A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… well 28 years ago, to be more precise, there was a dark time when the only spin-off movies Star Wars fans had to gossip about involved talking Ewoks and a truly bizarre Christmas holiday special with singing Wookiees.
Back in those days, we didn’t have no fancy pants sequel trilogy, and the only cute astromech droids either rolled or waddled about on support struts like good R2 units should – none of this rolling around like a bowling ball malarkey.
Back then, even the prequels were still nothing but rumour, no one had even heard the word midichlorians, and Ewan McGregor was still years away from starring in Trainspotting, let alone taking on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Old Ben, as we knew him, was played by Sir Alec Guinness and that was that.
There was, however, still one very important glimmer of hope for life after the events of Return of the Jedi. Eight years after George Lucas and crew had wrapped up the original Star Wars trilogy, the torch was finally passed to sci-fi author and recent Supa-Star Timothy Zahn, who brought us the very first books in what would eventually become an enormous Star Wars extended universe, crafted by dozens of authors.
Zahn’s first Heir to the Empire book
Zahn had an enormous task on his hands in building what would become his Heir to theEmpire trilogy, which is still widely regarded as some of the strongest Star Wars fiction to have ever been written.
In addition to continuing the adventures of Luke, Han, Chewie, and Leia, Zahn would introduce a whole new host of characters including Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand (who in later books would become Luke’s wife), smuggler Talon Karrde, and most importantly, a brand-new villain in the form of one Grand Admiral Thrawn, Supreme Commander of the Imperial Fleet.
Unlike Vader or Palpatine before him, Thrawn was an entirely new type of beast, and one who would instantly become a fan favourite. With no natural affinity for the Force, Thrawn could not rely on mind tricks or clairvoyance to try and resurrect a crumbling Empire on the brink of destruction.
Instead, he was gifted with a genius level intellect, a tactical mind like no other, and a unique ability to deduce his enemy’s actions by careful examination of their culture’s artwork. The best way to describe him would be as a blue-skinned, red eyed space Sherlock with no sense of mercy and his own personal assassin at his beck and call.
Thrawn was unlike anything that Luke’s Jedi training or his encounters with Vader could have prepared him for and, as far as Star Wars villains go, he was and still is right up there with the best of them. Of all the other villains to follow, including Han and Leia’s son, Jacen Solo, who eventually turned to the Dark Side, just like his film counterpart Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, none of them seemed to hold a candle to Thrawn.
Then, just as quickly as the Death Star firing its primary weapon right into the middle of Alderaan, in 2012 Disney bought Lucasfilm for a tidy $4 billion US and wiped out an entire library of Star Wars extended universe stories in one fell swoop, including everything Thrawn was ever mentioned in.
Disney had their own plans for Star Wars going forward, so they labelled everything aside from the movies as “Legends” and regarded them as non-canonical. Thrawn was gone, and whilst we still got a whole bunch of new movies and TV series to look forward to in the trade off, quite a few die-hard fans still lamented his loss, probably more so than any other character.
Then in 2016, the new Disney-led Lucasfilm dropped a double bombshell: not only would Thrawn begin to appear as a chief antagonist in the third season of the animated Star Wars: Rebels, but Zahn himself had been tapped to resurrect his character in a brand-new series of books and reintroduce his tactical genius into the new Star Wars canon. Thrawn was back, and fans rejoiced like a rowdy band of Ewoks following the destruction of the second Death Star.
Thrawn in Star Wars Rebels
In Star Wars: Rebels, set in the years between the prequel and original trilogies, Thrawn swept in with an intensity and single-minded purpose that seemingly put Ezra Bridger and the crew of the Ghost instantly on the back foot, for here was an enemy that could not so easily be outwitted or outmanoeuvred.
Voiced by the older brother of Rogue One’s own Mads Mikkelsen, Lars, Thrawn groupies finally got to see their favourite come to life on the screen, but the best was still yet to come.
In April 2017, a brand new Zahn book simply titled Thrawn was released and we finally got a good glimpse into the early days of the Chiss genius, named Mitth’raw’nuruodo, and saw his meteoric rise through the ranks of the Imperial Navy to the coveted status of Grand Admiral — no small feat given the Galactic Empire’s penchant for backstabbing and its bigotry toward any non-human species.
More importantly, his transition to protagonist in his own right also shed a light on his true motivations as a character and his decision to join Palpatine’s fledgling Empire. Whereas nearly every other Star Wars villain seems driven by an insatiable lust for power, Thrawn’s primary motivator was revealed as something far more befitting his uber-logical mind: practicality.
It turned out that the Chiss Ascendency to which he belonged was facing a grave threat of its own in the galaxy’s unknown regions past the Outer Rim, and with the Galactic Empire representing the galaxy’s main military force, it was logical that seeking to join with the Empire would suit his intentions of protecting his own people.
It was here that tantalising threads were finally laid that hinted toward some of the biggest unanswered questions raised by the new sequel films The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi: namely, the potential origins of Supreme Leader Snoke and the rise of the First Order. Whilst Snoke and his own history still lays shrouded in mystery, we do know that he too resided in the galaxy’s unknown regions, and that it was Thrawn’s knowledge of that area of space that allowed the First Order to rise to power in secret.
Fans were instantly hooked; could Thrawn himself have had a personal hand in reshaping the Empire into the First Order? Or was Snoke somehow tied to this unnamed threat to Thrawn’s people? And, even more tantalising – would we actually get to see Thrawn on the big screen in Star Wars Episode IX, currently rumoured to be titled Balance of the Force? And if so, how would his logical mind play against the volatile Kylo Ren as the new Supreme Leader of the First Order?
The second it was announced that veteran actor Richard E. Grant was cast in an as yet unknown role, rumours instantly began to swirl, given both his notable resemblance to the character and the information that his audition piece was a WWII interrogation scene, which hinted towards his involvement with the First Order.
Zahn, who will soon be releasing his third book in his new Thrawn series later this year, titled Thrawn: Treason, has been forthcoming in suggesting he has a number of ideas for more Thrawn stories to come, but Lucasfilm wish to finalise Episode IX before any more announcements about Thrawn’s future can be made.
The clues are just far too tempting to ignore, but until we actually get to see some footage, or even the film itself, we still have no real idea about the direction Lucasfilm and J.J. Abrams will take. One thing is for certain though, if Thrawn does indeed make his way onto the big screen, it will be a big cause for celebration for many die-hard fans.