What were the writers thinking? I am not exaggerating when I say that, by the end of this episode I was crying and shaking with rage. I recognize that I may have some issues that are specific to me and my life that color my viewing here, but… really, even if you disregard the creepy medical stuff as an average viewer and see this as a parallel to a parent-child relationship, this is an episode about child abuse. To be accurate, it is an episode that excuses, if not defends, child abuse. And somehow, even that description seems inadequate to me to convey how awful I felt watching it.
The short version of this episode - shapeshifting alien (called a “changeling”) named Odo who was experimented on in a laboratory for most of his “childhood” tries to raise another changeling to have a happier life than he did, only to have the person who experimented on him, Dr. Mora, come in and essentially force him to do to his adopted child what was done to him, and eventually reconciles with Dr. Mora and apologizes for not keeping in touch more. I shit you not.
Because I can’t seem to organize the things that set me off about this into paragraphs, I’m going to list them instead. Or at least the major ones, that I can actually articulate:
A conversation between Odo and Captain Sisko early in the episode establishes, or at least suggests, that the reason that the Founders (changeling alien people) send baby changelings out into the galaxy is to test what different societies do with their vulnerable and helpless. The Federation’s answer, through what happens in the episode, seems to be, “WHY, WE EXPERIMENT ON AND TORTURE THEM, OF COURSE!” Yeah. What the hell, hero, indeed.
The changeling kid just didn’t know how to do shapeshifting stuff yet. It’s like trying to teach a baby how to walk by using an electric dog shock collar on him or her when s/he tries to crawl.
Odo wanted so much to give this kid a better, happier life than he had. It was giving him happiness and meaning to do so. That’s what made his interactions with the changeling before Dr. Mora showed up so heartwarming, at least in large part. And then, he was forced to do exactly what was done to him by the person who did those things to him. This… enormously squicked me out and saddened me. I’m not sure whether that’s because I related to Odo - being a person who has gone through some shit and wants to make it better for other people so they don’t have the same things happen to them - or because I would have really liked it if someone like me would have been there to protect me and teach me on my own terms when I was a kid.
The episode successfully made Dr. Mora really freaking creepy and awful (he reminded me of two really awful doctors in my own life, and the people I was watching this with were really creeped out by him too), and made Odo’s story really sad. It was set up to go in a different direction than it did, and the way the story went and resulting implications seem really out of line with how that.
Dr. Mora never apologized to Odo for what he did in any meaningful way. The closest he came was by saying that he didn’t know that Odo was sentient when did some of these experiments, and even then, he didn’t even say that he would not have done it if he knew. AND THEN he proceeds to do (or rather, have someone else, his former victim, do!) the exact same thing to a similar being who at this point he KNOWS to be capable of feeling pain (among other things). This makes his conduct, and him as a character, completely inexcusable on several levels.
“Spare the rod, spoil the child” is a statement that should never be used if you don’t mean to portray the character saying it as a total, unsympathetic, unjustifiable douche canoe. I think this a general fiction thing (like, I’ve never run across a situation where you were supposed to agree with a character saying this), and also corporal punishment just hits all of my “misuse of power” buttons.
When he wasn’t going on about discipline or whatever, Dr. Mora sounded like a curebie parent (autism spectrum disorder or otherwise). I mean, COME ON. “I hope you’ll get to hear your child thank you for what you did someday” when “what you did” refers to painful, traumatic and quite possibly unnecessary experimental procedures? That’s practically ripped straight from the list of stock curebie responses. (It doesn’t help that what they were doing - electrically shocking the changeling kid as a form of behavioral modification - is pretty much exactly what they do to kids with severe developmental and psychiatric disabilities at the Judge Rotenberg Center.) In general, everything he said when not being generically creepy and horrible had a “for your own good” vibe, and to me, that’s even worse than generically creepy and horrible. One seems markedly fictional and abstract to me, even if there are a number of people who actually are creepy and horrible, where the other is far too close to a mentality I’ve seen too many times in real life - in fact, one that it seems the writers of this episode share to no small extent.
At least on-screen, Captain Sisko was never held accountable for 1) bringing Dr. Mora in against Odo’s express wishes and 2) putting pressure on Odo and Dr. Mora to “get results” regardless of what that meant for the changeling child or Odo. Even if being held accountable only meant hearing what had happened, the full implications of that and learning how his actions played a role in it (which would have been completely enough as far as I’m concerned), I still felt like it was something that should have happened and didn’t.
The shapeshifter child transforming into a thing that sort of looks like Odo after Odo and Mora basically torture him/her, and the fact that this is treated by everyone as cause for celebration without reflecting on the cost to the shapeshifter, is rather disturbing, as the episode and characters are basically implying that the ends justify the means.
And then the changeling DIES. Okay, Odo gets his abilities to shapeshift back as a result (permanently, I think…?), but still. When it rains, it fucking pours. Way to shoot the shaggy dog, guys, especially after kicking it and maybe even raping it too.
Odo telling Dr. Mora that he respected him. WTF NO. That’s not the message I got from Odo from how he talked about how Dr. Mora treated him throughout the rest of the episode, or the rest of the series for that matter. If this was meant to be a creepy, Stockholm Syndrome-y, “you were my only caretaker and role model and I didn’t have anything to compare against” thing, fine, they could have made that work and have it be appropriately sad and creepy. But it went completely unexamined, and even meant to seem like a touching moment of reconciliation. Not okay.
Unfortunate message #1 of this episode is that your parents(/doctors) did what was for your own good, even if it was horribly unpleasant and traumatic, and that you couldn’t possibly learn from what you thought could have been improved and made better choices under the circumstances. God dammit. I grew up subjected to this mentality - both about medical stuff and about my parents’ means of discipline - and I didn’t need to have it hammered in by my (supposedly) fun escapist science fiction television show.
Unfortunate message #2 of this episode is that even if someone mistreated you in their capacity as a parental figure or other caretaker role, you should forgive them and keep in contact with them (and apologize for not doing so!), because of course they did what they could and only wanted the best for you. This is the kind of thing that makes me really wary of “forgive and forget” messages, because to me, it verges on victim-blaming, as it it places the responsibility on the person who was harmed by the other’s misuse of authority to make things right and be the better person in the end. I reject this. Dr. Mora and people like him make their choices to harm someone less powerful than themselves when they could choose something else, and the victims of their decisions don’t owe them shit.
There are other ways that this episode could have been written that would have added moral complexity or whatever the writers were going for here without it seeming like it was justifying abuse/torture/unethical experimentation on sentient beings/etc. This was exceptionally, egregiously horrible, and I can’t understand how it could seem otherwise. I’m so glad that this episode was as late in the show as it was, because if it had been in the first or even the second season, I might have stopped watching. There are obviously words for my disgust and unhappiness with this (as evidenced by the large amount of them I have just typed), but they are inadequate to truly describe it. So much fail.
I know this post is a couple years old, but I gotta comment. I don’t dismiss that you had a nasty past yourself, but it really is coloring your view on this and twisting it into what it isn’t. I CAN understand why you see it the way you do and I’m sorry you were hurt.
I disagree with the points you made and here’s why: There was literally NO way to communicate with the baby Changeling. Odo tried and his methods alone weren’t working. Something else I want to point out is Mora didn’t know Odo was a sentient in the beginning. I get the impression that he stopped with the experiments once he realized he had a sentient being on his hands. Odo’s comment of “He never talked to me” is where I realize Mora had no clue the jar of goo was sentient at first. The Cardassians could’ve forced Mora to find out what the goo was because zomg what if it was a fuel source or a chemical that could be synthesized for weaponry? Mora discovered Odo was a Changeling purely by accident.
On the other hand, Odo had the unique perspective of knowing how much the baby Changeling was aware of. It couldn’t understand his speech, but it knew he was there. Like Odo as a baby, it didn’t know what it was or what it could do.
Mora gave Odo the opportunity to try his own way first. He didn’t have to up the ante until Starfleet threatened to take the baby Changeling away, and God knows what they might have put it through. Mora was under the same pressure to get results from the Cardassians once it was clear his goop was actually an alien.
Their approach to the baby was different than what Odo went through. They knew from the start what they were dealing with. No centrifuges, cytoplasmic separators or vacuum chambers. The zappy thing they used was intended to cause discomfort, not PAIN. If a fly starts buzzing around your face, you move to swat it right? They didn’t torture the baby Changeling. They got it to realize what it can do. It needed that push. They needed to teach it to change and hold shapes to get it to understand what it had to do because it could not understand speech. To the baby, Odo probably sounded like noises or vibrations..Then the baby decides to try and shapeshift by itself and copies Odo’s face in an attempt to understand this lifeform that makes so many strange noises at it. This is in contrast to baby Odo, who formed a tentacle to slap Mora’s hand off a console to stop the annoying zapping. Mora had no idea of Odo’s sentience until he found Odo copied a beaker in his lab.
They go into Odo’s office and Mora admits that HE WAS WRONG, that Odo’s attempts to communicate with the baby was a sound method, and using the little zappy thing to make it want to change form got faster results because of THAT than if they started out using it without Odo chattering. Their combined efforts got better results than any one of them would have got alone.
Odo didn’t understand at first that Mora had no idea he was sentient when he did the seemingly cruel and nasty experiments. The thing is with Odo is he’s temperamental and can be kind of an asshole. A lot of his animosity towards Mora came from a skewed perspective. I think he brings out the asshole in Mora too. Neither was blameless when they started yelling at each other before the baby Changeling formed a face.
Regarding Mora having a lack of remorse: Did you ever watch “The Alternate?” At the scene where Odo is infected by that weird gas and starts slamming into the force field? Mora practically breaks down crying and asking “I’ve done it to you again, haven’t I, Odo? I made you a prisoner. Dear God, what have I done?” And when Odo finally collapses, he takes Odo in his arms and pretty much comforts him.
The experience with the baby Changeling let Odo see things from Mora’s perspective. Odo put his soul into that baby, and no matter what he tried it left. Mora went through that too in a different way. I might have gone for years thinking Odo was an ungrateful git if I was Mora. I can’t imagine Odo just took humanoid form one day and spoke perfectly or walked perfectly. Mora might have had to teach him all the basics. He gave Odo an education. He took care of him. OKay I agree, making Odo amuse Cardassians sucked and I don’t blame Odo for being all “fuck this” and leaving the lab for good. He probably got tons of shit from people for being different and freaky. But Odo and Mora were two people bouncing around on a bunch of serious misunderstandings. I wish the series gave us another episode focused on them working through the rest of their issues.