While on a routine assignment, the Enterprise is suddenly approached by the USS Hood, captained by an old friend of Picard's (who also happens to be Riker's previous CO) 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 sound of the name, due to Tam Elbrun's involvement in the "Ghorusda Disaster," which as it's later revealed resulted in the deaths of 47 Starfleet personnel, including two of Riker's former classmates. Troi also recognizes the name and asks to see him, since she knows Tam from her university days studying psychology. When Picard asks if he was her colleague, Troi dramatically replies that he was her patient. The horrifying revelation that the guy attended THERAPY is enough to warrant a dramatic sting followed by the opening credits.
The crew assembles to meet Tam, whom Troi describes as a gifted telepath, even by Betazoid standards. Once he is beamed over, Picard tries to be cordial, but Tam is brusque and aloof, unceremonously handing Picard the orders on a USB dri—that is, "isolinear chip"—to "save time." He acts a lot more cordially to Troi, whom he greets like an old friend. When Data talks to Tam, however, the latter is almost horrified in shock, asking him what he is. Once Data explains he's an android, Tam becomes intrigued, since he can't read his mind. Tam then proceeds to use his telepathy to anticipate what people are trying to say, which looks as grossly disrespectful as it sounds. Picard is getting annoyed at this and calls for a formal briefing in 15 minutes, which Tam wants to get over with as soon as possible.
During said briefing Data describes their destination: the Beta Stromgren system, 23 parsecs beyond any previous manned mission, where a Starfleet probe recently arrived. The system contains a star about to go supernova. Tam cuts Data off to get to the real mission objective: orbiting the star lies a Living Ship, code-named "Tin Man" by Starfleet, with an unknown power source. All subspace communications with the creature have yielded nothing but silence, so Tam, as Starfleet's top expert in first contact with unknown life-forms, will attempt to telepathically communicate with it. Troi asks why this is so urgent and Picard mentions a tiny detail that Tam "forgot" to mention: the Romulans. Tin Man is in a sector claimed by the Romulan Empire and since they monitor all Federation probes, they've sent ships to get to Tin Man first, making this a race. After the briefing is over, Picard expresses his concern that Tam didn't mention the Romulans right away. Tam apologizes, claiming he was distracted, a comment which causes Riker to shoot him a dirty look. Tam immediately reads his thoughts and claims Gorushda wasn't his fault. He shouts that he knows Riker doesn't believe him and storms away in a huff.
En route to Beta Stromgren, Picard holds a meeting with Crusher and Troi due to his concerns about Tam's stability. After Crusher remarks about Tam's unusually powerful abilities, Troi explains Tam's problem: while most Betazoids develop telepathy during adolescence, Tam is part of a minority which are born telepathic, which causes them to be unable to control their powers. As you might expect, being bombarded with other people's thoughts all throughout your childhood can be quite taxing on one's mental state.note Tam copes via regular therapy (which is how he met Troi), and by seeking assignments where he is isolated from other humanoids.
Meanwhile, Wesley makes his token participation by informing us that the sensors have picked up a weird "echo" matching their speed and course. Naturally, the first thing on everyone's minds is a cloaked Romulan ship, but as Geordi points out, a cloaked ship wouldn't show up at all, meaning they must be only partially cloaked due to using a lot of power for something else. Data orders that the echo be monitored closely.
Troi goes over to Tam's room since he has been holed up in there for a while. Tam explains he's doing this because he can't shut out the thoughts of the hundreds of people on the ship. They discuss the Gorushda incident and Tam admits that he might have gotten "too close" to the Gorushdans, which affected his judgement, and that he should have been more forceful with the captain to accept his recommendations. When Troi asks if he only took isolated assignments in order to "run away" after Gorushda, Tam denies this, claiming he does it so that he can be at peace from everyone's thoughts (his last assignment was with a race with "glacial" minds and "a lovely three-day ritual to say hello"). He also expresses his appreciation for Data, since he's the only person he can get to know normally, rather than all at once. Troi then asks why Tam has taken an assignment on a ship where he knew he'd be miserable. Tam then starts waxing poetic about Tin Man, an intelligent creature born in space, mysterious, ancient, alone and lonely. Troi notes the specificity of the description and comes to the conclusion that Tam has been in telepathic contact with Tin Man, which he confirms. Troi remarks that it's impossible for even Tam to hold a connection across light-years. "But maybe not impossible for Tin Man," he replies.
At 18 minutes away from Beta Stromgren, the cloaked Romulan Warbird suddenly decloaks and attacks the Enterprise, dropping the shields to critical levels as it passes. Tam claims the attack was solely to delay the Enterprise, which is supported when Data remarks that the Romulans have overloaded their engines to the point where that ship cannot return to Romulan space: they're really desperate to get there first. Picard asks how Tam knew this and he says he read the Romulan Captain's mind during the attack. With the other Romulan ship two days away, Picard orders the shields to be repaired and begrudgingly accepts that the Romulans will get to Tin Man first. Tam is naturally displeased at this.
Speaking of Tam, he decides to visit Data's quarters since he's in charge of monitoring Tin Man. Tam notes the curiousness of a being with such "spartan" quarters and no need for sleep, yet who paints as a hobby. Data relates his findings on Tin Man, claiming that, true to the Living Ship trope, it has a layout consistent with a space vessel and an internal environment suitable for carbon-based lifeforms, but no crew. He wonders whether Tin Man was bred for that purpose or if it adapted itself to serve a purpose. Tam takes the opportunity to get philosophical and asks why living beings must have a purpose. Or do they exist for no reason but to exist? Data claims he isn't qualified to offer an opinion on that subject, but Tam says that as a distant student of humanity, he is the most qualified. Data then asks if Tam can read his mind, but Tam says that he can't, he just understands Data very well. Data asks Tam if it bothers him that he can't read his mind, and suggests that perhaps there is nothing there to read besides a series of algorithms. Tam replies that Data is different, and there's nothing wrong with that.
After that interlude, Data and Tam go to the bridge to see what the Romulans are up to. As if on cue, the Warbird starts powering up its weapons. Picard orders evasive action, as their shields are still damaged, but Tam claims the target is not the Enterprise, but Tin Man. The Romulans have orders to destroy it if it cannot be secured. Picard tries to hail them but Tam takes matters into his own hands by concentrating on one message:
Tin Man suddenly comes to life and emits a massive energy wave that destroys the Warbird and damages the Enterprise.
While repairs are under way, Picard confronts the exhausted Tam in Sickbay about his contact with Tin Man. He explains he only sent out a warning and that he has been in emotional contact with Tin Man, real name Gomtuu. Gomtuu is the Last of His Kind: the last survivor of an ancient species possibly from beyond the galaxy of which there were once millions. Gomtuu knows the star will go nova and is there to commit suicide over the anguish of having lost his crew in a radiation burst. Tam gets visibly upset at telling this story, and Troi tells Tam to stop since he is "losing himself in this merger." Tam claims the only way to stop Gomtuu from killing himself is to go inside him. Picard doesn't want to send him there, given his stunt with the Romulans and the possibility of him losing perspective, but Tam insists they have to trust him. Back at the ready room, Data and Troi agree Tam's motives are genuine but worry about his stability. Data then proposes going along to serve as an "anchor," given his friendship with Tam.
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.
Data: Difficult to explain, sir.
Data: I believe he found what he was looking for, Counselor.
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:
- The 47 Society: The Ghorusda Disaster that Tam was involved in several years prior caused the deaths of 47 Starfleet officers.
- Ambiguous Ending: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Tam, with a large dose of Jerkass Woobie. 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.
- 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?
- Never My Fault: Tam (and eventually Starfleet) blamed Captain Darson for what happened at Ghorusda, claiming that Darson didn't listen to his recommendations. (Although it is a bit Hilarious in Hindsight when one considers how many times Troi's empathic misgivings get ignored as well.)
- Noodle Incident: The Ghorusda Disaster, an infamous First Contact mission Gone Horribly Wrong that resulted in the deaths of 47 Starfleet officers aboard the U.S.S. Adelphi, including the ship's captain.
- 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 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."
- 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.
- 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.