The reintroduction of Grand Admiral Thrawn suggests the franchise’s past may not be gone after all.
On April 25, 2014, millions of Star Wars fans cried out in dismay, as 35 years of Star Wars stories were suddenly snuffed out. The Star Wars Expanded Universe—a broad framework containing the books, comics, video games, and other multimedia narratives set within the galaxy created by George Lucas—had been shuttered by Disney, which planned to brush away all the detritus that had accumulated over the years in favor of a clean slate for its own take on the Star Wars saga.
These Star Wars Expanded Universe stories still exist as “Star Wars Legends”—presumably because “Star Wars Bullshit That Didn’t Happen” was a little too on the nose—but if you were particularly attached to Mara Jade, or Kyle Katarn, or Jacen and Jaina Solo, or any of the innumerable other characters and stories that had served as pivotal building blocks in the Star Wars universe, it was a drag to imagine Star Wars without them.
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When you look back on that deck-clearing April 25 announcement on StarWars.com, one detail stands out: the image used to illustrate the blog post announcing the schism between the old Star Wars and the new. There are literally hundreds of Star Wars books, but StarWars.com selected one that holds a special place in the hearts of diehard fans: Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which kicked off the “Thrawn trilogy”—widely regarded as the greatest story of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, and a New York Times Best Seller.
Heir to the Empire, which was originally published in 1991, picks up five years after the end of Return of the Jedi. It reintroduces audiences to Luke Skywalker, who seeks to use his Jedi training to help rebuild the galaxy, and Leia and Han Solo—now married, and pregnant with twins. But even more importantly, Heir to the Empire introduced two brand-new characters who would prove the Expanded Universe could make its own top-notch contributions to the Star Wars universe: Mara Jade and Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Mara Jade is probably the most popular character the EU ever introduced—a onetime agent of Emperor Palpatine who eventually turns to the light side of the Force, becomes a Jedi Knight, and marries Luke. But it’s the villainous Thrawn who stands as the most relevant EU character today. When Disney wiped the Expanded Universe out of continuity, it erased every original character who sprang from it. To date, Thrawn is the only one whom Disney has since been brought back.
So what makes this one bad guy so great that Disney spared him the chopping block? Thrawn—a blue-skinned, red-eyed alien from a humanoid species called the Chiss—is an Imperial officer who rises to prominence as the Empire struggles to rebuild itself after the deaths of Palpatine and Darth Vader.
As introduced in Heir of the Empire, Thrawn is a different kind of Star Wars villain—less ideological and more strategic, relying on his brilliant military mind to outmaneuver the heroes of the Rebellion. He disdains the chaos of a galaxy without a single unifying government. He considers the Force not a mystical and all-powerful game-changer, but one of many possible tools of war, to be utilized or circumvented accordingly. He studies the art of a wide variety of cultures, believing that aesthetic insights will grant him a strategic edge. And in one novel, he mounts an intriguing intellectual defense of the Empire in an attempt to sway a nonbeliever:
“I encounter civilians like you all the time. You believe the Empire is continually plotting to do harm. Let me tell you, your view of the Empire is far too dramatic. The Empire is a government. It keeps billions of beings fed and clothed. Day after day, year after year, on thousands of worlds, people live their lives under Imperial rule without seeing a stormtrooper or hearing a TIE fighter scream overhead.”
Timothy Zahn made a number of smart choices as he built out the Star Wars Expanded Universe, but Thrawn was probably the savviest of all: a villain who presented a totally different kind of threat than anything Star Wars fans had seen in the movies, which tended toward a more black-and-white morality. Zahn killed Thrawn off in 1993’s The Last Command—the final book of the Thrawn trilogy—but the character proved so popular that Zahn and other writers returned to him again and again, in stories chronicling his career leading up to Heir to the Empire (and in others, set after The Last Command, that flirted with reviving Thrawn as a clone).
Thrawn was a villain who presented a totally different kind of threat than anything Star Wars fans had seen in the movies, which tended toward a more black-and-white morality.
Of course, those stories have all been erased in favor of the new continuity introduced in Star Wars: Episode VII, which jettisoned Expanded Universe creations in favor of brand-new villains like Hux, Snoke, Captain Phasma, and Kylo Ren. Thrawn was as compelling as ever, but there wasn’t really room for him in the increasingly crowded narrative set in the wake of Return of the Jedi.
And that’s when Disney hit upon a novel solution: Why not keep the core elements of Thrawn’s character, but move him into the franchise’s past? The TV series Star Wars Rebels—which is set between Episodes III and IV—gives us a younger Thrawn, voiced by Lars Mikkelsen, who has appeared in 10 episodes and counting. This Thrawn may never rise to the heights he reached after Return of the Jedi in the Expanded Universe, but the Rebels version retains many of the core qualities that made Thrawn such a compelling character in the first place: the calculating chess master’s ability to manipulate both sides of the war to suit his own purposes.
And if you don’t feel like catching up on 50-plus episodes of a TV series, Thrawn has also reemerged in the medium that made him such a breakout favorite among Star Wars fans in the first place. This week, Timothy Zahn published a new Star Wars book—simply titled Thrawn—which chronicles the origins of Thrawn’s uncanny rise to power in the Empire. An excerpt documents Thrawn’s “almost regal confidence” from the very beginning, as he cleverly disguises his own abilities while he sizes up his would-be opponents.
The reintroduction of Thrawn should fill fans who invested so many hours of time in the pre-Disney Expanded Universe with optimism about the long-term future of the Star Wars franchise. I can sympathize with the logic that originally led Disney to throw out the good of the Star Wars Expanded Universe with the bad, but this new riff on Thrawn shows the potential in revisiting the Star Wars that seemed to be gone forever. And if Disney can keep finding clever ways to strip-mine the original Expanded Universe for its best parts—well, who knows which of these “Star Wars Legends” might actually turn out to be perfect fodder for a brand-new story in a galaxy far, far away?