Right, so I just rewatched “Space Seed.” For you non-Trekkies out there, that’s an episode from the first season of the original (1960s) Star Trek. Perhaps it’s more commonly known as the episode that first introduced the eugenically produced Khan Noonien Singh, who we saw in a whitewashed form in Star Trek into Darkness.
Now are we on the same page?
Other people have written much better than I ever could about STID’s whitewashing of Khan (see here, here, and here for starters), and even people like Felicia Day weighed in on how poorly STID treated its female characters. But that isn’t what I’m here to talk about.
I’m here to talk about Marla effing McGivers.
Some of you, right now, are probably making like my friend Carl and thinking, “Wait, who?” So sit down for a sec and let me tell you about my girl Marla. In the original series, she’s a member of Starfleet, a lieutenant, but she’s not exactly in the thick of the action. She’s a historian. I’ll freely admit that this is influenced by headcanon on my part, but it’s heavily implied that Marla’s a huge history nerd. When she, Kirk, McCoy, and Scotty are in the S.S. Botany Bay, she’s as enthusiastic as is proper about being on a real live 1990s spaceship. (I mean, who wouldn’t geek out hardcore in her place?) And then later, she goes to visit Khan in sickbay and ask him about the 1990s, because holy crap, she’s in the vicinity of a real-life person from the 1990s. That’s definitely worth a nerd-out.
I seem to have drifted over to the subject of her relationship with Khan anyway, so let’s talk about that. Marla immediately feels some sort of attraction to Khan when he’s first revived, and Khan takes full advantage of that. Pretty much the first thing he does in his quest to seduce her is take her hair down, in a textbook You’ve-Got-Nice-Eyes-Behind-Those-Glasses moment. She goes from wearing her hair like this (“because it’s comfortable,” she replies, bemused, when Khan asks why):
To this, after Khan goes all Paul Mitchell on her:
But what’s happening in that picture up there is more than just Khan complimenting himself on a ‘do well done. It’s the first instance (that I recall) in which Khan exhibits violent behavior towards Marla. As she’s trying to leave, he grabs her arm and pulls her sharply back towards him, and then he says something really creepy about how he takes what he wants.
This abusive pattern continues in other scenes as well. Before his welcome dinner, Khan comes into Marla’s quarters, compliments her on her (frankly amazing) artwork (including a picture of him in a Sikh turban), and eventually kisses her.* Some time after that, when Marla goes to Khan’s quarters, Khan actually pushes Marla away once and subsequently hits her. (Both times, she’s practically thrown across the room, so that probably hurt like the dickens.)
So I would argue that when Marla agrees to help Khan take over the Enterprise, it isn’t because she’s suddenly madly in love with him (although I won’t deny that she’s pretty strongly attracted to him). It’s because he behaves in an abusive manner towards her and suckers her in that way. First he builds up her self-esteem, and then he forces her into a dependent position. Think about it: if a super-strong dude hit you so hard you flew about six feet and probably saw stars, then asked – nay, ordered – you to help him, odds are you’d do it because you don’t want to know what else this guy would do to you.
That isn’t an I’m-so-in-love face. That’s a scared face.
So let’s just recap for a second – Marla is in what probably qualifies as an abusive relationship with a superhuman dudebro who loves dominating people and will rip them to pieces if they don’t do what he says. Sounds dire, no? Exactly, which makes this next bit all the more amazing.
Marla freaking McGivers double-crosses Khan and saves Kirk’s life.
You read that exactly right.
The long version: Kirk’s trapped in a medical decompression chamber. The rest of the crew is being held hostage by Khan’s resurrected fellow superhumans in some other room. Marla says to Khan, “There’s no reason why I should have to watch this, right?” And Khan just lets her leave the room, lamenting that she couldn’t have been a bit “stronger.”
But oh boy, is Marla McGivers ever strong.
She literally sneaks up behind another one of those superhumans (which can’t have been easy), plunges a hypo filled with sedative into his back, and gets Kirk out of the decompression chamber. Thus, Kirk is freed, and soon enough Khan is defeated. The day is saved.
That literally would not have been possible without Marla “Braveheart” McGivers and her spine of absolute steel.**
So why on EARTH is she not in the reboot universe?
Marla is such an important part of the Khan story. Admittedly, she got shafted in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan – she was basically just a Lost Lenore, fridged for the sole purpose of creating manpain*** – but JJ Abrams and company had a golden opportunity to revive one of the most brilliant female characters Star Trek has ever produced when they decided that they absolutely had to write about Khan, and they missed it by lightyears.
Then again, god only knows how badly JJ and company would’ve butchered poor Marla.
But if there’s one thing Khan Noonien Singh got right, it’s this:
Marla McGivers really is “a superior woman.”
*People always seem to cite the Kirk/Uhura kiss in the third-season episode “Plato’s Stepchildren” when they talk about the first interracial kiss aired on television, but Khan and Marla beat them to the punch. Khan the character is ethnically Indian, and the actor who played him – Ricardo Montalbán – was Mexican. Kirk/Uhura was just the first white/black kiss.
**Absolutely nothing in this post is meant to insinuate that women who are currently in abusive relationships don’t have the same sort of steel spine that Marla has. That’s victim-blaming, and that’s not at all cool.
***While researching this post, I found out that Madlyn Rhue, the actress who played Marla McGivers, would’ve been in TWoK, except she had multiple sclerosis and was in a wheelchair. Apparently Harve Bennett thought it would be “unfair” to recast the role. So there’s that.