship drops jarringly out of warp in enemy space, and it appears that Chekov’s inexperience caused the problem.

Chekov takes “full responsibility” for the engine failures (which aren’t actually his fault—they were sabotaged), prefacing Kirk’s own moment of grace when the head of Starfleet reveals his war-mongering motives and attacks the Enterprise, with Kirk left begging: “I take full responsibility for my actions, but they were mine and mine alone.” Of course, while taking responsibility for one’s own actions is a character building exercise towards emotional maturity, the crew of the Enterprise function best as a harmonious collective. So, several crises later (of which there are many), when the Enterprise’s gravity systems fail and she hurtles towards Earth, Kirk and Scotty (now reunited) run to engineering to attempt a manual fix. Scotty slips from his grip on a railing and Kirk grabs him, only to also slip … and be saved by Chekov. This scene wonderfully epitomizes the Star Trek distinction between a hierarchal chain of command and the non-hierarchical bond of camaraderie that these figures are clearly all a part of.

Moving Into the Great Beyond

In 2014 Yelchin switched from sci-fi to the supernatural. He took the title role in Odd Thomas, based on the Dean Koontz novel about a psychic who gets justice for the dead. He also had a gregarious supporting role in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lover’s Left Alive, a perfectly creepy, beautifully-scored vampire flick. He delivered a poignant cameo in the riveting biographical-drama Experimenter, and took romantic lead again for Victor Levin’s 5 to 7, a bittersweet, somewhat-too-safe movie about a young writer’s (Yelchin) love affair with a woman in an open marriage. In 2015, he showcased his singing chops as a drifting, music-loving young man in William H. Macy’s inconsistent directorial debut, Rudderless.

Then, he had his last outing as Chekov for Star Trek Beyond (2016).

Beyond finds Kirk feeling adrift in his role as captain, debating an admiral position over the never-ending space exploration he once found so invigorating. The Enterprise is three years into her five-year mission, and the close quarters have bred a variety of interpersonal drama. A shirtless Chekov is shown getting tossed out of another crew-member’s room — perhaps a shout-out to the many seductions of his the Original Series

After another series of escalating problems, Chekov and Kirk, the two last people to leave the wrecked saucer in escape pods, land close together and eventually meet up with Kalara, the source of the distress call. Chekov and Kirk perfectly complement each other. By this point, Kirk has started to grow more comfortable in his inspirational leadership role, making critical decisions for the whole crew, and Chekov has developed from a cadet who can’t communicate effectively to an officer who equally thrives and excels within improvised scenarios to regularly save the crew, but through his own brand of hands-on, practical ingenuity.

For example, under Kirk’s guidance, the Starfleet duo track down the remains of their ship and Chekov uses the rebooted console to pinpoint the captured crew and later, after being reunited with the others, it is then Chekov and Sulu who navigate the precarious takeoff in a salvaged Federation vessel. If Star Trek (2009) built family, and Into Darkness tested it, then Beyond was a kind of claim on identity, which stuck even if I wasn’t fully onboard. By the film’s end, Kirk’s fugue is over, his crew has bonded further in their cosmic-trauma and in their character defining roles, and Star Trek is as relevant as ever.

Although heralding Star Trek’s prosperous move into a new age, Beyond’s presumed accomplishment–the literal and figurative re-building of the Enterprise–was haunted by recent loss. At the premiere in late July, J.J. Abrams lead the actors, director Justin Lin, and audience in a moment of silence. The film is dedicated to both Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015) and Anton Yelchin (1989-2016).

“I prefer when movies target my heart instead of my mind.”

Diane Lane spoke to pre-Star Trek 11th-grader Anton for Interview Magazine after the release of their movie Fierce People in 2006. When Lane asks about his favorite artists, Yelchin replies, “I got a book on the Russian avant-garde… lately I’ve been really interested in focusing on those aspects of my Russian heritage I’m proud of.” Regarding films he enjoys, he explained, “I prefer when movies target my heart instead of my mind.”

Yelchin’s curiosity and relentless self-education regarding the arts clearly never relented. In another conversation ten years later, he gushed about his fluctuating inspirations: anyone from Stanley Kubrick to Brassai, Nan Goldin to Kenneth Anger. “I already sound like an ass,” he finished, “so best stop there.”

If Yelchin occasionally gave off young-Robert-Mapplethorpe vibes, it wasn’t without cause. He was an avid photographer, publishing photo essays and running a tidy Instagram of portraits. He was hardworking and ambitiously creative, prioritizing friends and family over Hollywood glamour. At times he publicly expressed his distaste for aspects of fame and moviemaking. “There’s only a handful of people I trust completely… I pretty much don’t trust people,” Yelchin told The Daily Beast in 2011, noting that the film industry could be very “demoralizing”.

At the time of his death, Yelchin was deeply imbedded in several major projects. He voiced the lead for Trollhunters, Guillermo Del Toro’s upcoming animated Neflix series about a young boy who discovers trolls battling it out beneath his hometown. He starred in the thriller Thoroughbred alongside Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, about two teenage girls embroiled in murder and suburbia (I can’t wait). The sci-fi drama Rememory and independent features We Don’t Belong Here and Porto are also in stages of completion or post-production. Green Room, a brutal free-for-all about a punk band tormented by neo-Nazis, premiered in April and is now available to stream on Netfllix (I highly recommend it). Star Trek Beyond premiered less than a month after his death, and his own writing-directing debut, Travis, a “voyeuristic crime thriller”, was slated to start filming last July.

Anton Yelchin may not have been the first Pavel Chekov, but he will be the last. Abrams recently shared that the role would not be recast.

Yelchin’s participation in Star Trek provides his acting and death with an unusual level of magnification. His name is permanently fixed in the Enterprise family tree, stitched into that friendship quilt Kirk probably keeps under his bed. “I always looked forward to every day that he was on set,” said Beyond’s director Justin Lin, “and we would huddle up, and he’d have a hundred ideas, even if he was just in the background.”

The bigness of the franchise may have overshadowed his other acting achievements in the headlines, but Yelchin’s mainstream stint as Chekov provides the ideal gateway performance for future fans. Despite having minimal lines, Chekov’s contributions fuel Star Trek’s vision for a future filled with change, challenge, and collaboration.

Donald Collins is a writer and trans advocate based in Los Angeles. You can find more of his work here.

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