Today I continued rewatching Season 3 of Star Trek The Next Generation by watching ‘Tin man’. This episode was aired on the 23rd April 1990. As an Autistic person I felt I could relate to the experiences of the three main characters of Tam, Data and Tin Man. This is a 15 part thread and please Boost if you enjoy reading.
In this episode, the Enterprise takes aboard a Betazoid passenger Tam with extraordinary telepathic abilities that began as a child. He is able to communicate with an alien life form dubbed ‘Tin Man’. Tin Man is orbiting a star about to explode and the Enterprise has a mission to make contact. Meanwhile the Romulan’s attempt to stop the Enterprise as it wants Tin Man for themselves.
On boarding the Enterprise, Tam hands to Captain Picard a memory stick of all the details surrounding their mission. Tam isn’t interested in the convention of explaining them verbally. As an Autistic I could relate to this as I prefer to email or write letters than have telephone conversations. I can find it overwhelming meeting new people. Especially when it’s a professional relationship.
Tam finds being on a Starship full of people overwhelming. He can read everyones unspoken thought and feeling. He is exhausted to reacting to emotion when having conversations. Some of the crew don’t trust him and don’t have faith in his abilities. Tam likes Data as he is an Android whose thoughts and emotions can’t be read. Tam likes relating to Data verbally as the communication is plain and simple with no emotional baggage for him.
I find I am overwhelmed by places with many people. It’s not just the presence of people but the noise as well. One of my sensory issues is sound. I found I have become less agitated by wearing ear defenders in noisy environments like a busy road or train station.
Social interaction is also exhausting for me as it requires me to maintain concentration on how others could perceive my responses. My natural language is often very direct and blunt. Something not always appreciated by others.
Doubts about Tam occur among the crew given news of a previously failed mission and his erratic behaviour on the bridge. Troi explains although a child prodigy he has been regularly hospitalised for stress. It is clear Tam is struggling aboard the Enterprise. Although Tam explains to Troi he likes Data because he is restful. Troi believes his opinion of Data is unique. Although Data is accepted he does not fit in as well on the Enterprise like humans.
I could see Autistic burnout with Tam. Autistic burnout is a term that came from Autistic people. It is fatigue from being overwhelmed. It can include increased meltdowns and sensory sensitivity. Physical pain and headaches. Physically shutting down, including the loss of speech. Unfortunately some people consider it bad behaviour that requires discipline.
I identify Data as an Autistic person and often Autistic people can get along especially if they share a special interest like Tin Man.
Tin Man communicates with Tam Telepathically. Tin Man is lonely and the last of his kind. Tin Man is wise and has roamed the galaxy for thousands of years alone. Tin Man wants to die so he is orbiting a star about to explode. The Enterprise can’t remain nearby for long as it risks destruction from the star. Tin Man appears to have adapted himself to accommodate carbon based life like Humans.
I could really relate to Tin Man’s loneliness. It can be difficult as an Autistic person to form connection as we can be overwhelmed socially. I do better in close one-to-one relationships. These kinds of relationships seem harder for me to form. A few people have commented that I am wise and I think this is a by-product of so much isolation. I have spent so much of my time in isolation learning by myself.
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more griefEcclesiastes 1:18, Holy Bible
Troi advises Captain Picard not to allow Tam to board Tin Man. She fears Tam is obsessed with Tin Man and may compromise the mission. Data disagrees, he explains to Picard that Tam likes him and he can be an intermediary between the Enterprise crew and Tam. Picard authorises Tam and Data to beam aboard Tin Man.
The telepathy between Tam and Tin Man becomes more intense once him and Data are aboard. Tin Man explains he had a crew before and they were in a symbiotic relationship. Tam believes Tin Man is saving him and Tin Man believes Tam is saving him. Tan feels at peace by only hearing the thoughts and feelings of Tin Man with all other people no longer able to be heard. Tin man pushes the enterprise light years away from the star. Tin Man escapes too.
When I meet another person with a special interest like me in Star Trek I often feel less alone. Especially if we can engage on common concepts learnt from an episode. It can be a fruitful exchange. I feel connected. In some ways it is like a symbiotic relationship. I feel Autistic people struggle to be themselves today as a hegemony exists from neurotypical people. Our social symbiotic relationship has been disrupted. I hope in time we have more balanced lives.
Tam chooses to remain with Tin Man and Data beams back to the Enterprise. Data explains to Troi Tam’s decision. Data describes how Tam and Tin Man appeared so isolated and wounded, yet through joining together they were healed, grief transmuted to joy and loneliness to belonging. Data realised he understood this too and believed he belonged on the Enterprise.
I believe it is very important we do more in society to serve the lonely. Autistic people often find themselves alone from social exclusion whether that is in unemployment or just not being able to fit in. Places and opportunities for Autistic people and those who understand to meet would be a helpful accommodation. Autistic people spend their lives accommodating neurotypical people because they have no choice. I hope one day we can get closer to Star Trek’s acceptance.
An interesting anecdote is the episode title of “Tin Man”. The Tin Man is a character in the film ‘The Wizard of Oz’ and believes he needs a heart. It is believed the Tin Man represents the dehumanised factory workers in the USA during the depression of the 1890’s.