Star Trek: The Next Generation Re-Watch: “Tin Man”

Tin Man“Tin Man”
Written by Dennis Putman Bailey & David Bischoff
Directed by Robert Sheerer

Season 3, Episode 20
Original air date: April 23, 1990
Star date: 43779.3

Mission summary

The Enterprise has an unexpected run-in with Captain DeSoto, who interrupts a really boring charting mission with top secret, ix-nay on the Omulan-Ray implications. He sends over a passenger, a Betazed named Tam Elbrun–“of the Ghorusda disaster,” whatever that means–who is to be the mission specialist of the week. He and Troi have already met, however, back at Betazed University, where she was studying basic visual cues and he was a patient. The mission? Approach a star about to go supernova, currently orbited by what appears to be a living ship that Elbrun has dubbed the “tin man.” Not only that, but they have to get there before the Romulans do, or else.

Unlike most Betazoids, Elbrun had his telepathic ability since birth rather than the onset of adolescence.  As a result, he’s never really played well with others, and with “disaster” on his resume he has a lot of crippling self-doubt. On the Enterprise, he is having a very hard time adjusting to the overwhelming thoughts of so many minds around him, but takes an instant shine to Data because, for one, his mind is absolutely silent; and for two, he’s a little bit of a lonely philosopher. Elbrun confides a bit in Troi, and reveals that he has some contact with “tin man” already. He knows the creature is lonely.

As the Enterprise approaches the star, a cloaked Romulan warbird appears and fires some disabling shots, crippling the ship to get to the creature first. Elbrun wants to be the first, but Picard warns him that sometimes being first isn’t what matters. Meanwhile, further sensor scans show that the living ship has corridors and a breathable atmosphere. It once had a crew!

DATA: Tin Man is a living being which has been bred or has adapted itself to serve a purpose. I find that interesting.
TAM: Why? Must living beings have a purpose? Or do we exist for no reason but to exist?
DATA: I do not believe I am qualified to express an opinion.
TAM: Ah, Data, you’re uniquely qualified. You think a great deal about humanity and you’re an honest researcher. You don’t treat anything as trivial, or irrelevant. You want to try it all.

The Romulans, however, aren’t having any luck talking to Tin Man. In fact, they’re so frustrated that they start to charge up their disruptors, and Elbrun can read their minds: their orders are to destroy the alien if they cannot secure it from the Federation. Elbrun will not let this happen to his new friend, named Gomtuu, and uses his telepathic power to warn the creature. Gomtuu must be listening because he blasts the Romulan ship out of the sky, and in the process cripples the Enterprise so that it, too, is a sitting duck for the impending supernova.

Elbrun is a little worse for the wear as a result of the mental connection he’s established with Gomtuu, but he has learned some valuable information. Gomtuu is the last of his kind, a species from very far away, and he knows very well that the star is going to explode. In fact, that’s why he’s there. He wants to die. There was an accident and his crew died, and now he is alone in the universe. Elbrun thinks he can persuade it to live, but he needs to be in physical contact to make that kind of connection. With the Enterprise at risk and another Romulan ship on the way, Picard reluctantly agrees, as long as Data goes with him.

Onboard Tin Man, Elbrun is in awe of the living ship. He finds the “bridge” and a chair appears for him, along with a viewscreen. Data reminds him of their mission, but it’s too late. Elbrun is not coming back.

TAM: Explain to them. Make them understand.
DATA: But our mission–
TAM: Is to save Tin Man. And I will. But he’s going to save me as well. All my life I have waited for this. A chance to find peace. Finally all the voices are silent. Only Tin Man speaks to me now. Don’t you see, Data? This is where I belong.

Just as the star goes supernova, Tin Man releases a blast of energy that sends both the newly arrived Romulan ship and the Enterprise to a safe distance away (the latter, with Data miraculously onboard). Data tries to fulfill his end of the bargain and explain what happened.

DATA: I witnessed something remarkable. Individually they were both so–
TROI: Wounded? Isolated?
DATA: Yes. But no longer. Through joining they have been healed. Grief has been transmuted to joy. Loneliness to belonging.
TROI: Data, you do understand.
DATA: Yes, Counselor. When Tin Man returned me to the Enterprise, I realized this is where I belong.

Tin Man

Analysis

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen this story done right. Not here, not anywhere. It’s a phenomenal premise, and I think Tam Elbrun is actually a great character played by a great actor, but the episode manages to disappoint because it tries to do too much at once. Is it supposed to be about Elbrun and Troi? About being “different,” as he tells Data? About being literally differently abled in a world that feels overwhelming? Or is it about Elbrun and Data, about belonging and needing a purpose in life, needing to feel needed? Maybe it’s about the dangers of first contact, of “racing” to be first and exploit the unknown instead of actually trying to understand it? Really any of these would be fine stories, but by trying to do all three the episode does none of them justice.

Harry Groener is fantastic in this role. We learn so much about this character (thank you, poorly done exposition!) and yet Groener manages to convey deeper and darker secrets and wounds than the writers were able to give him. On the one hand Elbrun is like a lost child, struggling to find his place in the world with people who are essentially aliens to him. And on the other hand, he’s an incredibly gifted and sophisticated communicator, able not just to speak with but to truly understand the most alien life. I love this dichotomy–the irony of his position, and the “terrible blessing” nature of his gift. It’s a little cliche, but it’s done well and it anchors the episode even when it goes off on little tangents.

But the appeal of that character and that story are exactly why it’s such a shame that the narrative gets away from them. I have always loved the living ship idea, but this episode doesn’t really use it. Ultimately, we simply get the same story told in “The Corbomite Maneuver” and Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Anything unique or special about this life form is hinted at in exposition (the crew, the explosion, the loneliness) rather than shown as part of this story, and I’m left wanting more. The same goes for the disaster in Elbrun’s past, and his internal struggle to overcome guilt and self-doubt. What happened there? Why does it matter to this story? Don’t you kind of want to see that particular story play out, rather than this one?

I really do wish I had liked this more.  It is so nearly a great episode.

Torie’s Rating: Warp 4 (on a scale of 1-6)

Thread AlertThread Alert: Nothing says “itinerant loner” like dressing like the Jolly Green Giant.

Best Line: DATA: You said in the transporter room that you could not read my mind.
TAM: True enough. But I think I understand you pretty well. It worries you that I can’t read your mind?
DATA: Perhaps there is nothing to read. Nothing more than mechanisms and algorithmic responses.
TAM: Perhaps you’re just different. Not a sin, you know, though you may have heard otherwise.

Trivia/Other Notes: The script was based on Dennis Russell Bailey and David Bischoff’s  Nebula award-winning story called “Tin Woodman” published in Amazing Stories 1976. The script was written by three people: Bailey, Bischoff, and Lisa Putman White, whose name was incorporated into Bailey’s credit because rules required no more than two people be paid as a writing team.

Gomtuu’s weird ambient noises are the work of Emmy-winning sound artist Jim Wolvington recording a stethoscope next to his grumbling stomach as he eats pizza.

The magical appearing chair was made of wax, melted, and then used in reverse time lapse to make it seem as if it had grown out of the floor. The episode was nominated for an Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Special Effects.

Harry Groener, who played Tam Elbrun, has had a remarkable career.  As an accomplished stage actor, he was nominated for a Tony Award and Drama Desk Award for his role in the 1980 revival of Oklahoma!. Two years later, he originated the role of Munkustrap in Cats and earned another Tony award nomination. Then he was in Sunday in the Park with George (with Brent Spiner), before raking up another Tony, Drama Desk, and Outer Critics Circle nomination for Crazy for You. Oh, and he can sing, and was in Spamalot, and used to be a ballet dancer. To TV viewers, he’s of course the evil Mayor Wilkins in Buffy the Vampire Slayer (who, interesting, winds up eating Armin Shimmerman at some point). And he’ll be back two more times in Trek: first, in Voyager‘s “Sacred Ground”; then, as Nathan Samuels in Enterprise‘s “Demons” and “Terra Prime.”


Previous episode: Season 3, Episode 19 – “Captain’s Holiday.”

Next episode: Season 3, Episode 21 – “Hollow Pursuits.”

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About Torie Atkinson

Torie Atkinson is a NYC-based law student (with a focus on civil rights and economic justice), proofreader, sometime lighting designer, and former Tor.com blog editor/moderator. She watches too many movies and plays too many games but never, ever reads enough books.