Grand Admiral Thrawn: The Real Reason to Be Disappointed About Star Wars: Episode VII
Let me get this out of the way here before there is any confusion. I am nothing but ecstatic that Disney now has the rights to Star Wars. Yes, Disney makes some awful movies, and their live-action resume isn't without some truly glaring turds like John Carter or Race to Witch Mountain.
On the other hand... Pirates of the Caribbean and Avengers. Those are hard to argue against.
The upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII helmed by J.J. Abrams and with tentatively hopeful appearances by Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher possibly in the works is almost certainly going to be good. Better than the original trilogy? It's conceivable. Better than the prequels? It kind of has to be. So let's not worry too much, but we should take a moment to mourn someone who will definitely not be appearing, Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Before 1991 there weren't many Star Wars expanded universe novels aside from a few young adult titles. Alan Dean Foster was contracted to write a possible low-budget sequel novel that could be used as a less costly basis for a follow-up should Star Wars flop. The result is Splinter of the Mind's Eye, which is an amazing book that future films sadly have mostly exiled from canonicity. Now it's a sort of lost path of could-have-beens.
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The same fate is almost certainly destined for the greatest of the expanded universe prose, the Thrawn Trilogy by Timothy Zahn, and his devastatingly powerful main antagonist Grand Admiral Thrawn. It's been well-reported that the new film will not be based on any existing material, which means the loss of what can pretty legitimately be considered Episodes VII - IX.
The first book, Heir to the Empire, takes place five years after The Battle of Endor. The Alliance has become a republic, and the last vestiges of the Empire are being mopped up. As the young government begins to try and establish peace in the galaxy, the Empire resurrects under a new tactical genius in the form of Thrawn.
Thrawn was one of 13 Grand Admirals, the highest rank in the Imperial military after Palpatine and Vader. He was also the only non-human, being a blue-skinned, red-eyed Chiss from the edges of known space. Thrawn's non-human status is used at great-length to establish an undercurrent of racism in the Empire, something that allows Zahn to give subtle nods towards fascism in their government. It may be a cheap trick, but it's an effective one.
It also helps illustrate how badass a soldier like Thrawn would have to be to rise in the ranks, and he without a doubt is badass. Culture and civilized, with none of the Dark Force junkie vibe that Vader and Palpatine gave off, he commands a broken armada into an unstoppable force with brilliance and charisma that wins him the loyalty of even the Imperial conscripts who were used to the fatal method of discipline.
Take this dual scene for an example. At one point Thrawn's Star Destroyer has Luke Skywalker caught in its tractor beam, but Skywalker manages to escape with a clever trick. Thrawn confronts his tractor beam operator, who defiantly refuses to take responsibility for the escape. Thrawn has the man executed on the spot by his bodyguard.
That sounds very Vader, but not long afterwards Thrawn and Skywalker are in the exact same situation, and Skywalker again gets away. This time, when Thrawn confronts his new tractor beam operator, the young ensign humbly laid out a creative solution he had attempted to overcome the trick, while lamenting his failure and waiting for death.
Thrawn spared the ensign, happily, and promoted him to lieutenant for both his desire to attempt a novel solution to a known-tactic and his willingness to recognize a mistake and learn from it.
"Several methods have been suggested over the past few decades for counteracting the covert shroud gambit, none of which has ever been made practical," said Thrawn. "Yours was one of the more innovative attempts, particularly given how little time you had to come up with it. The fact that it failed does not in any way diminish that."
That was the mark of Thrawn, the ability to actually lead, which no other Star Wars villain at that time was ever shown to be in any way capable of. In many ways, he was at the time of his writing the only truly nuanced character in the entirety of the Star Wars universe.
Amazing plotlines and development just sprang up around Thrawn. There was the time he told the Emperor he refused to take a force into a battle he couldn't win. Stripped of his command, his replacement was subsequently massacred exactly as Thrawn predicted, and he was reinstated.
Or there was the way he finally found a use for a cloaking device. Since anything cloaked is double blind, meaning a ship can't see out any more than another ship can see in, the technology was deemed useless. Not to Thrawn. He just attached it to 20 asteroids that could level a planet, made the Republic believe he had done it to several hundred, and essentially laid a siege to Coruscant that he didn't have to lift a finger to maintain and kept them isolated for months.
Did I mention he did all of this by doing little more than studying different species' art in order to exploit psychological fears and blindspots?
In many ways, Thrawn would be problematic, and there is no real room for an epic showdown as there was between Skywalker and Vader, or between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin. Hell, in the books Thrawn never directly confronts Skywalker, or the Solos face-to-face at all. But he was a magnificent creation that still stands alone in vision and execution in Star Wars. What a shame for him to never be given a chance to show it on the screen.
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