One of Star Wars’ best villains is celebrating a milestone this year.
2021 sees the 30th anniversary of the publication of Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, which began the Star Wars Expanded Universe.
It’s also the 30th anniversary of the introduction of his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Zahn is now detailing how he came up with the brilliant tactician and why he remains so popular with fans.
Who is Thrawn?
As hard as it may be to believe, there was a period of several years where no fresh Star Wars material was coming out.
That changed in 1991 when Timothy Zahn published Heir to the Empire. Set five years after Return of the Jedi, it showed how the characters were continuing their adventures with the New Republic rising up.
While it had great turns and the popular fighter Mara Jade, Thrawn became the breakout character. Mitth’raw’nuruodo is a member of the Chiss race, a brilliant Imperial tactician who studies the artwork of species to understand how they will fight.
As the Empire was almost solely made up of humans, an alien being given such a revered rank spoke volumes on how much the Emperor respected Thrawn’s skills.
Thrawn had been on special assignment when the Battle of Endor took place, with both Imperials and Rebels admitting that the Empire might have won had he been there.
Cool, confident, charismatic, and dominant, Thrawn began a war against the New Republic that came perilously close to achieving victory. It ended only when he was stabbed in the back (literally) by his own supposedly trusted bodyguard.
While that seemed to be the end of it, Thrawn was so popular that Zahn brought him back in various novels, most of them prequels showing Thrawn’s rise in the Empire. There was also a two-part tale where an imposter poses as Thrawn as part of an Imperial scheme.
It appeared that Thrawn, like most of the Expanded Universe, was wiped out of canon when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, and the sequel movies having a new history.
But season 3 of Star Wars Rebels introduced Thrawn (voiced by Lars Mikkelsen), once more a top operative easily outwitting the Alliance at any turn.
The series ended with Thrawn on a ship headed into deep space, thus explaining why he wasn’t around for the original trilogy.
Zahn has returned to write several new novels explaining the character’s origins and history in the current canon with the Thrawn: Ascendency novel trilogy exploring more of his rise up the ranks.
Speaking to Star Wars Insider for the 30th anniversary of Heir, Zahn detailed how he created this unique character.
“I wanted to capture the Star Wars feeling, but I did not want to go over the same territory that George Lucas had already gone over, so that meant no superweapon, no Death Star, no Darth Vader-type, no Emperor-type. Which left me thinking, ‘Okay, so what else have we got? Vader and the Emperor ruled by manipulation and fear, so, how about somebody who would lead through loyalty? What kind of character could inspire that type of loyalty?”
“He needed to be a strategic and tactical genius, so that they’d know they had a good chance of winning. He cared about his troops. He was willing to accept good suggestions from subordinates. And then, finally, since we did not see a lot of aliens in the Empire, I wanted to make him a non-human, on the grounds that, if he got to be a Grand Admiral, he had to be something very special.”
A major moment in Season 2 of The Mandalorian is when Ahsoka Tano name-drops Thrawn, showing the man is around in the post-Return of the Jedi timeline.
Fans were eagerly pushing Benedict Cumberbatch to play the role in live-action, but the actor announced he had no plans ever to take it on.
Yet the name drop indicates Thrawn will show up in some way, perhaps on Ahsoka’s upcoming solo Disney+ series.
The idea of Thrawn taking it to the New Republic and perhaps paving the way for the rise of the First Order would be exciting to see.
The thrill of Thrawn remains and proves why, three decades after his debut, Star Wars fans still love to hate this commanding presence.
Star Wars Rebels and the Mandalorian streaming on Disney+. Star Wars: Thrawn Ascendancy – Lesser Evil, by Timothy Zahn, goes on sale on Nov. 16.