October 16, 2014

Star Trek: The Next Generation: "Tin Man"

A unique biological starship has been detected in orbit around a dying star. With the mysterious ship - dubbed "Tin Man" by Starfleet analysts - in contested territory, it's up to the Enterprise to beat the Romulans to the system and make first contact. To assist in the mission Starfleet dispatches Tam Elbrun, an immensely powerful Betazoid telepath wracked by mental illness.

I was pretty disparaging in my opinion of The Next Generation's first two seasons. It turns out I was not alone. Dismayed by the poor quality of the episodes, three authors - Dennis Russell Bailey, David Bischoff, and Lisa Putman White - pooled their talents, adapted an old short story of Bischoff's, and submitted it to the Next Generation production office. It obviously impressed the producers, because here it is onscreen. It's clearly a vast improvement over Season 2's average episodes, but is still somewhat uneven. Interesting what frustrated me was not what was in the episode, but rather what seemed to be left out. It's a slightly maddening thing: good enough to show potential but not good enough to fulfil it.

The idea of a sentient, impossibly old biological starship, floating around a dying star in the hopes of finally dying, is a brilliant one. It's evocative and dramatic, and opens all manner of opportunities for storytelling. Sadly "Tin Man" doesn't really manage to investigate it in any sort of depth. The episode's budget lets it down as well; exploring the ship should be a magical experience, but instead it's just a quick conversation down some brown corridors. We don't even get an explanation for why it's called Tin Man. I assume there was a reason in Bischoff's original short story, but it's not expressed here.

Where the episode does excel is in Tam Elbrun. He's a great character. Dialogue reveals that ordinary Betazoids develop telepathic powers in their adolescence. Elburn developed his from birth: he's spent his whole life drowning in other people's thoughts, and as a result it's given him fairly severe emotional and social problems. The writers explore this aspect extremely well, connecting him first with Troi - who used to counsel him some years ago - and then with Data - who, as an android, doesn't overwhelm Elbrun's mind with emotions. He's very well played by guest star Harry Groener, with the perfect mixture of inner conflict, arrogance and self-pity.

The episode's conclusion is a foregone conclusion in many respects, and as a result it needs very strong dialogue and plotting to make it satisfactory. Instead it's rather rushed, which winds up deflating the episode somewhat. It's still an enjoyable, worthwhile story, but it could have been so much better.

Nonetheless: good but disappointing is still good. This is the 12th good episode of Season 3 out of 20, giving us a quality ratio of 60%.

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