Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for the most recent seasons of Star Trek: Picard and Star Trek: Discovery. There may be further spoilers for other iterations of the Star Trek franchise.
While Star Trek: Picard Season 1 was ongoing earlier in the year, I postulated a number of theories about what was going on in the show. One theory that I had related to Control – the rogue artificial intelligence from Star Trek: Discovery Season 2. Specifically, I speculated that the Zhat Vash’s hatred and fear of synthetic life may have stemmed from a run-in with Control, or that the Romulans may have been trying to compete with Starfleet in a mid-23rd Century AI arms race. It seemed possible that Control could have attacked Romulan ships or settlements in the time between its takeover of Section 31 and its defeat by the USS Discovery, or that if the Romulans developed their own AI that it would have similarly gotten out of control and attacked them.
This theory came back with a vengeance after Picard reused a couple of CGI sequences from Discovery in the latter part of the season, particularly as those sequences depicted Control attacking – and ultimately destroying – all organic life in the galaxy. While Picard and Discovery had thematic similarities in their most recent seasons, insofar as both stories looked at the creation of synthetic life and how that synthetic life could go rogue, there was no broader crossover. The Zhat Vash were not motivated by either their own rogue AI from the mid-23rd Century or by an attack from Control.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to drop the idea of there being any connection between the Zhat Vash in Picard and Control in Discovery. My theory started with the idea that Control could have been the reason for the Zhat Vash… but what if it’s the other way around? What if the Zhat Vash are responsible for Control going rogue?
There was no explanation given for why Control decided to lash out and attack its creators. It wanted to acquire the data from the planetoid-sized lifeform known as the Sphere, believing that data would help it achieve true sentience. But that isn’t a reason to go on to commit genocide; something inside Control made it want to kill. Remember that Dr Gabrielle Burnham – Michael’s mother – arrived in a future timeline where no sentient organic life existed in the known galaxy; Control had wiped it all out. Why did it want to do that?
We could try to argue that Control’s murderous rage is somehow a result of Starfleet denying it access to the Sphere data. But Starfleet and the USS Discovery only came to possess the data because of the time-travelling interventions of Dr Burnham; we don’t know how Control came to acquire it in the “original,” pre-intervention timeline. There are a couple of possibilities. The first is that when the Sphere died, it broadcast its data as far and wide as possible and that’s how Control acquired it. It’s also possible that Starfleet received the transmission and Control gained access to it from there. However, neither of these scenarios involve Starfleet actively trying to prevent Control accessing the data, meaning that it wasn’t Starfleet who started the fight with Control.
So if Control had no reason on the surface to attack its organic creators, why did it do so? It could simply be a programming error; Control was programmed to prevent war, and perhaps that got twisted around so that it decided the only way to prevent the Milky Way’s organic civilisations from fighting was to exterminate all of them. This kind of basic AI programming mistake is one that’s not uncommon in science fiction, and arguably something we need to consider out here in the real world as we develop our own AIs!
So that’s one possibility. But here’s where the Zhat Vash could come in: what if they are responsible for corrupting Control’s programming? We saw in Picard that the Zhat Vash know enough about synthetic life to hack into Federation synths and change their programming. That’s what they did on Mars, causing F8 and the other synths to go rogue and destroy Admiral Picard’s rescue armada. If they had that capability in the 24th Century, it isn’t much of a stretch to think they could have been capable of something similar in the 23rd Century too.
We also know that the Zhat Vash are “far older” than the Tal Shiar. Let’s look at what we know for sure to try to pin down a rough estimate of how old they could be. The Romulans split from the Vulcans somewhere around the 4th Century AD, and by that time were capable of interstellar flight. By the 2150s the Romulans were involved in covert operations on Vulcan, trying to start a war between Vulcans and Andorians. While it was never stated outright in Enterprise that the Romulan operatives we saw were working for the Tal Shiar, it’s not an unreasonable assumption. The Zhat Vash sent Commodore Oh to infiltrate the Federation sometime around the discovery of Data, which took place in the year 2338. When Raffi asked La Sirena’s Emergency Navigational Hologram about the octonary star system, he described the Romulan star charts that depicted it as “ancient,” which seems to suggest they’re more than a century old at least. It was the discovery of Aia, the planet in the octonary star system, and the beacon that resided there that led to the creation of the Zhat Vash.
Put all of that together and we can assume with reasonable confidence that the Zhat Vash existed by the mid-23rd Century. We also know, thanks to what we saw in Enterprise and Deep Space Nine, that Romulan intelligence was far better than Starfleet’s – they knew a lot more about the Federation than the Federation did about them.
There’s a question of just how secret Control was. Section 31 was much more out in the open in Discovery than it was by the time of Deep Space Nine, but even so it seems logical to assume that Control would be a top-secret project within an already-secretive organisation. Still, when most Starfleet flag officers used Control regularly, word of its existence would get out and it was generally known within Starfleet that an AI existed. Thus any Zhat Vash or Tal Shiar operative would have come to know about Control.
Okay, so let’s slow down. Even if we’re confident that the Zhat Vash existed by Discovery’s era, and had commenced their anti-synthetic crusade, and even if they had operatives within Starfleet who would have made them aware of the existence of Control, that doesn’t mean they could just walk up to Control’s data servers and start messing around. Right? I mean, Control was based at Section 31 headquarters, which as we saw in the show was incredibly well-protected. And we saw no evidence of such an operative. Did we?
How about Admiral Patar, the Vulcan Starfleet admiral who was killed by Control at Section 31 headquarters? We know that Commodore Oh spent decades embedded within Starfleet, waiting to make her move at just the right moment. We also know she was able to attain a very high rank, and it’s only one short step from being a commodore to being an admiral. It’s at least possible. Admiral Patar had the means to access Control. She spent time at Section 31 headquarters right around the time Control went rogue. She was a Vulcan, and thus was biologically indistinguishable from a Romulan – meaning she could have been an undercover Romulan operative. Enterprise depicted Romulans undercover on Vulcan a century earlier, meaning that they had infiltrated Vulcan by that time and were able to do so with relative ease. The pieces fall into place for Admiral Patar to be a Romulan operative – or to have been replaced by one – even if the evidence is only circumstantial. Even if it wasn’t Patar, there may well have been other Vulcans working at Section 31 headquarters, any one of whom could have been a Romulan spy.
Once they had access to Control’s systems and specifications, the Zhat Vash could have figured out how to mess with Control’s programming and turn it hostile. Perhaps they only intended for it to attack the Federation, forcing them to shut it down permanently. Or perhaps they hoped it would cause wider chaos so they could force the kind of galactic ban on synthetic life that we saw in Picard. So the question of what they had to gain by such a move is obvious; it’s the same basic goal as they had for staging the attack on Mars.
If the Zhat Vash introduced a glitch in Control’s programming that would turn it murderous, they obviously didn’t intend for Control to go on and wipe out everything. That wasn’t the goal; that’s what they were trying to prevent. However, as I wrote earlier, it’s possible for even well-intentioned AI to get out of control or to act in a way its creators and programmers couldn’t anticipate. Perhaps that’s what happened with Control, and by the time it had assimilated Captain Leland, killed off most of Section 31’s leadership, and got a fleet at its command, there was no way for the Zhat Vash to stop it. If their sole operative had been killed when Control wiped out Section 31’s headquarters, the Zhat Vash may not have even been aware that the mission was not going to plan until it was too late.
So that’s my crossover theory for Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard – the Zhat Vash hacked or reprogrammed Control, and that’s what made it go rogue. There’s enough circumstantial evidence for this theory to be possible, and it would explain why Control went from being a useful tool for Starfleet to a menace capable of wiping out all sentient life in the galaxy. However, there’s no concrete proof. All we really have are two shows with similar themes, and a bunch of unrelated pieces that could be made to fit together – but also may not fit at all!
As I always say: it’s just a fan theory. Unless we get some confirmation on screen in future – which seems unlikely given both Picard and Discovery are almost certainly moving on to new stories in their upcoming seasons – we have to consider it as unconfirmed at best. I consider it plausible (obviously, or I wouldn’t have written an article about it!) but it may prove to be a complete miss… just like many of my other Star Trek: Picard theories!
This post was edited 31.03.21 to replace header image. Star Trek: Discovery and Star Trek: Picard are available to stream now on CBS All Access in the United States. Discovery is available internationally on Netflix; Picard is available internationally on Amazon Prime Video. The Star Trek franchise – including all properties 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.