Jammer's Review

Star Trek: Voyager

"Random Thoughts"

***

Air date: 11/19/1997
Written by Kenneth Biller
Directed by Alexander Singer

Review by Jamahl Epsicokhan

"We seek out new races because we want to, not because we're following protocols. We have an insatiable curiosity about the universe." — Janeway to Seven, perhaps reiterating the Voyager mission statement

Nutshell: Some evident flaws, but a surprisingly probing hour overall.

The exterior plot sketch of "Random Thoughts" may very well exemplify what Star Trek: Voyager is now all about: a relatively unchanging story setting where the ship and crew can fly in, meet some people, encounter and subsequently solve a problem, and then fly out. In a way, the setting of Voyager has turned into what TOS and TNG originally set out to be. I know this isn't exactly a news flash; Voyager's setting has always made it more TOS-like than the other Trek series of the decade. But after watching the original Voyager ideology disintegrate through two disappointing seasons followed by a wandering third, and now witnessing the first consistently entertaining opening stretch of a Voyager season (if a little on the slight side) that I can remember, I find myself realizing that perhaps this series can reconceptualize the TOS mentality for the 1990s—while simultaneously framing it within the Voyager alone-in-the-Delta-Quadrant premise.

There are two very nice things about "Random Thoughts" that elevate it above the average Voyager (or TOS) premise:

  1. This story deals with the Voyager condition in terms of a statement of purpose.
  2. This story brings up some interesting questions about individual responsibility, using an effective device surrounding on the idea of "thought control."

Now, I personally prefer the building of compelling situations and characters over time the way DS9 has so successfully done (and I still hope Voyager will try doing it again, regardless of the precedent the creators have set). But the above two key strengths go a long way toward making "Random Thoughts" a very capable single-shot installment, featuring one of the most certain themes so far this season. While we still haven't had a real groundbreaker yet this season, the series does seem to be pulling itself together with a solid streak of good shows (with the exception of "Scientific Method," that is).

This week, Voyager makes friends with a race of telepaths called the Mari, a peaceful race which has eliminated violence from its society. A problem arises, however, when a Mari named Frane (Bobby Burns) "accidentally" steps on B'Elanna's foot. She's angry, but there's no harm done. But later Frane goes off and beats a man. An investigation by a Mari official named Nimira (Gwynyth Walsh, who played the scheming B'Etor of the Duras house on TNG) leads to the conclusion that B'Elanna had a violent thought, which she inadvertently passed to Frane, causing him to beat the defenseless man. B'Elanna is arrested and sentenced to an irreversible procedure that would remove the violent thoughts from her brain. Tuvok takes on the investigation to prove B'Elanna's innocence, in a strangely effective mix of "Meld" and "Ex Post Facto."

Okay, I'll go ahead and get my qualms out of the way: First, I find it very unlikely that Janeway and the Voyager crew would not have been made aware that violent thoughts could lead to this sort of eruption in the first place. The Mari officials must be awfully stupid not to warn aliens who are not as "enlightened" as they are about the serious repercussions something so simple as a subconscious violent thought could cause. Sorry, I just don't buy it. Second, I wasn't totally convinced of the impetus behind the urgent "need" to have the violent thoughts purged from B'Elanna mind (something about preventing a recurrence of the incident?). How exactly would this help? If it is so important one wonders why the Mari would risk hosting alien visitors in the first place (which brings me back to my first complaint).

I have some other plausibility questions, like how the Mari could force B'Elanna into a restraining chair without being affected by more violent thoughts B'Elanna would be thinking—thoughts which any person would certainly have under the circumstances. But never mind, because the debate over this fictional element is probably futile (although the show didn't always seem to be playing by its own set of rules), and I'd rather look at the story the idea conveys.

Ah, how I love psychological analysis. It's not every day the dark themes of violence and the perverse fascination with it crosses the path of Trekkian mythos. It's intriguing here because the Mari's solution of eliminating violence comes at another price: the inability to think freely. Granted, free thought means something completely different to a race of telepaths, but its denial still has consequences, as evidenced by a "black market" of violent thoughts and images, which is uncovered by the end. (We'll get to that momentarily.)

The use of Tuvok for investigating this sort of thing is very appropriate, especially considering his role in "Meld." I usually dislike situations that put Trek crew members at the mercy of alien legal systems (often because such systems create a forced conflict, a subset of the Hard-Headed Aliens of the Week syndrome). But here it works because the story's alien legal system comes in the form of Nimira—a surprisingly fair character who is truly worried about repairing the unfortunate situation that has unfolded. Gwynyth Walsh turns in a strong, believable performance (transcending her stylized, one-note turns as B'Etor), creating a character we can sympathize with, even though her intended course of action is certain to violate B'Elanna's rights. There's an engaging chemistry between Tuvok and Nimira—a respect each has for the other in the way their respective societies have eliminated violence—both Walsh and Russ deserve praise in creating this believable working relationship.

Tuvok's eventual uncovering of the "black market" is also handled adeptly for the most part. A series of well-documented plot developments reveals that violent images are commonly shared in the "back alleys" by people who want to illegally experience what they've apparently become incapable of imagining. Guill, the man Tuvok uncovers as the reason why B'Elanna's rouge impulse is running awry in the telepathic public (he conspired with Frane to provoke and "capture" the thought, but the plan backfired on them when they lost control of the image), is revealed as a "dealer" in violent contraband images—an interesting idea. I only wish Wayne Pere (who played Guill) had been a little more effective; his performance is a tad bland.

Admittedly, I also could've completely done without the second incident that sets Tuvok's investigation in motion, namely, the script's less-than-effective murder of Neelix's new "friend" Talli (Rebecca McFarland) and Neelix's totally misconceived and dramatically unfulfilling reaction to her death. I also wonder if Tuvok was so smart to conduct his subsequent investigation without first reporting to Voyager (effectively "calling for backup"). His plan backfires on him, which I think he should've anticipated. The plot could've been tighter without some of the silliness.

Nevertheless, the payoff works. The underlying question that "Random Thoughts" wrestles out of the plot is whether or not violence can truly be controlled or eliminated. Even by outlawing violent thought, the Mari find themselves with a disturbing problem in the realization that it hasn't truly gone away. Nimira's stunned disbelief that "peaceful Mari citizens" would want to subject themselves to such darkness is the story's most pointed social commentary, and I rather liked it. The question of who is responsible for this mess is a difficult one; sanctioning thought is a ghastly idea for us, but the Mari ideology doesn't see it a problem—yet the issue of violence still hasn't eluded them.

What also works in "Random Thoughts's" favor is a wonderful closing scene between Janeway and Seven that successfully reiterates the series' "mission statement" verbally. Seven's clear-cut declaration that Voyager's goal to get home and the attempt to meet new races in the meantime are inherently incompatible strikes me as a very Seven-like appraisal of Voyager's mission. I very much liked Janeway's response that "We seek out new races because we want to." The most important outcome for the Voyager crew, despite the fact Tuvok and Torres were endangered as a result of the encounter, is that meeting the Mari offered an insight to another culture, hopefully teaching the crew about themselves in the meantime. Janeway's well-conveyed confidence in stating what may very well embody the new "Voyager manifesto" is extremely refreshing, offering what I suspect Voyager hopes to accomplish as a series from this point on. Dialog exchanges like this one are what make Trek what it is, and that's probably the highest praise I can give "Random Thoughts." If the series can keep going and push just a little harder with the storylines, I think we'll find a direction and have the best season of Voyager yet.

Next week: Forget about Schwarzenegger and Stallone. We have LEONARDO DA VINCI: ACTION HERO!

Previous episode: Year of Hell, Part II
Next episode: Concerning Flight

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16 comments on this review

indijo - Mon, May 26, 2008 - 10:50am (USA Central)
Purging B'Ellana's mind for containing such violent thoughts was a bit extreme, after all, she's not a Mari, she's a human from another race. It would have been much more civilized and logical for them to simply deny her further contact with their species. Can't recall if Tuvok pointed this out but he should have.
Christian Hengstermann - Wed, Jun 10, 2009 - 1:31pm (USA Central)
A great review as usual. I'm currently rewachting the whole series and find this episode is well-done Star Trek: Though hardly outstanding itself, it does manage both to show fine character interaction and deal with a deeper issue.
Jason - Fri, Feb 5, 2010 - 6:08am (USA Central)
Anyone else notice the clips from "Event Horizon" during the violent images montage?
Nic - Tue, Apr 5, 2011 - 9:20am (USA Central)
This episode brought some interesting ideas to the table, and that alone makes it a winner. But it didn't quite go far enough to make it a classic. Sometimes it's good to just ask questions, but other times it's more interesting to actually provide answers (which often make you think just as much as the question). One of the reasons I loved "The Thaw" so much was the revelation that 'fear exists for one purpose... to be conquered.' Here, all Tuvok says is "You don't understand the truth of violence. Its darkness. Its power". Duh!
Destructor - Sun, Jul 17, 2011 - 8:59pm (USA Central)
I really liked this one, and I think the idea that the Voyager crew weren't aware of all the Mari laws actually was addressed- when Seven pointed out, quite rightly, that Voyager stumbles into new cultures with insufficient knowledge.
Dave - Tue, Jan 10, 2012 - 8:37pm (USA Central)
I saw Event Horizon, Halloween, Predator.. all in Tuvoks mind meld violent image montage. Took me out of context of Star Trek, so that was really weird.
Chris - Sun, Apr 1, 2012 - 4:19pm (USA Central)
I think there was no Predator in Tuvok's mind, but the aliens from the Nemesis episode. :)
Justin - Sun, Apr 15, 2012 - 3:39pm (USA Central)
On a nitpicky note, I don't like the precedent this episode sets that Vulcans can communicate telepathically without initiating a mind meld. I hate it when writers take liberties with canon, especially when they serve no purpose. Tuvok and Nimira are just casually strolling down the corridors and start having a telepathic conversation. Why? Seemed kind of pointless...
Michael - Wed, Apr 3, 2013 - 12:23am (USA Central)
I don't have a problem with Tuvok communicating telepathically without physically touching the strong telepathic alien. All that would need to take place would be for her to 'plant' her thoughts in his mind and then 'read' his responses. It could be done in a one-way manner quite simply, requiring little or no effort on his part.
Kevin - Mon, Jan 6, 2014 - 1:17am (USA Central)
Justin, non-touch telepathy in Vulcans was established canon before Voyager - I direct you to Memory Alpha:

Stronger minds were capable of non-contact telepathic projection and scanning, usually over short distances, (TOS: "The Devil in the Dark", "The Omega Glory"; VOY: "Random Thoughts", "Prey") but sometimes even over interstellar distances. (TOS: "The Immunity Syndrome"; Star Trek: The Motion Picture)

Also, it's important to remember that, like it or not, Voyager was an officially sanctioned Trek property, and thus, it's stories ARE canon.

Susan - Fri, Jan 17, 2014 - 11:00pm (USA Central)
I generally liked this episode even if the premise was really stupid, every time I heard them talk about 'the thought' I cringed. But other than that it was ok.
Chris P - Thu, Jan 30, 2014 - 3:33pm (USA Central)
"Your brig is barbaric."

*12 hour later*

"Put the Klingon woman in chains and lock her up."


Another interesting example of the hypocrisy of thought policing. I sometimes can't tell if the writers of ST:Voyager are contemptuous of the notion of continuity and logical storytelling or if they're just kinda bad. In this case I think the usual inanity of character actions works in their favor because of the subject matter and I enjoyed watching an episode where the plot holes could be justified.

I appreciated Seven coming into Janeway's ready room and giving her a piece of my mind. Voyager suffers from contrivances that rely upon the crew intentionally putting themselves into harm's way in order to create a conflict/mystery to resolve and, finally, Janeway was forced to answer on behalf of the writers why it is that they do this.
K'Elvis - Mon, Apr 14, 2014 - 11:39pm (USA Central)
Non-touch telepathy among Vulcans has been shown ro exist, but is also shown as being very limited, but this episode makes it appear that speaking telepathically is common among Vulcans, but Tuvok chooses to use spoken words to deal with humans. There's little indication that Tuvok has substantially greater telepathic gifts than other Vulcans, and so rather than throw out the rest of canon to accommodate this episode, I choose to interpret it as he is able to communicate telepathically with someone who is a strong telepath.

I'm not sure what to think of this episode, because it requires judging this society, and we really don't know that much about it. It makes sense that a species of telepaths would have to control their violent thoughts. Are there better methods available? Perhaps they could work on shielding themselves from negative emotions rather than forcing them not to have such emotions. The Vulcans are even less open to emotions than these people are. While I don't think they would force you to have memories erased, they expect Vulcans to control both positive and negative emotions, and a Vulcan who went about expressing emotions would be treated as mentally ill.
Vylora - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 1:00pm (USA Central)
A few notable flaws, mainly the ones that Jammer mentioned; but overall a nice allegory of how restricting personal freedoms can (and usually does) have unintended negative consequences. A good Tuvok vehicle with some decent enough guest star performances.

As to Chris P.: Holding Torres until everything is ready for the ingramatic purge is fundamentally different than any actual short or long term incarceration. Probably partially explains why the Mari were adamant about getting it started as soon as it was ready. They didn't want to hold Torres any longer than what was necessary. Also, one of the huge aspects of a lot of humanity in Star Trek is that of exploration, learning from other cultures, and bettering themselves from it. Janeway's answer wasn't "forced" by the writers as some sort of apology for Voyager's continued exploration. I do agree at times that there's a lot of contrivances in many episodes, however, but I understand the insatiable curiosity. Hell, I'll bet that a lot of the crew would be rather upset if Voyager did nothing BUT travel straight home. (:

All in all, it's not without its downsides but it is intriguing enough. Some food for thought supplied by meaty dialogue interspersed with great character interplay among the cast makes this a recommended viewing.

3 stars.
Yanks - Thu, Aug 28, 2014 - 4:13pm (USA Central)
Vylora,

I enjoy reading your reviews.
Vylora - Fri, Aug 29, 2014 - 11:48am (USA Central)
Thanks, Yanks. :D

(couldn't help myself)

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