Fri
Jan 20 2012 1:00pm

Star Trek: The Next Generation Rewatch: “Tin Man”

“Tin Man”
Written by Dennis Putman Bailey & David Bischoff
Directed by Robert Scheerer
Season 3, Episode 20
Production episode 40273-168
Original air date: April 2, 1990
Stardate: 43779.3

Captain’s log: While in the midst of a mission, the Enterprise has an unexpected rendezvous with the Hood. They are bringing a first-contact specialist for a mission that might cause issues with the Romulans, hence the secrecy regarding their arrival.

The specialist is a Betazoid named Tam Elbrun, who was responsible for a disaster at Ghorusda during a first-contact situation with the U.S.S. Adelphi. The Adelphi captain was posthumously held responsible during the board of inquiry, but Riker—who numbers two of his friends from the Academy among the 47 who died in the disaster—wonders what Elbrun was doing there if he couldn’t sense such hostility.

Elbrun is also an old friend of Troi’s. She met him at the university on Betazed when she was studying psychiatry there, and he was a patient. This does not fill Picard with warm fuzzies.

Neither does Elbrun, whose telepathy is as powerful as anyone this side of Troi’s mother, and he’s constantly anticipating what people are going to say before they can say it. He seems like he has a permanent headache, and he’s impatient and short with everyone—except, that is, for Data, whom he can’t sense due to his android nature, something Elbrun finds fascinating.

Their mission is to travel to Beta Stromgren, a star on the verge of going nova that has a living ship orbiting it. The bio-ship has been nicknamed “Tin Man” by Starfleet scientists. Attempts at communication have failed, so they are going to meet it.

The problem is the Romulans, who claim Beta Stromgren as their own, though it doesn’t actually fall within their borders. They’re sending two ships to Stromgren, but the Enterprise should arrive first.

Elbrun’s first response when Data brings up the Romulans is that he almost forgot about them, which once again neglects to fill Picard with warm fuzzies toward their first-contact specialist. He does, however, endear himself to the audience when he snaps at Riker and calls him “Billy Boy.”

Troi explains to Picard—worried about the continual lack of warm fuzzies—that Elbrun is a rare Betazoid who was born fully telepathic instead of developing psionic abilities at puberty. Such Betazoids never live normal lives, and Elbrun’s a textbook case. He complains to Troi that the thoughts of thousands of people crash in on him all the time. Data is the only one he can stand to be around.

He’d been on Chondra V, the lone Federation representative on that world of quiet, peaceful people. (They have a three-day ritual for saying “hello.”) But he gave it up because he was drawn to “Tin Man,” an alien that lives in space and feels so lonely.

Troi realizes that Elbrun’s been in subconscious contact with the alien ship this whole time. Nothing solid yet, but he’s getting a feel for the creature.

When they arrive at Stromgren, one of the Romulan vessels decloaks. They ran engines at 30% above standard so they could get there alongside the Enterprise, and their weapons damage the Enterprise enough so that the Romulans will get there first.

Elbrun gets pretty hysterical at that notion, but Picard points out that arriving first at all costs isn’t always the point. They undergo repairs and observe Tin Man some more—a plan that works right up until the Romulans, after failing to communicate, arm weapons to fire on Tin Man on the if-we-can’t-have-it-nobody-can theory of first contact.

Fearful for what will happen, Elbrun goes into a fugue state, sending a telepathic message to the alien. Tin Man responds by letting loose with a massive energy wave that destroys the Romulan ship and badly damages the Enterprise. With another Romulan ship on the way, La Forge works overtime to get everything up and running.

Meanwhile, Picard has now despaired of any warm fuzzies regarding Elbrun, who admits that he’s been in contact with Tin Man—whose real name is Gomtuu—all this time. It’s very old, and has been roaming the stars for ages, but it hasn’t seen another of its kind for millennia. Its crew was killed by a radiation wave, and it’s come to Stromgren to commit suicide when the star goes nova.

Elbrun wants to beam over to Gomtuu. Picard is reluctant, as he doesn’t trust Elbrun. He asks Troi and Data their opinion. Troi fears that Elbrun will lose himself in a telepathic merging with Gomtuu. Data offers to beam over with Elbrun, serving as an intermediary and reminding Elbrun of his responsibility.

The other Romulan vessel decloaks, and makes it clear that they will destroy “the star creature” out of vengeance for the other ship’s destruction. Now desperate, Picard beams Elbrun and Data to Gomtuu. The living ship then puts up a shield that keeps O’Brien from getting a lock on them.

But it’s just as well, because the Romulans are about to attack. Elbrun communicates more directly with Gomtuu while on board. Gomtuu creates a chair in the control center for Elbrun, who explains to Data that he and Gomtuu can save each other. It has been without purpose since its crew died, and Elbrun has sought peace, which he has finally found on board Gomtuu.

Data is intrigued by what has happened. He is returned to the Enterprise after Gomtuu uses its energy to send both ships far away.

Can’t we just reverse the polarity?: Gomtuu is a living ship, born in space, but bred to have a crew, complete with interior atmosphere and workings and living quarters.

Thank you, Counselor Obvious: Troi is concerned about Elbrun, whom she obviously cares deeply about as a friend. She withholds his communication with Gomtuu from Picard (which doesn’t have any consequences, as Elbrun doesn’t rat her out), and tries to convince Picard not to let Elbrun beam over to Gomtuu for fear that he will lose himself. Instead, he finds himself, proving her wrong, but her instincts are understandable, given Elbrun’s behavior to date.

This episode also establishes the rather bizarre notion that Betazoids don’t develop telepathy until puberty, a very humanocentric notion that immediately makes them less alien and, by extension, less interesting.

If I only had a brain…: Elbrun describes Data as restful. Troi diplomatically refers to that viewpoint on Data as unique. In the end, Data is fascinated by Elbrun and Gomtuu’s joining, and also realizes that the Enterprise is where he belongs.

I believe I said that: “I should’ve brought up the Romulans earlier, but I was—distracted.” (looks at Riker) “And no, Billy Boy, I wasn’t ’distracted’ on Ghorusda. If Darson had listened to me, no one would’ve died.” (Riker looks away, dubious) “No? Well, I don’t care whether you believe that or not!”

Elbrun having a conversation with Riker’s brain.

Welcome aboard: Tony Award winner Harry Groener has always been a great character actor, often playing eccentrics, from the neurotic Ralph on Dear John to the scarily whitebread Mayor Wilkins on Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Gunther the Chef on Las Vegas to Ted’s hippy dippy stepfather on How I Met Your Mother, and he is simply stellar here as the neurotic, acerbic über-telepath. His reactions are perfect, from his finishing of people’s sentences to his constant state of fatigue to his being completely startled at Data’s presence. Just a great performance.

Also of note is the brief appearance by Michael Cavanaugh as the oft-mentioned-but-never-before-seen Captain Robert DeSoto of the Hood, Riker’s former CO and Picard’s old friend.

Of less note is Peter Vogt’s one-dimensional portrayal of a Romulan commander. Where’s Andreas Katsulas when we need him?

Trivial matters: DeSoto had previously been mentioned in “Encounter at Farpoint” and would be mentioned again several times, notably in “The Pegasus” and Deep Space Nine’s “Treachery, Faith, and the Great River.” He also appears in several tie-in novels: Losing the Peace by William Leisner, The Buried Age by Christopher L. Bennett, Paths of Disharmony by Dayton Ward, Homecoming by Christie Golden, and the novel that established the most about the character, The Brave and the Bold Book 2 by your humble rewatcher.

In Data’s quarters, Elbrun looks at one of the android’s paintings, which appears to be of the spatial anomaly from “Time Squared.”

The episode was based on the short story “Tin Woodsman” by Dennis Russell Bailey and David Bischoff, which first appeared in Amazing Stories in 1976 (and was expanded into a novel in 1979, which was reprinted in a new eBook edition at the end of last year). In collaboration with Lisa Putman White, they reworked it into a teleplay, with Bailey and White using the pseudonym Dennis Putman Bailey.

Both the original story title and Gomtuu’s nickname derive from L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and its assorted adaptations over the years, though the nickname relating to the mechanical man who only wants a heart would appear to truly apply to Data, not Gomtuu. (Of course, that analogy has been made before, in “Skin of Evil” and “The Schizoid Man.”)

Make it so: “It seems you have awakened your Tin Man.” This almost automatically ranks as a strong episode due to the double whammy of being a true science fiction story and a superb guest turn by Groener as Tam Elbrun. Gomtuu is a wonderful example of a new life and a new civilization. The notion of living ships wasn’t even a new one when Bailey and Bischoff wrote “Tin Woodsman” back in the mid-70s, but it’s one Star Trek never really did much with prior to this (though I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Moya, the living ship on which most of the action on Farscape took place, a show for which Richard Manning—at this point, a co-producer on TNG—was one of the main writers).

Still, the episode is far from perfect. The Romulan threat is perfunctory at best, and the logistics of the confrontations with the Romulans and with Gomtuu are kind of silly. The first Romulan ship disables the Enterprise with appalling ease—not aided by Picard never once giving the order to fire back—and then it takes the second Romulan ship forever to attack Gomtuu for no reason except the plot calls for it.

However, it’s a rare episode that truly lives up to the voiceover during the opening credits, and we get a nifty guest star on top of it. Fine stuff.

 

Warp factor rating: 7


Keith R.A. DeCandido was rather shocked to realize that none of the many billions of pieces of Star Trek tie-in fiction has looked in on Gomtuu and Tam Elbrun. That should probably be rectified at some point. However, he had fun fleshing out Captain DeSoto in The Brave and the Bold. Check out his web site for ordering info on his newest novels, plus links to his blog, Facebook, and Twitter.

32 comments
Mike S.
1. Mike S.
I guess your feelings on this episode comes down to how much you like Tam. Me? Not so much. The whole story involving him was too "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" for me. Sitting through that once was enough, thank you (although at least this episode is 90 minutes shorter).

Although it was not used as a "Wizard of Oz" analogy, Data was also called Tin Man by Armus, the "Skin of Evil."
Benji Cat
2. benjicat
Ugh! I cannot stand Tam Elbrun. There's just something about the character or maybe the actor who plays him that gives me the creeps. It's a difficult episode for me to watch because of that.
Benji Cat
3. benjicat
Double post - sorry.
Mike S.
4. Rootboy
I like this one, mostly because, as Keith says, it's a Real Science Fiction story. His point about Betazoids not being telepaths until puberty weakening them is a good one, though - they should all be like Elbrun, just less neurotic about it.
Nate Shouse
5. MnemonicNate
I love this episode! To me, it's such a rare, original story that stands on its own merits, and I'm so glad you mentioned its sci-fi roots (coming from the short story/novel). I think this was the first episode where I noticed full-blooded Betazoids have completely dark irises.

I know Tam can be a bit hard to take, but I think anyone who's had a friend or family member suffer with a condition or disease can relate to his discomfort and apparent hostility.

Ah, kudos to Jay Chattaway and his score on this episode! This is one of my favorite scores, and I wish I had it on CD...the theme for Tin Man is hauntingly simple and beautiful.
Jenny Thrash
6. Sihaya
Did not care for Tam. The unhappy prodigy stereotype was pushed to 11 by an actor who's way too used to emoting all the way to the box seats in the back of the room.

I wonder about your opinion that the Betazoids become less interesting the moment they're less "other," less exotic. Do you find humanity generally boring? It's a typically argued anthropology question, actually. Some anthropologists think that anthropology is too obsessed with the "other" in ethnography, that it works too hard to find differences between peoples instead of comonalities. Personally, I think one needs to identify and eliminate the differences in order to discover commonalities, but that's my POV. What you seem to be saying, though, is that in a ficitonal character we should try as hard as possible to make the alien, well, alien -that creating commonalities is somehow subjecting the character to some sort of normalization. Well, if one is the writer, then one is subjecting the character to everything.

Personally, I don't see how Betazoids are any less ESPerish for having their ESP at an older age. It might explain why they're not id-driven maniacs who killed each other off in the rocks-and-digging-sticks phase of cultural development. I can see the first gatherer's interior monologue now, "Oh no, he wants my root vegetables! I'd better kill him before he-" WHAM!
Keith DeCandido
7. krad
I should've explained in more depth: by making Betazoid telepathy something that develops at puberty, it makes them less like aliens and more like humans with super-powers -- the telepathy just becomes the equivalent of the bumps on the forehead to show that they're alien. I'd rather my aliens actually are really really alien, I guess. *shrug*

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Mike S.
8. Majicou
As I recall, they established that most Betazoids, developing telepathy around adolescence, have the time to learn how to screen out the constant thoughts of others, whereas unfortunates like Tam don't ever have the chance. It's pretty hard to imagine a scenario in which natural selection could lead to a species of angry, neurotic, and especially contact-averse people like Tam. A gene (or set of genes) that makes an individual never want to spend time around others of his own kind isn't going to make it very far.
Mike S.
9. Christopher L. Bennett
Keith: The writer credits at the top of the column contain a typo -- "Putnam" instead of Putman. (And the reason Bailey and White combined their names is because WGA rules at the time wouldn't allow paying more than two people as a single writing team.)

@#8: Wouldn't it actually be the other way around -- that someone who developed psi powers sooner would, by definition, have more time to learn to screen out thoughts?

This is a good episode, though I wish Gomtuu could've been explored more fully. It was also my introduction to Harry Groener, and he did do a good job.

The episode is also notable as the Trek debut of composer Jay Chattaway, who would replace Ron Jones in the regular rotation the following season and continue as one of Trek's regular composers through the final season of ENT. His work here is much more in his normal style than in the more subdued, wallpapery style Rick Berman preferred, so it's one of his most interesting scores.

A bit of trivia: The special effect of the chair forming out of Gomtuu's "flesh" was done by melting a wax model and running the film in reverse. This was how the producers originally wanted to achieve the emergence of Armus in "Skin of Evil," but they couldn't quite get the effect to work within the time and budget they had, so they had to resort to the cruder methods they ultimately employed. Here they were finally able to get it right.
Keith DeCandido
10. krad
Eeep! Thanks, Christopher. Typo duly fixed. (I do so love the edit function....)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Jenny Thrash
11. Sihaya
Hmm, I'd better make one clarification on my earlier post - when I say " identify and eliminate the differences in order to discover commonalities," I mean eliminate them as factual points from a list of characteristics. I definitely do *not* mean eradicating cultural differences in the real world.

And thank you for your reply, krad.
Robyn Oakes
12. shimmertree
Regarding living ships, don't forget the wraith ships on Stargate-Atlantis.
Mike S.
13. Eugene R.
On the antiquity of living spaceships (or "bioships"), one of the earliest uses of the concept is "Specialist" (1953) by Robert Sheckley, in which a communal/gestalt spaceship needs to replace its "pusher" (FTL driver) and finds that humans fit the bill. Conversely, the story also implies that human social problems are likely a result of a lot of frustrated sapients on Earth who lack an outlet for their special talent.

Which brings me to Betazoids and the emergence of their telepathy/empathy. I agree with Mr. DeCandido that the notion of their mental power emerging at puberty does seem to lessen their alien-ness; on the other brain lobe, having that same power from birth would likely make them much more alien in behavior - they might not see any need to screen out thoughts at all and fail/refuse to distinguish between one another's thoughts instead, going all "hive mind" on us, which could be a bit hard for the TV audience to cozy up to. Completing each other's sentences would be the least of it; they might interleave their conversations word-by-word, phrase-by-phrase around the room.
Mike S.
14. Dennis Bailey
Nice review, thanks.

We carried the "telepathy developing at adolescence" over from the original short story, in which the telepath is a human; Troi and her folks never have struck me as the least bit alien even when they're dealing with one another - I suppose that's just a consequence of having to write dramatic scenes for human actors - so I didn't think much about transposing the characteristic to the Betazoids. As far as Tam's charming personality...I didn't expect people to like him, really. Why would you? ;-)

FWIW, the original novel 1979 is now available as an ebook for the Kindle and Nook from Amazon and Barnes and Noble.
Mike S.
15. StrongDreams
The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester does an interesting turn at describing conversations involving telepaths and normals, includin an ESPer-only dinner party. It's a great story and worth a read.

I'm hard-pressed to think of any examples of truly alien beahavior in Star Trek. Probably because the writers and producers were constrained by having to use human actors and tell stories that a large audience could relate to with minimal difficulty. In Darmok, the two crews couldn't communicate, but they had essentially the same motivations and values. The horta was a mommy protecting her young. For all the cultural development of the Klingons and Romulans, they would fit right in with certain Earth cultures. And developing TP at puberty instead of birth can't really make Betazoids less alien because they weren't alien to begin with (naked weddings notwithstanding).
Mike S.
16. Dennis Bailey
It would be interesting to see the Betazoids or some telepathic species basically "putting on" individual human-like personalities when dealing with human beings, using feedback from the minds of the humans they're dealing with to fine-tune their responses and reactions. Of course they'd become Klingon-ish when dealing with Klingons, etc. When they are interacting with one another, they wouldn't speak at all; if their telepathy is active at birth (kind of a naive concept itself; one would expect it to slowly develop from gestation on) they'd all have a universal "internal language" and perhaps no spoken native tongue at all.

That doesn't fit into Star Trek's way of doing things at all, of course - at least, not Trek TV or movies.
Mike S.
17. StrongDreams
Star Trek did have one alien who was empathic and adopted the personality of whomever it was with. Of course, it was a pretty lady guest star love interest, which definitely is Star Trek's way of doing things.
Mike S.
18. Majicou
There was also a telepathic species, the Cairn from "Dark Page," who had no spoken language and didn't even use verbal "thought-speech."
Mike S.
19. euphbass
It makes perfect sense that Betazoids' telepahthy would not be present at birth. Imagine the chaos of babies and children being fully telepathic! It really would mess with their minds. On the other hand, a fully telepathic species could be born with some ability but such a species would probably have lost the ability to use asound-based communication at all way back in their evolutionary chain and telepathy would be their primary means of communication, no doubt developing with age, much as our speech develops with age. The fact that Betazoids have a complex and fully developed spoken language / speaking ability at all implies that they are not born telepathic. Doesn't make them any less alien to me!
Keith DeCandido
20. krad
Dennis: you're welcome, and I see your point regarding Betazoids. :)

Also I mentioned the new edition of Tin Woodsman, going so far as to provide a link so folks can purchase it. We are a full-service blog. :)

---Keith R.A. DeCandido
Mike S.
21. Dennis Bailey
Thanks.
Bob Weld
22. WaitingShadows
I like this episode, especially because of the living ship. I also loved Farscape, and was pleased to read the mention of it in this review. I also didn't know that the same person was at least involved in both shows, although I always suspected. Thanks for a great review.
Mike S.
23. De Baisch
Dennis Bailey used to do a terrific slideshow on the making of this episode at conventions.
Mike S.
24. Fresno Bob
I too enjoyed the score, but always thought the "tin man" theme was an homage/ripoff of a riff from peter gabriel's "Rythym of the Heat"
Mike S.
25. silhouettepoms
A ship, a living ship!
Dante Hopkins
26. DanteHopkins
Seems I have the rare privilege of dissenting from the majority this time. This is one of my favorite episodes of TNG in general. It's guest character is not immediately best friends with every member of the senior staff (which made it all the more enjoyable) and Harry Groener's portrayal of Elbrum is just wonderful.

I guess you have to be kind of an outcast to fully appreciate a wonderfully realistic character like Elbrum, but I fully enjoyed watching Picard and Riker's disdain for Elbrum, and his mutual disdain for them (take that you "normals.") The score is also amazing, adding to the tension of the episode. Its one of the best scores of the whole series. As far as the Romulan part of the plot, it just added to the tension and mystery as to to why the Romulans would even care enough about Gomtuu to send one ship, let alone two. That is explained by Worf: "The Romulans claim all that is within their field of vision." A great ride from start to finish, made all the more fun and different by Elbrum. I'll agree with the rating of 7.
Mike S.
27. Rob Y
Right off the bat I will admit to being pretty abnormal, because from its original airing, I've always been drawn to this episode. It's my favorite of all TNG.

I guess I perceive it differently from most folks. To me, the subject of the episode isn't the "living ship," it's the alienation of Tam Elbrun. An alienation so profound and nearly complete that he can only achieve a sliver of peace and happiness by living for years with creatures so alien they take three days to say hello. Yet, his alienation isn't absolute, because he does realize that he needs someone to care for. Upon sensing Gomtuu's presence, this need doesn't seem completely hopeless, perhaps for the first time in his life. That's reason enough for his being an asshole. It seems to me that anyone who has felt an inkling of this could relate.

Also, I'm not sure about Betazoids being less alien because they must reach puberty before becoming telepathic. Imagine being able to read your children's thoughts from the time they're born and know them intimately, while they couldn't read yours at all until puberty. Doesn't sound like a typical human family to me.
Mike S.
28. Jonathan Baron
Reading these comments made me understand why this was my favorite Next Generation episode. There is genuine, plausible character conflict here in a series so devoid of it that numerous possession scenarios needed to be concocted over its long run. Plus you have a Fed who is unpleasant without having to either be taken over by some malevolent "other" or have obnoxious behavior as a racial trait.

Both the script and the performances walk a splendid fine line between valid points of view. This too was unusual as the series lapsed into the cliché of fictional substitute family that most television series become. It goes so far as to rebel against this tired notion.

Thus ST:TNG never had its City on the Edge of Forever. But it had many good efforts, this and The Inner Light among them.
Mike S.
29. uv
I was expecting a 9 rating for Tin Man. 7 is too low.
Mike S.
30. JohnC
I find it interesting that a few of the commenters express a dislike for the episode because they dislike the Tam character. I think we're supposed to dislike him, at least at first. He's rude, abrasive, dismissive, and impatient, which I suppose might be expected from someone who is being constantly bombarded with the minutiae of other being's thoughts. I thought it was a good well-acted episode (bonus points for excellent furrowing of Tam's bushy eyebrows) except maybe for the predictability of the ending. 7 is about right.
Mike S.
31. TDV
Tin Man reminded me a lot of Lexx, the ultra powerful living ship, and a great sci-fi show (if you like camp). Of course, TNG came long before.
Mike S.
32. Jenny87
Puberty onset telepathy makes more sense to me personally. You really need those early years alone to develop your sense of self. If you know what's coming from you, then you can block out what's not coming from you.
Tam Elbrun seemed to me to be very similar in his portrayal to how a schizophrenic (or other mentally ill person who experiences auditory hallucinations) would react when faced with a large group of people. This episode is very close to my heart as it aired the year my mother was first diagnosed with mental illness. She was in the mental hospital when it aired. Whenever I see "Tin Man" it always reminds me of my mother, and how hard it can be for people like her to interact with other people.
For me, his agitation and short fuse are perfectly reasonable for his position. The character gets nothing but sympathy from me.

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