Gamespot, of all places, just ran a story by Christopher Gates that made the same assertion I’ve been making since The Force Awakens came out, viz. that film adaptations of Timothy Zahn’s legendary Thrawn Trilogy should have been the official Star Wars Episodes VII, VIII, and IX.
It’s hard to imagine these days, when every year brings a new Star Wars movie and a truckload of spin-off media, but in the early ’90s Star Wars was effectively dead. In the ’80s, Lucasfilm had tried to keep the franchise alive with animated series like Droids and Ewoks, but those fizzled out. George Lucas claimed that he had more Star Wars stories to tell, but not a single film was in active production. At the time, the only real source of fresh Star Wars material was West End Games’ tabletop role-playing game.
Sourcebooks full of stats and trivia aren’t the same as brand new stories, however. Fans were hungry for new Star Wars adventures, and Lucasfilm left them high and dry.
Putting a ten year moratorium on new Star Wars projects was one of the smartest business decisions George Lucas made. Always leave them wanting more.
That’s the climate in which Bantam Spectra released Heir to the Empire, the first book in the Thrawn trilogy. While the book came out in 1991, work on the novel had begun two years earlier, when Bantam Spectra editor Lou Aronica negotiated a secret publishing deal with Lucasfilm. After securing the rights, Aronica hired Hugo Award winner Timothy Zahn to pen the new trilogy, and gave the author carte blanche to do whatever he wanted with Star Wars’ classic characters.
Insert obligatory “Back when the Hugos used to be a mark of quality” lament here.
There had been Star Wars books before, of course. Before the original film’s debut, George Lucas tapped sci-fi legend Alan Dean Foster to write Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which doubled as a blueprint for a potential low-budget Star Wars sequel (obviously, Star Wars did quite well at the box office, and Lucas decided not to adapt Foster’s modest story). Two prose trilogies featuring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian appeared on shelves between 1979 and 1983, but those were prequels set before the main Star Wars films.
By contrast, Heir to the Empire is a direct sequel to Return of the Jedi, taking place about five years after the second Death Star exploded. In the book, a blue-skinned and red-eyed Imperial warlord named Grand Admiral Thrawn attempts to restore the Empire to its former glory. In order to secure victory, Thrawn enlists Joruus C’baoth, the deranged clone of a dead Jedi who agrees to help Thrawn in exchange for the deliverance of Luke and Leia, who he hopes to convert into his dark side apprentices. Along the way, the Skywalkers and the gang team up with a nefarious smuggler named Talon Karrde and butt heads with Mara Jade, a Force-sensitive assassin with a dark past.
Heir to the Empire was an immediate hit, and Star Wars fans propelled it to the number one spot on the New York Times’ best-seller list. Dark Force Rising, the second book in the series, proved that Zahn’s success was no fluke. By the time that The Last Command, the third and final entry in the series, came out in 1993, Bantam Spectra was hard at work on a number of other Star Wars books, which covered topics like Han and Leia’s wedding and the Galactic Empire’s final days and ultimate collapse.
Gates goes on to explain why the Thrawn Trilogy could have made a successful movie series, though his praise is alloyed with Disney apologists’ “The new movies are too subversive, nuanced, and complex for stupid nerds” narrative.
Unlike the new movies, Zahn’s novels stick to the trajectory set up by Return of the Jedi, taking the story to its natural conclusion. Leia is married to Han Solo, has her own lightsaber, and is pregnant with twins. Luke Skywalker has continued to train in the ways of the force. The Empire is waning, replaced by the democratic New Republic. The action continues, but Star Wars fans’ childhood heroes remain heroes. There’s nothing complicated about them.
That’s wildly different from Disney’s new films, which sever the bonds between the original cast and scatter them across the galaxy. In the new canon, the New Republic is a feeble institution hobbled by bureaucracy and corruption. The Empire didn’t win, but the Rebel Alliance didn’t really, either. Heir to the Empire is comforting in its predictability. While Luke Skywalker’s legacy is one of failure in The Last Jedi, the Thrawn trilogy gives him a (relatively) happy ending.
Zahn also had the freedom to play with Star Wars continuity in a way that the new films don’t, and offered fans tantalizing glimpses into then-unexplored areas of Star Wars’ past. Clones play a big part in the books, as does a fleet of warships created before the still-mysterious Clone Wars. While writing, Zahn incorporated details from West End Games’ RPG into his books too, creating the impression that all of this new Star Wars material was part of one consistent universe–a trait that the increasingly convoluted Expanded Universe maintained throughout its 23-year run.
Of course, the most important thing about Star Wars is its characters, and the Thrawn trilogy delivers there, too. Thrawn, who relies on his mind instead of brute force, is a very different type of villain from Darth Vader, but is no less intimidating. Mara Jade, who viewed the Emperor as a father figure, is the perfect foil for Luke Skywalker, a guy with his own daddy issues. Luuke, a Skywalker clone made from Luke’s severed hand, is kind of silly, but fans didn’t seem to mind too much: In the lead up to The Last Jedi, fans transformed Luuke’s origin story into a popular theory regarding Rey’s parentage.
A popular theory that The Last Jedi summarily threw out in favor of the least interesting answer possible.
Note to Kathleen Kennedy: Space opera fans want their heroes to be heroic, their morality clear, and their endings to give closure consistent with the story’s themes. Saying that fans want happy endings is a glib oversimplification. Look at the film widely regarded as the saga’s best, The Empire Strikes Back, for proof that audiences don’t need to be fed a steady diet of sunshine and lollipops.
Despite having to burn his pinch of incense to the mouse god, Gates can’t miss the glaring reason why film versions of the Thrawn Trilogy would have made a superior follow up to Return of the Jedi. In short, Zahn’s magnum opus is Star Wars, and Abrams/Johnson’s cynical imitations are not.
The Thrawn Trilogy is heroic, swashbuckling space opera at its best, and mirabile dictu, it doesn’t represent a rupture with prior Star Wars canon. Indeed, Zahn admirably placed his novels in harmony with the mood, tone, and style of the original Star Wars trilogy.
Could a conjectural trilogy of Thrawn films have succeeded where Mouse Wars is failing? Like all things, the answer depends on the execution. Releasing an Heir to the Empire movie in 2015 probably would have been a bad idea. The original cast was simply too old for the heavy action that would’ve been required of their characters. But let’s tweak a few details to see how we might have gotten a Thrawn movie trilogy to work.
RotJ was released in 1983. It’s nigh inconceivable today, but Star Wars all but vanished from the popular consciousness for roughly a decade. Sure, you had the Marvel Comics series, a handful of novels, sporadic home video releases, and a few failed cartoon shows; but nobody thought about Star Wars except for the rare occasions when one of the movies would be aired on TV. Gamers kept the flame alive with WEG’s superb Star Wars RPG, but even the toys disappeared from shelves after 85.
But the seed that Lucas had planted in fans’ minds quietly laid deep roots throughout that lost decade. Zahn’s novels were timed perfectly to tap the undercurrent of Star Wars nostalgia waiting just below the surface of the zeitgeist. By the Thrawn Trilogy’s conclusion in 93, Star Wars was back with a host of new Expanded Universe novels, hit video games based on the classic trilogy, and a highly lauded LaserDisc release that defined the original trilogy for a new generation.
Here’s how Lucasfilm could have taken maximum advantage of Star Wars’ early 90s resurgence:
- 1991: Begin pre-production on a film adaptation of #1 best seller Heir to the Empire with Zahn hired to co-write the script. Sign the original cast to three-picture deals.
- 1993: Release Star Wars: Episode VII – Heir to the Empire on the 10th anniversary of RotJ, playing up the date to maximize fanfare. Presented with a movie based on a best selling novel and co-written by the author, thirsty fans would almost certainly have propelled HttE to stratospheric box office heights. Kenner releases tie-in action figures two years early, and they fly off the shelves. With a major hit on his hands, Lucas gets the next two films into pre-production ASAP.
- 1995: Release Star Wars: Episode VIII – Dark Force Rising to an expectant public. As the sophomore installment in a trilogy, DFR probably wouldn’t have performed as well as HttE, but it wouldn’t have had to clear a very high bar to beat TLJ.
- 1997: Release Star Wars; Episode IX – The Last Command, bringing the new trilogy to a triumphant close. Bonus: TLC would have spared us the garbage fire of the Special Editions and may even have kept 1997 from utterly sucking.
Don’t know about you, but that’s the timeline I’d want to live in if given the choice.
A few lingering questions remain. Would Lucas have gone on to do the prequels? Probably, but he wouldn’t have been as rusty, and with any luck Zahn could have helped him steer clear of major blunders. What about fan favorite EU projects like Shadows of the Empire? I don’t see why they couldn’t have squeezed those in between Thrawn Trilogy tie-in games. If anything, the new trilogy would have incentivized studios to create even more Star Wars games.
As entertaining as thought experiments like this are, it’s time to come back down and face reality. Star Wars is dead for good, and there’s no going back and saving it. Fortunately, a new generation of indie authors are working hard to give readers entertaining adventure stories in the spirit of Zahn.
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