Robot Overlords

How Star Trek: Picard explains Dune's unique take on sci-fi robots

There's a Dune connection to the canon of Star Trek hiding in plain sight.

In terms of tone and theme, the complex future galaxies of Star Trek and Dune could not be more different. In the Trek setting, you've got a benevolent interstellar government that fosters peace and cooperation among hundreds of star systems. Dune gives us a justifiably anachronistic galaxy in which the ruling government conspires to manipulate the power bases of various feuding planets, while the politics of everything are informed by the exploitation of one planet's natural resource, the Spice.

So, other than Trek's mirror universe, and the idea that Patrick Stewart just happened to be in the 1984 Dune, there's no real connection between the world of Dune and Trek, right? Well, up until 2020, that would be nominally true. However, dive into the backstory of Picard and you'll find something straight from the sands of Arrakis. Here's how Picard cribs from Dune, and makes the world-building of the Trek universe ten-times smarter.

Spoilers ahead for Picard Season 1 and the original Dune novels by Frank Herbert.

Sandworms only. No robots allowed.Warner Bros.

Dune and Trek both have underdeveloped A.I.

In the relative "present" of Dune, A.I. and "smart" technology is basically banned from existence. This is mostly because of laws put in place after an anti-robot war called the Butlerian Jihad, which forbade humans from making "a machine in the likeness of a human mind." Prior to Picard, within human and Federation cultures, A.I. was similarly scarce. It wasn't illegal, mind you, but in both The Original Series and The Next Generation, fully sentient A.I. — and androids in specific — are rare and often dangerous.

You might think saying A.I. is scarce in Trek is nuts because of the fact Kirk battles so many A.I. overlords in TOS. Yet save for a few notable exceptions, all the A.I. in TOS comes from ancient alien tech and non-human cultures. Yes, Roger Korby creates contemporary androids in "What Are Little Girls Made Of?" but he does so with the help of the android Ruk, who is several centuries old and built by "the Old Ones." In "I, Mudd," when Harry Mudd is stuck on an android planet, those androids reveal they were constructed by a species called "The Makers," who are from the Andromeda Galaxy. The larger point: Even right at the beginning, Star Trek floated the idea that truly sentient humanoid-ish robots or androids are out of the grasp of human technology. This tradition continued in The Next Generation when Data's uniqueness is his defining trait.

In the 24th century, Data, Lore, B-4, and Data's "mother, "Juliana, are the only successful "humanoid" androids created by contemporary humans, and not based on robots and androids that have been around for centuries before humanity even existed. Considering how often Trek dips into other sci-fi tropes, this is an interesting thing to consider: Robot duplicates and humanoid robots don't show up on Star Trek all the time. When they do, there's very specific mythology around what is going on. Yes, there are sentient computers (like the M-5 in "The Ultimate Computer") but robots created "in the likeness of the human mind" are super rare, or the result of hybrids between alien tech and human tech. (I.E. V'Ger in The Motion Picture.)

Laris and Zhaban explain why Romulans hate A.I.CBS

Picard gave the Romulans a reverse-Butlerian Jihad

The rarity of androids is not just limited to the Federation. We don't hear about A.I. constructed by Romulans, Klingons, Bajorians, the Trill, or the Vulcans. Again, in the Federation, you don't have any laws in place to prevent this from happening, but the result — at least relative to robots that look like people — is pretty much the same as it is in Dune; there just aren't that many of them.

Picard tackled this concept head-on, and in doing so, gave the Romulans a backstory straight out of Dune. In the second episode of Picard, "Maps and Legends," Laris tells Jean-Luc that A.I. and androids are not only illegal in the Romulan Empire, but considered morally reprehensible. Throughout the series, we learn that this is because the "much older cabal" of the Zhat Vash controls the Romulan Secret Police, the Tal Shiar. And the mission of the Zhat Vash is to make sure that A.I. never rises up again. Why? Well, as we learn in the episode "Broken Pieces," the Romulans discovered something in their distant past called "The Admonition." From the Romulan point of view, this was a warning left behind from a race that died out roughly 300,000 years before the Romulans discovered it. The "warning" in the Admonition was clear: If you let advanced A.I. survive, that A.I. will come and enslave you.

So, this means that the Romulans developed an intentionally throttled-back tech society, because, effectively, the backstory of the entire Romulan Empire was influenced by a secret cult having experienced a version of Dune's Butlerian Jihad, but with an ending that results in the "thinking machines" winning.

Hey sis, wanna go read Dune again?CBS

Starfleet are Asimov stans. The Romulans love the Dune sequels

In "Maps and Legends," Jean-Luc jokes he never really liked "science fiction," because he "just didn't get it." In this scene, Picard and Jurati talk about Isaac Asimov, who mostly wrote stories about benevolent androids and robots. Broadly speaking, Asimov's ideas about A.I. and robots are the anti-Dune. This is where the finale of Picard ends up, at least philosophically. When Picard becomes a Synth, he is becoming what the humans who fought the Butlerian Jihad in Dune would have feared: a machine made in the image of a human mind. Picard and Starfleet's view of A.I. then, is much more in-line with Asimov, even if their tech (relative to A.I.) is more like the present-tense of Dune. The Romulans, on the other hand, are, in a way, huge Dune fans. In fact, you could argue that what the Zhat Vash fear in Picard, is exactly what ends up happening in the Dune sequel book The Sandworms of Dune — the idea that the evil A.I. Overlords will return.

The finale of Picard gets to have these two competing A.I. narratives both ways. In "Et in Arcadia Ego Part 2," we learn that the robot overlords that the Zhat Vash are afraid of, totally still exist, and are out there, just waiting to annihilate even more organic life. This specific thing doesn't really have a direct parallel in Dune, but it is telling that those evil A.I. overlords in Picard were wiggling around like space worms. Picard Season 1 showrunner Michael Chabon is a self-professed Dune fan, so it seems unlikely these parallels were accidental. But the bigger question is more interesting.

If Picard and Jurati live in a world where Asimov influenced their philosophies about A.I. then that means they certainly live in a world where people (and Romulans) have read Dune, too. In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, the Klingons claim that Shakespeare was actually one of them and that you haven't experienced Shakespeare properly until you've "read [him] in the original Klingon." So, the thought experiment is clear. If Shakespeare was really, originally, a Klingon, then does that mean, Frank Herber, the author of Dune, was a Romulan?

Season 2 of Picard will never touch this. I'm sure of it. But, if you look at how the Romulans behave in Picard Season 1, you can bet they're all in a centuries-old Dune fan club.

Dune comes to theaters December 18.