"Children of Time" (COT) is one of those classic episodes that separated DS9 from its other Star Trek siblings. DS9 consistently refused to fall back on techno-babble, gismo invention to magically solve difficult problems. Instead, it repeatedly placed its characters in the middle of ethical and/or emotional minefields, and left them to find their own way out. It's also one of the reasons DS9 has held up better over time. Technology changes, the human(oid) condition does not.
COT is also routinely included in the handful of beautiful episodes (along with the likes of "The Visitor" and "Chimera") that touch us on a visual, emotional and even spiritual level. Throw in the Odo/Kira dynamic, and you have a favorite episode for many viewers.
In the Gamma Quadrant, the Defiant investigates a planet surrounded by an energy barrier. But the barrier cripples the Defiant and causes Kira to be "duplicated" for a moment-she will die without eventual medical attention back on Deep Space Nine. The Defiant is contacted by a colony living on the planet, and the leader, Miranda O'Brien, reveals that in two days, when the Defiant departs, the ship will encounter a temporal anomaly, causing it to crash on the planet-200 years in the past. Stranded, the crew will found this colony. The planet, Gaia, is populated by their descendants, except for Kira, who dies from her injuries. Sisko realizes that this foreknowledge will allow his crew to now avoid the anomaly, but by altering history, the colony will cease to exist.
It's been a year since the devastating events in "Crossfire." A lot has happened to Odo and Kira. Kira's been with Shakaar for that time, and played surrogate to the O'Briens's baby. Odo was judged by the Great Link and transformed into a human, adopted a baby Changeling whose death restored his own Changeling powers, and lost his virginity to an Idanian spy. However, Odo's decision to withdraw from Kira in the wake of "Crossfire" meant we've seen very little of the two of them together. Then COT comes along, moving (in this case, shoving) the Odo/Kira relationship forward in unexpected, if not unwelcome ways.
The episode teaser gives us (and Odo) room to hope, as Kira announces that she and Shakaar have broken up, courtesy of the Prophets. This was necessary, as we'll see later, as it removed what could have been a convenient impediment for Kira to avoid confronting Odo with the news he is about to share with her.
The news, of course, being that Kira learns Odo is in love with her.
But since nothing comes easily in this relationship, there's a twist. Kira learns this, not from the Odo of her time period, but from the Odo who has been living on Gaia for 200 years. 'Her' Odo has been incapacitated by the planet's energy barrier, and spends their entire time on Gaia in his natural state, in a stasis container. He is thus unable to participate in any of the events that take place on the planet.
Gaia Odo appears on the Defiant soon after she begins orbiting the planet. Kira has just learned that her injuries are life threatening, and that unless she can be treated on DS9, she will die in a few weeks. Alone in sickbay, Gaia Odo approaches and almost immediately drops the bombshell: "I love you, Nerys, I've always loved you."
It's not by accident that the Gaia Odo who speaks these words has a face much more refined and defined. He's had 200 years to practice. But his more humanoid appearance is also a reflection of an Odo who is more emotionally mature--more human. This Odo has thrown off the shackles of self-doubt and insecurity. He is a 'man' who has become comfortable in his own skin, so to speak. This is what allows him to share so freely his feelings for Nerys--and what makes him more attractive in her eyes as well. Not that Kira hasn't thought of Odo 'that way' before, if only on a subconscious level. We've been given a few vignettes of her feelings in previous episodes. In "Purgatory's Shadow," she teases him about the dataPADD on how to find your perfect mate, and concedes that lots of women would be interested if only he gave them half a chance. Her jealousy of Arissa is palpable. Whether she is jealous of him in a romantic way, or whether Arissa's presence threatens her sense that Odo is exclusively hers--the dog-in-the-manger sense that she may not want him, but she sure doesn't want anyone else to have him--isn't clearly spelled out. But if nothing else, Arissa has forced Kira to see Odo in a different light. And we've always suspected that on some subliminal level she has feelings for him that are deeper than that of mere friendship, whether she wants to admit that or not. So perhaps Kira is not really all that surprised to learn of his feelings for her, despite her astonished reaction. Does her laughter at his declaration indicate she thinks he's joking with her? Or could it be a natural humanoid reaction to the stress of unexpected news-laughter being one of the body's ways of releasing tension? Regardless, Odo's response demonstrates again his own maturity. Instead of the embarrassment and stammering we've come to expect from Odo, he merely challenges her with, "Is it really so hard to believe?"
Odo/Kira fans have long lamented that we never got to see the relationship from Kira's POV. Even in "His Way," where they finally got together, all we had was this vague, ill defined 'moment of clarity' thing. COT offers up no obvious clues as to Kira's state of mind. In fact, their first encounter in sickbay gives us a Kira who stubbornly focuses on his feelings, not hers: "I never knew you felt that way about me," "Why didn't you ever say anything?" and, in response to his friendship, "I was just thinking about all the times I came to you for advice about Shakaar and Bariel. It must have been very hard for you to listen to me go on about another man." Notice a trend here--Kira continually addresses his feelings, without ever revealing her own. When Odo says, "I didn't think you could possibly care for me the way I care for you," this statement is met with uneasy silence. Throughout most of this conversation, Kira never once gives Odo (and by extension, the viewer) the slightest hint of what she may be feeling. Only at the end of this first encounter, when her face and voice softens in answer to his request to show her around Gaia, do we get an inkling of her feelings.
So what's Odo's motivation in telling her that he loves her? Clearly, he's not looking for a two-day fling before she heads back to DS9. Gaia Odo has had 200 years to lament his not telling Kira his feelings. And he's had 200 years to mourn her death. He's no fool. He knows this Kira is not 'his' Kira. He tells her as much when they visit her grave. Odo's desires are for his counterpart to not have to suffer what he's suffered. Gaia Odo knows his counterpart is far too racked with self-doubt to proclaim his love for Nerys. So he's removed that obstacle. Now all he has to do is see to it that Kira and the Defiant return safely to the Alpha Quadrant, so that 'they' have the chance he never had. And perhaps, in the process, give Kira an idea of her Odo's potential, "if she's patient with him."
Kira's expression is interesting as she watches him. She is clearly impressed by his self-possession, poise, and openness to share his feelings with her. But Kira gives very little away. The only thing she reveals about her state of mind is her level of discomfort with technology (in this case Yedrin Dax's quantum, two-Defiant idea, which will allow for the continuation of both time lines) undermining what she evidently believes is the path the Prophets laid out for her (presumably to die on Gaia). At Odo's touching and heartfelt response, Kira's rejoinder doggedly focuses on him. "You've changed so much…you used to be so closed off…." But what she doesn't share with words are shared with actions, as, after a slight hesitation, she continues to hold the hand that Odo has offered to her.
It turns out Yedrin's plan was merely a ruse designed to get the Defiant to re-enter the temporal anomaly and assure the continuation/recreation of the Gaia colony. After Yedrin's deceit has been exposed, the gut-wrenching decision about whether to deliberately fly into the temporal anomaly and repeat the past, or avoid it and erase the Gaia settler timeline, again becomes everyone's focus. After much discussion, Sisko makes the decision to return to the Alpha Quadrant. This decision doesn't sit well with Kira, who feels guilty that her illness and ultimate death may be influencing the decision. She insists on returning to her gravesite with Odo to reassure herself that her death on Gaia is the path laid out for her by the Prophets. It is her firm conviction that she will not be the cause of sacrificing the 8,000 Gaia colonists lives.
Still, at this point, Kira's wishes notwithstanding, Sisko has decided to return to the station. Odo can at least breathe easy, knowing his counterpart won't have to live with the anguish of Kira's death. (We don't know if Gaia Odo was able to counter the barrier's quantum effects and resume his humanoid shape before Kira dies or not. Either way, he's lived with her loss for 200 years.)
But all that changes after the Defiant crew spends the Colonists last day of existence helping them plant their crops. For the first time, they become real to the crew, and everyone decides they simply can't erase them.
This news is of course horrifying to Odo, and his abject heartache and anguish is evident as he futilely argues with Kira about their decision. It appears unlikely that Odo had any plans at that point to intervene and change the Defiant's flight path (and the course of history). If he had already made that decision, he wouldn't be in so much obvious pain. This is a man consumed by grief, knowing exactly what lies ahead for his counterpart.
So what changes his mind? Certainly, as we've seen, Kira has given him very little indication she either wants, welcomes, or returns his love. But finally, in answer to a direct question by Odo: "Nerys, just tell me one thing. If you'd have known how I felt about you-if I'd said something years ago, do you think things might have been different?" Kira throws him a bone. "Maybe." To Odo, who has lived such a desperate, solitary, lonely life, this one word is like air to a drowning man, like water to a man dying of thirst. A tiny sliver of hope to brighten his desolate life. His hope is further fueled by her offer of a poignant kiss. I believe this single word, and this single action changes the course of history. Odo's innate sense of justice would, in normal circumstances, preclude the possibility of his sacrificing the lives of the colonists for hers. But these aren't normal circumstances. Kira's response to his question was all the impetus he needed to justify his decision to alter the flight plan and give his other self the chance for happiness that he never had. He also is well aware of the risk. Kira has made it clear she is unutterably opposed to sacrificing the colonists for her life. There's a chance she will hold it against his other self, but it's a risk he's willing to take, for the sake of love.
Is this action completely out of character for Odo? We've seen him suspend his normally rigid belief system before. "Necessary Evil" ("There's no room in justice for loyalty or friendship or love.… Justice, as the humans like to say, is blind. I used to believe that. I'm not sure I can anymore") is just one example, as Odo absolves Kira for murdering Vaatrick. There are others (releasing Croden in "Vortex" and turning a blind eye on the O'Briens as they break Molly out of the holding cell in "Time's Orphan" are two that come quickly to mind), but certainly nothing on this scale. Odo may attempt to justify his actions as that of restoring the corrupted time line, but this doesn't hold up if you look at Odo's emotional response to the choice made by the Defiant crew. Odo has had 200 years to work out what he'll do when the Defiant returns. If his plan all along was to assure that the ship avoid the anomaly and return to the Alpha Quadrant, he would be a man giddy with happiness, knowing that his counterpart wouldn't have to lose Kira, the way he did. But Odo is anything but giddy. He is, in fact, devastated. Which can mean only one thing--he's spent the last 200 years prepared to not intervene in the actions of the Defiant crew. The only possible explanation for his last-minute change of heart is the faint hope that Kira will ultimately return his love.
As the Defiant heads for home, Odo is freed from the effects of the barrier, and comes to Kira's quarters, clearly disturbed and upset. His Gaia counterpart linked with him before the Defiant broke orbit, and has related to Odo all that has happened.
For Odo, a being without a spontaneous bone (metaphorically speaking) in his body--a being whose actions are marked by caution and carefulness--this new reality has got to be earth shattering. The last we saw of this Odo was as he tried to process the news that Kira was once again free. The wild look of hope in his face told us that despite his pledge to 'stick to the essentials,' and to distance himself from Kira, his love for her has not waned. He finds out Kira is free of Shakaar. Maybe he'll work up the nerve to say something to her in five years or so. And now, without so much as a by-your-leave, she knows about his feelings for her. He's not ready, he's not prepared. He's caught as much off guard by this as she is. What to do? How to cope with this new reality?
Both Odo and Kira are also experiencing feelings of betrayal. Kira feels that Odo betrayed her by cheating her out of her own death, which she was evidently emotionally prepared for, and in the process, the 8,000 Gaia colonists were erased. She is probably also feeling that Odo betrayed her by withholding his feelings from her. As her avowed best friend, she must be extremely disturbed by the secret he kept from her for so long. And what of Odo? He must feel his older self betrayed him on nearly every level. He chose to reveal Odo's secret to Kira-a decision Odo himself wouldn't have made. And he took the decision Kira made about her own life out of her hands.
Finally, we come back to the thorny problem of what Kira is going to do with her newfound knowledge, and if Odo's decision to erase the Gaia colony will influence her decision. Again, Kira deflects the conversation away from her. When Odo confesses that he is in possession of the knowledge of what his Gaia counterpart said and did, Kira asks for an explanation of his behavior earlier, when she announced that she and Shakaar were not seeing each other any more. His reply only elicits from Kira a very neutral, "I don't know what to say. I'm still trying to sort everything out." Given Odo's cautious nature, this probably comes as somewhat of a relief (at least she didn't reject him out of hand, after all). However, when Odo confesses his counterpart's action in changing the Defiant's flight plan, Kira is visibly upset. And though he doesn't show it, you have to believe that on some level, Odo is equally as horrified that he could be capable of such a thing.
The episode dissolves on Kira's face, full of dismay and incredulity that Gaia Odo's love for her is the only explanation he can give for the extinction of the colony. It also leaves us wondering where--if anywhere--this relationship can go.