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Recap / Star Trek: The Next Generation S3E20 "Tin Man"

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The titular "Tin Man", which looks more like a cross between a garden bulb and a sweet potato.

Original air date: April 23, 1990

While on a routine assignment, the Enterprise is suddenly approached by the USS Hood, captained by an old comrade of Picard's (who also happens to be Riker's former CO, as established back in "Encounter at Farpoint") who informs him that the Enterprise has received new top-secret orders involving a time-critical mission. Due to security concerns, they will be briefed by the Betazoid mission specialist, Tam Elbrun. Riker immediately bristles at the name due to Tam Elbrun's involvement in the "Ghorusda Disaster," which resulted in the deaths of 47 Starfleet personnel, including two of Riker's former classmates. Troi knows Tam from her university days and reveals that he was once one of her patients, which does not sit well with the rest of the crew.

Tam is a gifted telepath even by Betazoid standards. Brusque and aloof, he skips to the end of every conversational exchange using his telepathy "to save time" and unceremoniously hands Picard his orders. He's much more friendly to Troi, however, but he's even more fascinated by Data. As someone whose mind he cannot read, Data offers him a unique opportunity to get to know someone. That said, he urges the crew to convene in 15 minutes for his briefing.

Tam explains that 23 parsecs beyond any previous manned mission, deep in the Beta Stromgren system, a life form code-named "Tin Man" has been discovered orbiting a collapsing star, but all subspace attempts at communications have failed. Tam, as Starfleet's top expert in first contact with unknown life-forms, will attempt to telepathically communicate with it. Complicating matters is the fact that Tin Man is in a sector claimed by the Romulan Empire, which has sent their own ships in an attempt to get to Tin Man first, making this a race. At the end of the meeting, Tam confronts Riker about his bitter feelings over Ghorusda, but Riker is unmoved.

En route to Beta Stromgren, Picard holds a meeting with Crusher and Troi over his concerns about Tam's stability. Troi explains that Tam was born telepathic, which is unusual for a Betazoid and means he cannot turn it off at will. His unusually powerful abilities cause him to be constantly bombarded with other people's thoughts. In spite of the therapy he receives to cope, he's become a miserable recluse. Later, Tam vents to Troi about his issues and lets slip that he's already been in mental contact with Tin Man, which is why he's volunteered for this assignment against his natural inclination.

The ship's sensors have been picking up a weird "echo" matching their speed and course. At 18 minutes away from Beta Stromgren, the echo reveals itself to be a cloaked Romulan Warbird, which cripples the Enterprise as it passes. Tam reads the enemy captain's mind and reveals that the attack was solely to delay the Enterprise and get to Tin Man first. The gambit works: Picard orders that they repair their shields before continuing, surrendering first contact to the Romulans.

In the mean time, Tam visits Data, who's using the opportunity to study Tin Man further, He says that Tin Man is probably a Living Ship but lacks a crew. He wonders whether Tin Man was bred for that purpose or if it adapted itself to serve a purpose. Tam and Data then get philosophical about the purpose of anyone's life, organic or android. Tam shows great respect for Data and assures him that, even though he can't read his mind, his thoughts are no less valid than anyone else's.

When the ship finally reaches Tin Man, the Warbird is preparing to arm its weapons again. Tam realizes that they're going to destroy Tin Man to deny it to the Federation. Tan reaches his mind out to Tin Man to warn it, and it releases a pulse of energy that obliterates the Warbird and damages the Enterprise. Confronted by Picard over his actions, Tam admits that he's been in stronger contact with Tin Man than he'd admitted. Its real name is Gomtuu, and it's the Last of His Kind. It journeyed to the dying star to commit suicide. Tam claims the only way to stop Gomtuu from killing itself is to go inside it. Troi is worried that Tam is losing himself in the merger of minds, so Data volunteers to go along with Tam to "anchor" him.

Data and Tam beam aboard Gomtuu. After a moment of distress, Tam claims Gomtuu has told him the story of his entire existence. He claims the crew and Gomtuu existed in a symbiotic relationship, hence Gomtuu's anguish at their loss. "Is that the purpose of existence? To care for someone?" asks Data. Tam says it is for him—and he doesn't plan on leaving. Tam will fulfill the mission by taking the crew's place and giving Gomtuu a reason to live again. Meanwhile Gomtuu will also save Tam: he is now finally free of the deluge of thoughts that plagued him through his life. Only Gomtuu speaks to him now.

Meanwhile, the other Romulan Warbird has arrived and plans to destroy Gomtuu in retaliation for the other ship. However, Gomtuu, now merged with Tam, produces another wave that safely pushes both the Enterprise and the Warbird several billion kilometers away, just in time to witness the sun go supernova. A shocked Picard calls out for Data... who is immediately beamed safe and sound aboard the bridge.

With the fates of Tam and Gomtuu left unknown, Data tells Troi that Tam asked Data to explain Tam's reasons for staying with Gomtuu and hoped she would understand. Data adds he saw something "remarkable": Tam and Gomtuu, two beings individually broken and isolated yet both healed when joined, with their grief and loneliness turned to joy and belonging. Troi is amazed at Data's insight and he adds that when Gomtuu beamed him back to the Enterprise, he realized that it's where he belongs.

This episode contains examples of the following tropes:

  • Artistic License – Medicine: Deanna matter-of-factly reveals to the crew that their next mission specialist is a former patient of hers and later on essentially reveals said patient’s entire medical history to the entire senior staff. By present-day ethical standards around confidentiality and dual roles, that would be a severe no-no.
  • Blessed with Suck: Tam's telepathy is extraordinary even by Betazoid standards. He can learn everything there is to know about a person simply by being near them, read the minds of people on other starships with ease, and is constantly aware of everyone around him. Which is the part that sucks. He can't turn it off, and therefore has severe socialization issues and exhibits schizophrenia-like symptoms, except that the voices in his head are the actual thoughts of the people in his proximity.
  • Boring, but Practical: Discussed by Captain DeSoto, albeit in a jovial way. The Enterprise gets the high risk assignment of getting Tam to Gomtuu, but it was the Hood, an old Excelsior-class, that got Tam to the Enterprise in the first place, saving valuable time.
    DeSoto: Ah, well, you know, they send you Galaxy-class boys out here to the far reaches. Me, I just haul my butt back and forth between starbases.
  • Call-Back: Data's painting appears to be of the time vortex from "Time Squared."
  • Dangerous Forbidden Technique:
    • Contacting Gomtuu before the Federation could was so important for the Romulans that they burned out the warp coils of their ship overclocking their engines in order to keep up with the Enterprise.
    • In order to get shields, La Forge has to redirect power from the structural integrity field, overriding the computer's warnings.
    • In order to keep the Romulans from destroying Tin Man, Tam merges his mind with it and convinces it to defend itself. As a result of coming into direct contact with it, his brain goes into a brief seizure/fugue state and he's swept up in its despair.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: After Gomtuu lost its crew in a radiation disaster, it wandered aimlessly with no reason to exist and no companions, eventually reaching a Despair Event Horizon and deciding to commit suicide at Beta Stromgren. Thankfully, merging with Tam gives it a crew and a purpose once more.
  • Didn't Think This Through: Tam warns Gomtuu, whose telepathy demonstrates it to be extremely powerful, of danger without considering the safety of the ship he's on himself. The Enterprise is severely damaged as a result.
  • Dolled-Up Installment: It's based on the non-Star Trek novel, Tin Woodman by Dennis Putman Bailey and David Bischoff.
  • Driven to Suicide: Gomtuu, at the beginning of the episode, is attempting to commit suicide by supernova due to the loss of its crew. Tam's arrival gives it new purpose.
  • "Eureka!" Moment: Before they know anything about Gomtuu besides it's location and appearance, Tam mentions how much he empathizes with it, a great intelligence lonely for so long. Troi realizes that the only way he could know the ship is independently intelligent is if he's in telepathic contact with it.
  • Explosive Overclocking: The first Romulan warbird overloads their engines to beat the Enterprise to Beta Stromgren, but the damage done to them means they wouldn't be able to return to Romulan space.
  • Famed In-Story: Tam Elbrun is regarded as the Federation's finest expert in First Contact with new lifeforms. Unfortunately, he's also rather infamous within Starfleet for his screw up with the Ghorusdans.
  • Godzilla Threshold: Although Picard is suspicious of Tam Elbrun's judgement and Tin Man's power the threat of a Romulan attack against the damaged Enterprise leads him to agree to Tam's plan to physically transport to Gomtuu.
  • If I Can't Have You…: The Romulans have been ordered to make contact with Tin Man/Gomtuu, and if they can't, to destroy it in order to deny it to the Federation.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Tam. Being bombarded with others' thoughts all his life hasn't done his sanity any favors. He's much nicer to Deanna and Data, and he's certainly happy when he and his mind are alone with Gomtuu.
  • Last of Its Kind: Gomtuu is speculated to be the only survivor of its species. After the death of its crew it traveled for thousands of years, never finding another of its kind.
  • Line in the Sand: Even though the Enterprise is heavily damaged, Captain Picard refuses to just stand aside and let the Romulans destroy Tin Man.
  • Living Emotional Crutch: When Tam boards Gomtuu, they become this for each other—Gomtuu can silence the cacophony of thoughts Tam is subjected to, and Tam gives it a "crew" again.
  • Living Ship: Gomtuu. Its appearance was modeled after a peach pit.
  • Loss of Identity: Deanna mentions that Tam may end up being lost in Gomtuu's mind if he comes into closer contact with it. When Tam does finally fully connect with the ship, he's more than happy to lose himself and find peace within.
  • A Mind Is a Terrible Thing to Read:
    • Tam Elbrun was born with his abilities active and on a level beyond other Betazoids, and thus has been assaulted by the thoughts of others since he was born. Even with early diagnosis and training, he never learned to shut them out properly. The stress sent him to hospitals throughout his life, and he mentions to Troi that the thoughts of the few thousand people on the Enterprise alone feels like a tide that might swallow him up.
    • Merging minds with Gomtuu causes him to be nearly overwhelmed by its grief, nearly losing himself in it.
  • Mind over Matter: Once joined with Tam, the pair send the Enterprise well away from the star as it goes supernova.
  • Mood Whiplash: A Downplayed example compared to most others, but all levity in the opening conversation with Captain DeSoto vanishes when the name "Tam Elbrun" is mentioned.
    Riker: As in "Tam Elbrun" of the Ghorusda Disaster?
    DeSoto: The same. What can I say?
  • My Skull Runneth Over: Gomtuu tries to convey its long, long lifetime of experiences to Tam all at once, and nearly kills him. Fortunately, they manage to adapt to each other.
  • Never My Fault: Tam (and eventually Starfleet) blamed Captain Darson for what happened at Ghorusda, claiming that Darson didn't listen to his recommendations. Tam later admits that he may have been so caught up in the Ghorusdan race's minds and wanted everyone to get along so much that he neglected to warn Darson more forcefully.
  • No MacGuffin, No Winner: The Romulans have orders to destroy Tin Man if they can't contact it rather than let the Federation have a go. In the end, Tin Man does leave for parts unknown.
  • "No Rules" Racing: Happens as the Enterprise and the Warbird race to reach Tin Man, with the Romulans winning by attacking and disabling the Federation ship.
  • No Social Skills: Tam. Due to his Power Incontinence he tends to respond to questions that aren't asked, or to criticisms that people don't say to his face.
  • Power Incontinence: Tam is unable to control his telepathy, which causes him to be bombarded with people's thoughts 24/7. And seeing as his abilities are apparently powerful enough to sense a Romulan Captain's thoughts from a different ship passing by at a large fraction of the speed of light as well as to sense Tin Man's emotions from several days distance away at FTL speeds.
  • Power-Strain Blackout: Tam blacks out after warning Gomtuu about the Romulan attack.
  • Scenery Porn: The shot of Tin Man turning around suddenly, sending out the energy wave, was included in just about every ad for VHS episode collections early on, generally while the announcer was praising TNG's special effects.
  • Scotty Time: Geordi says he needs 30 minutes to get some shield power back. Picard says, "You've got 10."
  • Some Kind of Force Field: O'Brien says this when Gomtuu raises a shield, cutting off O'Brien's transporter lock on Data and Tam.
  • Starfish Aliens: Tam is an expert at communicating with them, thanks to his telepathic gifts. Deanna notes that after his experiences on Ghorusda, he tended to choose assignments with non-humanoid races, as he found them easier to deal with than humanoids.
  • Starship Luxurious: How Captain DeSoto describes the Enterprise.
    DeSoto: Will, you getting soft on that luxury liner?
  • Stock Footage: Gomtuu's attack is taken from V'Ger's transformation at the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture.
  • Telepathic Spacemen: Tin Man broadcast its loneliness across light-years, but only Tam was a powerful enough telepath to pick it up. They've been in loose contact since, giving each other impressions.
  • Teleportation: Gomtuu is capable of teleporting people across vast distances, and does so to put Data back on the Enterprise.
  • Uncertain Doom: We never find out if Tam and Gomtuu survived the supernova explosion or not; the episode doesn't even give enough information to know if Gomtuu has the capability to outrun the explosion or not. It may have performed a Heroic Sacrifice to save the Enterprise and the second Warbird, or Tam's presence might have given it the will to live and save itself from the supernova.
  • Wave-Motion Gun: Gomtuu, when convinced to defend itself by Tam, sends out a circular shockwave that immediately destroys a Romulan ship and nearly takes the Enterprise with it.
  • What Happened to the Mouse?: As noted by Picard in his closing log entry, the fate of Tam, Gomtuu, and the second Romulan ship is a mystery.