Star Wars tie-ins have been gradually revealing Emperor Palpatine's plans for after his death in Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. The Emperor is the greatest villain of the Star Wars Saga, a Machiavellian schemer who manipulated the entire galaxy with ruthless ease. Master of the dark side of the Force, he concealed his presence from the Jedi Order and orchestrated their demise.
The Rebel Alliance believed that the Emperor's threat finally came to an end over the Forest Moon of Endor. Betrayed by his own Apprentice, Palpatine was thrown down the reactor shaft of the Second Death Star, which was subsequently destroyed. But the Emperor had even prepared for that eventuality, and he set events in motion to exact a terrible revenge upon the galaxy. In Alexander Freed's novel Alphabet Squadron, it was a torture droid of all things who shone a light upon Palpatine's motives. "The Emperor who ordered Operation Cinder," the droid reflected, "who built two Death Stars, who oversaw countless genocides and massacres and created an Empire where torture droids were in common use, was not a man of secret brilliance and foresight. He was a cruel man... Whatever else he intended, that is at the root of it all."
The torture droid had a good read on Palpatine's character, but seriously underestimated his foresight. As the first trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker suggested, the Emperor's plan was far more complex than anyone realized. We already know Palpatine had plans to return from the grave and threaten the galaxy once again, so he'd set the wheels in motion to create a new power base should he ever be overthrown. Little by little, the official Star Wars tie-ins are revealing just how that plan worked.
Palpatine's Death Activated The Sentinels
It seems that Palpatine first began planning all this back before the Empire was even founded. According to Chuck Wendig's novel Aftermath: Empire's End, within just a few years of becoming Chancellor of the Old Republic Palpatine had begun establishing secret bases across the galaxy. These were centers of the dark side, so-called "Observatories" that were dedicated to specific purposes, and some served as treasure houses for the Emperor's vast collection of Sith artifacts. It's likely that the Mustafar base Anakin Skywalker stumbled on during the Clone Wars was one of the early Observatories, used by the Emperor to break young Force-sensitives and create an army of dark side warriors.
Palpatine staffed the Observatories with loyal droids, their identities restrained and subsumed to his own will. Soon Darth Sidious developed a special type of droid known as the Sentinels, faceless androids clad in the same kind of blood red he would later use for his Emperor's Guards. These Sentinels remained at the Observatories, waiting until the moment they received news of the Emperor's death. When they heard of Endor, the Sentinels were activated and traveled across the galaxy, seeking out Palpatine's most loyal Imperial servants. They confirmed the identities of these Imperial operatives using a blood sample, and then their visors projected a recorded message from the Emperor himself.
Meanwhile, according to the tie-in comic Shattered Empire, some specific facilities began to mass-produce Sentinel droids. One of Palpatine's most trusted operatives, Commandant Hurron, had been placed in charge of one such factory on the planet Vetine; that particular base was raided and destroyed by Luke Skywalker, who sought the contents of an Imperial lab on Vetine.
The Sentinel droids instructed loyal Imperial agents to activate Operation Cinder. This was the ultimate scorched-earth policy, and it saw the Empire exact brutal and vindictive revenge upon the entire galaxy for the Emperor's death. Imperial Star Destroyers launched merciless attacks on countless worlds, some triggered apocalyptic natural disasters; they triggered extinction level events across the galaxy, and destroyed vital infrastructure. Operation Cinder was designed to escalate the galactic conflict to genocidal levels not even seen during the height of the Clone Wars, and it turned the Empire into a greater threat than ever before.
The most interesting aspect of Operation Cinder, though, is that Palpatine had clearly rigged it to kick into action however he died; if he had been supplanted by Darth Vader, for example, then his successor would have found the Empire torn into two factions. Palpatine's strategy was like an arrogant Chess player upending the entire board rather than lose the game.
Alexander Freed's recent novel Alphabet Squadron has suggested there was another purpose to Operation Cinder. Imperial defector Yrica Quell deduced that it served as something of a sorting mechanism; only the most loyal and ruthless Imperials could justify remaining in an Empire that enacted Operation Cinder. Palpatine was essentially removing any Imperial operatives who had a shred of morality and the faintest trace of a conscience. He was creating the most dangerous power base for his return.sce
The Emperor designed Operation Cinder to culminate in a battle over the planet Jakku, home of one of his most important Observatories. As per the Emperor's instructions, the Imperial loyalist army gathered over the skies of Jakku. When the New Republic discovered the Empire's location, they prepared the entire fleet to head to Jakku to wipe out the Empire once and for all. Though they didn't know it, that was just as the Emperor had foreseen; he had rigged the entire planet Jakku to explode.
The Emperor's plan was for the Imperial loyalists to put up a fight before fleeing into the Unknown Regions, based on coordinates they had received from the Jakku Observatory. The opposing fleet would then be destroyed when Jakku exploded, and the Empire would regroup around a secret stash of war materiel Palpatine had secreted away.
Meanwhile, as the battle raged over Jakku, one of Palpatine's closest advisers had been given a mission of his own. Yupe Tashu was a historian who had specialized in the study of the Sith, a fanatic who appears to be one of the few who believed the Emperor could return from the dead. In one key scene in Aftermath: Empire's End, Tashu conducted a mysterious ceremony involving a Sith mask and Holocron. The purpose of this ceremony is unclear, but it's reasonable to assume it was somehow linked to Palpatine's resurrection.
Jakku, however, was where the Emperor's plans fell apart. The Battle of Jakku appears to have drawn out a little longer than Palpatine had intended, meaning more Imperials were killed during the conflict. Furthermore, the New Republic discovered the trap and prevented Jakku's destruction. Making matters worse, Tashu was betrayed while conducting the ceremony and fell to his death. The Imperial remnant that fled to the Unknown Regions was smaller than the Emperor had planned, and Palpatine was unable to take charge of the Empire immediately after Jakku.
What Happened After The Contingency?
After Jakku, the history of the First Order becomes something a mystery; that's largely because, until recently, Lucasfilm was said to be restricting stories after the time period between the Battle of Jakku and before Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It seems as though Palpatine's plans had worked up to a point, but after Jakku they were in ruins. Unfortunately for the galaxy, it appears that the First Order met another powerful dark side being in the Unknown Regions, Supreme Leader Snoke, who filled the power vacuum left by the Emperor's absence.
The trailer for Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker revealed that the Emperor has indeed returned from the dead, though, so presumably he had a backup plan in place for if Jakku failed. It's entirely possible the Jakku Observatory wasn't the only one designed for that mysterious ceremony, and that Tashu wasn't the only Palpatine loyalist trained to go to an Observatory and perform the ritual. Somehow Palpatine returned from the dead - and has no doubt begun plotting once again.
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019