Who Are Star Trek’s Changelings? Their History Explained
The villains of Star Trek: Picard's final season, the Changelings, have a history that goes back to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Most of what we know about the villains of Star Trek: Picard‘s final season, the Changelings, comes from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. The Changelings, also known as the Founders, are liquid-based aliens who can change their shape at will to look and sound like just about any person, animal, plant, or object they observe. Enduring violence in their earliest encounters with other species — who they often call “solids” — the Founders formed the Dominion: a star-spanning empire seeking to conquer all life and bring it under what the Founders consider order.
Most people in Star Trek’s galaxy who encounter the Dominion never meet Changelings, but instead deal with one of the two species the Founders genetically altered to do their bidding: the Vorta and the Jem’Hadar, both of whom worship the Founders as gods. The Vorta are the clever and duplicitous diplomatic arm of the Dominion, while the Jem’Hadar are ruthless warriors kept loyal through addiction to the powerful drug Ketracel White.
In an attempt to learn more about the worlds and people outside their borders, at some point before the events of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the Changelings scatter their young all over the galaxy. Odo (Rene Auberjonois), the security chief of Deep Space Nine and the very first Changeling we meet in Star Trek, is one of these. The only other we meet is Laas (J.G. Hertzler) in the Season 7 DS9 episode “Chimera.”
The Dominion’s territory is in the Gamma Quadrant, which is far from the Federation but gets a lot closer with the discovery of the Bajoran Wormhole. As more ships from the Alpha Quadrant begin exploring the Gamma, the Changelings feel threatened and begin waging a cold war on the heroes of Star Trek. We eventually learn that the Founders have infiltrated some of the highest ranks of both Starfleet and the Klingon Empire.
Open war breaks out between the Federation and the Dominion in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Season 5 finale, and continues until the Changelings’ defeat at the end of Season 7.
Before the end of the Dominion War, the rogue Star Trek organization Section 31 becomes responsible for two unethical attacks on the Changelings. They infect the Great Link with a disease that threatens to wipe out the entire species, though they are eventually cured by Odo. They also capture a number of Changelings and experiment upon them, forcing them to evolve into partly solid lifeforms.
While most of the Great Link accepted defeat at the end of the Dominion War, in Star Trek: Picard we learn that it was the Changelings who Section 31 tortured and experimented on who also refused to accept surrender. They have continued to infiltrate Starfleet with an ultimate goal that is, as of yet, unknown.
In their most natural state, Founders appear as some kind of formless, partly opaque goo. During their earliest Star Trek appearances — except when they were consciously attempting to disguise themselves — when Changelings took humanoid form it would be with smooth, indistinct faces, almost like an unfinished sculpture. Vadic (Amanda Plummer) is an exception in this regard, since she has taken on the form of the Section 31 scientist who experimented on her.
Star Trek has long shown that Changelings are never as content as they are in The Great Link — what appears to human eyes as an ocean, but is actually the mingling of the bulk of the Changeling species. Along with the Great Link, in Deep Space Nine the Founders had the ability to link with each other on a one-on-one basis in a manner that often comes off as, at least in part, sexual.
Again, Star Trek: Picard‘s Changelings are an exception because of the experimentation they underwent, but most of their species do not have any internal organs; nor do they have any need to eat or drink.
Judging by what we’ve seen particularly in the Star Trek series Deep Space Nine and Picard, in humanoid form Changelings are stronger than humans; probably somewhere in the same neighborhood as Vulcans. In DS9‘s “The Way of the Warrior,” for example, Odo is shown fighting off multiple armed Klingon warriors with nothing but his bare hands.
In the Star Trek: DS9 episode “Chimera,” the Changeling Laas is able to survive in the void of space in the form of some unidentified animal. This would suggest that either Changelings can survive in space, or they can only do so if they are in the form of a creature with that ability.
However in Picard‘s “Surrender,” Vadic is seemingly killed when she’s blasted into space. This could have something to do with how she and her comrades have evolved to become partly solid.
As powerful as they are, Star Trek’s Changelings are not immune to phaser fire. We see multiple Changelings killed by phasers in Picard, and in DS9, Dr. Bashir (Alexander Siddig) kills the Mirror Universe version of Odo with a phaser.
While Changelings can turn into just about anything they want, that change has its limits. For one, maintaining any shape takes concentration.
One of earliest methods Starfleet comes up with to detect Changelings is to bathe objects in low-yield phaser fire. It isn’t enough to really hurt anyone or damage anything, but it’s enough to break any potentially disguised Changeling’s concentration and force them out of their concealment.
For another, Star Trek’s Changelings can only maintain solid form for so long. If they don’t revert back to their liquid state at least every eighteen hours, they can die. In DS9‘s “The Die is Cast,” Garak (Andrew Robinson), in an effort to coax information out of Odo, uses a device that inhibits the Changeling’s ability. Keeping Odo in solid form not only tortures him, but nearly kills him.
We don’t know what the limit is on size when it comes to the Founders’ change. For example, while we know Star Trek’s Changelings can take the forms of things larger than themselves, we don’t know how much larger. We’ve never seen a Changeling, for instance, disguised as a starship or an asteroid.
Most of the Founders do not have names, and the exceptions are usually found among those that were raised outside the Great Link like Odo and Laas. In fact, in spite of being one of the most troublesome villains of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Salome Jens’ character is only ever known as “The Female Changeling.”