Every so often, the fans get it right.
If you think “Samaritan Snare” is completely indefensible and irredeemable in every other respect, you must at least acknowledge that it was responsible for bringing one good thing into the world: That would be “Tin Man”. Writers Lisa Putnam White, David Bischoff and Dennis Russell Bailey were so famously fumed up over the former episode, ambitiously calling it the single worst piece of Star Trek ever filmed that they decided, as all Trekkers are wont to, that they could write Star Trek better than the professionals and set about sending in a submission to Star Trek: The Next Generation with the express intent of showing them how to write their own show. Bailey, Bischoff and White were no rank amateurs, though: They were a team of published literary science fiction writers who had together penned a Nebula Award nominated short story called “Tin Woodman” in the December, 1976 issue of Amazing Stories that was later adapted into a novel and, as it so happens, this episode.
Ironically enough, as much as the trio were convinced they were better than Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s creative team, they would never have gotten their story onscreen without them. Without Michael Piller’s open submission policy, this script never would have seen the light of day, doomed to live out the rest of eternity with all the other unsolicited spec scripts. One is forced to imagine that particular meeting going down a bit awkwardly, since not only was Piller giving them the opportunity to get their script filmed, he was also shouldering the threesome’s ire for the alleged sins of his predecessor Maurice Hurley. But, if René Echevarria could swallow his pride enough to become a beloved and respected member of the team, so could Bailey, Bischoff and White. And, annoyingly, it turns out they were right: They really could turn out a better story than the creative team, because “Tin Man” is nothing short of an absolute triumph. This is the first production since “The Bonding” where it’s demonstrably clear that Star Trek: The Next Generation is unquestionably firing on all cylinders.
It even got Michael Piller himself to sit up and take notice. We know as a general rule Piller shied away from scripts that place too much focus on guest stars and guest characters, believing, largely correctly I feel, that stories needed to be about the regulars in some capacity. And while “Tin Man” certainly doesn’t shove the regulars to the sidelines as everyone is actively involved in the plot and has some not-insignificant stake in what’s going on, the actual “story” as it were can only be read to be about Tam Elbrun and his journey. Although Piller obviously had a hand in rewriting and editing “Tin Man” just as he did with pretty much every story he was on staff for, it’s quite telling, and a testament to the quality of the original submission, that he let that go through and didn’t demand a comprehensive reconceptualization of the story’s whole thematic focus the way he did for “The Offspring”.
And yet Piller’s touch is still visible, most noticeably in the characterization of the Enterprise crew. While the core plot remains unchanged from the original story (albeit with the original protagonist, a young boy with psychic powers, replaced with the older and more dynamic Tam Elbrun) most all of the character bits and the micro-plots starring the various regulars can only be thanks to him. There are some truly outstanding character bits here that show the heights this show can hit when the writing and the acting is finally working in tandem with each other: Harry Groener is instantly memorable as Tam Elbrum, obviously, but the regulars are truly terrific. Captain Picard’s mixed emotions are palpable, Jonathan Frakes has Will in full-on seething ball of rage mode which I usually don’t like anywhere near as much as affable friend to everyone mode, but it works here, and Geordi even gets to run around the ship fixing problems and solving tech mysteries, which is something I always really like seeing: So much of my prevailing memory of what Star Trek: The Next Generation was like on original transmission and what I liked about it on average is made up of moments like these.
(And to be honest, this was kind of needed, as “Tin Man” *does* evoke its heritage every so often in a not-altogether-flattering way: Exposition feels noticeably clunky and unnatural, especially in the first act or so. It doesn’t quite descend to Golden Age Hard SF levels of bad, but it’s clear this story has a different pedigree than the norm.)
I was even struck by Wesley during the scene when Gomtuu destroys the first Romulan Warbird: Wil Wheaton plays him visibly shaken, actually aghast, at what he’s witnessed: It reminded me of how distraught he was at the destruction of the USS Yamato in “Contagion” last season and is one of the very rare moments when Wesley Crusher becomes not completely unsympathetic. And of course, there are some heartrendingly beautiful moments between Tam, Data and Deanna. The way the story goes up and down the spectrum examining themes like empathy, loneliness, alienation, pain, healing and even “the meaning of existence” is simply masterful, and it’s all set against the singular backdrop of cosmic wonder that this show can do better than anything else when it’s actually trying.
(In that regard, one of the easiest overlooked highlights of this episode, at least for me, is the choice of stock footage to reuse, in particular, the assorted shots of the sorely missed six-foot Enterprise model from “Encounter at Farpoint” and “Angel One”, stories that, irrespective of their material textual quality, date to a time when Star Trek: The Next Generation was filled with more wonder and sense of potential. And the VFX shots reflect that beautifully and fit the motifs of “Tin Man” absolutely perfectly, as much as they make me yearn for those feelings to return.)
I was surprised then to learn that director Robert Scheerer was disappointed in his work here: Gomtuu is one of the iconic standout moments of this season to me from an aesthetic perspective, and I think it’s is sublimely realised across the board from the writing to the design to the episode’s soundtrack (composer Jay Chattaway in his first outing), which brilliantly blends traditional Celtic and Aboriginal Australian melodies with 1980s synthesizer technology to create something beautiful, unique and hauntingly memorable. It calls to mind the ancient and beguiling faery magick of Celtic lore, but reinterpreted for the Long 1980s. This is something pretty much only Star Trek: The Next Generation can do, at least this overtly, and it’s something it’s been forgetting is one of its unique strengths of late.
And that’s all before you get to how wonderfully thematically resonant and cohesive the episode as a whole is. Travelling is the key theme here, as this episode is about the personal journeys of many different people. Gomtuu’s and Tam Elbrun’s are the most obvious, as Data so eloquently explains for us in the episode’s closing moments that gives us both our title and Gomtuu’s nickname. But this is a story we see being played out in other characters as well, most notably Data himself, who gets some of the best moments of self-reflection and introspection I think he’s ever gotten to date: He may not be the “main character”, but I’d stack “Tin Man” up against any “Data Story” we’ve seen on this show to date. And not to be undone, there’s Deanna Troi, who, while supplanted as Tam’s primary interlocutor by Data midway through the episode, still gets some truly lovely moments where her experiences with empathy are compared and contrasted with his. There’s also the theme of belonging, which is echoed in refrain multiple times throughout the story and is always, always going to speak to me at a very deep level: Tam and Gomtuu belong together because care about and can heal each other, just as Deanna and Data belong on the Enterprise (a living starship in and of itself, let’s not forget) where they have people to care for and who care for them. Perfect.
“Tin Man” is concrete proof that Star Trek: The Next Generation can journey to the farthest star just as easily as it can the depths of the human heart, and it can do so while also showing that not only are the two not mutually exclusive, they’re in truth the same thing. It reminds us of our oft-neglected utopianism and how we need not forsake the realm of mortals to recognise our divinity. Tam is helped by Gomtuu, yes, but he’s also helped by the Enterprise crew, who act as intermediaries and help him reach the point he needs to attain before he can join with it. And yet even so this is not a story about people “growing” or “changing” in the hackish cult of characterization sense: Tam knew where he was going and what he was doing from the start, he just needed to contact the right spirits to help him. Likewise, the Enterprise crew do not “change”, not even Data, who really just gets to know himself a bit better. And you know what? That’s perfectly OK.
Travel is about deepening our understanding of ourselves, each other and the world around us, not forcing everyone to “change” all the time at all costs. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it over and over again: Nausicaä does not “change” Kei and Yuri do not “change”. That’s not what utopian characters are supposed to do. And yet we know Captain Picard is an incarnation of Lord Yupa, and Lord Yupa is not Nausicaä: He does grow and learn from travelling with her. But Captain Picard, like Star Trek: The Next Generation itself, is a shaman, as we can tell from the constant invocations of, well, Nausicaä and Kei and Yuri. And shamans are liminal, possessing elements of both human and spirit. Maybe what we’re looking at here is a kind of spiritually recursive utopianism: A utopian storytelling about utopain storytelling, with different groups of shamans each attaining enlightenment in their own way and re-enacting stories about each other. It’s a difficult concept to truly get a handle on, but when it all comes together and really works I’ll bet it’s something really special.