Nutshell: Some wonderful character insights, but I have mixed feelings about some elements of the subplot and the show's big revelation. Still a very nice episode.
When Quark acquires a "baby" Changeling that has been found floating through space in a lifeless, liquid state, Odo takes it upon himself to "raise" the undeveloped shapeshifter and teach it the benefits of shapeshifting in a hope to help it communicate with and understand the outside world. Meanwhile, Major Kira gives birth to the O'Briens' child.
"The Begotten" is another strong example of a pure character show, courtesy of Rene Echevarria, perhaps the staff's finest writer when it comes to characters. There are no extraneous plot angles here; it's just good actors on some sets delving into the hearts of their characters, looking for some new answers and insights. And what else can I say? For the most part I thought it was great.
There are, however, some things about "The Begotten" of which I'm not really completely certain. One is the revelation dropped on us in the ending (more on that later); the other is the B-story involving the end of Kira's pregnancy (which I'll get out of the way now).
The B-story in "The Begotten" is for the most part an unavoidable (though amiably portrayed) set of cliches. I've been waiting a long time for Major Kira to have this kid so she can get back into the thick of the action (though "The Darkness and the Light" certainly used pregnant Kira without a worry). Part of me had hoped we would return from reruns to find that the baby had been born between shows, but, really, I doubt it's something that the creators would've been willing not to show. It's a necessity of sorts that had to be dealt with. Still, I don't think I really needed as much time and cheese devoted to it as we're treated to in this subplot. The traditional rituals of "rhythm" that Miles, Keiko, and Shakaar assist Kira in are slightly amusing in places, but they often go on for too long; and they're too tongue-in-cheek to be effective as drama, yet too pervasive to make effective comedy. The silly quarrels between Miles and Shakaar are overstated and unnecessary, and Keiko's constant scolding of these "silly men" just isn't very deep material. (I also didn't care that much for Shakaar's rather harsh line to Miles, "Next time you have a baby, leave my girlfriend out of it.")
As compensation, the inevitable birth scene (which I admit I was somewhat dreading) was about as painless as I could've imagined possible. Given that I've seen about eight or nine thousand birth scenes on television in my lifetime, I was glad to see that, being a Bajoran, Kira giving birth managed to display a welcome departure from the standard cliche we've all witnessed time and time again. The actual delivery scene was different enough that I didn't feel the need to cringe in frustration. Instead, it was rather pleasant.
But enough about the B-story. What really matters about "The Begotten" is Odo's dilemma in attempting to teach an infant, inanimate Changeling how to take a new form. What proves most significant about Odo's attempts and actions is that they compose a poignant story about him and his relationship to Dr. Mora (now a Starfleet Changeling analyst who returns to DS9 to offer his help in Odo's efforts). The young Changeling is simply a device for the characterizations. The number one rule in a character show is that it has to reveal the characters' feelings, and "The Begotten" follows this rule perfectly; the results, therefore, are stellar.
I was very pleased to see Dr. Mora again. For those who may not remember, Mora (James Sloyan, who has yet to disappoint on Trek) first appeared in second season's "The Alternate," which revealed his unique but skewed "parent"-like relationship to Odo. Where "Alternate" was held back by a lackluster plot, "Begotten" cuts right to the emotional core. A great deal of tension between these two revealed in "Alternate" is reiterated here; but the feelings are spelled out more explicitly, and the characters do not hide in their dialog.
The key to the episode is Odo's vow not to harm the young shapeshifter the way Mora "harmed" him. Odo intends to proceed differently, using his own methods. He doesn't want to force it to shape-shift by causing discomfort and exposing it to electric shocks and radiation. But, as Mora explains, the shapeshifter will have no desire to move if it doesn't have an incentive; it will simply sit content in its comfortable liquid state.
But Odo is not receptive. He resents that Mora made certain presumptions when running the tests he ran on him. Part of Odo thinks Mora simply found the idea of "playing with a shapeshifting lifeform" interesting. This rather relevant two-sided exchange leads to some well-acted and believable dialog scenes—scenes where Mora and Odo begin shouting at each other like real family members trying to resolve a troubled past. Both Sloyan and Auberjonois deliver strong, genuinely-felt performances that get to the heart of the lack of communication between them.
The beauty of the story is the way it gets into the past of these two people on such an emotionally believable level. It's not a simple matter of who's right and who's wrong. It's a matter of exploring why each feels the way he does, and the way each ultimately comes to understand each other. No, Odo doesn't really think that Mora enjoyed prodding him with gadgets and experiments. But until now, Odo had never said so. He had simply remained silent and obscured, with a bitter disposition. At the same time, Mora's words allow Odo to realize the pressures Mora was under to gain results, lest the Cardassians had taken over his project and made the situation worse for everybody.
The two eventually find a medium ground to work together. Between Odo's attempts at making a mental connection with the Changeling and Mora's use of physical equipment, the two are finally successful in getting the Changeling to form different objects, and finally, in one remarkable scene, the shapeshifter morphs toward Odo and mimics his face.
Odo's reactions to this connection are priceless, as is his enthused talk with Quark (who would've thought Odo would ever buy Quark a drink?). I don't believe I've ever seen Odo smile a genuine smile as much as he does here. The results are refreshing.
It's just too bad that after all this compelling character work that I couldn't feel as good about the ending as I did about everything else. The developments and final revelation in the last act leave me with some mixed feelings about some major Odo issues. The Changeling infant, the plot reveals, is not well. It's dying. And just minutes after Odo thought he had the chance to live vicariously as a shapeshifter through his "child," he's faced with the grim realization that it is not to be.
Now this is another tragic thing to do to Odo, and even I realized that he could not be put through another wringer like this. But I'm still not entirely happy with the sudden twist used to ease Odo's tragedy: Since the Changeling cannot live, it "integrates" itself into Odo, thus giving him back the shapeshifting abilities that the Founders took from him.
This doesn't feel dead-out wrong, by any means; but I did find it... iffy. I will definitely grant that returning Odo's powers in this story makes some plausible plot sense, and some dramatic sense. I like the notion and implications of the dying Changeling deciding to give Odo a "gift"; I like that Odo finds the entire situation difficult, confusing, and ponderous; I like the episode's closing discussion between Odo and Kira (who has her own relevant problem of wanting to hold a baby she has given birth to, but can't because it's not hers). It still, however, feels just a bit easy. It's a magical fix to a problem—Odo's newfound humanity—that I don't think was pondered quite as much as it could've been.
Some of the qualms I have involve the "big picture" of Odo becoming human in the first place. What exactly were the creators trying to say? As Quark put it in "The Ascent," since Odo was human, "Life was his for the taking." Why wasn't this further analyzed? What did Odo want, and what will he want now? Fitting into the "big picture," is this character development, regression, or stagnation? I'm not sure at this point; we'll have to see.
Again, I want to stress that this is not wrong. But I also don't think the surprise ending was necessary or even warranted to get the episode's best points across—that of Mora and Odo's relationship and the issues of their troubled past. The show's true strengths don't ride or even have a complete basis in the final outcome. The payoff could've been reworked to better fit the rest of "Begotten" and perhaps Odo's powers could've been restored in a later episode.
Most people, I'm guessing, will remember this show as "the episode where Odo gets his powers back." I, however, will remember it as the show where Odo better comes to terms with some of his feelings and relationships, as well as his own past and identity.