Marla McGivers, Khan, and Power Dynamics

Marla speaks with Khan in Sickbay“Space Seed” introduced Khan Noonien Singh, who has become one of the premiere villains of the franchise, showing up in films from two separate timelines, becoming a meme even non-Trek fans know, with  a descendant introduced in Strange New Worlds. Yet Lieutenant Marla McGivers, who helped him try to take over the Enterprise, has largely been forgotten in canon. She doesn’t appear in the Kelvin Timeline movies and has yet to appear in more recent series. This uncomfortably parallels her role in “Space Seed” itself, where she was treated subserviently by Khan, emotionally manipulated, physically abused, and dehumanized. Their ‘relationship’ is based on Khan making McGivers submit to his will, using her attraction to his dominant personality to drive her to help him. The episode clearly depicts how uneven their dynamic is as McGivers can only stand up to him and help Kirk stop Khan’s plot when Khan is not there, yet under Khan’s influence she willingly joins him and his followers in exile on Ceti Alpha V.

McGivers with one of her portraits of Julius Caesar


As a historian, Lieutenant Marla McGivers is part of the boarding party that explores the SS Botany Ba,y the ship Khan is in stasis on, and becomes transfixed by him. He exudes power to McGivers, who in her first scene is depicted painting portraits of powerful leaders from Earth’s past. She is so clearly transfixed by him that Kirk pulls her aside to check on her. As an Augmented Human, Khan may have overheard this and used it to his advantage.

Khan holds Marla by the arm in Sickbay

When she goes to check on Khan in the medbay the power dynamics are clearly established. He immediately calls her beautiful and asks her to “entertain” him. McGivers tries to focus their conversation on historical information, yet he immediately tries to seduce her, undoing her hair and claiming it looks better loose. She has a Freudian slip as she admits to being interested in men of the past yet Khan keeps pressuring her to restyle her hair. McGivers leaves, but Khan is clearly interested.

During the set up for the official dinner McGivers has organized to welcome Khan, Kirk and Bones discuss her clear attraction to him, as Khan is escorted to her quarters and admires her paintings, including one based on him, then kisses her. After a tense post-dinner conversation with Kirk, Khan and McGivers have a conversation that proves how toxic their ‘relationship’ truly is. After she tells Khan not to kiss her, he pushes her aside, then pretends to take her feelings into consideration, only to then make her beg to stay. He then forces her to her knees before demanding she opens her heart to help him take control of the ship. She tries to ask for mercy for her fellow crewmembers, only for Khan to reject her until she agrees to help him. Khan is constantly manipulating McGivers to get his way, toying with her attraction to him.

McGivers holding onto Khan's shirt, on her knees

Khan’s conquest of the Enterprise hinges on McGivers holding the transporter chief at phaser point then transporting him aboard the SS Botany Bay to revive the rest of his fellow Augments to bolster his forces. McGivers does protest when another Augment, Joaquin, hits Uhura, but she doesn’t free Kirk without the condition that Kirk doesn’t kill Khan. Considering Khan was fully prepared to suffocate the Enterprise bridge crew, this may also prove how much of a hold Khan has on her.

McGivers stands in the doorway of Khan's quarters and he stands pointing a finger

During the hearing of Khan and his fellow Augments, McGivers is offered the choice between court martial or be left on Ceti Alpha V with the Augments. When she chooses the latter, Khan says he will take her, truly cementing how he views her: a possession, someone to dominate and conquer. Considering there are over thirty women Augments in his forces, he has plenty of options, but McGivers may appeal to his need to dominate someone. If the Augments were given the same abilities regardless of gender and ethnicity, would a female Augment have refused Khan’s power play since she had the same abilities as him? Does the dynamic of McGivers being submissive to Khan make him feel more powerful?

Sadly this is the last time McGivers is seen. When Khan returns in The Wrath of Khan there is a brief mention of his wife and others having died from the eels that ruined the ecosystem of Ceti Alpha V, but she is never mentioned by name. The timeline also does not make this clear: did McGivers die after the explosion of Ceti Alpha VI and did Khan marry another woman or did McGivers die much later from the eels and Khan had no wife after her? After all, McGivers was not an Augment so she may not have been able to survive the environmental changes that turned Ceti Alpha V into an almost barren desert instead of the fertile land it was when Kirk left them there.

Even Chekov did not name McGivers when he told Kirk that Khan blamed him for his wife’s death. While it’s often joked about how Chekov and Khan knew each other inTWOK when Chekov wasn’t seen on TOS until after “Space Seed”, Kirk and the others knew McGivers and mentioning her would have added another emotional dimension to the battle. It would have taken delicate balancing act to not make this an example of McGivers being reduced to a woman in the fridge, a trope where a woman is killed, injured, or otherwise put in peril in order to drive the story of a male character—boyfriend, father, son, etc. Yet it means that fans never got to see McGivers have a full character arc or break free from Khan’s power. Maybe Into Darkness could have had Kelvin Timeline McGivers help overthrow Kelvin Timeline Khan, giving her character some justice.

When Khan pursued McGivers, he established an unhealthy power dynamic between them where she was subservient to him. By manipulating her attraction to powerful men, Khan was able to make McGivers beg for his affection, abuse her emotionally as well as physically, manipulate her into helping him take control of the Enterprise, then have her so enthralled she chooses exile with him over court martial. McGivers was abused into choosing a path that led to her death. The least Trek could do is give her a better send off.

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