One thing fans love about Star Trek is its radically optimistic view of the future: A united Earth free of poverty and disease. Starships that take us to strange, new worlds. Food replicators that can satisfy our every craving. It all sounds pretty sweet. But there’s another side to Star Trek that’s equally compelling. Since its inception in 1966, the franchise has explored the messier parts of humanity’s spacefaring future, like interspecies political tensions. It’s a tradition that continues with the eagerly-awaited new series Star Trek: Picard, streaming now on CBS All Access.
We rejoin the titular Jean-Luc Picard, former Starfleet admiral, at a pivotal point in his life. The Romulans, Picard’s foes throughout Star Trek: The Next Generation (which ran from 1987-1994), are still recovering from the destruction of their homeworld, Romulus, in the wake of a cataclysmic supernova explosion. We’re left guessing about how this will affect the galaxy, the societies within it, and a recently retired Picard. To shed some light, I spoke to two real-world political scientists, and an experimental psychologist, about what the fall of the Romulan Star Empire might mean for the series.
Portrayed as violent, deceitful, and prideful to the point of arrogance, the Romulan ruling class has existed largely in a state of cold war with the Human-dominated United Federation of Planets and their key ally, the Klingon Empire. Naturally, the destruction of the Romulans’ homeworld stands to jeopardize their future as a galactic political power, but it’s how it was destroyed that could factor greatly into Star Trek: Picard.
“I think what’s pertinent is the idea of an empire collapsing specifically due to some kind of ecological disaster,” says George Gonzalez, Professor of Political Science at the University of Miami and author of The Politics of Star Trek: Justice, War, and the Future. “This was an aggressive empire, this was a militaristic empire, and so how are citizens now going to be treated as refugees? Are they going to be held responsible for the sins of their state?”
Exploiting a natural disaster to get a leg up on an enemy doesn’t sound like something the principled Federation would consider, but we’ve seen elements of the organization use questionable tactics in other series like Star Trek: Discovery and Deep Space Nine. Rightfully, Gonzalez anticipates the Federation doing more soul-searching in Star Trek: Picard. “Their politics are going to be tested,” he imagines. “Maybe people are going to be driven by the old biases to punish the individual citizens. That’s a very interesting, fascinating dramatic tension.”
Romulans as refugees would represent a huge galactic power shift, and add one hell of an intriguing element to Star Trek: Picard. But if the franchise has taught us anything, it’s that you should never count the Romulans out. It’s a lesson that isn’t lost on Dr. Joel Campbell, Associate Professor of International Relations at Troy University, who notes that the Romulans losing their homeworld might not be as devastating as it seems. “It’s not like on Earth where refugee populations are fleeing one country and going into another country because it’s nearby,” Dr. Campbell analyzes. “Presumably, if this was a Romulan Empire, there would be some planets they still control that would be outside the zone where the supernova took place, where they could simply reestablish their population.”
To what lengths the Empire will go to reestablish power is an important question, involving an even bigger threat to the Federation — the Borg, a race of hive-minded cyborgs who forcefully “assimilate” every being they encounter. Romulans appear to be conducting experiments on Borg drones in this Star Trek: Picard trailer, but it’s unclear as to why or to what end. The only thing we can be certain of, Dr. Campbell points out, is that “somebody somewhere is trying to benefit from Borg technology.” If that “somebody” turns out to be the remnants of the Romulan Empire, it could mean trouble for the entire galaxy.
It’s easy to get caught up in how galactic governments might react to the fall of Romulus, but how will people deal with it on a — well — human level? For Dr. Campbell, the parallels to our own history couldn’t be clearer. “This mirrors exactly what happened,” he asserts. “There were two whole generations who were built on the Cold War. Their whole existence was relating to this U.S.-Soviet relationship that divided the whole world. Suddenly their great enemy is just gone, the Soviet Union is no more. And it created a great sense of angst or identity discombobulation for these people.”
Romulans were struggling with their identity even before the fall of their empire, which formed following a violent split with the Vulcans, their genetic cousins. Though dominated by a brutal military, an oligarchic government, and a menacing secret police force called the Tal Shiar, the Romulan people nurtured an underground movement that sought reunification with the Vulcans and peace with the Federation. Adding even more to these divisions was a bloody coup of the Romulan Senate by a revolutionary named Shinzon in the 2002 movie Star Trek: Nemesis.
With the onset of a global catastrophe, Dr. Campbell speculates that the cracks in Romulan society may be even more pronounced in Star Trek: Picard. “You might have a situation, if there are still several planets that are controlled by the remnants of the Romulan Empire, they might be controlled by different factions, perhaps. And so there might be competition among those factions.”
This competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Dr. Russell Shilling, a military experimental psychologist working with the American Psychological Association, and a retired U.S. Navy captain, believes the fall of Romulus could swing the pendulum in either direction. “I think you could be seeing militarism and paranoia and things like that for something that calamitous,” Shilling imagines. “But on the other side you may have people trying to work more with Starfleet and create alliances to make sure they’re protected more in the future.”
Indeed we see a dichotomy in various Star Trek: Picard previews; foreboding shots of armed conflict are contrasted by inspiring images of Human-Romulan cooperation. As hopeful as that sounds, however, George Gonzalez guesses some people in the Federation won’t be so quick to build bridges. “These Romulans for the most part are victims,” he says, “but you still have Romulans amongst them that [are] still conspiring for nationalistic, militaristic reasons. And so that becomes a problem because how do you differentiate the ones that are friendly and just in need from the ones that are still scheming?”
If there’s one person in the galaxy capable of finding common ground with the Romulans, it’s Jean-Luc Picard. After spending much of his legendary Starfleet career at the brink of war with the Empire, Picard has traded tending the bridge of the Enterprise for tending grapes on his family’s vineyard in France. But when a mysterious woman seeks him out for help, Picard mounts an authorized mission that sees him assembling a rogue crew that includes a blade-wielding Romulan named Elnor.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise for anyone who really knows Picard. Pointing to the Next Generation two-parter “Unification,” where a hesitant Picard infiltrates Romulus, Gonzalez offers proof of Picard’s ability to evolve his thinking and separate politics from populace. “He goes to Romulus and he says ‘These people aren’t my enemy.’ He’s talking about the common people,” explains Gonzalez. “It’s [the] Romulan oligarchy that is perpetuating war.”
Watching the Romulan people suffer the loss of their planet likely reformed Picard’s opinion of them even further, but it also shaped how he views himself. It’s been revealed Picard led some kind of “rescue armada” 15 years ago that apparently didn’t go as planned. Details are scarce, but it could have been an attempt at saving Romulans from the supernova, or perhaps it was a response to a devastating enemy attack on Mars (seen in a recent Short Treks episode that sets up Picard). Or, maybe it had something to do with both disasters.
No matter the mission’s true nature, it’s likely what drove Picard to leave Starfleet. Pulling from his own career in the military, Dr. Shilling explained to me the impact something like this could have on a person like Picard. “I was a medical service corps officer, so I knew a number of people who went out on hospital ships and things like that,” he reminisces. “You do get very close to the populations you’re there to protect, and so it has a pretty harsh toll psychologically.”
So, is the roughly 94-year-old Picard up to the challenge of leading a new crew back out into the unknowns of space, despite what he’s already endured? If Dr. Shilling’s brief analysis is any indication, the answer is yes. “He’s a man of reason,” Dr. Shilling says of Picard. “In psychology terms, he has a growth mindset. He’s always trying to better himself, and better the people around him. He recognizes his own shortcomings. He doesn’t think he’s perfect. So he’s kind of what you would look for in the ideal leader, I think.”
To find out what the future holds for one of Starfleet’s biggest heroes, and the galaxy at large, don’t miss Star Trek: Picard streaming now on CBS All Access.
Quotations have been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Chris Vespoli is the Creative Director of Studio@Gizmodo, and a freelance writer and producer.