Sunday, July 3, 2011

To All the Women that Went Before Part 2: Marla McGivers

I can't stop looking at his chest...
In light of the stronger than average "inferior" women in Khan's own time, it's startling to imagine jumping back in time to the 1960s (which is actually the future?) with "Space Seed" and seeing, what I consider, and probably Roberta and Sarina Kaur too, a truly inferior woman, the only "superior woman" of Khan's acquaintance simply because she's shining example of what Starfleet is not doing for the female character.

Unlike communications officer Lieutenant Uhura, Lieutenant Marla McGivers is everything the ideal woman should be: young, resplendant in her skimpy Starfleet uniform, a specialist in one of Starfleet's most "essential" subjects (Ancient Terran History) completely unreliable in a high-stress situation, smitten with the enemy, and white. It is easily noticed, from McGiver's first scene, that she is somewhat obsessed with the ancient warriors of Earth. If you ask me, there's nothing wrong with that. I have a thing for strikingly handsome, powerful warriors as well, but lets just face it, her entire character was set up for this. McGivers didn't even have a chance to prove that a Starfleet officer can be stronger than the machinations of a superman, nor did she get the second chance offered to so many characters on Star Trek to prove herself worthy of working aboard the Enterprise again. I'm still a little confused as to why she was forced to choose between exile with Khan or martial punishment. Had she been male, or under some kind of psychological influence (which I think was the case at least to an extent) her betrayal might have been written off and she could have spent some time under investigation, or she might have been killed outright. I think that Marla's feminine character--and a weak feminine character at that--gets treated very badly.

Oh, this can't be good.
The original Star Trek series was indeed quite sexist. Of course, we're also talking about the sixties, at a time when women, and women of color, were objectified on and off the screen. However, Star Trek as a whole has often been lauded as "progressive". Lt. Uhura was a female of color on national television. Later, Star Trek would dabble in mixed-race female characters with half-Betazed and half human Deeana Troi, then mixed race women of color with half-Klingon-half-Hispanic Belana Torez. However, Lt. McGivers seems to take one step forward and two steps back. Khan easily overpowers her, a Starfleet officer (do you think Tasha Yar or Beverly Crusher would have been so easily subjugated?), and even goes so far as to subjugate her sexually, forming a bond with her that appeals to her greatest weakness--her obsession with Terran warriors. Did Khan truly feel attracted to her? I think so, but he was also aware of her character flaws, and he exploits them. He refers to her as a "superior woman". He has to know she is anything but, which is what leads me to believe he is truly attracted to her (as we see in Wrath of Khan) or he had some very low standards. 

Khan, of course, never admits that he might have made a mistake pitting Marla against Kirk and the rest of the crew, and Kirk casually omits the fact that Marla betrayed Khan and the rest of his company in order to save Kirk from certain death in the decompression chamber. What we focus on is Kirk beating the crap out of Khan in Engineering while the star ship goes into self-destruct sequence. Never mind that Kirk never would have gotten that chance if Marla had not set him free. Then, when it came down to the hearing to decide the fate of Khan and the rest of his kind, Marla was lumped in with him despite her previous actions and her attempt to correct her error. Khan had, by now, been given several chances to turn his life around. Marla received not one ounce of that sympathy. However, in the end McGivers does not seem perturbed by this turn of events. She willingly goes with Khan (it was either that or take court marshall), but she is obviously enamored of him. She admits her mistake, and takes the consequences, which are mitigated through her "marriage" to Khan and his followers. What follows appears to be a sort of exchange of vows. Khan says, "I will take her." In a way, this sort of foreshadows the coming events of Wrath of Khan (in which Khan admits to having a wife) and, alternatively, To Reign in Hell: The Exile of Khan Noonien Singh. 

Flash forward to 1995. The science fiction scene has changed.
The cast of Star Trek: Voyager, 1995
Characters like Belana Torez, Seven-of-Nine and Katheryn Janeway have come to represent the women of Star Trek. Strength become the new sexy. These women balance vulnerability (Seven-of-Nine, Belana Torez), power (Captain Janeway) and sex appeal. This does not mean the double-standard has been abolished, but it means author Greg Cox can give Marla McGivers a second chance.
Ten years later: 2005

The Marla McGiver's of To Reign in Hell, Greg Cox's final novel in Khan Noonien Singh's alternate story, is a more dynamic character than TOS Star Trek. Marla is a cross between the powerful women closely associated with Cox's novels and the new trend in Star Trek and the admittedly deficient Starfleet officer. She realizes she is flawed. There are scenes where she tries, really tries, to defend herself, but she knows she lacks to the training, the power. However, despite her obvious character flaws, Marla considers herself, still, a woman of merit, and she decides to make whatever she can out of the life she has chosen. What she must contend with now is the fact that she is outcast among her own people and Khan's. She betrayed both parties aboard the Enterprise. After an encounter with superwoman Zuleika Walker--ex-assassin (real world supermodel and star of the X: Files spin-off series The Lone Gunmen)--Khan has to place Marla under his protection, which still cannot forestall several more attempts on her life. The greatest test of Marla's resolve is in Zuleika Walker's trial, in which she is accused of trying to burn Marla alive in a storage shed. Marla, no where  near convinced that Zuleika was at fault, joins her fellow Ceti Alpha V colonist in exile from Khan's new capitol. Khan's desire to rule absolutely is not tempered by his lover's exile. His decision is final, though he will regret it later, as Marla's true assassin is revealed and he must then go in search of his colonists. Their union during the mass-wedding in the following chapters seals Khan's bond to Marla and he vows to protect her.

After the cataclysm of Ceti Alpha VI and the destruction of Ceti Alpha V's ecosystem, Khan faces more and more resistance as his survival tactics take a more Draconian turn. In the end, it is Marla McGivers who must protect Khan from the machinations of his superhuman foes. The introduction of a Ceti eel seals her fate, as a rival faction attempts to use Marla as the weapon against her husband and leader of the Ceti Alpha V colony. Whatever Marla might have been capable of at Starfleet, whatever she might have lacked as a female character all came to naught as she made the ultimate sacrifice. Her death, only alluded to in Wrath of Khan (which may have only involved her succumbing to Ceti eel--just another casualty) came to light as one of the most noble of human acts. Instead of killing Khan, Marla--infected with an eel and marked for madness and death--plunges a knife into her own heart. Khan would spend the rest of his time on Ceti Alpha V commemorating her actions and immortalizing her in a catafalque, with a  lot of blaming Kirk thrown in for good measure. We'll discuss more of Khan's hatred for Kirk in the next installment.

Despite the cruel punishment and shoddy characterization (not to mention the sheer neglect in Wrath of Khan), Marla McGiver's ended up being the hero she never thought she was, and that no one really took her for. In the end, I really have to thank Greg Cox for taking Marla's much-abused character and giving her the second chance Kirk was never going to give her. Cox's novel is told in the limited perspective of Khan and Marla, and we witness Marla's death firsthand, followed by Khan's grief. The tragedy of Marla's character does not lie in her death, but in the cruelty of the time in which she was written, when Star Trek was dominated by men. I believe that both Marla and Khan were written well before their time. Khan's return in WoK does much to strengthen his character and cement him in the lore, but Marla's character  fell by the wayside, until Cox came along and gave her a character even Kirk would commend, and the voice that all of us wanted to hear.

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