“There’s an old saying on Cardassia: ‘Enemies make dangerous friends,’ and I fear the Dominion will make a very dangerous friend, indeed.”
— Elim Garak
When you base a character around a single mysterious hook, you’ve got yourself a dilemma. On one hand, you probably have a breakout character, since a hook powerful enough to hang a character on tends to be fascinating. On the other, you’ve entered into a pact with your audience. They believe that because you’ve created a mystery, it’s now on you to solve it. The irony is that the audience rarely actually wants answers — they want their personal answer to be it, or even better, something cooler than their answer, and anything less is a let down. This is, of course, impossible to do for everyone, so answering this mystery is a fool’s errand.
This is why the writers of DS9 are completely insane. Odo is based around the mystery of his origins. Who is he? What is he? Where does he come from? Rene Auberjonois rightly wanted them never to answer this question, as, he believed, once it was solved, there would be nowhere else to take the character. He would be finished. In modern serialized television, this is the kind of mystery that is earmarked for the final season, and any revelation is a sure sign the show is spelling out its endgame. DS9 being more experimental — or haphazard, depending on your ultimate view of it — decided, what the hell, let’s reveal Odo’s origin story in the beginning of the third season.
Fortunately for viewers, the writers had a second act already in mind for what they would do with our favorite blob of shapeshifting goo. Had it happened on TNG, we likely would have gotten what Auberjonois was so worried about: a tearful reunion filled with lots of healing and a lack of springboards for future stories. But, this is DS9, cabron! (For maximum enjoyment, please read that in the voice of Cuervo Jones from Escape from L.A.) As we learned when Bajor got itself a new Kai, the path of least resistance is to be actively shunned. In other words, it’s time to get complicated.
It begins with the story we think we’re going to get. The writers knew that’s what Star Trek had conditioned us for, so they wanted us to fall into that comforting groove. The Changelings who emerge from the lake of slime all appear as Odo does, with generalized faces and Dr. Mora’s haircut. While the real reason they do this is so the audience will recognize them as Odo’s species, I like to think the reason they do it is because they’re imitating Odo to make him feel more comfortable. As we will see in later episodes, Odo is kind of a terrible shapeshifter by the standards of the species. His abilities were used as party tricks, so he actively resents them, while the Changeling race has an underlying philosophy outlined by the Female Changeling: “To become a thing is to know a thing.” Odo just needs to embrace what he is and actually practice, rather than hiding for eight hours a day in a bucket.
The Female Changeling is one of the most important characters in the entire show, and yet she never gets a name. I absolutely love this. What this episode begins to show, and the rest of the series cements, is that Changelings are really, really alien. Star Trek is based on aliens who are still more-or-less human, with different forehead ridges or ears, and one aspect of human philosophy turned up to eleven. Changelings aren’t even the same state of matter we are — their word for most other races is “Solids” — and communicate by merging their mass into a single blob. That’s what that sea of goo is: It’s the Great Link, where the bulk of the Changeling race hangs out in a liquid state, constantly exchanging ideas and sensations. The Female Changeling has no name, because the Changeling race has no need for names, and if you want to get transcendental, there’s no guarantee she’s “the same” each time she’s encountered. More on that later.
It’s a stroke of brilliance that takes Odo, a consummate outsider character who is somewhat comfortable in his alienation, and gives him the ultimate in touchy-feely cultures. For Changelings, there’s no real difference to getting together with friends to talk about your recent vacation, and a no holds barred orgy. Imagine if idle chitchat and sex were the exact same thing, and you begin to get the idea. This is a guy who doesn’t like to turn liquid when anyone is watching, and now he’s expected to be the belle of the key party ball.
Odo was one of a hundred Changeling infants sent out into the galaxy as explorers and implanted with a genetic compulsion to return home; however, because of the wormhole, he’s back early. How early? Three hundred years. While it’s never stated, I assume the Great Link (or central Changeling mass, as I almost typed, proving I’ve been playing way too much Dead Space) is basically immortal, which includes any “individual” Changeling. (Again, we’ll get there later.) The Changelings are thrilled to have Odo back, but they’re really squirrelly about Kira. They have a deep distrust for Solids, based on millennia of persecution.
Meanwhile, Sisko, Bashir, O’Brien, and Dax (and T’Rul, but who cares) return to the station where strange things are afoot. Seems the Dominion has arrived to make a peace treaty with the Alpha Quadrant. They approach all the local powers (Federation, Klingons, Cardassians) but specifically snub the Romulans. Sisko believes this will lead to war (to which the Federation is like, meh, who cares, Dominion pals!), while the boorish Jem’Hadar ruthlessly beat O’Brien. Garak appears from the shadows and fans the flames of Sisko’s paranoia. When the Federation plans to turn Bajor over to the stewardship of the Dominion, and Bajor allies with the Romulans, Sisko has had enough. There’s only one way to stop the incursion, and that’s collapsing the wormhole.
It’s a good thing Kira’s not around. Got to wonder what would happen to Earth if Jesus showed up and nuked Heaven. That’s basically what’s happening, in Bajoran theological terms. I have to imagine there might be a crisis of faith. Sisko and crew succeed, and that’s the end of the show, people. Thanks for reading. It’s been fun and . . .
No, just kidding. We all know that’s not where it’s left. See, there’s this mysterious door on the Changeling planet, and something on the other side is spewing comm-blocking radiation. Kira and Odo get in and find all five of their crewmates doing some solid virtual reality gaming. The Vorta there, Borath, explains they wanted to see how Sisko and company would react to the Dominion gaining a foothold in the Alpha Quadrant. Seems the answer is “not well.” Kira turns on the Female Changeling and gasps, “You’re part of the Dominion.”
The Female Changeling rather awesomely responds, “Major, the Changelings are the Dominion.”
Which rather deftly solves the central dilemma. Odo can’t go home, because his people are the heads of a brutally fascist version of the Federation. His preoccupation with justice is revealed to be an aspect of his race’s obsession with order. Yet Odo admirably doesn’t cave here. To him, the Dominion is a perpetrator of injustice, so reuniting with his people, and gaining the comfort and companionship he craves but can barely admit, is too high a price for selling out. It’s all in service to the character they have developed so well over the past two seasons. And yes, that’s right, our mysterious, brooding shapeshifter is now an angst-ridden, outcast, brooding shapeshifter. It’s like the writers were operating from a playbook.
Next up: Quark provides sound financial planning to the Klingons.