A long-range space probe discovers a massive living spaceship orbiting a dying star. The Enterprise is tasked with reaching the ship before a rival ship sent by the Romulans. To achieve contact with the creature, they are ordered to bring along a borderline unstable Betazoid named Tam Elbrun, whose dubious negotiating history adds even more uncertainty to the mission.
"Tin Man" came from an outside trio of writers. Two had written a short story in 1976 that won a Nebula award, later adapting it into a full length novel. They were inspired to adapt it again for Star Trek after watching the episode "Samaritan Snare," which one of them called "the most abysmal piece of Star Trek ever filmed." They figured they could do better, and got their episode on the air about one year later. (A strange Writers Guild rule of the time did not allow three members of a writing team to all be paid, so the third writer of this episode went uncredited. One of the other two substituted his own middle name for the missing writer's, allowing her at least partial credit for the work.)
While the episode is good overall, it does fall back a bit into one of the bad habits of the earlier seasons of the show -- the story is too much about the guest star. This story belongs to Tam Elbrun. We do get a few tidbits of animosity from Riker, and we visit the always reliable pairing of Troi and Data to give us emotional and emotionless perspectives on the guest... but it's still Elbrun's adventure. It's all about his wounded soul, and how it's healed when he unites with the space creature/ship.
Fortunately, Elbrun is a more interesting character than the guest stars of so many bad early Next Generation episodes. He's not a boring, well-adjusted Federation type, nor an irrational one-note alien obstacle. Instead, he's an interesting exploration of how telepathy could drive one insane. We learn that Betazoids are not born telepathic, instead developing such abilities in adolescence. Children are ill-equipped to process other peoples' thoughts, so the few like Tam Elbrun who are born "switched on" face a difficult life. He's deliberately abrasive to everyone, finishing their sentences and pushing them away because he can't shut out their thoughts. He finds an interesting kindred spirit in Data, someone else who is "different," and bonds with him in large part because he can't read Data telepathically.
Actor Harry Groener is strong in the role of Tam Elbrun. He was a regular on the sitcom "Dear John," and may also be recognized by fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as the Mayor of Sunnydale. Here, he gets the difficult and thankless work normally thrust upon Marina Sirtis as Troi: naming a litany of emotions and trying to walk the line of portraying them without making it too hammy. He does reasonably well at this, which given the enormous difficulty of the job, means it's a very good performance.
But there are other aspects of the episode which, while not "failures" as such, aren't executed as successfully. The final act puts Data and Tam Elbrun aboard the living ship, Gomtuu, and it isn't really convincing as an organic, alien environment. (Director Robert Scheerer even admitted as much in subsequent interviews.) There's interesting camera work from odd, high angles, and some unusual sound design (one of the editors reportedly used a stethoscope to record his own stomach digesting pizza), but these elements can't overcome a very mechanical-looking set.
There are also enormous stretches of technobabble in the episode. A confrontation with the Romulans midway through the episode leaves the Enterprise damaged, and LeVar Burton is saddled with pages of nonsense about trying to repair it. He does his best to sell it (and he certainly makes it all sound important), but it's truly boring stuff.
Still, the bulk of the episode does work. There's an adventurous race against the Romulans, a strange and otherworldly object of their hunt, and even a ticking clock in the form of a star about to go supernova. It's not bad.
But this episode is a bad milestone if you're a fan of composer Ron Jones. I've written before about producer Rick Berman's preference for bland musical "wallpaper" in the series' scores -- an edict that Ron Jones regularly ignored while still managing to keep his job scoring every other episode in alternation with Dennis McCarthy. Still, it's probably safe to say that Jones wasn't on Rick Berman's good side. In 1990, Jones was invited to speak at a composers' symposium in the Soviet Union, a trip he cleared with the Star Trek production office well in advance. But a schedule change on the trip apparently surprised the producers when they called Jones for work and found him out of the country. So a new-to-Star-Trek composer, Jay Chattaway, was brought in to score this episode. Though Jones wasn't dropped permanently on the spot, this was likely a key nail in the coffin for his life on the show.
Interestingly, Chattaway's score for "Tin Man" is rather in the style of Ron Jones. Though he'd later go along with Berman's subdued musical sensibilities when he began working regularly on the show, his music here is quite flashy and prominent. There are brash horns for the Romulan encounters, so brazen that they almost feel like Fred Steiner's work on the original Star Trek series and in "Code of Honor." There's an emotional melody for the Tin Man creature, carried on an instrument that sounds like a wooden flute, but is in fact created by synthesizers. Few of Chattaway's later scores for Star Trek would be as dynamic and fun to listen to as this one.
- Tam Elbrun's first scene is full of great little moments, from his total shock at not having sensed Data in the room, to Picard changing his briefing plans just to be contrary to what Elbrun read in his mind.
- The Romulan warbirds are named "D'deridex" class ships for the first time in this episode.
- The effect of the command chair aboard Gomtuu rising out of the floor was achieved by creating a wax model of the chair, filming it in time lapse as it melted, then running the film in reverse.
- The Gomtuu "attack" effect is not an original visual created for this episode. It's lifted from the end of Star Trek: The Motion Picture, from the ending when V'ger "evolves," and spliced in here.