Which brings us to our other guest star, Marla McGivers, played by Madlyn Rhue. In stark contrast to Khan, here we have a character who leaves a fair bit to be desired. That’s not to say there’s nothing of value there, but that it’s buried under… well, it’s tempting to just writer her shortcomings off to “sixties sexism” – and to be fair, there is definitely some of that, as McGivers is so taken with Khan that she briefly forgets how to do her job before he even wakes up – but it’s not that simple.
For example, as easy as it would be to write her off as incompetent, she deduces Khan’s true identity long before anyone else even gets close, proving that the resident historian does, in fact, know a thing or two about history. And yet, the fact that she falls hard and fast for Khan is in large part responsible for him being in a position to take over the Enterprise in the first place.
Of course, even McGivers’ relationship with Khan isn’t as straightforward as “feckless woman falls head over heels for the devilishly handsome guest star.” Khan’s seduction of her is abusive, in a remarkably matter of fact way for a fifty-year-old TV show. It starts with an imbalance of power, as her infatuation isn’t just obvious (painfully so) to the viewer. Khan has her wrapped around his finger from the word “go,” and he knows it. And he wastes no time escalating. The most unnerving part of the whole thing is the scene in Khan’s quarters after the banquet, how he manipulates the power dynamic, demanding that she assert herself (“Go. Or stay. But do it because it is what you wish to do!”) before immediately turning the conversation on its head (“This grows tiresome. You must now ask me to stay.”). She is putty in his hands, and it’s unsettling to watch, not just because Montalban pulls it off a little too well, but because many of us, I imagine, have either been in similar situations ourselves or else known people who were. Though it seems to progress in record time, it is a very real portrayal of a deeply toxic relationship.
That, of course, makes it all the more disappointing that the script doesn’t do more with it. Had there been any interest in doing so, the Khan/McGivers relationship could have served as a meditation on abuse, or even an allegory for the dangerous allure of authoritarianism. And sure, there’s some of that here if you watch closely and read between the lines. But textually, we are in many ways left with McGivers betraying her ship for the abusive man on whom she had an Instamatic crush. This is all compounded by the fact that she doesn’t even hesitate to join Khan in exile at the end, even after being so horrified at his methods (the near execution of Kirk, allowing another augment to slap Uhura around to coax her into working the viewscreen) that she turned on him, giving Kirk the opening he needed to retake the ship. Kind of makes you wonder just how the rest of her life went.
It’s about time I wrapped this up, but what do you make of ‘Space Seed’? Let me know in the comments, and as always, be sure to check back in two weeks for the next ‘Final Frontier Friday’!