Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the first season of Star Trek: Picard, as well as for Star Trek: Discovery and other iterations of the franchise.
The revelation in Star Trek: Picard that the Romulans had managed to plant an operative in Starfleet was an interesting one, especially because that operative – Commodore Oh – had managed to attain such a high rank. She’d been working in Starfleet since at least the time of The Next Generation and probably even before then, with the Zhat Vash deciding to make a move against the Federation from the moment they learned of the existence of Data.
There had been androids, artificial intelligences, and other forms of synthetic life present in the galaxy prior to Data, and it’s conceivable that the Zhat Vash may have taken action against those as and when they could. But Data represented a step forward in the development of synthetic life, and definitely would have been considered a threat.
There are two possibilities for how the presence of Commodore Oh could be interpreted. She may have chosen to remain deep undercover and stick rigidly to her mission, even if that came at a cost to the Romulan Empire. Alternatively, however, she may have used her position as a spy within the Federation’s ranks to relay information to the Romulans at certain points. This could have been dangerous to her mission, increasing her chances of being caught. The way Commodore Oh and the Zhat Vash were presented for the most part in Star Trek: Picard were as zealots, meaning they seem like the kind of organisation who would be willing to sacrifice the lives of their own people if it advanced their ultimate objective. Indeed, we saw this with their actions on Mars.
Let’s look at the timeline first of all. As early as the 22nd Century, Starfleet had encountered what could arguably be considered examples of artificial intelligence. In the Enterprise episode Dead Stop, for example, the ship encounters a fully-automated space station which seems to act of its own volition. There was also a certain Dr Soong in Enterprise’s fourth season, and while he initially worked with genetically enhanced humans, he indicated he would begin research into synthetics.
By the 23rd Century, Starfleet had developed its own AI. Control, as seen in Season 2 of Star Trek: Discovery, would ultimately go rogue and kill a number of Section 31 operatives as well as commandeer a fleet of ships. There was also Richard Daystrom, who build an AI capable of controlling a starship in The Original Series episode The Ultimate Computer, as well as several different androids, automatons, and AIs seen in that series.
By this point in time, the Romulans were aware of the existence of the Federation and thus might’ve known about some of these developments. The key ones, in my opinion, which may be relevant to the Zhat Vash would be Control and the M-5 computer, both of which went rogue and may have fed into their fears about synthetic life.
We should also note that there are different types of synthetic life. For some reason, the Zhat Vash seem exclusively focused on preventing the rise of androids as opposed to other forms of AI. That’s despite the fact that many of the dangers present when considering out-of-control AI – including the ability to receive the message on Aia – are common to other kinds of artificial life too. Or at least would be in theory. To use Control as an example, if it became aware of Aia and the message there, given how aggressively it pursued Burnham and the USS Discovery it seems certain that it would have taken the same action as Sutra and tried to contact the “Mass Effect Reapers” (the race of super-synths introduced in the finale of Star Trek: Picard). So why the Zhat Vash are okay with some types of AI and not others, and why holograms seem to be exempt, for example, hasn’t really been covered in detail in the series so far.
However, assuming that the Zhat Vash learned of some of these events they would surely have been concerned – at the very least about the possibility of further development and the creation of android bodies for these AI systems to inhabit.
After the mid-23rd Century, we have no real information on synthetic life until Lore was known to be active on Omicron Theta in the late 2320s or 2330s. Within Star Trek: Picard itself – notably the episode Broken Pieces – the crew of La Sirena assume that Commodore Oh first infiltrated Starfleet after Lore’s brother Data was discovered and activated in 2338 – and by implication, that was the time the Zhat Vash became convinced that Starfleet and the Federation were a threat due to their involvement with synthetic life. However, I think we can reasonably assume that the Romulans, and by extension the Zhat Vash, would have at least become aware of the Federation’s other ties to and encounters with artificial life – even if they didn’t learn about these events until afterwards.
The decision to send an operative in undercover is not one that can be done on a whim – it needs careful planning. If Commodore Oh did infiltrate Starfleet beginning in the 2330s, the Zhat Vash would have needed months or years before she joined up to make preparations. Obviously killing Data wasn’t the objective, or she would have been able to do so any almost any point. Nor was her goal to stop someone like Bruce Maddox working on synthetic life, as he seems to have been free to do so for decades right up until the ban.
I would suspect that Commodore Oh may have worked behind the scenes to slow research into synthetics, perhaps trying to delay or sabotage work being done. While we don’t have a lot of evidence to go on for this, the fact that Bruce Maddox was considered by Data to be incapable of preserving his memories in the episode The Measure of a Man could, in retrospect, be seen less as proof of Maddox jumping the gun and trying to work on Data before he was ready, and perhaps as evidence that his work was being hampered without his knowledge by the Zhat Vash’s spy.
This is what I mean by the question “how does Commodore Oh affect other Star Trek stories?” There are several which we can look back on in the aftermath of Star Trek: Picard and wonder how the presence of Commodore Oh affected things.
Let’s start with the Federation’s two biggest forays into the artificial intelligence realm in the 23rd Century – the Control AI and the M-5 computer. Obviously these events took place long before Commodore Oh was embedded within Starfleet, but they may have laid the groundwork for her mission.
Both Control and the M-5 computer went rogue. Their creators – Section 31 and Dr Richard Daystrom – lost control of them, and they began to act on their own, taking aggressive action against organic life. While the Federation will have wanted to cover up what happened – as indeed we see them do at the end of Discovery’s second season – the Romulans are known to be aggressive in their espionage operations, knowing far more about the Federation than vice versa. It would not be an unfair assumption that the Romulans would have come to know what happened in one or both of these cases, and thus it may have been around the mid-23rd Century that the Zhat Vash began preparing to infiltrate the Federation.
Thinking about these two stories from the point of view of the Zhat Vash – who, according to everything we know from Star Trek: Picard will have existed at the time – the events are very concerning. The Federation is barely a century old, with humanity only becoming warp-capable less than a hundred years before that. In a comparatively short span of time, humanity has developed intelligent machines that they went on to lose control over. Humanity must appear, to the Zhat Vash, to be incredibly dangerous, pushing further into unexplored space than any other faction had done, and building an inter-species alliance that even brought an end to the Vulcan-Andorian conflict. For Romulans, who like stability and predictability, the Federation had disrupted a state of affairs that had existed for centuries in the local region of the Alpha and Beta Quadrants. Would it only be a matter of time before they spotted the octonary star system where Aia is located? That had to be a source of concern.
The next major event would be the activation of Lore and Data, and it’s suggested in Star Trek: Picard that it was Data’s discovery by Starfleet in the late 2330s that prompted the Zhat Vash to send Commodore Oh in undercover. Again if we try to look at this event from their perspective, the Federation’s AI research had now gone beyond shipboard computers and had culminated in the creation of a humanoid android – and it’s this type of synthetic life in particular which seems to concern the Zhat Vash. If Control and the M-5 computer were worrying and had caused them to begin planning, the knowledge that Data existed and had been accepted to Starfleet Academy would have been panic-inducing to the paranoid Zhat Vash.
We should consider the Crystalline Entity’s attack on Omicron Theta and examine it through this new lens. Lore, Data’s brother, was responsible for leading the Entity to Omicron Theta, where it wiped out all life on the planet. But was Lore solely responsible? Star Trek: Picard showed us that the Zhat Vash had the ability to hack into synthetics, and that when they did, the synths could be reprogrammed to turn on their creators. The synths on Mars may have been somewhat basic compared to Data and Lore, but the underlying technology is the same, and it’s at least possible that the Zhat Vash hacked into Lore. This could explain not only the attack by the Crystalline Entity, but Lore’s selfish and evil persona.
Sticking with the Crystalline Entity, it may have simply been a convenient way to destroy the colony while having no fingerprints of Romulan involvement. Omicron Theta was a human colony, so if the Romulans were to simply destroy it from orbit with starships, that could lead to war with the Federation. Yet it makes perfect sense that they would see Dr Soong as his work as a threat and want to take every possible step to stop him.
Next we have Dr Maddox and his work with synthetics. We know that, despite Maddox’s objections, Data was allowed to enrol in Starfleet Academy. Around this time, which was roughly the same time of Commodore Oh’s infiltration, Maddox began working on synthetic life. There are two possibilities for why it took Maddox such a long time (fifteen years, give or take, from Data’s admittance to Starfleet Academy to the events of the episode The Measure of a Man) to make much progress with his work. One is that Maddox is simply not as skilled as Dr Soong was, which is what the episode implies. The other possibility has to be that part of Commodore Oh’s mission was to hamper any synthetic research going on within the Federation, and that she, somehow, undermined his work and slowed it down.
Maddox’s research, which we now know grew to include a whole department consisting of a number of scientists and researchers, may also be the reason why the Zhat Vash chose not to simply kill Data. At the time her mission began, Data was the only known extant android, so killing him would have made sense for the Zhat Vash. It would have been difficult to get at him within Starfleet, but they did have an operative. However, the realisation that the Federation would, sooner or later, be able to recreate the work, coupled with Data being confined within Starfleet and thus unable to strike out on his own and potentially discover Aia, may have focused the mission on stopping synthetic research, slowing it down, and gathering as much information on it as possible. As a Starfleet Officer, Commodore Oh would be well-placed to do those things.
The fact that it took Maddox a further twenty years to develop F8 and the other androids present on Mars could be taken as evidence of the Zhat Vash trying to undermine his work. How they could have done this is unclear, and they may have simply got lucky with Maddox not being better at his job. One question that has bugged me in the context of Star Trek’s sensors and replicators was this: how hard could it really have been to recreate Data using what they already knew about him? This was never really addressed on screen, but perhaps we can take the fact that the Federation was unable to do so as further evidence of their work on synthetics being slowed and undermined from within.
One faction I think we can safely assume would have fed into the Zhat Vash’s paranoia about AI would be the Borg. In the 2350s, many scientists in the Federation were working on the assumption that the Borg were a myth, or at least were so distant as to not be a threat. This was during the Romulans’ 50+ years of isolation, so we don’t know whether or not they had any more evidence about the Borg than the Federation. But there are two points of note: Star Trek: Picard established that, as far as anyone knew, the Borg had only ever assimilated one Romulan vessel. But in contrast to that, the region of space controlled by the Borg was vast, and they had vessels in the Beta Quadrant (where the Romulan Empire is largely based) during the 2370s.
Starfleet’s official first encounter with the Borg, as depicted in Q Who from The Next Generation’s second season, may have gone unnoticed by the Romulans, but the Borg invasion a year later, as seen in The Best of Both Worlds certainly will not. 39 Federation starships were destroyed, and an enemy ship made it to within a stone’s throw of Earth itself. If the Romulans had remained in blissful ignorance of the Borg up to this point, they will have known by the late 2360s that they existed – if for no other reason than Commodere Oh herself relaying that information.
The reason for the Romulans’ interest in the Borg in Star Trek: Picard must surely be twofold. On the one hand, selling the disassembled components is incredibly lucrative, and with the region’s sole supply the Romulans were in firm control of this market. Secondly, however, their fear of synthetic life must have been a major reason for studying the Borg so intently. For all we know, the “Mass Effect Reapers” were meant to be the Borg. But even if that isn’t true – and the Romulans don’t seem to know either way – the Borg, with their half-synthetic bodies and single-minded focus on assimilation, must have been a major cause for concern among the Zhat Vash. This can have only been exacerbated when two ex-Borg returned from the Delta Quadrant aboard the USS Voyager – Seven of Nine and Icheb.
Icheb would later be killed – butchered for his Borg components by an unnamed doctor at a facility run by Bjayzl. But who arranged for this? And why is there such a huge demand for Borg technology in the first place? I had theorised during the first season of Star Trek: Picard that the Romulans may be keeping a majority of components for themselves, but even if that isn’t true they have been studying Borg technology extensively. Icheb’s death seems to take place around the time that the Artifact came under Romulan control, so it’s at least possible that Bjayzl’s buyer was the Zhat Vash – that they were interested in learning about the galaxy’s preeminent synthetic race.
Finally, we have B4. We know from Star Trek: Nemesis that the Romulans acquired B4 and placed his disassembled body in such a location that the Enterprise-E would be the closest ship available to respond to Shinzon. How did they know so much about Federation ship movements? Is it at least possible that Commodore Oh was relaying information to the Romulans at key moments like this? The possibility cannot be discounted – and this could even explain why, in Star Trek: First Contact, the Enterprise-E is assigned to the Neutral Zone. Perhaps someone in Starfleet had an inkling that a Romulan spy was in their midst.
Sticking with this theme of Commodore Oh being more of a general spy than simply a Zhat Vash agent, there are a number of Federation-Romulan encounters that she may have been involved in. Or, conversely, we can take the failure of certain Romulan plots as evidence that she was deliberately not involving herself!
For example, Sela’s attempt to interfere in the Klingon Civil War in Redemption ended in total failure – thanks in no small part to Data. A large Federation fleet deployed a sensor net to detect cloaked Romulan ships, thus preventing Romulan aid to the Duras faction. This was a major move on the part of the Romulans, and would have shifted the balance of power in the Alpha and Beta Quadrants had it succeeded. The Federation-Klingon alliance would have evaporated, and the Federation would be facing a Klingon-Romulan alliance alone. Sela’s second plan, to conquer Vulcan in the episode Unification, similarly failed, though this was due to the actions of Data, Picard, and Spock on Romulus and may not have been something Commodore Oh could have done much about – except perhaps warn the Romulans that they were coming.
We can further see this lack of involvement in Face of the Enemy, where Counsellor Troi impersonates a Tal Shiar operative and aids in the successful defection of a senior Romulan government official. A Federation defector to the Romulans is also successful in his efforts to return to the Federation in the same episode.
There is also In The Pale Moonlight from Deep Space Nine. In this story, Sisko essentially lies, cheats, and covers up murders to drag the Romulans into the Dominion War – a war that they had no need to participate in. At the end of the episode Sisko deletes the log in which he’d detailed his actions, and with his disappearance into the realm of the Prophets, only Garak remained as someone who knew everything that happened. But the trail of evidence existed, and could have been pieced together by a Romulan operative within the Federation. Sisko may have deleted his log, but as we’ve seen in other Star Trek stories, deleting data isn’t a straightforward process, and as we saw in The Undiscovered Country, it’s possible for logs to be downloaded and transmitted via subspace, even to foreign powers. Kirk’s own captain’s log was used against him in his trial in that film.
However, we could take the Romulans’ successes in episodes like Message in a Bottle – where they are able to commandeer a brand-new prototype Starfleet vessel – as evidence that someone within the Federation was feeding information to them.
So where does all of this leave us when it comes to Commodore Oh?
I feel positively certain that the Zhat Vash would have come to know about what happened with the Control AI, not least because it decimated Section 31. Whether they would have come to know about the M-5 computer is unclear, but even if they didn’t, the Federation’s research into AI would have been troubling to the Zhat Vash at least by the mid-23rd Century.
A major candidate for their interference is Lore and the attack on the Omicron Theta colony. This fits with how the Romulans and Zhat Vash operate, it fits with them knowing how to hack positronic brains, and if there was only one successful android builder (Dr Soong) and two extant androids (Data and Lore), the best course of action from the Zhat Vash perspective may have been to exterminate the colony and prevent that knowledge spreading.
When that failed, and when Dr Maddox had begun his own work on synthetic life, building up a team of scientists, eradicating the problem was clearly far less practical. Killing Data would have only set back the Federation’s research in a small way, and it may have been decided that the best course of action was to work from within to slow them down.
Commodore Oh doesn’t seem to have actively interfered on behalf of the Romulans at key points where having an embedded operative could have been massively useful to the Romulan Empire. To me, the Federation’s successes against the Romulans in these stories implies that Commodore Oh was laser-focused on her own mission, and felt that stepping outside of her mission parameters, even to save Romulan lives in the short-term, was too great a risk.
Finally, when Dr Maddox was ultimately successful in creating synthetic life on a larger scale, and the rollout of F8 and the other androids went ahead, Commodore Oh felt that the time had come to act. Destroying a fleet intended to help the Romulans was simply unavoidable, because that’s where the synths were. Mars may not have been her first choice of target, but it was the only available target, and with synthetic life research and development accelerating, the time had come to act.
That’s how I see the timeline, and when taking a step back and looking at Star Trek as a whole, I don’t feel that the creation and retroactive inclusion of the Zhat Vash and Commodore Oh causes any major plot holes. Sometimes inserting characters and factions can have this effect, but in this case, I think we can find a way for episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager to play out in such a way that is consistent. The Zhat Vash and Commodore Oh were depicted as zealots, and it would make sense that someone with that kind of single-mindedness would be 100% okay with allowing her own government’s plans to fail and to see Romulans die in order to remain on mission. The Zhat Vash were playing an incredibly long game – Commodore Oh was embedded in Starfleet for over half a century, and even by the standards of long-lived Romulans, that’s a very long time.
While Commodore Oh’s plan succeeded, in the long run the development of synthetic life couldn’t be prevented, and it will be up to future Star Trek stories to show what implications, if any, that may have for the Romulans, the Federation, and the synths themselves.
So this was a different type of article, a deeper dive into a single story point and how it can be seen to effect – or not effect – other stories in the franchise.
I liked the Zhat Vash overall, though the inconsistent way they were referred to throughout Star Trek: Picard’s first season wasn’t great, and I question their almost-immediate decision to withdraw in the finale. They brought a whole new dimension to the Romulans, and one aspect of that is that we can look back at other stories in the franchise and think about how the Zhat Vash may have been involved. As someone who loves Star Trek, this kind of theory-crafting is a lot of fun. I consider the ideas outlined above to be at least plausible, but remember to take all of these fan theories with a grain of salt!
Star Trek: Picard Season 1 is available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States, and on Amazon Prime Video in the United Kingdom and elsewhere. The Star Trek franchise – including Star Trek: Picard and all other episodes, films, and series mentioned above – is the copyright of ViacomCBS. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.