In the twentieth episode of the third season of The Next Generation, Starfleet orders the Enterprise on a secretive mission with a new passenger: a Betazoid who may have once been responsible for a disaster. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to watch Star Trek.
Trigger Warning: For talk of ableism, suicide.
YES. Y E S.
God, this is another fantastic and intriguing episode of this show, and I’m so thankful that I’m getting to a point within The Next Generation where I can consistently say this. I didn’t like the last episode much, but this more than makes up for that.
And I credit most of that with Harry Groening as Tam.
HOLY. SHIT. Y’ALL. This episode does not work without him. Okay, I’m being ridiculous, because I actually think the story and the script are both powerful. For me, this is a story about empathy and who we choose to empathize with. In the opening scenes of “Tin Man,” Tam Elbrun is not presented to us in a positive light. In the same scene where we first hear his name, Riker reveals that Tam played a part in something called the Ghorusda Disaster. Having your name evoke that kind of emotion? Well, that’s not exactly the best of all possible introductions.
To make matters worse, there’s some scaremongering over Tam’s time spent in psychiatric care, something you would think wouldn’t be a part of the future civilization, BUT HERE IT IS. When Tam himself arrives? Well, Harry Groening (rightfully) plays him as aloof. Succinct. Uninterested in small talk. It’s clear that Picard does not think highly of this interaction, and it’s complicated further because Tam is so good at reading minds. He cuts off sentences or pre-empts them entirely, rendering the standard mode of communication rather obsolete. Not exactly the most impressive behavior, right?
He never really improves, either, but I’m glad he doesn’t. He spends the first training meeting in a perpetual state of annoyance, which becomes combative once Riker begins to think about Tam’s role in the disaster. Tam wasn’t ever going to feel like he was a part of the Enterprise, but the crew weren’t exactly making this easy for him. I found it significant, then, that after all this, Dr. Crusher and Deanna Troi reveal why Tam is so different from all the other Betazoids: he was born with his telepathic abilities turned on. He never got a childhood or an adolescence to himself. It’s a thought that becomes more horrifying every minute. Could you imagine trying to build your own identity or your own internal monologue amidst the thoughts and whims of everyone around you? Could you imagine trying to fit in to this world when you knew every private thought sent your way? While every person around you thought of you as a freak and an outcast, but smiled at you and nodded their head politely?
Here’s the thing: we need more characters like Tam in this world to remind us that people need not be likable or easy to deal with in order to have our respect. I’m thinking of those of us with mental illnesses, or those of us who are neuroatypical. This society has trained us to believe that people need to behave a certain way â€“ one that regularly values our own comfort over the well-being of others â€“ in order to deserve basic human decency. Tam behaves as he does to protect himself, and I don’t think he should change at all. Why care about small talk or respectable conversation when you never experience kindness? I mean, that’s exactly why he sought out assignments that kept him isolated and peaceful. Humans are judgmental, territorial, and brutal.
And then there’s Data, sweet, precious Data, who lacks all of these human features. Data, the honest researcher. Data, the one person uniquely qualified to answer questions about humanity because he so dutifully studies it. Data, who Tam relates to because he’s different, and that’s perfectly fine.
What a powerful message.
I think that there’s a similar thread in the relationship between Gomtuu, the living ship that Tam bonds with, and Tam himself. (Oh my god, I couldn’t stop thinking of Moya whenever the episode spoke of Gomtuu. MAYBE THEY’RE RELATED!!!) You can easily see a parallel in the fact that both beings are essentially lonely. Tam has no Betazoid to truly relate to, not even Deanna Troi, despite that she tries really hard to be a supportive friend. But I’d offer that it goes much further than this: I think Tam and Gomtuu were finally allowed to be emotional. There’s a beautiful moment when Tam boards Gomtuu where Gomtuu floods Tam’s mind with all of their feelings and emotions, and I realized that Gomtuu missed all contact with living beings. How long had they floated in space? How long ago had they decided to find this specific star so that it could help end their life? How long ago had they given up on ever having another being to share life with? It’s a lonely thought, something that’s remarkably grim and affecting for Star Trek, but it’s through Tam that we find hope and peace. If the show ever tried to explain the purpose of life, then this is it. We exist to care for other people, plain and simple.
As sad as Tam and Gomtuu’s end might be, it fills me with a unique happiness. Even if they only survived for a few more seconds after we last saw them, those two characters lived knowing that their lives were not purposeless. They were each other’s purpose, if but for a brief moment. Can you imagine flaring out of existence with that thought on your mind?
Seriously, this was an incredible episode. Utterly worth the experience of watching The Next Generation.
The video for “Tin Man” can be downloaded here for $0.99.
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