When Rogue One: A Star Wars Story arrives in theaters on December 16th, it will finally show audiences how the Rebel Alliance got hold of the Death Star plans that ultimately allowed them to destroy the Empire’s space station in the original 1977 movie. That’s such an important piece of Star Wars history, it’s a wonder the story hasn’t been told before.
Well, it actually has. A lot, in fact, across various mediums with plenty of conflicting details. So before we sit down to see how Jyn Erso did it, let’s take a look back at how the previous tellings went.
We’re going to take a look through the chronological development of the Death Star plan story. Most if not all of this is now non-canon, part of the original Expanded Universe continuity that became “Legends” when Disney decided to wipe the slate clean, but just because it didn’t happen doesn’t make it unimportant; as such an essential part of the original movie, the development highlights how Star Wars itself evolved over time.
The Movie (1977) - The Basic Story
The Death Star was essential to the plot of Star Wars almost from the very beginning, with every version of Lucas' treatment culminating in its destruction, and over various rewrites the plans became an important part of that; they were present from the first rough draft and by the third draft - then titled The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller - they were being placed in R2-D2. In the final film they're the central MacGuffin, bringing all the characters together, but the only hint at their origin comes in the opening crawl - they were snatched during the Rebellion's first victory against the Empire - and Vader stating they were beamed to the Tantive IV.
As Star Wars was originally conceived as an homage to the Flash Gordon serials, with the first movie Part 4 (it didn’t get the episode numbering until a 1980 re-release, but was always that in George Lucas’ mind), it’s likely that at some point "Episode III" was intended to have been about that first Rebel victory. Of course, the trilogies eventually became separated by decades and the plan stealing the subject of non-movie adaptations.
The Radio Dramatisation (1981) - The First Victory
Most early Star Wars comics and books followed up the events of the film, with Luke, Han and Leia a team, so little elaboration was given to how we’d got there. The only real mention of stealing the plans came from some elaborate, in-character monologues Lucas wrote plundering information cut from the released film, one of which was Leia’s account of her pre-movie actions.
These were later expanded on for the radio dramatisation in 1981, which went back to the unedited shooting script and vastly expanded the story, especially in regards to the data tapes. They told of Leia using her position as Senator as a cover to assist various resistance groups, during which she found out about the Death Star, which in turn forced her and her father to renounce Alderaan’s pacifist stance; she embarked on the mission to intercept the plans from the planet Toprawa during a Rebel assault, but was spotted by Vader, leading directly into Star Wars. Although there’s not much there you couldn’t guess from the movie as is, this remained the only official account of the Rebels stealing the Death Star plans for over ten years.
X-Wing (1993) - The First Victory (In More Detail)
Part of the gap will have been because Star Wars dropped from public view after Return of the Jedi, and what was there – Ewoks, Droids – was mostly focused on kids. It was only in the early nineties, after Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy had reignited interest in the franchise with the kids (now adults) who'd grown up with it, that the stories being told began to actually address this key event in galactic history.
The major part of this was X-Wing, the iconic PC flight sim and one of the great early games from the franchise. The second of the game’s “Tour of Duty” mission groups was "The Great Search", which detailed the space battles surrounding the Rebel’s acquisition of the Death Star plans - from learning of the space station through to beaming them to the Tantive IV. Everything here followed the basic logic of radio drama’s Battle of Toprawa, just with expansion, including the introduction of the mission's name - Operation Skyhook.
This basic continuity was carried over into several books around that same time that detailed the ground missions alongside the space battles, most notably Jedi Dawn, although it did also have a passing impact on Han Solo novel Rebel Dawn (an inconsistency we’ll come back to later).
Dark Forces (1995) - The Other Plans
An alternate version of this story served as the opening mission of FPS Dark Forces, with Kyle Katarn, a newly defected Imperial, running missions for the Alliance, one of which saw him breaking into an Empire compound on the planet Danuta and stealing the Death Star plans. It’s treated more as a preface for the main game (about the Death Trooper program, the series’ early flirtation with Battle Droids), but established Kyle, who went on to become a Jedi in later games, as a key figure in the Star Wars pantheon.
Being on a different planet, it did clash a little with the Toprawa account we’d got thus far, although Dark Forces: Soldier for the Empire, the first in a book trilogy bridging the game and its sequel, expanded the events and made the Danuta plans a smaller-but-essential part that was needed to fully understand those retrieved during the main battle.
Attack of the Clones (2002) - The Origin of the Plans
With the timeline now pretty tight around the plans being stolen, that was the end of its expansion for about five years. In the meantime, a much bigger shift was happening in Star Wars: the prequels. And while the post-Return of the Jedi story continued (Chewbacca was killed in print the same year The Phantom Menace was released), most expanded material was linked to the new trilogy, with the Empire, Rebellion and the Death Star taking a backseat.
That is until 2002, when Attack of the Clones unexpectedly revealed the Death Star plans were a creation of the Separatists; a Geonosian design taken by Count Dooku to Darth Sidious and acted upon once the Republic fell, seen at the end of Revenge of the Sith. Surprising as it was, though, it still fit with much of what had been known of the plans previously (unlike many of Lucas' other changes with the prequels).
Battlefront II (2005) - The Alternate Ground Battle
The Separatist origins may have made sense, but by the time the prequels ended, the Star Wars timeline in general was pretty messy. The early attempts at maintaining continuity had been far too half-hearted and the prequels so rampant in their rewriting that stories were full of contradictions. This became particularly true of the Death Star plans – because they featured in games, where stories were adapted to fit gameplay, things began to diverge massively.
As part of its campaign (back when those games had proper single player gameplay), which charted Darth Vader’s 501st Legion from the early days of the Clone Wars to the fall of the Empire, Battlefront II dramatized a new version of the stealing of the plans defined by the playable maps; the plans were stolen in a heist on the space station itself (Death Star map), then transmitted from another location directly to the Tantive IV (Pollis Massa map). It made no sense in the context of Operation Skyhook, so is widely accepted as an alternate telling.
Empire at War (2006) - The Wider Context (And Han Solo)
2006's real-time strategy game Empire at War also told the early days of the Galactic Civil War, and so not unexpectedly its story was structured around the space station’s construction, with the Empire playing totally differently due to its presence as a usable weapon.
The story plays out almost completely differently to the established continuity, and is even more difficult to consolidate than Battlefront II’s indiscretions; the Rebel side fleshed out the discovery of the space station with a questionable appearance from a reluctant Han Solo, while the Empire quest was focused on hunting down the Moff who helped leak the key information (instead of the traditional spies). This culminated in the Emperor torturing Bothans (who any true fan knows only played a part in the second Death Star coup) before detailing Leia’s possession of the plans to Vader.
Lethal Alliance (2006) - An Alternative Dark Forces
Over ten years after Dark Forces, Star Wars games returned to Danuta with the PSP/Nintento DS exclusive Lethal Alliance. A fun third person actioner set at the height of the Empire’s reign, its later missions took the player to the Imperial planet at the same time as Kyle Katarn, with hero Rianna somehow also stealing the plans. It makes little sense, and even though Katarn appeared in the game earlier on, the Death Star elements make no mention of him. It felt like a straight-up retcon, but an attempt at an explanation suggested that the plans she grabbed were an updated version of Kyle's. That's right: an update of a secondary set of plans.
Death Star (2007) - The Consolidation Attempt
As you’ve probably gathered, what once started out as a simple story became increasingly complicated, with the Rebellion’s “first” victory really the latest in a long line of attacks. Although it was more concerned with the Imperial bureaucracy (something Rogue One will also flirt with), 2007 hardback novel Death Star made an attempt at consolidating the various threads; Topwara, Danuta, the Geonosians and the Battlefront II attack are all factored into it and there's even a subplot explaining the presence of a weakness in the first place, with an Imperial discovering the exhaust port, but unable to fix it due to restrictions.
It was an admirable attempt at balancing the contradictions that had come up in the previous thirty years, but the retcon is still rather vague and requires a real smudging of previous sources to work.
The Force Unleashed (2008) - The Discovery
Although the selling point was being able to wield all manner of Force powers, The Force Unleashed was also focused on providing an exciting, new Star Wars story; starting detailing the adventures of Vader’s secret apprentice, it twisted to reveal former apprentice Starkiller as a key founder of the Rebellion, with his family emblem even becoming the Alliance’s logo. The final mission was set on the Death Star itself and involved the player freeing Mon Mothma and Bail Organa from Imperial captivity, which doubled as their discovery of the space station.
Almost honouring the work of Death Star, this was the first time in over a decade that a game hadn't contradicted the base canon set up by the radio dramatisation and X-Wing; it was set prior to all previous events and thus simply served as motivation for everything else that had been shown so far. It only took thirty-five years.
Rogue One (2016) - The Disney Rewrite
That was it for the Death Star and its plans in the Legends continuity; Star Wars turned its focus back to the prequels with The Clone Wars before it was all made non-canon after Disney's purchase of the franchise in April 2014.
However, while all this had been going on, there’d been another Death Star story lurking in the background at Lucasfilm. ILM visual effects supervisor John Knoll had had the idea of dramatising the heist back in the mid-naughties when a live-action Star Wars TV show was mooted, and when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and started moving on standalones he swiftly pitched it again: what about a movie expanding on that tantalising middle paragraph from the opening crawl? The same curiosity that had captured the imagination of all the writers and game developers in the years since the original film sparked and it became the basis for the first in the Star Wars Story enterprise, Rogue One.
By all accounts the story of Gareth Edwards’ movie bears little resemblance to any of what we saw over the past forty years, but it sees the franchise come full circle in its fascination with Star Wars' first and biggest untold story.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is in cinemas from December 16th.
- Star Wars: Rogue One / Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) release date: Dec 16, 2016
- Star Wars 8/Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) release date: Dec 15, 2017
- Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018) release date: May 25, 2018
- Star Wars 9 / Star Wars: Episode IX (2019) release date: Dec 20, 2019