Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin
That's right, the same Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin who was shown "holding Darth Vader's leash" in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. It's at this point you may be thinking: 'this twist would be impossible, since Grand Moff Tarkin was shown dying aboard the Death Star when Luke Skywalker's proton torpedoes found their way to the station's reactors.'
To be exact, it's assumed Tarkin was killed. And as strongly as we may feel that Peter Cushing's cold, calculating 'Governor Tarkin' getting just one appearance is a massive waste, it isn't wishful thinking on our part (not just, anyway). The fact that Snoke appears to be an old, frail, British-accented man is just the tip of the iceberg.
It's likely that Force Awakens viewers paying close attention to Supreme Leader Snoke noticed that his scars were far more than the word would suggest. It's possible, given what we see of the character in hologram, that most if not all of his body is severely burned. But worse than the burns is the skull cracked in half, the disfiguring facial bone breaks, and the skin and tissue torn and pulled across his neck, head and face.
In a VFX reel for the film that recently surfaced online, full character models of Snoke show the extent of his injuries.
It's here where our theory begins: instead of guessing which characters, accidents, diseases or attempted murders are being shown (admittedly a ton of fun), let's start simple. Does the Star Wars film series feature a character of Snoke's talents, who may have also undergone a catastrophic injury, requiring his broken body to be literally pulled back together (and who knows how many body parts replaced by robotic substitutes)?
It's our opinion that Grand Moff Tarkin fits the bill - in more ways than the emaciated frame, wounds, and one-of-a-kind cheekbones alone.
His Military Experience
The authority of Grand Moff Tarkin is taken for granted in the first Star Wars, entrusted by the Emperor personally to oversee use of the Death Star. In fact, with Tarkin giving orders directly to Darth Vader (ending Vader's Force Choking of another officer with a short command), the distinct impression given is that, at least in terms of the Empire's military might, it's Tarkin who sits at the Emperor's hand, not Vader.
Of course, Tarkin is soon done away with, and Vader is left to take that position all by himself (considering how things turn out, an unwise move on the Emperor's part). Considering that Tarkin was willing to destroy an entire populated planet just to show the power of the Death Star, it's best for the galaxy as a whole that he never made it off of the exploding space station. Who knows, he might have had the drive and knowledge to build an even bigger one, capable of wiping out entire systems.
Force Awakens jokes aside, it's clear that someone of Tarkin's record and experience, at least, has the potential to organize a cold, calculating, and rigid empire built on fear and intimidation. The First Order is an embodiment of that thinking, but the Star Wars story group offered another hint. When the Expanded Universe was rendered non-canonical "Legends" overnight, the group had three new, canonical novels to announce were coming soon, all presumed to flesh out the story they were preparing to tell.
Since Tarkin was so unforgettable and malevolent a character, the chance to read his origin story was too good to pass up. But those fans who thought they knew Wilhuff Tarkin were in for a surprise. Not only was his reputation as the Emperor's top officer confirmed, but his reputation as a ruthless extremist seeking to annihilate, not defeat his enemies was hard to stomach. In fact, Tarkin was so willing to slaughter insurgents and innocents alike, Palpatine had no choice but to reassign him to the Death Star just to limit the exposure of his atrocities.
But Palpatine saw the potential for much, much more. The official foreword of "Tarkin" speaks so highly of the Grand Moff, it's hard to believe he would stay subservient to the Emperor for long:
"Where resentment has boiled over into acts of sedition, the Empire has been quick to mete out punishment. But as confident as he is in his own and Vader's dark side powers, the Emperor understands that only a supreme military, overseen by a commander with the will to be as merciless as he is, can secure an Empire that will endure for a thousand generations...."
Fan Art by Allen Douglas Studio on DeviantArt
Knowing this - and knowing that the Star Wars story group wanted fans to know this - we can confidently say that if Tarkin was killed aboard the Death Star, it was good news for the Emperor. And when the Death Star was blown to pieces, the Emperor reacted swiftly, executing the top Imperial officers he deemed responsible. If Tarkin wasn't killed (or was, and was reassembled into an unrecognizable, cybernetic ghoul), he would have reason to stay hidden, watching as Palpatine's obsession with a new apprentice blinded him to the "unworthy" empire he was creating.
As skilled as Sheev Palpatine may have been at playing politics to get power, the films show his rule is surprisingly crude, relying on fear and little else to maintain it. Frankly, the theory that a wiser, more extreme underling would conspire to build a bigger, better empire would actually have human history on its side. And there is no doubt that the diabolical plotting of "The Operator" is exactly what we would expect from a man as resolved as Tarkin. Assuming he's, you know, alive.
It doesn't hurt that before commanding the Vigilance and serving "The Operator" - the highly skilled, presumed dead admiral - Rae Sloane served as Wilhuff Tarkin's executive officer.
Familiarity With Darth Vader
As we stated before, the fact that Grand Moff Tarkin wasn't just close to Darth Vader, but the only Imperial officer to openly command him (with the right to do so) would actually answer two questions about Snoke's relationship with Kylo Ren. For starters, having known Anakin Skywalker prior to his turn to the Dark Side, and Darth Vader from the time of his new appointment as the Emperor's apprentice, Tarkin would have known Vader as well as anyone in the Imperial power structure.
Should he have survived the Death Star's destruction, seeing Luke Skywalker trumpeted as the hero of the Rebellion would lock in place a larger narrative few others would be aware of. And having been told of the power of the Dark Side (by Vader, likely dozens of times), Tarkin would know that even the brightest pupils - having witnessed Anakin's leadership among the Jedi (in The Clone Wars) - can be seduced by such power.
He wouldn't actually know how to use The Force, of course, having only the ability to research, or recall the anger and hatred that fueled Darth Vader (and perhaps take up Vader's knack for meditation to gain some minor awareness of The Force). The 'training' that such skills would allow wouldn't be a real discipline, most likely resulting in an unbalanced, brute Force soldier who would have to find his own painful path to the Dark Side.
Again, the simplest explanation may be the most believable: Tarkin - excuse us, "Snoke" would have learned from Vader that Luke Skywalker was the supreme threat, and would need a Force user to stay one step ahead, or remove him from the equation. That's exactly what Han claimed Snoke was up to, and a Tarkin in disguise would be uniquely equipped to seduce Ben Solo, claiming to know the true mission and betrayal of Darth Vader.
Again, it's just an entertaining theory on our part, and fans are more than able to punch holes - stating that it would be impossible for anyone to remain solid after the Death Star explosion, let alone scarred, or that cybernetics couldn't keep Tarkin alive long enough (or tall enough). And until the Star Wars authorities reveal Snoke's identity, one way or another, there's no way to know who's being honest, or just keeping fans off the trail.
But it's still hard to resist the idea that to create a bigger, badder, more terrifying villain for the new trilogy, the Star Wars story group looked to the most underrated-but somehow-still-completely-unforgettable villain. And what if they decided to honor that fan-favorite character by crediting him with the Rebel victory, and the New Republic's rise, all in service of making a more unstoppable Empire? Would fans be willing to accept that an assumed death wasn't quite as it seemed?
It may not come to pass, and the actual reveal may be far more incredible or hard-to-believe. But there's no question that if done right, this twist could actually add more weight and meaning to George Lucas' original film. And that, as far as we're concerned, would be a truly awesome feat.
That's our analysis of what facts Star Wars fans may want to examine when considering not just Snoke's 'true identity,' but his overall mission and methods. Our theory is meant to excite and entice, but if you've got a different answer, or think that we're missing some key details, let us know in the comments! We're as excited as you to see this mystery solved - whether we're right or wrong.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.