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After 30 Years, Thrawn Is Key To Star Wars' Future (Again)

After 30 years, Grand Admiral Thrawn is once again key to the future of Star Wars. Created by legendary Star Wars author Timothy Zahn, Grand Admiral Thrawn is a unique figure in the Empire. He is the only alien to have attained to the rank of Grand Admiral, a blue-skinned Chiss who hails from the Unknown Regions and whose knowledge of that sector of space proved key to the development of the Empire's plans. The character is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, a deductive genius who is skilled at outthinking his opponents, and his particular affectation is his love of artwork.

Thrawn was introduced in 1991's Heir to the Empire, and he was a constant presence in the old Expanded Universe. Although Disney declared the EU non-canon (or "Legends") shortly after acquiring Lucasfilm in 2012, it didn't take long for Thrawn to make his way back into the canon, with the Grand Admiral playing a significant role in Star Wars Rebels. Lucasfilm Publishing even brought Thrawn's creator Zahn back as well, with novels that saw him team up with Darth Vader; the latest trilogy, Thrawn Ascendancy, is gradually revealing Thrawn's origin - and appears to be building up his expulsion from the Chiss Ascendancy, which forced him to join the Empire in the first place.

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But Thrawn is more than just a standard Star Wars character; rather, he stands unique among all those who shaped the franchise in the past, and he seems key to the future as well.

Star Wars has always embraced the potential of transmedia; the first tie-in novel, Splinter of the Mind's Eye, was published back in 1978 - before The Empire Strikes Back had even been released. But it wasn't until the 1990s the transmedia initiatives really took off, and Zahn's famous Thrawn Trilogy - which began with the release of Heir to the Empire - is generally seen as the beginning of the true Expanded Universe. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi, this introduced readers to a changed status quo in the galaxy. The Rebel Alliance had driven the Empire back and established itself as the New Republic, Luke Skywalker was more powerful than ever before but no longer guided by Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han and Leia were married. Unfortunately, the galaxy was still a dangerous place, as the heroes of the New Republic learned when the Empire began to advance once again.

Zahn's world-building and character-creation were key to the success of the Thrawn Trilogy. He took George Lucas' ideas and built upon them, weaving new characters and aspects of lore into the galaxy. Two characters, in particular, stood out; Mara Jade, the Emperor's Hand, a Force-sensitive woman who had worked for Palpatine and who found herself lost and adrift after his death, and Grand Admiral Thrawn. It's a measure of how popular these two were that, in the EU, Mara Jade was ultimately redeemed and went on to marry Luke Skywalker, while Thrawn's influence would be explored in further books that hopped around the timeline with impunity. Heir to the Empire reached the number one spot on the New York Times bestsellers list, proving to the entire world that Star Wars books could be phenomenally successful, and Lucasfilm's publishers Bantam and Del Ray built upon this foundation. The importance of Thrawn endured even when George Lucas returned because Lucas' eyes were on the past - the prequels - where Zahn's books had moved on into the future.

Disney may have relegated the Thrawn trilogy to a non-canon status, but they wasted no time incorporating Thrawn into their new canon. Star Wars Rebels ended with the Lothal cell successfully defeating Thrawn, but they did so in a way that deliberately kept him alive - blasting Thrawn's flagship off into hyperspace, with Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger aboard. The final scenes teased his return, revealing Ahsoka Tano and Sabine Wren would head out to the Unknown Regions looking for Ezra sometime after Return of the Jedi. And, significantly, viewers began to notice what seemed to be set up for Thrawn in The Mandalorian - a show that's set five years after the destruction of the Second Death Star, just like the Thrawn trilogy in the EU.

Related: Theory: Disney's New Star Wars Plans Make Thrawn VERY Important

The Mandalorian revealed the Empire is indeed resurgent in this time period, with major villain Moff Gideon serving as a political leader who was supported by a military figure. When Rosario Dawson's live-action Ahsoka Tano was introduced in season 2, she revealed she believed the Imperial bases on the Outer Rim were being coordinated by Grand Admiral Thrawn himself, meaning everything that's happened so far - including the importance of mysterious cloning projects - is tied to the Chiss strategist. Even more intriguingly, Star Wars: The Bad Batch season 1 established an Imperial cloning facility that was key to Thrawn's plans in the EU, Palpatine's Mount Tantiss base - on a planet in the same sector of space Thrawn's forces seem to be operating in five years after Return of the Jedi.

Lucasfilm is expanding the Star Wars franchise in The Mandalorian era, with two Star Wars spinoffs in the works - The Book of Boba Fett and Ahsoka (a third spinoff, Rangers of the New Republic, was canceled when actress Gina Carano, who would have starred in it, was fired). It increasingly looks as though Grand Admiral Thrawn will be the villain of The Mandalorian era, the one responsible for a rising Imperial threat. The adaptation of Heir to the Empire will no doubt be a loose one - Mark Hamill may have cameoed in The Mandalorian season 2's finale but he won't be a regular fixture, while there's sadly no sign of Mara Jade just yet - but it's a thrilling prospect.

But why has the Disney era chosen to make Grand Admiral Thrawn so important once again? It's largely for the same reason he was so successful back in 1991 as well; because he's a unique, distinctive threat, rather than just a stereotypical Imperial leader or another Sith Lord or fallen Jedi. There's something remarkably predatory about Grand Admiral Thrawn, with his opponents finding themselves increasingly boxed in, their options restricted, as he becomes intimately familiar with their thought processes. You can't beat Thrawn by Force power or force of arms; you have to outthink him, to outsmart him, meaning he tests heroes in a visceral way. What's more, there's an odd sense in which Thrawn isn't your typical Imperial villain; while Grand Moff Tarkin may rejoice in the destruction he causes, Thrawn considers the Empire nothing more than a means to an end, dreaming of an ordered galaxy that fights against the millions of threats he knows are lurking in the Unknown Regions. He's a fascist to the core, but a strangely noble fascist, and this makes him singularly attractive as a character. That's why Lucasfilm Publishing has even been able to have Thrawn star as a hero figure in several books.

Even better, because Thrawn is an established character with a rich history in the EU behind him, he has a strong fanbase - meaning he can appeal to old-school lovers of the EU as well as the current generation of Star Wars fans. When Disney and LucasFilm announce an actor has been cast as Thrawn, they are guaranteed to generate positive coverage on pretty much every fan-site and Star Wars forum in the world. He's a surefire hit - which makes this a wise move for Star Wars.

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