In TOS, Kirk's Enterprise encounters a Romulan warbird for the first time, after it had destroyed several Starfleet outposts along the Neutral Zone. When they see the ship's captain, they are genuinely surprised that he looks Vulcan. Even Spock is surprised, and he surmises that the Romulans are probably an off-shoot of the Vulcan people who went off-world, possibly because they did not believe that emotions should be completely suppressed. (Logically, he is correct.)

This implies that:

(1) prior to that encounter, humans, Vulcans, and other species in Starfleet and the Federation did not know what a Romulan looks like;

(2) if a Starfleet crew were to have encountered a group of Romulans who do not specifically indicate that they are Romulan, then they would probably conclude that they had encountered a group of Vulcans.

Chronologically, the timeline in Star Trek (2009) is supposed to be identical to the Prime timeline until Nero's arrival and battle with the USS Kelvin. Therefore, Starfleet officers on the Kelvin would know the term "Romulan" (from historically-recorded battles that did not involve view-screen contact) but would not know what one looks like. (Enterprise was very careful not to have any view-screen time between Archer's crew and the Romulan scout ships that they encountered.)

At no point while communicating with the Kelvin does anyone on Nero's ship say the word "Romulan". Nero's ship, the Narada, would likely bear no resemblance to any historical records of Romulan ships — any such records would have been decades old or older in the Kelvin's time, not to mention the fact that the Narada is 13 years shy of being from the 25th Century!

The Narada also appears to have been devoid of any obvious hull markings, and the bridge officers on the Kelvin stated explicitly during the fight that they were unable to gather any kind of information about the origins of the vessel.

So here is something that makes no sense: no one on the Kelvin seems surprised to have been attacked by people in a mysterious ship who look like Vulcans, and no one asks if they are Vulcan or not.

Flash forward now to Kirk and company prior to, and during, the Battle of Vulcan. They all seem perfectly fine with the fact that Nero is a Romulan, and even seem to know this before meeting him at Vulcan. At Kirk's age, the Romulan Star Empire would still be pursuing an isolationist policy, well behind the Neutral Zone. Why do they seem so comfortable with the notion of a Romulan?

Prior to meeting Nero, Kirk mentions to Pike on the bridge of the Enterprise that certain aspects of Nero's recent battle with the Klingon fleet mirror the Kelvin's encounter with the Narada. The report about the battle with the Klingons mentions an alleged massive Romulan ship. Kirk then reminds Pike that his own report following the destruction of the Kelvin had mentioned a massive Romulan ship. How would Pike know at that time that the Narada was a Romulan ship, given all of the facts above?

Is there an explanation for these inconsistencies?

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    Ah, didn't know that part. Then again, Mike Tyson face tattoos.
    – user16696
    Feb 6, 2015 at 2:29
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    well, the first encounter with romulans is mentioned fairly clearly (without any ambiguity) in The Original Series tv show (episode 14, balance of terror), but alas not so clearly in the 2009 movie reboot. Evidently leading to questions such as this. Feb 6, 2015 at 4:12
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    @Robert : No worries...but I suspect you are missing a piece of critical info here. "...wouldn't the Federation already know about Romulans and what they look like?" This is precisely the problem and the reason behind the main question. It is well established in TOS and Enterprise that Starfleet knows about Romulans but have no idea what they look like --- not until TOS 1x14, which is set in a year that is later than both the attack on the Kelvin and the Battle of Vulcan.
    – Praxis
    Feb 7, 2015 at 6:16
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    Well, for all we know the Federation met the Romulans at an earlier time in the Abrams timeline - perhaps in that 20 year gap, the Romulans even came out of hiding precisely BECAUSE of the Kelvin incident. Who knows?
    – Omegacron
    Feb 9, 2015 at 21:25
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    Well they live in the future, so they probably saw Star Trek.
    – Misha R
    Feb 22, 2018 at 22:46

6 Answers 6


While out-of-universe this is probably just part of the plot (as most fans are familiar with Romulans and non-fans don't care), it doesn't really contradict canon.

The Federation hadn't seen a Romulan until the quoted TOS episode, so they weren't aware of their precedence or their appearance. The Federation, however, is likely to be aware of an Empire as big as the Romulans' since Archer times (and in fact they are).

In the modified timeline, the Kelvin has a visual with a Romulan ship, and we know that they track all sorts of communications (including Romulan). It may sound like English to you and me, but the universal translator recognizes all kinds of languages and with that, it is easy to establish a relationship between that "Vulcan looking alien" that blew up one of your ships and an empire near the border of your domain that speaks the same language.

The mere appearance of Nero and the destruction of the Kelvin made the Federation more aware (and wary) of the Romulans than they were on the original timeline.

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    Jorge, I like the part of your answer about the universal translator. I hadn't thought of that: Nero's executive officer may have been speaking to the Kelvin crew in his mother tongue, and the survivors of the Kelvin may have been able to use data from their universal translators to decide that they were Romulan (as Starfleet would have encountered the Romulan language before). Would you be willing to edit your answer to make that theory more prominent?
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 17:12
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    (For the record, I doubt the film's writers thought of anything like this, or even cared about the serious level of discontinuity. But I like the translator theory, regardless.)
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 17:13
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    @ChrisB.Behrens: Since you made the edit and changed it to "all languages", let me just point out TNG's "Darmok"....
    – Praxis
    Feb 9, 2015 at 18:22
  • @Praxis - Brings to mind the King James mistranslation of "the root of all evil" from "the root of all kinds of evil". Feb 9, 2015 at 18:30
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    That actually makes things more complicated, because it begs the question as to why anybody was surprised by the Vulcan-like appearance in TOS; the Romulan language had been known to Starfleet for decades. Oct 4, 2019 at 14:35

How would Pike know at that time that the Narada was a Romulan ship, given all of the facts above? A possibility explaining how the Kelvin knew it had encountered a Romulan ship is through transponder codes.

Transponder codes, are by design, incredibly basic so that they can be recognized through high noise levels. Ships in space typically WANT to be found. Thus, you transmit a transponder code so people know who and where you are.

Transponder codes, as part of a simple design, are somewhat universal in terms of time. Federation ships of the time undoubtedly knew transponder codes indicating a ship is Romulan, i.e part of the Romulan Star Empire. Because the Romulan government existed in continuity to the future, this fleet code would be the same. Additionally, the transponder code may actually be written in Romulan, further giving it away.

The Narada was caught by surprise showing up in the middle of another century and it is likely they had not turned off their transponder at that point. Although after they went dark and hid for many years, we may presume they did turn it off. Note that the Narada was a freighter. It would have had no reason to be transmitting fake transpoder codes to conceal its identity.

There are other places in canon where transponder codes play a plot device. For example, when the Enterprise D went after the Crazy Horse, the Cardassians were surprised the Enterprise could read the Cardassian ship transponder codes. Keep in mind, that even if you didn't know how to read a futuristic transponder code, you would in all likelihood still know the origin of it. This is difference between reading a book's title off the cover and reading it from cover to cover.

As far as Romulans and Vulcans looking the same, in Star Trek 2009 I think the Romulans were bald and tattooed. They looked more stereotypically neo-nazi than stereotypically Vulcan. Thus, I don't see the lack of the characters calling this out as a mystery as a plot hole.

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    "Federation ships of the time undoubtedly knew transponder codes indicating a ship is Romulan" ... "when the Enterprise D went after the Crazy Horse, the Cardassians were surprised the Enterprise could read the Cardassian ship transponder codes" Either transponder codes are a common thing to have, or they're not. Apr 18, 2016 at 14:19
  • A transponder code is a repeated broadcast with uniquely identifiable characteristics. You may not be able to read Morse code, but you could certainly recognize a pattern of long and short signals that was repeatedly broadcast over time and discern that its likelihood of being a transponder signal was high. Tracking a fleet of similar signals as they move through an empire's worth of space allows you ti identify them as such with near certainty.
    – pojo-guy
    Jan 27, 2018 at 0:54
  • "Either transponder codes are a common thing to have, or they're not." They are common, dare I say universal. We know from context that the Cardassians had some means of encrypting or encoding some information in the broadcast, in order to prevent others from getting the information. The issue is not whether they exist but whether who can read them.
    – BAMF4bacon
    Oct 1, 2019 at 18:25

The Starfleet/Earth became aware of the romulans in 2152, where the Enterprise NX-01 hit a romulan minefield. There was even a war between Starfleet and the Romulan Empire way before TOS.

So it's possible that in Star Trek 2009 they knew what romulans are, even though contact was rare and most people would never have seen a romulan.

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    No Romulans were seen in ENT (only their technology, and one disgraced Vulcan who kept it a secret), and TOS establishes that the Federation had previously been at war with Romulans (audio contact only). This doesn't answer the question.
    – Izkata
    Feb 6, 2015 at 13:59
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    @AlexanderMills: Izkata is correct. They could not not have been able to identify Nero's crew as Romulan from their visual appearance only. Please read my question fully before answering it.
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 14:13
  • @AlexanderMills : Also, I'm aware of the war. (It is why the Neutral Zone was established in the first place.) But as both I and Izkata pointed out, all communications during that time were audio only.
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 15:23
  • @Izkata Romulans are Vulcans who left Vulcan a long time ago, to avoid having to get rid of their emotions. Their language is most likely at least kinda sorta similar to Vulcan, and both UT and skilled comms officers would immediatly pick that up
    – Petersaber
    Jun 30, 2015 at 12:30
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    @Petersaber I think you're underestimating the language shift of 1800 years of no interaction and entirely different philosophies
    – Izkata
    Jun 30, 2015 at 14:19

I'd actually like to expand on @Alexander Mills point;

Assuming that all events in the timeline are the same (ie. before the Nerada emerged), then the Earth-Romulan war of 2156 has still occured. Physically, as you say, Romulans and Vulcans are nigh-identical due to thier ancestry; but architecturally and aesthetically they are considerably different. The Federation spent 4 long years in a bloody war with the Romulans with collosal loses for humanity and her allies (Starfleets vessels, in particular, suffered greatly due to thier less advanced weaponry and lack of shielding)

Granted, the Nerada is technically from the future during the events of Star Trek 2009, but it is fairly obvious that it is a ship of Romulan design.

Add to this that the Vulcans are allies of Starfleet, any outward agression would be percieved to be the stereotypical baddies on first assumption.

OT side note, the Earth-Romulan war was originally going to be covered accross two seasons of ENT, but it was sadly cancelled before it's time. However, the plot was outlined and further fleshed out from its TOS origins in a two-part books series by Michael A. Martin. REALLY worth the read if you are looking for a good SF book:


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    It is not "fairly obviously" a Romulan design. It bears little if any resemblance to Romulan vessels from the 23rd Century, and it is unlikely that Starfleet officers of the Kelvin's period would have encountered a Romulan mining vessel of any design.
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 15:20
  • Long, sleek, dark...those 'sensor pole' greeblies... Example ENT Romulan ship: en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/Romulan_drone-ship Looks on par to me. Again, the Nerada is in a totally different league, but it doesn't marry up to aesthetics of any other race encountered at that time, and certainly not the Vulcans who they bear a physical resemblance too. I wonder if there is anything akin to BSG's transponders in the JJboot that may have explained thier knowledge off screen?
    – KOrrain
    Feb 6, 2015 at 16:28
  • Perhaps. But see Jorge's answer below and my comments to it, concerning the universal translator. I'm willing to accept such a theory.
    – Praxis
    Feb 6, 2015 at 17:15
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    @OllieSmith The poles on the drone ship are all subspace transmitters for the telepresence device, it's not a normal part of Romulan design. A regular Romulan ship of the ENT era was seen in 2x03, Minefield
    – Izkata
    Feb 6, 2015 at 23:50

The simplest answer to this, is that TOS was retconned by enterprise. They both encountered a romulan mine field, as well as actually fought some romulans in the last season. on top of that we have references to the united earth romulan war, in TNG(i believe). This war is actually why the romulans are so aggressive towards the federation because the romulans suffered a major defeat. This is also when the treaty between the fed and romulans where signed stating the fed would not research or use cloaking technology.
This is not really a big issue as alot of the stuff we first see or learn about in TOS gets retconned in by all of the other series, as material is further fleshed out.

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    "TOS was retconned by Enterprise" --- not true at all. It is true that Archer's ship had skirmishes against the Romulans, but the writers were very carefully to have audio-only contact, to preserve the continuity with TOS, where it was unknown what Romulans look like.
    – Praxis
    Feb 9, 2015 at 15:54
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    Also, the United Earth / Romulan war is referenced in TOS. It's not a feature that was introduced for the first time in TNG.
    – Praxis
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:06
  • heres my question, how do you have a major war, resulting in a neutral zone, and treaties, and not ever see the species your fighting, obviously tos messed up. if TOS itself talks about the earth romulan war, then TOS is retconning itself. now something accurate, would be no one has seen the romulans in 100 years, because after the war they essentially became isolationists until the time of TOS.
    – Himarm
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:08
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    I'm just saying that TNG and ENT didn't retconn those TOS points. But I take your point....
    – Praxis
    Feb 9, 2015 at 16:23
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    @Praxis: Romulans would self-destruct their ships to avoid capture. Feb 9, 2015 at 21:26

I know this has been out here for a while, but what the heck, I'll post anyway. The only thing I can think of is that JJ was not that terribly concerned with canon and has taken lots of liberties when it comes things like this. He wanted to change the time line and destroy the planets Vulcan and Romulus ( Romulus of the original time) and give Spock a totally different nature and character. In other words, he pretty much don't like the pointy eared folks, either Vulcan or Romulan.

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    This seems less like an explanation and more like criticicism of Abrams.
    – Adamant
    Jul 31, 2016 at 19:35

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