The big news coming out of this past summer’s Star Wars Celebration was the announcement that a certain legendary character from the original iteration of the Expanded Universe (that overflowing collection of novels, comic books, short stories, and video games) would be popping up in the new Disney-owned Star Wars saga: Grand Admiral Thrawn, the villain originally introduced to take the place of the fallen Dark Lords of the Sith, Darths Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones).
The only alien that Emperor Palpatine trusted to climb the Imperial ranks, the good admiral will first be popping up in the season 3 premiere of Star Wars Rebels (where he’ll be voiced by Lars Mikkelsen) before arriving once again in book form, in the appropriately titled Star Wars: Thrawn. The latter is scheduled to be released on April 11, 2017 and will act as a prequel to Thrawn's television run, covering his first encounter with the Empire and ending just before Rebels' third season.
Newer viewers and readers can be forgiven for not being familiar with Thrawn, and even those battle-hardened story veterans may need a bit of a refresher, given just how many decades it’s been since the character was initially established – and given some of the continuity problems that the reintroduction of the character can cause. It may be necessary all around, therefore, to ask one simple question: Who Is Grand Admiral Thrawn?
So, who IS Thrawn?
When publisher Bantam Spectra and Lucasfilm agreed in the late 1980s that a trilogy of novels set in the immediate years after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi would be a tremendous financial success, Timothy Zahn was selected to be its author. Zahn, in turn, realized that he would need a villain not only to propel the books’ plot, but to also stand up to the legacy of Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader (who, at the time, were unknown to both be Sith Lords, a revelation which wouldn’t come to light until nearly a decade later, in Episode I: The Phantom Menace).
Zahn's accurate instinct was to create an antagonist who would represent a wholly different approach to Imperial hegemony; one who valued strategy over brute force, creative contributions from subordinates instead of simple blind obedience, and who possessed an unshakably calm demeanor as opposed to the rage-filled outbursts from Lord Vader (and, later on, Kylo Ren [Adam Driver]). Thrawn is an individual who prizes art above all else, both for its external beauty and for its intrinsic ability to carry an entire people’s psychological disposition within it. By studying a civilization’s art, along with dabs of its culture and history, he could deduce the strategies they would deploy on the battlefield, allowing him to always be three steps ahead of whatever opponent he was currently facing. When combined with his very alien appearance – blue skin, jet-black hair, glowing red eyes – the resultant effect is a character who is wholly unique in all of Star Wars, from the movies to the rest of the old EU to, most recently, the television outings.
In short, it’s absolutely no surprise that Lucasfilm would bring him back into the new Star Wars canon status quo.
Thrawn’s original role in the first Expanded Universe
In the years before Episode IV: A New Hope, Thrawn is able to do the impossible: work his way up the Imperial ranks in a largely human-only club, where he eventually reaches the dizzying rank of grand admiral (another invention by Timothy Zahn) and is eventually made the commanding officer in charge of exploring the Unknown Regions, those uncharted territories beyond the galactic rim.
He returns from his mission four years after the Galactic Empire’s defeat at the Battle of Endor to fill the Emperor’s larger-than-life shoes (robes?), attempting to shore up the shrinking Imperial numbers, topple the still-fledgling New Republic, and reassert Palpatine’s New Order once and for all. This campaign, which comes so narrowly close to being successful, forms the basis of Timothy Zahn’s inaugural trilogy of books: Heir to the Empire (1991), Dark Force Rising (1992), and The Last Command (1993) (which, collectively, have since come to be known as the Thrawn trilogy, for obvious reasons).
As the final volume in this series comes to a close and as the grand admiral’s immaculate plans start to miraculously unravel, the unexpected happens: Thrawn is betrayed by one of his most loyal servants, being stabbed in the back while sitting in his command chair aboard his flagship, the Star Destroyer Chimera (even here, with the double shock of betrayal and death ravaging him, Thrawn never loses his trademark calm, wryly noting “But… it was so artistically done”). Just like that, the gravest threat that the New Republic has yet faced dissipates, allowing the government time to stabilize and granting Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) the chance to, at long last, create that New Jedi Order he has long been burdened with initiating.
That would, obviously, seem to be the end of Thrawn, but he is resurrected, both literally and figuratively, five years later, for Zahn’s next big Star Wars outing: Specter of the Past (1998) and Vision of the Future (1999), which together comprise the Hand of Thrawn duology. With the still-existing Empire on its last legs (yes, once again) and with the New Republic on the verge of disintegration and civil war (again), Grand Admiral Thrawn’s clone rises to take his progenitor’s place, and the sheer announcement of his “return” is enough to place nearly the entire galaxy into a state of panic.
In an interesting, if somewhat cliché, move, Zahn offers two twists almost back-to-back, which serve to end The Hand of Thrawn, starting with the revelation that the man presumed to be the admiral’s clone is actually an imposter, and ending with Master Luke discovering the real clone, who was created immediately after the real Thrawn’s death a decade earlier but has yet to be awoken. After a debate over the morality of killing the genetic offspring (since he technically has committed no crimes and all), the clone dies, anyway, when Luke and his compatriot are forced to blast their way out of the cloning facility.
Prequels, retconning, and the future
Timothy Zahn ultimately couldn’t resist playing with his most famous creation one final time, doing so across the novels Survivor’s Quest (2004) and Outbound Flight (2006), with the former having more to do with Thrawn’s legacy than anything else and the latter being a prequel, delivering a full story based off of an off-hand reference made in the Thrawn trilogy about a key episode in the grand admiral’s secretive past. Interestingly enough, it is in these final Thrawn outings that we glimpse some of the continuity difficulty that Dave Filoni, the showrunner of Rebels, and Zahn himself will now be facing in their attempts to assimilate the iconic character in this new iteration of the Expanded Universe.
To explain, let’s back up for a moment. As part of his efforts to furnish the story for his initial trilogy of books, Zahn had nearly free reign in providing his own explanations for a number of mysterious plotlines that were left over from the movies (such as what, exactly, the Clone Wars were, or how Palpatine could have been a Force wielder without having been a former Jedi Knight). But once the prequel trilogy started to arrive on the scene, bringing along with it the official answers to these riddles, Zahn needed to attempt to reconcile the two continuities. Hence, none other than Darth Sidious himself makes an appearance in Outbound Flight – which is now inserted in between The Phantom Menace and Episode II: Attack of the Clones – striking a bargain with the newly-discovered Thrawn out in the Unknown Regions to help him start to pick off Jedi, some 10 years before the Purge. (An effort was also made to place the episode – and all of Thrawn’s backstory, more generally – in the context of preparing for the eventual war against an extra-galactic alien race known as the Yuuzhan Vong, whose arrival formed the basis of the “New Jedi Order” publishing program that lasted from 1999 to 2003 and which consisted of no less than 19 books.) It was a fine narrative needle to try and thread, but Zahn plugged away at it dutifully, fudging the details in order to make a general fit.
Such a messy integration is seemingly needed once again, as both the author and the Rebels writing staff have indicated that references to the character’s past (and now-invalidated) adventures will be included in both the television episodes and the new novel, a move which can potentially open a Pandora’s box of continuity chaos. Will the character’s earlier alliance with the once-and-future Emperor Palpatine be carried over, and, if so, will extra moves be taken to scrub all the old-EU-specific detritus away from the narrative core? Will the brilliant battlefield strategies that older readers were originally delighted by 25 years ago in Heir to the Empire be dusted off and repurposed for Rebels – something which could bore the long-time fans? And, finally, will the more out-there scenarios, such as having several Thrawn clones waiting to run around the galaxy once their genetic antecedent bites the dust, be invoked – possibly in Episode VIII or IX? (It’s a possibility which, actually, isn’t that far-fetched, given that Rebels and its predecessor, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, have already brought Darth Maul [Ray Park] back to life, robotic spider legs and all.)
And all of this doesn’t even address the fundamental issue underlying the entire enterprise – should the new Expanded Universe stories address, or otherwise reinforce, their older, non-canon versions? If left unchecked, such a move would ultimately and inexorably lead to the boundary between the two versions being erased entirely, resulting in an even bigger, inchoate mess than what the original EU was during its more awkward early days (after the Thrawn trilogy and before Del Rey imposed a strict top-down game plan on the narrative proceedings).
But all of those are future concerns best left to a different day. For now, all that Star Wars fans should concentrate on is the fact that one of the most brilliant additions to that galaxy far, far away is set to become, at long last, a canon resident – and that he’s probably here to stay.
Star Wars: Rebels season 3 premieres on Disney XD tonight, September 24 at 8:30 pm EDT.