The involvement of the Tal Shiar, a covert Romulan intelligence organization that masks the ancient Zhat Vash cabal, in the first season of Star Trek: Picard has significantly raised the group’s profile among avid fans and casual viewers alike.
Certain concepts, such as the Tal Shiar’s deep-rooted connections to the Zhat Vash's anti-synthetic paranoia and a disdain for the Qowat Milat, represent new information only just introduced to audiences by Picard. However, the Tal Shiar’s reputation extends well into Star Trek lore, which has seen the secret police unit feature prominently in episodes of The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, and Voyager.
As the Tal Shiar and Zhat Vash's true impact on Picard unfurls itself at warp speed, let’s reflect back on Starfleet’s previous encounters with the Tal Shiar and gauge the agency's influence on both Romulan society and the galaxy as a whole.
Stealing the U.S.S. Prometheus in “Message in a Bottle,” Star Trek: Voyager
Under Commander Rekar’s leadership, Romulan soldiers boarded the Federation starship U.S.S. Prometheus and seized the vessel in the name of the Romulan Star Empire. Rekar’s subordinates believed Romulus — where scientists and engineers would surely dissect the ship and study Starfleet’s advanced tactical technology — to be the destination for their prize. In typical Romulan fashion, Rekar informed his troops that their plans had changed. Rather than set a course for home, the commander planned to rendezvous with a Tal Shiar fleet and hand the vessel over to them.
Was Rekar an undercover Tal Shiar operative or merely sympathetic to their cause? We may never know, but it is clear that the commander respected the organization and believed in their methods. Fortunately, The Doctor’s program had been transmitted from Voyager to the Prometheus and began to subvert Rekar’s scheme. With assistance from the Prometheus’s EMH, The Doctor retook the vessel and warded off three Tal Shiar D’deridex-class warships. Of course, Starfleet’s arrival in the form of an Akira-class cruiser and two Defiant-class escorts went a long way in assisting The Doctor’s fight! Despite the mission’s failure, the Tal Shiar demonstrated an ability to supersede the Romulan military and interfere with the Federation.
Impersonating an Operative in “Face of the Enemy,” Star Trek: The Next Generation
Counselor Troi awoke to find herself disguised as Major Rakal of the Tal Shiar aboard the Romulan warbird Khazara, an unwitting participant in an effort to transfer high-level defectors over to Federation custody. N’Vek, Troi’s handler and a Romulan underground member, acted as a key source of knowledge about the Tal Shiar’s procedures and power structure. N’Vek emphasized that Commander Toreth, the vessel’s captain, would acquiesce to the Tal Shiar’s wishes and accept orders from Troi. The analysis proved correct; although, Toreth openly displayed disdain for the intelligence organization and implied that negative run-ins with Tal Shiar operatives were commonplace for her Bridge officers.
Troi sensed that the crew feared the Tal Shiar, and N’Vek explained that defying the group often resulted in imprisonment or death. In fact, Toreth’s own father had previously been taken away by the Tal Shiar for his idealistic views, leaving the commander wondering what grizzly fate befell him. The terror ran so deep that Troi even managed to temporarily gain command over the ship by vowing that dissenting crew members and their families would suffer harsh consequences. The entire ordeal painted a grim picture around the Tal Shiar’s interactions with Romulan citizens and the Star Empire’s military, as threats and violent innuendos supplied Troi with virtually unlimited prestige during her ruse as Rakal.
Maneuvering in Ambiguity in “Inter Arma Enim Silent Leges,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
The Tal Shiar handled security for a conference that their chairman Koval attended during the Dominion War, where Section 31 agent Sloan alleged that the top operative had been involved in a Starfleet admiral’s death. Sloan pressured Dr. Bashir into assessing if Koval suffered from an incurable condition before advancing a plot to accelerate the illness’s degenerative effects. Unable to contact Deep Space 9, Bashir elected to recruit the sympathetic Romulan Senator Cretak to help him foil the assassination.
Nothing involving the Tal Shiar is ever as it appeared on the surface, and that certitude is doubly true when Section 31 also lurked nearby. Bashir eventually discovered that Koval actually fed information to the Federation, and the entire scenario turned out to be an elaborate ploy to elevate Koval’s status within the Star Empire. The multi-layered deception boggled Bashir’s genetically-enhanced mind and revealed the Tal Shiar’s shady moral compass. Whether Koval assisted the Federation as a traitor to his people or as a way to further the Tal Shiar’s agenda remains unknown, but this intriguing episode highlighted the organization’s capability to manipulate its own government.
Springing the Trap in “Improbable Cause” and “The Die is Cast,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
A Tal Shiar member confirmed that the Romulans destroyed a Flaxian criminal’s ship as it departed Deep Space 9, but the agent never disclosed the fact that they had hired the Flaxian to murder Elim Garak in the first place. The plot thickened, as the situation served to cover up a joint Tal Shiar-Obsidian Order invasion of the Dominion that was designed to wipe out the Founders. Unfortunately, the Dominion learned about the mission and sent a Changeling to impersonate Colonel Lovok, the fleet’s highest-ranking Tal Shiar officer. The result? A task force composed of 150 Jem’Hadar ships launched a surprise assault that laid waste to the Romulan and Cardassian vessels.
The tenuous Tal Shiar-Obsidian Order alliance represented another occasion when the Romulan secret police collaborated with a rival faction to benefit what they perceived to be the greater good for the Star Empire. The notion that the Changelings saw the Tal Shiar as such a significant threat spoke to the covert group’s prowess in Romulan society, while the partnership with the Obsidian Order exposed the Tal Shiar’s fear that they could not eliminate the Dominion on their own. From the Founders’ point-of-view, losing so many Tal Shiar personnel temporarily crippled Romulus’s ability to strike at the Dominion. Nevertheless, the Romulans did recover from the defeat in a matter of a few years, which brings us to our final encounter...
Starting a War in “In the Pale Moonlight,” Star Trek: Deep Space Nine
With the Dominion holding the upper hand in the war against the Federation and the Klingons, Captain Sisko conspired with Garak to fool the Romulans into entering the fray against the Founders. The pair targeted Vreenak, the Tal Shiar’s Vice Chairman, with their deception and hoped to utilize a forged recording on a Cardassian data rod to convince him that the Dominion sought to invade Romulus. Vreenak represented the astounding reach of the Tal Shiar’s power, as he also functioned as a Romulan senator and a key advisor to the Star Empire’s proconsul. Sisko and Garak knew that Vreenak’s prestigious opinion could either convince the Romulans to back the Federation or send them further into the Dominion’s arms.
When Vreenak deduced that the recording was a fake, it seemed as if the latter would occur… until Garak’s true plan materialized. The spy-turned-tailor planted a bomb on the Romulan’s shuttle that killed the high-ranking official and allowed the Tal Shiar to find the damaged data rod that implicated the Dominion. Garak’s subterfuge infuriated Sisko, but it finally prompted the Romulans to ally with the Federation and the Klingon Empire. Vreenak’s illustrious position, his sway on political affairs, and the idea that his government committed to a war in order to avenge him all combined to indicate that the Tal Shiar’s tendrils inextricably weaved their way throughout the fabric of Romulan society.
Attacking Mars, Star Trek: Picard
If you were impressed by the Tal Shiar's ability to affect an interstellar war, you better hold on to your seats for this one. Picard's revelation that the Zhat Vash originated as an anti-synth unit was merely the tip of an astonishingly intricate iceberg, as the cabal had also orchestrated the cataclysmic assault on Mars that crippled the Romulan relief effort and resulted in the ban on synthetic lifeforms.
In the name of the Zhat Vash's mandate to "protect" the galaxy at all costs, their half-Romulan agent Oh infiltrated Starfleet and wrought havoc upon the Federation's utopian values. In light of these latest discoveries about the Tal Shiar's progenitor, Star Trek's previous depictions of the intelligence unit seem almost quaint by comparison.
This article was originally published on March 18, 2020.
Jay Stobie (he/him) is a freelance writer who contributes articles to the official Star Trek website and Star Trek Magazine, as well as to Star Wars Insider and the official Star Wars website. Jay also serves as a part-time assistant and consultant advising many actors and creatives who work on his favorite sci-fi shows and films. He can be found on Twitter and Instagram at @StobiesGalaxy.
Star Trek: Picard streams exclusively on Paramount+ in the U.S. and is distributed concurrently by Paramount Global Content Distribution on Amazon Prime Video in more than 200 countries and territories, and in Canada it airs on Bell Media’s CTV Sci-Fi Channel and streams on Crave.