The Romulans, that seem to be the chief antagonists in the Star Trek franchise’s latest incarnation, Picard, are the Federation’s oldest enemies. They appeared before even the Klingons. Here you can learn about their origins, developments and where they may be headed, as a species.
It may come as a surprise to those uninitiated in Star Trek canon, but the first appearance of the Romulans was in Star Trek (The Original Series — TOS), in 1966. “The balance of Terror” announced their arrival on screen and into the world of the show. That was in the first series. It was clear that the great Gene Rodenberry was still working a great deal out, about the universe the show operated in, including the various races. Even Spock (Leonard Nimoy) only had the bare-bones of a backstory, then. As the show developed more was stated about goings-on. To try and deal with the many yet unanswerable questions that would inevitably be asked, the Romulans were depicted as a race that almost nothing was known about.
Captain Kirk (William Shatner) offers exposition, adding that they have never even been seen, as previous encounters happened before viewscreen technology was possible. He then mentions that the war between them and the humans involved crude nuclear weapons. When they are finally seen, even Spock is surprised to learn of their appearance. He surmises that they must share a common ancestry with the Vulcans and that somewhere along the line of the evolutionary process, they split off. It’s during this scene that Spock mentions that the Vulcans were not always the peaceful and logic-orientated species they are now. Spock talks of the Vulcans as having been a colonially violent race, for a time. It turns out that this has a pretty big implication, going forward; the two species (Vulcan and Romulan) seem to always be destined to be tied to one another, and their fates perhaps inextricably interlinked.
The impression of the Romulans, early on, is that of a war-mongering race. There equivalent of the Federation is the Romulan Star Empire. They appear to be where the Vulcans were. Not much more can be stated from the first early impressions. People were left to assume that they had not yet reached the moral echelons of pacifism yet; however, it was equally feasible that they had simply chosen to follow a very different path, remaining a society that values military prowess as a cultural symbol of success. certainly, they maintained a sizable army, dedicating vast resources to weaponry. Even in their first appearance, they possess superior firepower to the Enterprise (and so to the Federation as a whole, as The Enterprise has always been their flagship, and thus the example of all they have available in craft design and technology), as well as the ability to cloak their ship (invisibility). And so, they were set up as secretive, advanced, and definitely not a race to pick a fight with if it could be helped. The Romulans also showed that they are not afraid to die in battle, with their leader (of the ship Kirk was pitted against) choosing destruction over Kirk’s offer to rescue them.
Other appearances of the Romulans in TOS came about in both the second and third series, “The Deadly Years” and “The Enterprise Incident”, latterly. Their prowess as tacticians are established even more firmly, and Captain Kirk and co. must rely on wits over might, to avoid catastrophe. Whilst not much more is revealed about what they want, their intentions overall, etc., it’s clear that they are a formidable foe. To find out more, we’d have to wait until Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) picked up their story . . .
The final episode of the first season of TNG saw the return of the Romulans. They looked very different than the same species of the original series, but they did behave in a manner they had been set up to. They were back; the race that were maybe well described as like Vulcans in appearance, but more akin to Klingons to in terms of their willingness to practice violence (never let a Klingon hear this — especially one Mr. Worf (Michael Dorn)! — who famously despises the lack of honour the Romulans seem to possess). Where they differed from the Klingons was their secretive nature, and the use of spy networks to achieve their aims. They were very much depicted as being well-versed in espionage. This was a notable move away from their character in TOS; still, they were now once again notable antagonists. What this may show though is that the race was beginning to split into factions, with the very real possibility of a civil war beginning to emerge. It’s this which surely had lasting effects, that even in their most up to date incarnation (Picard is the only series that is set after the events of all the other shows, in terms of linearity — Discovery season 3 looks to take place in the far future, and that’s only due to a time travel plot device; additionally, there are those who don’t even consider the show to be wholly canonical, anyway). The significance of this can’t be overstated. It’s what involves the re-emergence of Spock, who becomes involved in the development of the Romulan people and their history; this can be seen as the beginnings of the Kelvin Timeline, that the Romulans have such a huge part in creating — one, in particular — more on him later . . .
Unifications parts one and two took place early in the fifth series of TNG. They dealt with a sect of the Romulans who wished to learn more of their Vulcan heritage and possibly begin to re-integrate with the species. Starfleet expresses concerns of Ambassador Spock, who they feel may have defected to Romulus, thus siding with them in any future conflicts. Picard is ordered to undergo a secret mission, and he takes Data alongside. He has a brief detour to visit Spock’s father, Sarek (Mark Lenard). When Picard finally confronts Spock, Spock informs him that he wishes to operate alone. This is due to his knowledge of how bloody the road to peace so soften is. This is more evidence of the Romulans being a race that is in the early stages of deep social and political upheaval; as a result, the government and military are doing all they can to maintain a semblance of order, despite the fact they know they have little chance of permanently maintaining it. It’s here that Picard starts to soften to the Romulans, seeing their plight as an often repeated story: the general population the victims of those in power battling it out to ensure their own agenda. One high ranking member of the military is Tasha Yar’s (Denise Crosby) half Romulan daughter, Sela (from a parallel universe). While she isn’t necessarily a key figure in Romulan history, she is worthy of mentioning.
Another important episode of TNG, that offers some insight into the mysterious Tal Shiar, is “Face of the Enemy” from series six. During that episode, Data reminds Captain Picard (and viewers) that little is still known about Romulan technology. Whilst it doesn’t give any indication of the history of the Romulan Secret Police, it does provide exposition for why they are so feared. They are there to instill fear and ensure that what has to happen to maintain order and absolute obedience does happen. Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis) poses as one of their officials in this episode, and the Romulan Commander she is instructing demonstrates that the rank and file of The Romulan Star Empire have little time for those they deem to be meddlers; yet, they are forced to abide with their rule, much to their dismay. Further instances of a growing unease between the Romulans, and further divisions of them, as a people.
Relating this personally, Picard has a unique tie to the Romulan people. He was targeted to be cloned and then replaced by a said clone. This is revealed, and the abandoned project the basic premise for the young Romulan’s story who was to become the clone, in the final TNG movie, Star Trek: Nemesis (2002). Tom Hardy portrays Shinzon, who is Reman (still Romulan, but an inhabitant of a sister planet, very much the poor relations, who are mostly enslaved — forced to mine, subjected to a tough life). This is yet the further portrayal of the Romulans as a people who’s ruling bodies are prepared to take extreme measures when it comes to furthering their aims or getting ahead. It shows the Romulans as a species that’s troubled and dark past is likely to produce individuals who feel no sense of wholeness, being either accepted by their own people as equals or indeed taken at face value by other species. They are mostly seen as guilty, for simply belonging to a race. This fuels further the chaos that the species is in as a whole, and perhaps is the best way of understanding that chaos almost always means that more chaos will only ever be close by. It shows an inevitability for hostility, based on distrust, and manipulation, which often leads to feelings of isolation and displacement. This brings us onto another miner, who may well be the single most important individual in their history; certainly, at least his actions can be said to be . . .
Nero (Eric Bana). A character made canon by his origin in the Prime Timeline, that had an offshoot in 2009’s reboot, Star Trek, (another offering that split opinion as to whether the events should be considered canon in the truest sense) from J.J. Abrams. Following the destruction of the Romulan homeworld, when its sun goes supernova, enacting the devouring of it, a notable Vulcan attempted to prevent by injecting a substance known as red matter into the exploding sun, to absorb the energy blast, thus saving the planet. Spock’s attempt is unsuccessful, and Romulus is no more.
Considering the events of the aforementioned episodes, Unification parts 1&2, Spock had a vested interest in saving the planet. He no doubt would have anyway tried to, given his high regard for life generally, but his involvement in the developments of Romulan culture gave him even more of an impetus. Despite his best efforts Nero had little sympathy and blamed Spock for the death of his wife, who was at the time of the catastrophe pregnant with his child. With nothing else to lose, Nero vows revenge on Spock, who he traps on a remote planet, whilst he plots to witness the destruction (this time deliberately created). The Vulcan homeworld in the Kelvin Timeline is obliterated, and Spock (Prime) watches on, helplessly. His appearance neatly ties up his story with his involvement in Romulan developments, as he has remained on Romulus since his appearance in Unification. Spock’s involvement with the Romulan’s is crucial to the canon, as he connects two series (TOS — along with their films and TNG) as well as two timelines. As it happens, the events leading up to the Kelvin Timeline (the creation of it) are a major part of Picard’s ongoing story, which is currently getting a much more detailed telling; after all, the show takes place in the Prime Timeline. It manages to cleverly tie the fate of Romulus to the alternate Kevin Timeline, too.
There’s no knowing what way the future of the Romulan Star Empire will go, overall. That may very well depend upon how indeed Starfleet goes. No more tensions, or squabbling over the Neutral Zone. The two organizations are now poised to face off, and secrets (their apparent hatred of synthetic life forms) will no doubt be revealed that may have lasting consequences for not just Jean Luc Picard, but the entire Star Trek universe. What is known in Picard is that there are more factions than just the Tal Shiar. The Zhat Vash, for example. So secretive are they, that many thought their existence nothing more than a tall tale. With this in mind, they may possess technology that surpasses anything that has yet been seen in any Star Trek show. It seems, that from the shadows, with agents embedded deep within opposing organizations (perhaps even including their own Tal Shiar), the future of what remains of the Romulans as a species is now being decided.
There you have it, a brief overview of Romulans in the Star Trek franchise, to date. This does not cover every appearance, nor should it be thought of as categorical. What it does do is show that what were once only half-conceived off-shoots of the Vulcans, little more than metaphorical Romans in space, have come to take the prime slot, finally, as the main antagonists of the show. It seems, that like all great villains, as their future plays out the lines between good and bad may be re-written. The Romulans are finally being given the chance to enjoy a well-deserved, long-awaited exploration. They are cool-looking, nuanced, complex, and from what’s been shown so far, capable of deeply chilling behavior. They seem to promise, not merely threaten chaos. Luckily, there’s an antidote to it. Jean Luc Picard seems to be onto them, and will no doubt strive to save the day, and perhaps even end up saving the Romulans from themselves. The next chapter in their history awaits, as do Trekkies everywhere, watching with bated breath, to discover it. Bring them on; engage!