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:
- This story deals with the Voyager condition in terms of a statement of purpose.
- 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!