Star Wars watchers have long wondered whether Obi-Wan oversold the benefits of being struck down.
Darth Vader, after all, was apprenticed to an emperor who’d already promised him unlimited power; what more might there be to imagine? And after becoming a bundle of laundry, Obi-Wan’s powers seemed like small-time stuff: interrupting interior monologues, visiting Hoth without wearing a parka, going to Dagobah without stepping in swamp. More like Obi-wah-wah-wah-waaah.
But the power Kenobi acquired wasn’t the kind that could flow from his fingertips; this was more of a martyrdom deal. By sacrificing himself, he helped Luke escape, which led to three triumphs he couldn’t accomplish in life: redeeming Anakin, defeating the Emperor, and power posing with his Force-hands hooked into his Force-belt (an influential look).
The same was true of Disney’s 2014 decision to strike down the Star Wars Expanded Universe. By wiping Star Wars’ slate clean, Disney de-canonized countless characters who’d been beloved by fans. But it also set the stage for The Force Awakens’ fresh concepts, such as Han and Leia’s son being swayed by the dark side, Luke being a bad teacher, the recovery of Luke’s lightsaber, and a Stormtrooper turning into a good guy. Wait — actually, all of those things were old EU ideas that J.J. Abrams recycled. (Paging James Cameron.) Future films remap more EU territory, including the Death Star–plans heist at the heart of Rogue One. Losing the previous (and in some cases conflicting) accounts is a small price to pay to see Ben Mendelsohn wear a white cape.
But there was one EU cast-off whom Star Wars fans still pined for, still speculated about, still thought they saw lurking in every plot outline and casting call. Their wishes went unanswered until last weekend, when presenters at Star Wars Celebration teased the third season of the Disney XD cartoon Star Wars Rebels. And two minutes into the trailer, the crowd knew it to be true: Good gawd, that’s Grand Admiral Thrawn’s music!
Grand Admiral Thrawn — that red-eyed, blue-skinned villain wearing a white uni much like Mendelsohn’s — was the single greatest casualty of the Star Wars Expanded Universe purge. It’s no stretch to say that Thrawn’s appeal to fans made most of the EU possible, and perhaps even inspired Lucas’s prequels. (We’ll forgive him for that.) Now Rebels is bringing him into the new canon his success helped create. EVERYBODY UP.
With Star Wars again minting money following The Force Awakens’ historic success, it’s hard to believe there was ever an era when no one was milking that lucrative license. But there was a dark time for the fan base. From the end of the original trilogy to the early 1990s, thirsty fans got their fix feeding quarters to aging arcade games, collecting failed action figures, catching short-lived cartoons, and subscribing to Bantha Tracks and The Lucasfilm Fan Club (sample feature: “Willow: Forget All You Know, or Think You Know”). No one was nudging Star Wars in different directions or proving that the franchise could lead a fulfilling life away from the screen. Like our own universe, whose expansion slowed and subsequently sped up again, the Star Wars universe needed another push after its initial eruption died down.
We can pinpoint the moment when that push was applied. This graph shows the number of Star Wars novels published by year:
See that tiny nub bravely poking out of the x-axis at 1991, ending an eight-year drought and beginning an unending deluge? That’s Heir to the Empire, the novel that introduced Thrawn. The explosion in Star Wars material that followed his debut might still have happened without him — at some point, someone was bound to make more — but Thrawn proved that EU-only characters could be just as memorable as the movies’, and that Star Wars side projects could sell. And the fan affection for him hasn’t ebbed over time: On the list of Wookieepedia’s longest pages (by byte size), Thrawn’s ranks 31st, directly between Leia’s and Han’s.
“You couldn’t have grown up a Star Wars fan without encountering Thrawn and Heir to the Empire,” Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni said at the trailer’s unveiling. “There weren’t new movies, and we were looking for new material, and all of a sudden there’s a trilogy of books called Heir to the Empire. Blew our minds. Like, ‘How could there be more?’ That was significant.”
Thrawn — and his creator, the author Timothy Zahn — pulled off the unprecedented by breaking the mold. Onscreen Star Wars had many iconic characters, but few complex characters. There were good guys and bad guys, and occasionally someone switched sides (looking at you, Lando), but in any given scene there was rarely any doubt about where our loyalties lay. Most Imperials were colorless, incompetent, or pure evil, wan white guys who adhered to regulations and spoke with clipped Coruscanti (a.k.a. English) accents. Thrawn, whose race slowed his rise through the ranks, was an alien among human supremacists, a pragmatist among tyrants, a tactical genius and fiercely loved leader who came by his brilliance without flashing any Force powers. (In fact, he defused them.) He was Khan crossed with Sherlock Holmes, deducing his enemies’ weaknesses by studying their species’ art. His Empire, reeling from in-fighting five years after Endor, was almost an underdog.
Heir to the Empire and its two sequels had the signifiers of Star Wars — the movie-poster-style covers, the opening scenes of Star Destroyers slicing through space, the presence of Lucas’s characters — but they felt more like cerebral sci-fi than Flash Gordon. Star Trek had thought-provoking plotlines and quiet, internal turmoil; Star Wars had swashbuckling blaster fights and a Joseph Campbell copycat. Each was a winning formula, and the Thrawn books combined both, like a mind meld of Han Solo with Spock. Like Spock, Thrawn had an unpronounceable, apostrophe-filled first name, a rational mind, and emotional quirks that made him too “human” for comfort among his own kind. Cultured, controlled, and not needlessly cruel, he fought for the bad guys but was so hard to hate that his EU cotillion came to be known as “the Thrawn trilogy,” no small feat for a series that also starred Han, Leia, and Luke.
The trilogy’s rep was undoubtedly burnished by the Star Wars wasteland that preceded it; subsequent Zahn-Thrawn efforts, while well regarded, didn’t cause quite the same stir. But there was no way they could have, because the first three Thrawn books had already broken the seal, reportedly selling more than 15 million copies combined by 2002. The wormhole was open, and the EU poured through.
Like the Thrawn trilogy, Rebels has carved out its own corner of the galaxy far, far away, creating its own original roster and appealing to viewers across the key demos in that distinctively Star Wars way. When Rebels returns in the fall, Thrawn (voiced by Lars Mikkelsen, adding to the Mikkelsen family’s Lucasfilm fortune) will be joining a series that was fun from the start and got even stronger in its second season. A new book by Zahn will rewrite Thrawn’s origin story next spring. After that, he’ll come off the bench for future appearances — video games, movies, bar mitzvahs — leaving another Heir to the Empire original, Mara Jade, as many fans’ most-missed EU exile.
Conflict over the fates of old properties — whether to resurrect them or let them be part of the past — extends beyond Star Wars. It’s sad to see the plug pulled on any virtual world, but as our culture cranks out new content, it sometimes plunders the old, even if the “old” isn’t over. A few weeks ago, Daybreak Games shut off the PlanetSide server after a 13-year run. As meteors fell from the sky in a programmed extinction event, thousands of players cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced. When I watched its death throes, I felt a disturbance, but Daybreak’s decision was logical. Deadheading a drooping franchise might make it bloom, and it was probably time for the faithful to try a new game. (Possibly PlanetSide 2.)
Sequels and reboots can bring the best of the old worlds with them, but there’s danger in saving something just to send a fan-servicey signal that the creators and consumers are on the same side. Sitting onstage at a Star Wars Con and delivering an applause line like Filoni’s “I know you guys wanted it, and we wanted it too” is seductive, but the decision also has to serve the story. As Filoni added, “Thrawn was always on the list, and we were just trying to figure out what’s the right moment and how big a deal do we make out of that. I think the biggest thing is, you get a character like that that everybody likes that’s a really great villain, you are cautious on a weekly series to put them into a ‘Oh, he lost again,’ and ‘Darn, those crazy rebels got away from me.’ And you can’t play him that way. He’s way too smart.”
Midway through Heir to the Empire, Thrawn explains the difference between an error and a mistake. “Anyone can make an error,” he says. “But that error doesn’t become a mistake until you refuse to correct it.” It was an error to deprive Star Wars fans of the figure who helped fan the flames of the franchise. Fortunately, Lucasfilm didn’t make a mistake.