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How Star Wars Can Adapt The Thrawn Trilogy (Without Creating Plot Holes)

Star Wars can adapt Timothy Zahn's celebrated Thrawn Trilogy in The Mandalorian era without creating plot holes. 30 years ago, celebrated sci-fi author Timothy Zahn breathed new life into the Star Wars franchise when he wrote a trilogy of novels that collectively became known as the Thrawn Trilogy. Beginning with Heir to the Empire, these were the first Star Wars books to move beyond the original trilogy, and they introduced readers to a galaxy still at war five years after Return of the Jedi. The nascent New Republic was on the back foot against a mysterious alien warlord, Grand Admiral Thrawn, the only alien to ascend to that high rank under Emperor Palpatine.

Thrawn is key to the future of Star Wars once again. Although Disney branded the old Expanded Universe non-canon after it acquired Lucasfilm in 2012, dubbing them "Legends," they wasted no time in absorbing some of the best bits of the EU. Grand Admiral Thrawn soon made his debut in Star Wars Rebels, while Zahn was hired once again to spell out the Grand Admiral's origins and time with the Empire in a best-selling series of novels. Intriguingly, since then the evidence seems to be building that Lucasfilm Television intend to adapt the Thrawn Trilogy itself for The Mandalorian era, with an Imperial resurgence five years after Return of the Jedi and Ahsoka believing Thrawn is associated with it.

Related: How Old The Mandalorian's Characters Are During The Original Trilogy

Of course, the Thrawn Trilogy features Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo, and their arcs in the books are totally different to those now established in the canon - especially in Chuck Wendig's Aftermath trilogy. That means it will be impossible for Lucasfilm to do a straight adaptation, because there are simply too many contradictions. Fortunately, they can honor the spirit of Zahn's trilogy even if the details differ.

In Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy, the Grand Admiral had been absent during the time of the Emperor's downfall because he had been assigned to Star Wars' Unknown Regions by the Emperor, possibly because his political naivete caused a high-profile embarrassment - although that was later suggested to be a pretense to deceive Palpatine's enemies. When Thrawn returned, it was to a galaxy radically changed, with the Emperor defeated and the Empire in full retreat. Thrawn rallied the Imperial remnant under his command and soon established them as a force to be reckoned with, building up his forces in the Unknown Regions. Meanwhile, the Grand Admiral sought out the Emperor's secret fortress at Mount Tantiss on Wayland, which contained ancient cloning technology dating back to the Clone Wars. He was particularly interested in cloning Force-sensitives, allying with a cloned Jedi Master who called himself Joruus C'baoth. Thrawn's seniority was demonstrated by his being defended by the Noghri, an alien race who were sworn to serve Darth Vader.

The bare bones of this arc have already been set up. As seen in Star Wars Rebels, in the Disney canon Thrawn was assigned to destroy the rebel cell on Lothal, and he even worked with the Noghri, as in Legends. His attempt to destroy the early Rebel Alliance came to a head in the Star Wars Rebels season 4 finale, but he underestimated Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger, who stole aboard Thrawn's flagship and used his powers to encourage a flock of purrgil - creatures that can actually navigate hyperspace - to blast Thrawn's flagship into the depths of space. Thrawn was lost in the Unknown Regions, albeit with a prisoner in Ezra Bridger. He appears to have returned five years after Return of the Jedi, just as in the Expanded Universe, because his name has been associated with the Imperial forces gathering in the Outer Rim in The Mandalorian.

Star Wars: The Bad Batch has added another detail to this story, revealing the Emperor's cloning facility on Wayland (spelled "Weyland" in concept art, although this may just be a mistake). The insignia worn by the Imperial cloning engineers there correspond to the one worn by Dr. Pershing, the cloner who had been experimenting on Grogu in The Mandalorian, suggesting they had become focused on cloning Force-sensitives by that time. Most significantly, the Imperial remnant rising in the Outer Rim in The Mandalorian is indeed centered in the area around Wayland. It's really not hard to see all the setup for a pretty accurate canon version of Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy.

Related: What Mandalorian's Canceled Character Death Means For Season 3

Zahn's original story was essentially divided between three groups:

  • Jedi Master Luke Skywalker
  • The Republic, with Leia and Han serving as key figures
  • The galactic underworld, with the introduction of Mara Jade and Talon Karrde, two other popular characters

It's interesting to note that Lucasfilm Television originally intended to expand the post-Return of the Jedi TV shows on Disney+ according to a similar pattern. Ahsoka stands as a Jedi, Rangers of the Republic matches with the second group, and The Mandalorian is set among members of the galactic underworld. Plans have changed, of course: Gina Carano was fired from Disney, and Rangers of the Republic was canceled as a result. However, the basic principle still applies: that it's possible to simply switch the core characters - the Jedi, Republic representatives, and underworld figures - for other characters whose adventures wouldn't cause any problems with canon. Just as Luke was key to the Thrawn Trilogy, so Ahsoka has been positioned as central to Thrawn's downfall, because she is seeking Thrawn in order to find her long-lost friend Ezra Bridger. Ezra adds the final piece to the puzzle, because he could conceivably be a prisoner of Thrawn and a subject for experiments at the cloning center on Wayland, with a clone created who serves the Empire. That would be a quite fitting twist, since in the old EU Joruus C'baoth was a clone of a Jedi Master who had been lost in the Unknown Regions, so the details would have corresponded remarkably well.

Even so, Lucasfilm would need to take the story in a different direction in the end, simply because not doing so would make the story a little too familiar to anyone who is familiar with the Thrawn Trilogy. In the books, the Noghri learned they had been tricked into serving the Empire, and they assassinated Thrawn at a moment of potential defeat, leading Grand Admiral Thrawn - a student of art - to famously declare with his dying breath, "But it was so artistically done." The story would need to change, with Thrawn outmaneuvered in a different way, but perhaps with further homages to Legends. That would lead to a much more satisfying adaptation of Star Wars' Thrawn Trilogy - and one that fits perfectly with Disney canon.

More: The Mandalorian May Be Secretly Retconning A Star Wars Villain

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