Could Thrawn Have Saved Star Wars?

Grand Admiral Thrawn

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.

Looking for a fun space opera with horror and fantasy elements and a distinct old school anime vibe? Then Nethereal is for you! Give it a read today.
-Author JD Cowan


  1. For my own entries on it:

    Ironically when I started looking at how E7 & 8 could be "fixed" I ended up going down a similar path to Zahn which was obvious on reflection. But even a completely new direction (as in link 3) could be interesting and still in spirit.

    As I said already:
    "I’ve seen several people pointing out that no movie made could have fulfilled expectations – which is kind of missing the forest because all the trees are blocking your view. Yes fans had expectations, of emotions from the film. (The intangible trade I talked about earlier.) When the film fails to deliver even a fraction of those emotions, yes the audience is going to be upset."

    The expectations failed weren't of who was who, but of a STORY and an ADVENTURE.

  2. I want to live in the timeline you created. I read of an attempt by a director who wanted to adapt Heir to the Empire in the early 90's but George turned him down. Can't remember the director's name though.

    1. If I had to take a shot in the dark, I'd go with Ridley Scott as the director Lucas turned down. As the director of Blade Runner, he would've been among the few directors in Hollywood with a sufficient sci-fi pedigree to get a pitch meeting with Lucas. Moreover, Zahn's agent Russell Galen also represents Philip K. Dick's estate. If Galen had prior dealings with Scott, it would've made sense for him to try that avenue to get an HttE movie made.

      Relevant: The last move Scott had directed when the Thrawn Trilogy concluded was 1492: Conquest of Paradise, which grossed just $7 million on a $40+ million budget. He hit a career slump after that, and directing a Star Wars flick would have helped reignite his career. As it turned out, he didn't direct again until White Squall in 1996.

  3. I'm sure you read Jagi's essay here http://www.superversivesf.com/2017/08/24/what-is-fan-fic/

    Based on that, I think you could call the prequels fan-fic (or engraftments), and the sequels worse than that: antifan-fic

    1. My definition of fanfic is a writer who ignores previously established rules and themes to play in their own sandbox without regard for any tradition that came before them. That is how you get officially sanctioned fanfiction that is supposed to be canon, but simply does not fit or work in the framework and ground-rules already established.

      See: Alien 3, Highlander 2, everything beyond the original 65 episodes of Gargoyles, The Legend of Korra, Star Trek: Discovery, Terminator 3, and every Star Wars movie after the original trilogy.

  4. I think this timeline has Firefly Seasons 2-6, as well. ;)

    1. Gonna have to disagree with you, there, even though I know your comment is tongue-in-cheek.

      Firefly is what you get when a creator leaves the audience wanting more and just walks away. Imagine if Lucas had just made the original Star Wars trilogy and stopped.

      Now imagine the Firefly version of TFA and TLJ, knowing what we know about Joss Whedon.

      Yeah, I'm good with no more Firefly.

    2. After "Learning" Joss Whedon with Buffy and then Angel, I refused to watch Firefly. It would not have gone well if it continued.

    3. It's worth a watch, in my opinion, but no, it would not have gone well.

  5. Also for those curious, SFDebris did a "making of" video essay series on the prequels: http://sfdebris.com/videos/special/hermitsjourney.php

    Vid 1 is about the transition from RotJ and the Prequels and explains why Brian's dream timeline could never have happened. (no matter how much we wished)

    Also vid 6 goes over the sale & handoff of Lucasfilm to Disney. Recommended as well.

  6. MegaBusterShepard here...

    I'm just glad Fioloni got Zahn on hand as a writer when Thrawn was brought in as the antagonist of Rebels. Fioloni unlike the rest of the schmucks at Lucasfilm at the very least respects the source material.

    Kind of why I have a sneaking suspicion Kennedy might try and axe him. He is very much a disciple of George Lucas and it shows.


    These people understand Star Wars. Disney doesn't.

  7. MegaBusterShepard here...

    At least we can breathe a sigh of relief Disney didn't get their hands on the rest of the Barsoom series. Old ERB would be rolling in his grave.

  8. MegaBusterShepard here

    Sorry Brian about the two comments. It seemed the website bugged out when trying to publish the first one so I wrote the second. Not trying to spam ya man,my Kindle is kimda dying.

    1. No worries. Blogger falsely flagged one of your comments, and I had to rescue it from the spam folder.

  9. Proof that Disney Wars = Tard Wars on Steroids.

    If this was a comic book, House of Mouse's offering would be labeled as an imaginary story, given a sensible chuckle, then summarily ignored for the remainder of Time.

    1. Comparisons of any thing to Tard Wars is an insult to that thing. I stand accused and accept my due. ;-)

    2. Your guilty plea is noted. I sentence you to live out the rest of your natural life reading exciting, fun, non-retarded stories by indie authors.

    3. It's also an insult to Star Wars: tales which were largely elseworld-style stories of various canonicity. It was also the comic that gave us a most prophetic comic panel back in the year 2000...

  10. Or instead of an alternate timeline for us, these new movies could have respected the EU and incorporated or appropriated from it. It would mean changing things from the Zahn trilogy, but they could have made 3 films using ideas from Zahn, Anderson, Dietz, etc.

    Just spit-balling here, but the movie could take place 30 years after RotJ, with the New Republic struggling to hold the center among so many species, planets and nations. Leia does her best to put out the fires while Han and Chewie function as her Knight Protectors and spies/agents. To make matters worse, some of Leia's rebellion colleagues don't approve of the Galactic Republic and believe it needs to be dismantled...so now there is say political drama between Leia and Ackbar, or Lando, etc.

    Meanwhile Luke and Mara are busy running the Jedi temple, where a disagreement in Jedi philosophy is causing a rift in the school between Luke and some of the other masters. In the midst of all this fighting, a Republic frigate during a border patrol along the Imperial Remnant border mysterious disappears. Several Republic planets near the border also go quiet. With the previous trilogies characters dealing with the senior stuff, the next generation is the one tapped to investigate (Jaina, Jacen, Anakin, Ben, etc.) Thrawn is the big bad, along with a new Sith working with him. Have one of the Skywalker kids turn to the dark side, maybe a parent of them allows themselves to be sacrificed for the sake of the other, and make Thrawn's plan for a new Empire frightening, such has a special implant that can rob pesky citizens of their free will, or a kill switch installed in everyone...ultimate Communism for the galaxy.

    It wouldn't be the trilogy(ies) that Zahn and others wrote, but it would work with the ages of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford without dumb CGI reincarnations.

    1. A better story by far than Mouse Wars, which we now know desecrated the established canon with malice aforethought to insult the fans.

      Alas, a story like yours will never be told in the canonical Star Wars galaxy while Disney holds the reins. George Lucas has stated publicly and repeatedly that Abrams and Johnson's films diverge greatly from his vision for Episodes VII and VIII. It would be interesting to learn what his original plans were.

  11. Durnadel

    Excellent plot ideas. My only objection is that one of the Skywalkers goes Sith. I always found this a cop out of the Extended universe. A lazy plot contrivance.

    I'd've preferred a brand new Dark force bad guy allied or not with Thrawn. Like a really old school Sith
    cult from the days of the really old Republic (say from 10 000 years ago) that everyone thought had died out back in Sith wars. Thrown on some clones on both side and the race to recuperate the decativated robot army mentioned in Episode i or 2.
    And you got a super high stakes space opera


  12. On a lark, I checked the list of movie releases from the summer of 93. If Heir to the Empire had been released exactly 10 years after RotJ's May 83 release, its competition at the box office would have been Super Mario Bros.

    And just imagine getting a new Star Wars movie followed up with Jurassic Park a month later.

    1. Back when blockbusters were a rare creature by and large. Star Wars would have made a killing in your proposed timeline. Now we have a comic book movie nearly every month. With the included bonus sci-fi and fantasy movies and tv shows flooding the networks and studios. Since of course nerd/geek culture is mainstream now. Granted, that's probably a blog post in and of itself.

    2. It probably is.

      There are those who blame Star Wars for Hollywood's blockbuster obsession and the resulting death of the middle-tier movie.