By Murray M. Lee
On December 18 2015, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” hit the theaters, and there was no shortage of fans waiting to see it, whom had waited ten years since the last movie in the saga, and over thirty years since where the story left off in “Return of the Jedi.” That’s quite a long time of which most science fiction stories, the public wouldn’t be expected to bother with. But Star Wars has struck such a cord with the public, not just a story but a phenomena, a loyal group of fans, of which yours truly considers himself part of the less than fanatical numbers, have kept up with it.
Of science-fiction fare, only “Star Trek” comes as close in popularity. Unlike “Star Wars” fans, Trekkers didn’t have to wait 30 years to find out what happens next as several years later the first of their movies began coming out (whether or not The Animated Series done shortly after the Original Series falls into its cannon is up for debate). This is partially due to Star Wars’ creator George Lucas losing the interest he had in the story following his divorce. What helped convince him there was still an audience for the stories were the graphic novels by Dark Horse Comics, and the novels written by Timothy Zahn, notably the first three, known as the “Thrawn Trilogy,” published from 1991 to 1993. They are “Heir to the Empire,” “Dark Force Rising,” and “The Last Command.” In the trilogy, a master tactician assumes command of the Empire, and comes uncomfortably close to defeating the New Republic.
“Heir to the Empire” starts of five years after the events in “Return of the Jedi.” Since the Empire’s defeat at Endor, the Empire has slowly been pushed back to roughly a quarter of the territory it once had. The Rebel Alliance has formed the New Republic, which is establishing itself as the legitimate power in the galaxy. Of the heroes, Han Solo and Princess Leia are married and expecting twins, with Luke Skywalker the first of a new line of Jedi Knights. But fortunes are about to change. Grand Admiral Thrawn, the last of the Grand Admirals of the Empire, has returned and assumed command of what’s left of the Imperial Fleet. Thrawn’s first victory doesn’t get much attention at first, but it isn’t long before the heroes realize they have a problem.
Nothing drives the conflict of a story like a good villain, except perhaps a great villain. Thrawn certainly qualified. Unlike the Emperor or Darth Vader, he was no wielder of the Force, nor did he particularly need to. As a brilliant tactical genius, he could outmaneuver opposing forces with ease, even with inferior numbers. With his near-encyclopedic knowledge, and attention to small details of data and intelligence, he could piece together small details that by themselves were trivial, but “together formed a powerful variable.” He could keep the New Republic’s leaders guessing about his plans, and by the time they figured out one detail, he had already moved on to the next step in his plans.
Unlike many, presumably most, others in the Imperial leadership, Thrawn was unconcerned with his personal glory, levelheaded enough to call a retreat when an obstacle proved much stronger to the point that fighting it there and then would just be too costly, once remarking, “We haven’t been beaten, only slowed down a bit.” Neither did he punish those under him “Vader style” for failure. Preferring to promote creativity, a clever action could be rewarded even if it failed as it demonstrated the soldier’s ability to think. He was also willing to accept and use the ideas of others, willing to let them have the credit. Rather than arrogance, those under him felt pride in serving the Empire.
Thrawn’s hobby turned out to be his method for helping him understand his enemies. When going up against a world, he studied it’s art to develop insights to it’s people and their ways of thinking. Many expressed skepticism, calling it a cover to his actual methods. To those who bought his explanation, it added to his mystique.
Darth Vader and the Emperor had the Death Star, and were building a second following the destruction of the first, to intimidate their enemies with a superweapon. When Vader had neither, he had his Super-Star Destroyer that dwarved normal sized ones. Thrawn never had or developed such superweapons, at least not ones like these. Instead, he relied on technology from the Emperor’s storehouse which he found out about and claimed.
One such piece of technology was a cloaking device which blinded the ship using it as well as making it invisible. Such a device would seem of limited use to a warship. But Thrawn found a way to use it to trick a planet into surrendering. Going up against a world with a defense shield that was impenetrable to turbolasers, Thrawn’s star destroyers were seemingly able to fire warning shots through it. What had actually happened was two cloaked ships had gone to predetermined points below the shield before it went up, and fired their weapons just as the ships above were. Thrawn had convinced the planet’s leaders their shield was useless, and they gave up. Thrawn would find another use for the technology to take a more important, and heavily armed, world out of the war for a while.
Another piece of technology Thrawn gained would have otherwise been of limited value: Spaarti cloning cylinders. Unlike the Kaminoan cloning techniques, which were featured in the movies, they could produce a clone in a year instead of ten years. Trouble was, clones produced by them were prone to “clone madness,” and thus would be of limited value as soldiers (but perhaps an explanation as why some Stormtroopers can’t hit the side of a barn). But Thrawn made a discovery that would make all the difference with the cloning cylinders in his campaign.
In the face of this most formidable adversary, The New Republic, formed out of the Rebel Alliance, had some problems of it’s own. With the Empire seemingly on the ropes and now resurgent, political differences began, notably one of the higher ranking politicians moving against Admiral Ackbar, whom had been the leader of the Rebel Fleet at the destruction of the Second Death Star and continued to be one of the more important military leaders.
One of the “good guys” was concerned more with his political standing than winning the war, while the lead villain wasn’t concerned with personal glory. Not something you’ll find in most stories.
But not everything went Thrawn’s way. One of the wild cards were the smugglers whom were taking advantage of the demise of the collapse of Jabba’s crime empire after the Hutt’s death, as well as the disintegration of the Empire. Among the newer members of a smuggling band was Mara Jade. As it turned out, Jade had an interesting history, of which she blamed Luke Skywalker for a great loss in her life. But while inclined to help out the Empire if it meant some money, their interest could sometimes clash.
Thrawn couldn’t use the Force himself, but he did see one ability of Jedi masters that would be of benefit of him, the ability to bolster allies to fight better by improving their coordination, morale, and stamina. So he recruited a Dark Jedi, Joruus C’baoth, to help him in that respect, in exchange for promising to capture Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, now Leia Organa Solo and turn them over to him. But how long could they work with this character whom could be confrontational, and more than a little mad?
Another of Thrawn’s secrets were the Noghri, a race whom had been discovered by Darth Vader following the devastation of their homeworld, promising to heal their ruined world and in return received the loyalty of a planet of seemingly unstoppable assassins. The Emperor and Vader kept the world off Galactic records, and Thrawn was given control of them as a reward for his help at a crucial time earlier. With a society where honor played as great a role as the Wookies, they dutifully served Thrawn. But Vader’s “help” to the planet, which Thrawn continued, was not what it seemed.
When Zahn was interviewed about his story, he explained he wanted a villain different from Darth Vader and the Emperor, whom had an air of omnipitance with their Force powers, “He’s a clever villain. … Ultimately the heroism of the hero is measured by the … power of the villain, and with Thrawn I wanted something other than Force-using Vader or Palpatine, someone who doesn’t have Luke’s Force powers, but can run him around in a maze …” Thrawn didn’t have the Force, or a superweapon like the Death Star. His main weapon was his extremely keen tactical mind.
The Thrawn Trilogy received good reviews among both Star Wars and other science fiction fans, and was a factor in convincing George Lucas in going forward with the prequel trilogy of Star Wars movies. It introduced a number of characters that would been seen in more stories, Thrawn himself would get stories detailing his military career before the Empire, in addition to a role in a “TIE Fighter” video game. As for Mara Jade, she would be in a few more stories with Luke Skywalker, the two eventually forming a relationship.
So what are the chances of the Thrawn Trilogy being made into movies of their own? Sadly, they are zero. In 2014, it was announced that all “Star Wars” materials outside the movies and the “Clone Wars” animated television series would be declared “non-cannon.” Some fans were okay with the decision as a whole; although there was an effort to maintain consistency in the novels, some felt a few details had been pushed a little far.
Being a “Star Wars” fan, it is a little sad being told that my favorite three stories “never happened.” But in the end, they are fictional stories of a fictional universe. One can only make such a deal of it. On the other hand, many novels end up something entirely different when given the Hollywood treatment, such as the villains of “The Sum of All Fears” changed from Islamofacist terrorists to aging Neo-Nazis. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise.
Still, one can dream. Like other Star Wars fans, I’ll be seeing “The Force Awakens.” But I can’t help but wonder how Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher would have handled going up against the Empire’s master strategist and tactician.
Murray M. Lee