Random Thoughts is a fairly standard political-commentary-as-science-fiction-allegory plot, with the crew encountering a race of telepaths who have built a utopian society through the careful regulation of thoughts. When Torres is implicated in a very rare violent crime, the crew find themselves embroiled within mystery to determine the origin of the violent thought and the means of its transmission. Along the way, there is a hefty dose of commentary on a broad range of themes.
In theory, Random Thoughts is very much of a piece with Nemesis or Scientific Method, other fourth season episodes less interested in character and more driven by commentary. However, Random Thoughts is a good deal more muddled. The allegory at the centre of the story is a mess, in part because the script is so intentionally vague. Are these violent thoughts a metaphor for violence in media? Are they a commentary on heat speech? Are they an analogy for drug addiction? What about non-heteronormative sexuality?
Random Thoughts never seems to decide on one central metaphor, and so casts an exceptionally broad net. The problem is that these issues are radically different from one another, and the all-encompassing nature of the central analogy robs the episode of any nuance or sophistication. An episode advocating for the legalisation of drug use is radically different from an episode against the criminalisation of heat speech. It is very difficult to work out exactly what Random Thoughts is saying, let alone what it wants to say.
This muddled storytelling plays out in other ways. Random Thoughts is a mess episode, in terms of storytelling and structure. The plot wanders in various different directions, shifting focus from one member of the ensemble to another; for a story about Torres’ emotions, Torres is afforded very little agency. The narrative also diverts along pointless tangents, with obvious filler scenes like Paris and Chakotay discussing a rescue that never happens or Seven of Nine stopping by the Ready Room to discuss the moral of the episode.
There is something distractingly unfocused about Random Thoughts.
Random Thoughts certainly has a number of very interesting ideas. Most obviously, there is the idea of a telepathic society that have attempted to regulate thought. More than that, there is the clever concept of an underground economy in memories and emotions that feels like a logical extension from this starting point. It is the sort of big bold broad-strokes science-fiction that Star Trek does rather well, taking an interesting idea and then extrapolating upon it in a way that makes for an interesting story.
In fact, the plot actually feels rather adventurous and ambitious for an episode of Voyager. The obvious point of comparison for the story is Strange Days, the 1995 cyber noir film directed by Kathryn Bigalow and co-written by James Cameron. Strange Days was set in the dying days of the twentieth century, imagining a world where there was an illicit trade in memories and experiences. The film fit comfortably within the mid-nineties obsession with cyberpunk, a genre with which the Star Trek franchise had only fleetingly toyed.
Star Trek: Deep Space Nine would very occasionally dabble in cyberpunk, whether through the Philip-K.-Dick-inspired paranoia of Whispers or the cosmetic trappings of A Simple Investigation. The Borg provide the most obvious point of intersection between the franchise and cyberpunk, a grotesque fusion of the organic with the mechanical that serves largely as a monstrous exception to the sterile aesthetic of the rest of the franchise. They are largely the exception that proves the rule.
Indeed, although Random Thoughts shares a few stray ideas with Strange Days, the episode largely avoids too much grunge or darkness. The Mari are presented as a very smooth and streamlined society, actors with a minimum amount of make-up walking around uncluttered sets wearing bright coloured costumes. The Mari are very much stock Star Trek aliens, very much in the tradition of the Rutians in The High Ground or the anonymous aliens in Time and Again. This is stock mid-nineties Star Trek.
At the same time, there is something very clever in the idea of a culture that trades in (and regulates) thoughts and memories. After all, history and memory are a recurring fixation of Voyager, with the series repeatedly suggesting that memory is malleable and that history can be distorted; whether metaphorically as Remember or Distant Origin or Living Witness or Latent Image, or literally as in Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II, Year of Hell, Part I, Year of Hell, Part II or Relativity. And Mori attempts to regulate memories and thoughts are clearly part of that broader theme.
More than Deep Space Nine, Voyager feels like a television show rooted in the nineties. It is anchored in the fears and anxieties that defined the decade. After all, the show’s fascination with the concepts of memory and history are largely informed by the cultural concerns at the turn of the millennium; the idea that the United States stood at the “end of history” and the increasing distance (and generational gap) between contemporary culture and formative events like the Second World War or the Holocaust.
Any number of Voyager episodes speak directly to nineties concerns. Future’s End, Part I, Future’s End, Part II and 11:59 literally take the cast back to the twentieth century. Other episodes deal directly with contemporary anxieties; Caretaker introduces the Kazon as an analogy for gang culture, Phage plays with the Vidiians as an AIDS or ebola metaphor, The Chute riffs upon California’s overcrowded prison system, while Displaced touches on California’s immigration anxieties during the decade.
So what is Random Thoughts about? It is quite tough to say, looking at the episode. It seems to touch on any number of ideas that would resonate with nineties audiences. The most overt parallel concerns censorship, with Nimiri serving as a very literal example of that most terrifying free speech bogeyman “the thought police.” In seeking to regulate the very thoughts of their population, the Mari have created a very shiny and sterile dystopia in which any violation or subversion of their cultural norms is dealt with through lobotomy.
According to an interview with Cinefantastique, this was very much on the mind of Kenneth Biller as he wrote the episode,
Writer Biller explained, “I’m very interested in the debate that goes on about violence in the media, and whether or not violence on television causes people to commit acts of violence. Thinking about that, a natural extension seemed to be this society in which people were responsible for their thoughts. Taking it even a step further, if you had a violent thought, you were responsible for the outcome, no matter who committed that. Naturally that would lead to one’s having to create a telepathic society in order for that to even be an operative consideration. B’Elanna seemed like the natural person to put into that predicament, somebody who is not in control of her thoughts, but struggles to control her behavior. In this society, though, just controlling her behavior simply wasn’t enough. I also thought it was an interesting element to bring in this underground, red-light district. Like drug addicts, they traded in illicit thoughts and illicit material. It was a way to get into a lot of different issues in our society now, where I think that people are often considered not responsible for their own actions. We make lots of excuses for people’s behavior. Also, I think that the more we criminalize and make things that may be natural for people illicit, the more people will do to get them, like in Prohibition.”
Of course, there is already a sense of a muddled metaphor there, suggesting Random Thoughts is at once about censorship and drug legalisation.
Censorship was a very heated topic during the nineties. To a large extent, this was a conversation that carried over from the seventies and eighties, with high-profile debates about “video nasties” in the United Kingdom with the proliferation of home media in the eighties and the violence featured in video games like Mortal Kombat during the early nineties. In particular, this debate seemed to be driven by the shift away from broad public culture (cinema screens, theatre stages) to more private consumption (home media, video game consoles).
This debate came to a head in the middle of the decade, owing to curious coalition of the religious right and more morally-minded crusaders on the left. Tipper Gore campaigned against the misogynist and violent lyrics of rap music, while Bob Dole made lists of morally virtuous and depraved films to deliver at fundraisers. Random Thoughts aired over a year after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 called up the networks to come up with a voluntary ratings system, in a move that was arguably part of a larger culture war.
Indeed, during the late nineties, television producers and manufacturers would devise the “v-chip” as an attempt to protect children (or even adults) from objectionable content. As Robert J. Thompson and Steve Allen note, this was part of a broader reconfiguration of entertainment to make it more “family friendly”:
Increased sensitivity toward program content, however, resulted in some new regulations. One of these required that stations air at least three hours of children’s educational programming per week. A heightened emphasis on “family values” and a widely held belief that social violence was to some degree being generated by violent content on TV were addressed by the new policy with the introduction of a program ratings code and a requirement that all new television sets be equipped with a violent-program-blocking device known as a V-chip. Ratings codes were required to appear on the screen for 15 seconds at the beginning of each show: TV-Y designated appropriateness for all children; TV-Y7 meant that the show was designed for children age 7 and older; TV-G indicated appropriateness for all audiences; TV-PG suggested parental guidance—that the program contained material that could be considered unsuitable for younger children; TV-14 suggested that many parents might find the program inappropriate for anyone under age 14; and TV-MA warned that the program was designed for adults over age 17. Beyond the first two categories, the ratings measured violence, sexual content, and coarse language. The ratings system is flawed at best: the age designations—especially those at 14 and 17—seemed to many arbitrary and insensitive to the variation in development between teenagers. Moreover, the application of the system depended entirely upon the sensibilities of those doing the rating, as did the singling out of language, sex, and violence as the categories for judgment. Some complained that only entertainment programs were rated, when in fact many news shows were becoming increasingly violent and sexually explicit. Some producers, of course, claimed that the ratings system was a form of censorship.
It goes without saying that these forms of classification and censorship deserve a high degree of scrutiny. Such censorship tends to have a decidedly conservative bent, traditionally more tolerant of violence than of sex or harsh language, and more tolerant of heteronormative sexuality than anything outside the traditional binary.
There is a very strong sense of this in Random Thoughts, with the Voyager crew repeatedly pointing out how ridiculous their culture is. The Mari have managed to build a paradise by stamping out dissident thought. “There’s virtually no crime left in our society,” Nimiri boasts to Tuvok. “It took many years, but just walk through our streets, look around. Violence no longer exists.” However, this paradise was created at a very high cost. “So you believe that it’s all right to tell people what they can and cannot think?” Torres demands.
Nimiri responds with the sort of rhetoric that is typical of such moral crusaders who attempt to limit access to art that does not meet their own standards of decency. “It’s an irrefutable fact that violent thoughts from others can lead to violent actions,” she warns Torres, which is the kind of causal connection that inevitably pops up in the wake of truly horrific events. (As ever, it is worth noting that such discussions rarely ever come back around to causal relationship between easy access to firearms and mass murder.)
While this metaphor is interesting and worthy of discussion, there is a sense that is under-explored within the framework of Random Thoughts. After all, one of the big issues in this larger debate about moral panics is the question of artistic freedom. What is art? What validates provocative art? What makes art worthy? What happens to a culture that suffocates artistic expression? However, Random Thoughts is not interested in art or expression; tellingly, the Nomiri are very much focused on banning thought rather than expression.
As such, with this focus, Random Thoughts feels very much like a knee-jerk criticism of concepts like “political correctness” and the idea that the social establishment is seeking to win political arguments by framing certain ideas as existing outside the realm of public discourse. It is a tactic frequently employed by fringe elements of the political right, readily railing against the threat of “political correctness gone mad” to defend speech that might otherwise be categorised as abusive or hateful.
In an interview with Cinefantastique, Rosario Dawson framed the episode in those explicit terms:
“It’s interesting, this whole discussion of thought police and what we are allowed to think and not think, and the kind of trouble that you could get in. It’s actually kind of contemporary.”
What exactly does B’Elanna think about to get into trouble? Dawson recalled, “It’s actually pretty minor. It’s innocuous. It’s somebody bumping into me market place, but because I have a tern my first instinct is to lash out until I realize that’s an irrational thought. But the thought is out there already. Because these people are very sensitive to these thoughts, that becomes a crime. It’s very tricky. I think it brings up a lot of interesting issues.”
Although the distinction might seem minor, there is a huge difference between debates over censorship and the charge of political correctness.
“Political correctness” first entered popular debate in the late eighties and early nineties, often used as a catchy battle cry of reactionary forces concerned about attempts to shift the acceptable range of conversation. For example, the charge of “political correctness” is frequently against efforts to ensure that transgender individuals are correctly gendered, suggesting that the efforts to minimise transphobic discrimination are part of a broader attempt to subvert or undercut freedom of speech.
This reaction against perceived political correctness is likely rooted in the American tendency to treat the right to “freedom of speech” as absolute, to see any attempted restriction upon that right as an affront to individual liberty. Indeed, American culture tends to fixate upon individual rights above broader societal concerns, which may also explain the culture around gun rights that tends to treat the right to “bear arms” as involuble. While there are legitimate debates to be had about freedom of speech on university campuses, these attacks can often seem mean-spirited and vindictive.
To be fair, there are interesting debates to be had around this concept. After all, as Garrett Epps acknowledges, the American concept of free speech stands in contrast to the more moderated European perspective on the right:
Europeans remember a time when free speech didn’t produce a happy ending. They don’t live in a North Korea-style dystopia. They do “take free speech seriously,” and in fact many of them think their system of free speech is freer than ours. Their view of human rights was forged immediately after World War II, and one lesson they took from it was that democratic institutions can be destroyed from within by forces like the Nazis who use mass communication to dehumanize whole races and religions, preparing the population to accept exclusion and even extermination. For that reason, some major human-rights instruments state that “incitement” to racial hatred, and “propaganda for war,” not only may but must be forbidden. The same treaties strongly protect freedom of expression and opinion, but they set a boundary at what we call “hate speech.”
There is an interesting discussion to be had about this, particularly given that the world was still navigating the legacy of the Second World War and the Holocaust as explored in episodes like Remember.
Unfortunately, if Random Thoughts is an episode about this sort of free speech issue, it is incredibly simplistic and crass. At points, Random Thoughts feels like a polemic against attempts to “police” thoughts by arguing that certain ideas or thoughts should be placed “out of bounds” for a society, tantamount to an unfair regulation of the free marketplace of ideas. “Are you saying it’s a crime to think about violence?” Janeways asks Nimira, shortly after the constable charges Torres with “aggravated violent thought resulting in grave bodily harm.”
The Mari regulations are presented as an unjustified restriction upon individual liberty. Indeed, Torres explicitly frames her objections to the law in terms of individual self-determination. “Where we come from, people are responsible for their own actions,” Torres insists. Nimira is not afforded any nuance or depth, instead falling back on Orwellian rhetoric to justify her plans to lobotomise Torres. “And here, people are responsible for their own thoughts.” It is a patently ridiculous concept, but Random Thoughts never bothers to develop it more.
As such, if Random Thoughts can be read as a rejection of “political correctness”, it is a very knee-jerk and reactionary rejection. It is impulsive and surface-level. It is the sort of rhetoric that empowers provocateurs like Donald Trump. It fits quite comfortably with Voyager‘s more reactionary and conservative tendencies; from the rejection of collectivism in Unity to the fear of the immigrant in Displaced to the focus upon the idealised fifties family unit in Real Life. It should be noted that this conservatism tends to come to the fore in episodes written by Kenneth Biller.
However, Random Thoughts is so broad that its allegory may not be specific to these issues of free speech or free expression. Indeed, it is possible that the suppression of “ideas” might be read as a commentary upon other forms of repression and suppression. The focus upon internal thoughts (even more than external expression) suggests that the episode could easily be about issues of identity or self. After all, some thoughts are indistinguishable from a person’s sense of self; their sexual orientation, for example.
Random Thoughts could readily be interpreted as another example of Voyager toying cautiously with homosexual subtext, as it did in episodes like Meld or Revulsion. This is particularly true in the character of Guill, the market place dealer who is revealed to be operating an illicit “thought-sharing” network, in which he trades in dangerous and illegal fantasies and memories. Like Dejaren in Revulsion, Guill is consistently coded and characterised as a queer character.
His meeting with Tuvok is very much likened to two closet men flirting with one another, particularly in the eyes of a society with no tolerance for their orientation. “Why should I trust you?” Guill asks, studying Tuvok. Tuvok responds, simply, “Because you know we are very much alike.” Once the pair begin melding, the script emphasises the male-on-male intimacy. “Yes,” Guill urges in the middle of the meld, lost in a fever of ecstasy. “Good. This is the side of you I wanted to know.” The implication is that Tuvok keeps himself closeted.
Of course, Star Trek has a long history of treating the Vulcan mind meld as an intimate act. In fact, Vulcan culture and practices were coded as queer as early as the first and second seasons of Star Trek; in both This Side of Paradise and Amok Time, Spock asserts his Vulcan nature by choosing Kirk over a female guest character. Vulcan psychic abilities are presented with sexual overtones, although those overtones tend to involve assault and violation in later stories like Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country or Stigma.
The meld between Tuvok and Guill is heavily sexualised. “I’ll need a few moments to recover,” Tuvok acknowledges after their first meld together. Both Tuvok and Guill seem exhausted by it. “I’m surprised you’re so easily tired,” Guill teases. “Your telepathic abilities are strong.” Tuvok confesses, “It is not often that I exercise those skills.” Guill gets pretty rapey pretty quickly, musing, “There must be violent thoughts to be had from your shipmates, whether they want to share them or not. After all, they couldn’t stop a telepath from probing their minds, could they?”
Even aside from the meld itself, the scene between Guill and Tuvok is coded in the televisual language of repressed homosexuality. As David Greven notes in Gender and Sexuality in Star Trek:
Tuvok discovers the real culprit of the thought crime, Guill the ringleader of a black market for violent, perverse thought. As played by Péré, Guills sexuality appears to lean towards the queer, even as he mentions having to get home to his wife and children. The scenes between Tuvok and Guill occur entirely in dark, nighttime back alleys, suggestive of gay crusiing (Enterprise’s episode Stigma will make the same suggestion). The mind-meld that Tuvok strategically proposes to Guill (a ploy to expose Guill’s guilt), given the clandestine nature of their scenes together, is heavily freighted with homoeroticism. The meld scenes expose the depth of Tuvok’s inner violence – he represses shocking scenes of horror, carnage, mayhem, all experienced by Guill with a feverish, erotic delight.
Of course, it goes without saying that this is hardly the most flattering of homosexual subtext in the Star Trek canon. Like Dejaren in Revulsion, Guill is ultimately a monster. In fact, Guill is much less sympathetic that Dejaren was.
Again, although this subtext is there, Random Thoughts never develops it into a nuanced subtext. There is no real sense of the repression that Guill feels. Although the episode insists that the Mari have chosen poorly in their efforts to police “thought crime”, Guill is essentially a two-dimensional monster. In theory, this should add some sense of contrast and intrigue to the story, but Random Thoughts never bothers to explore that contrast. There is the faint suggestion that Guill is a monster who evolved in response to Mari repression, but the idea is never explored.
Similarly, there is also the suggestion that Mari attempts to eliminate undesirable thought mirror prohibition. Random Thoughts repeatedly touches upon the idea that the Mari authorities are trying to do something that is so counter to free will and individuality that it could never actually work. All that the Mari have actually accomplished is to push these thoughts and ideas underground into an unregulated environment where they can turn toxic and lead to horrific consequence.
As Biller suggested in his discussion of the episode, Random Thoughts feels like a half-baked analogy about the drug war. Guill is very much a drug dealer, and there is a suggestion that by trying to outlaw dangerous thought the authorities have simply pushed into the shadows where it develops into something much more dangerous. Those Mari citizens who uses these thoughts and memories as a way of coping with the sterile society around them are treated like drug abusers wrestling with a serious addiction.
Discussing the first attacker, Nimiri states, “He spent years in neurogenic restructuring. The records also say he was cured.” Tuvok pushes the rehab metaphor even further. “Still, it is possible that Frane had a relapse.” Guill even talks about his customers as if dealing with addicts. Explaining the brutal murder at the hands of memory-crazed elderly lady, Guill confesses, “I never meant that to happen. The old woman begged me for that thought. I had to help her.” As with a lot of the other ideas tangled up in Random Thoughts, there are good ideas here.
The metaphor of drug addiction opens up all manner of interesting avenues of debate and exploration. After all, drug addiction does not absolve an individual of responsibility for their actions, but it does provide some sense of context and explanation. A drug addict rarely acts in isolation, their addiction serving as a very literal expression of how broader factors intersect and intertwine with an individual’s decisions and actions. In the context of an episode about the barrier between thought and action, that would certainly seem an interesting point.
Unfortunately, Random Thoughts never does anything with that metaphorical idea. The idea of thought crime as drug addiction is just another interesting concept that is carelessly discarded as the plot races along. Random Thoughts wastes any number of fascinating concepts, and squanders any opportunity to say something interesting about contemporary culture. Instead, it is just a collection of half-formed ideas that are thrown out in quick succession in the desperate hope that one might land.
This lack of focus is reflected in other ways. Random Thoughts has no idea who the focal character is supposed to be. Is Random Thoughts a story about Torres learned to control her anger and accepting that her simmering rage can have unpredictable consequences? The episode starts out in that direction. After all, there is a reason why Torres is the character who spurs Frane’s rampage in the market place. Torres’ defining character attribute is her temper. However, Random Thoughts never does anything with that, instead treating it as a jumping-off point.
However, by the time that Tuvok emerges as a protagonist in the second half of the story, there is no interesting way to develop a character-driven narrative around the resident Vulcan. There is very little in Random Thoughts that feels specific to Tuvok. The bulk of the investigation might easily have been conducted by Odo or Reed. Even the Vulcan-specific mind-meld sequence, which is in some small way unique to Tuvok, is rooted in generic clichés. Guill teases that Tuvok has emotions close to the surface, but Voyager explores that theme better in Meld or Gravity.
It does not help that the episode is obviously padded and extended with scenes and plot threads that go nowhere. This is most notable in the scenes between the secondary character, with Tom and Chakotay on the bridge or Seven of Nine and Janeway in the Ready Room. To be fair, great Star Trek episodes cleverly use these small character beats to illuminate or develop the cast; Deep Space Nine had a tendency to focus subplots on smaller or recurring players to build them up over episodes and seasons. However, the scenes in Random Thoughts are just fluff.
Paris rages at Chakotay about trying to rescue Torres. Chakotay shrugs it off, but asks Paris to plan a rescue mission. “You’re just trying to keep me busy, aren’t you?” Paris asks. Although Chakotay denies it, the scene plays as pure filler. There is a disappointing lack of follow-through on this small thread, no sense of pay-off. It might have made more sense were this scene treated as pay-off at the climax, with Paris’ rescue plan coming into play when it seems like Nimiri will not listen to the evidence exonerating Torres. Instead, it is a narrative dead end.
Just as distracting are the two scenes focusing on Seven of Nine. Voyager is still adjusting to its new arrival, but there is already a sense that the former Borg threatens to overwhelm the show. The character even dominates episodes that are not explicitly about her. In Scientific Method, it is Seven of Nine who is able to see the aliens and who exposes them to the crew. In Random Thoughts, Seven of Nine even gets a miniature arc in which she contemplates the true meaning of Star Trek through conversations with Neelix and Janeway.
These scenes are distracting. They are obviously late additions to the episode, and it is telling that the production team immediately turned to Seven of Nine to bulk up an episode. However, the problem with this subplot is that it feels like it should be a more substantial piece of character development. Seven of Nine learning to understand the crew’s inefficiency and yearning for adventure needs to be more than just as a background player in an episode focusing on two other cast members. Random Thoughts insists that a Torres/Tuvok episode is really about Seven.
To be fair, these scenes were added out of necessity. Dawson confessed to Cinefantastique that several episodes around this stretch of the season needed to be stretched and extended:
“We’re all confused right now,” said Dawson. “For example, we’re shooting additional scenes and reshoots for four episodes, so it’s hard to keep track of what’s going into which episode when they add these extra scenes. We’ve been coming up short on a lot of scripts recently, and I don’t know why. It’s causing us to have to take a day and actually add more material to a lot of the shows.”
This is the reality of writing for rigid network television, having to fill forty-five minutes of an hour with story and character. Inevitably, a few episodes will come in long and a few episodes will come in short.
However, the key has always been how the series decides to make up that missing time. Perhaps the best approach was that taken by Michael Piller when working on the third season of Star Trek: The Next Generation, where he would encourage the production team to slot small character beats into episodes to bulk up the runtime; Picard and Data in the holodeck in The Defector, Picard and Data discussing painting in A Matter of Perspective. These small beats not only set up the theme of the episode ahead, but also suggested a life for these characters outside work.
Voyager has never quite adopted this approach; Year of Hell, Part I and Year of Hell, Part II probably come closest. Random Thoughts is full of great examples of the Voyager writing staff wasting these opportunities by eschewing character beats in favour of meaningless story threads. Paris’ conversation with Chakotay illuminates neither character, instead feeling like set-up for a plot point that was abruptly dropped. The last thing that the fourth season needs is to insist that every episode is about Seven of Nine, even the episodes about other characters.
Random Thoughts is very much a misfire. In fact, it is far too random.