With one, small, off-the-cuff Easter egg, Picard has connected the Star Trek universe to the literary canon of Larry Niven.
With a single word from Riker in episode 7, “Nepenthe,” Picard referenced a 1973 episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series. And, in doing so, brought Larry Niven back into Trek canon, too. This may have slightly bigger implications than a deep-cut reference; in fact, the entire backstory of the Star Trek canon might have just been given a new spin, that is actually, very old.
Spoilers ahead for Star Trek: Picard episodes 1-8.
Historically, Star Trek films and TV series are replete with writers of prose, translating their talents to the final frontier. Currently, novelist Kirsten Beyer writes for Star Trek: Discovery, and Pulitzer Prize and Hugo Winning novelist Michael Chabon is the showrunner and primary writer of Star Trek: Picard. And while this was less common in the ’90s heyday of Trek, several original series episodes were written by SFF legends like Harlan Ellison, David Gerrold, Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Bloch, and George Clayton Johnson. And, of course, Nicholas Meyer was also a best-selling novelist before he directed (and re-wrote) The Wrath of Khan.
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But did you know that Larry Niven—the author famous for Ringworld and The Magic Goes Away — also wrote for Star Trek? One episode of Star Trek: The Animated Series, “The Slaver Weapon,” was written by Niven and adapted from his short story, “The Soft Weapon.” And it’s here where the literary worlds of Niven first crossed over into Trek. Though the title of the episode refers to an ancient alien race called the “Slavers” (we’ll get to them in a second) its the cat-like aliens called the Kzinti that actually represent the only alien species entirely conceived of for an unrelated SFF universe, who subsequently joined the Star Trek canon. (For comparison, this would be a little like when Neil Gaiman wrote for Doctor Who, but in this scenario, he actually made Sandman part of Who canon or something. And also, pretend it was the ’70s.)
The Kzinti, a carnivorous, vicious, and furry group of aliens exists in a variety of Niven’s writing outside of just the short story “The Soft Weapon.” They belong to Niven’s larger “Known Space” shared universe of interconnected short stories and novels, of which, Ringworld was, eventually, reconciled with. The Star Trek canon didn’t get all of Niven’s Known Space canon with “The Slaver Weapon,” but it did get the Kzinti, and it seems, possibly one other concept Trekkies have forgotten about.
This brings us to Picard. In the episode “Nepenthe,” when Picard first meets with Riker, our beloved bearded Number One tells his former captain that they’ve been “having some trouble with the Kzinti.” Yep. This sounded a little like “Xindi”, those crazy multispecies aliens from Enterprise, but as confirmed by Michael Chabon in one of his Instagram talkbacks, the line was “Kzinti,” and yes, he specifically reached out to Larry Niven to make sure it was cool to make the reference.
Okay, just a random Easter egg, then, right? The Animated Series was considered apocryphal for a while, but these days it is pretty much straight-up canon. This means we have to turn around and look back at “The Slaver Weapon” again and how it might connect to Picard, beyond whatever Riker is dealing with in his neighborhood. Because if “Nepenthe” is name-checking the Kzinti for the first time since The Animated Series, then that means Star Trek is bringing back the rest of that episode, too. Don’t remember what it’s about? Here’s a one-line summary:
Spock, Sulu, and Uhura are transporting a stasis box—mysterious tech left behind by an extinct species called “the Slavers”—and, in trying to find a second stasis box, they are nearly ripped-off by a group of marauding Kzinti.
Here’s the most interesting part. At the top of the episode, Spock straight-up establishes that a mysterious alien race (the Slavers) ruled the entire galaxy about a billion years prior. In Niven’s Known Space stories and novels, its later revealed that the Slavers pulled this off mostly through long-distance telepathy. So, if we agree that the Kzinti are definitely part of Trek canon (thanks to Riker’s offhand remark) then we also agree that Spock’s knowledge of the Slavers is legit, too, and that at some point in the distant past of the Star Trek galaxy, a mysterious alien race—with an unknown name—ruled most of the galaxy.
Guess what? Picard just established that exact thing. In episode 8, “Broken Pieces,” we learn that the Romulans discovered a warning left-behind by a mysterious alien race, tens of thousands of years prior. Commodore Oh tells her Zhat Vash recruits that “we don’t know the name of the race who left this warning.” This checks out with Niven’s canon about the Slavers. They weren’t really called that, it’s just what people called them way later when the culture had vanished into antiquity. In Niven’s work, these aliens were known as “Thrintun.” And although Niven details their mind-control powers throughout his writing, it’s not crazy to think that a Trek version of the Thrintun, could have ruled the galaxy through some kind of A.I.-amplified mind control.
Star Trek: Picard has firmly established that the distant past of the galaxy was populated by alien species with power that is much bigger than anything that has happened during the various centuries we’ve seen in Trek canon. In “The Slaver Weapon,” Spock, Sulu, and Uhura, barley dodged a matter-energy weapon that had the ability to blow up planets with the touch of a button. If we take the small Kzinti reference seriously then it seems like the all-powerful aliens who made “The Slaver Weapon,” might be out there, too. And if they are, their backstory may already have been written.
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Ryan Britt is a longtime contributor to Tor.com and the author of the book Luke Skywalker Can’t Read and Other Geeky Truths (Plume 2015.) His other writing and criticism have been published in Inverse, SyFy Wire, Vulture, Den of Geek!, the New York Times, and StarTrek.com. He is an editor at Fatherly. Ryan lives with his wife and daughter in Portland, Maine.