30 years ago, Timothy Zahn resurrected Star Wars

When Timothy Zahn published Heir to the Empire in 1991, the Star Wars franchise was far from the public's awareness. The Thrawn trilogy helped it roar back.

30 years ago, Timothy Zahn resurrected Star Wars

The line had me come out of my seat when I first heard it.

"Now tell me, where is your master?" Ahsoka Tano demanded. "Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?"

The moment comes at the end of The Mandalorian's Season 2 episode 'The Jedi', in which the show's titular character tracks down the former Jedi apprentice, in hopes that he can hand off the diminutive Grogru to her for training. Ahsoka has other priorities ahead of her: tracking down the blue-skinned Imperial officer, who vanished at the end of Star Wars Rebels.

For those who weren't well-read in the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the name might have been a throwaway line, or a hint at some other direction for the series. But for long-time fans, it was an electrifying moment: Thrawn was an incredibly popular figure in the Star Wars canon, and his journey from print to television series is one that's integral to the current state of the franchise.

30 years ago this last weekend, he made his print debut, and changed Star Wars forever.

Timothy Zahn had never expected to write a Star Wars novel. He had been a fan of science fiction since he was a kid, and when he began to write on his own in college where he was studying physics, it proved to be a natural genre for his stories. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, he had begun to sell those stories to magazines like Analog Science Fiction and Fact, and eventually earned a Hugo Award for his novella Cascade Point in 1983.

Like most other science fiction fans at the time, he was captivated by Star Wars when he saw it in theaters. When Lucasfilm decided to start publishing new stories in the universe in the late 1989s, Zahn's name ended up on the short list, and he got a call from his agent, asking if he'd be willing to pick up where George Lucas had left off with Return of the Jedi. “It went from very cool to aaah!” Zahn explained to me last year when I interviewed him for Polygon. “The cool part was a chance to do a Star Wars book. I never would have dreamed such things were possible, let alone that I would be offered it. The panic was, ‘I now have to capture the characters, the tone and feel of Star Wars.’

That was no small task. For years, Lucas had spoken about producing a total of six or nine films, but by the time Return of the Jedi had hit theaters, he was ready to be done with it — his personal life was in shambles as he and his wife Marcia were separated and in the midst of a divorce. "An internal calendar at Lucasfilm organized by Lucas's executive assistant Jane Bay, listed August 1 as the day George Lucas would retire," writes J.W. Rinzler in The Making of Return of the Jedi. The director needed a break. "I'm taking two years off, definitely, and will not do anything except raise my daughter. I will get my personal life straightened out, get my mind and body in a better place, and then see what I want to do." Star Wars hadn't even left theaters yet.

But while Lucas needed a break, he had ideas about the future of the franchise — a couple of films about about a young Darth Vader and Ben Kenobi were on his mind, but he was content to wait for technology to catch up to what he had in mind. Lucasfilm produced a couple of animated shows, Ewoks and Droids, and there was a steady stream of products from West End Games for die-hard fans. But for all intents and purposes, Star Wars went down for a long nap: the official fan club shut down in 1987, Lucasfilm turned away pitches from Kenner and Dark Horse for new products, and Lucas and his company turned their attention to other projects.

But within a couple of years, a new bubble of interest began to pop up for Lucasfilm — Lou Aronica, an editor at Bantam had written a proposal for a high-quality series of novels, something as "ambitious as the films were," he recounted to Chris Taylor in How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise. The company's finance director, Lucy Wilson ran into a publisher at a New York Book Fair in 1989, who told her that there would likely be demand for some sort of new Star Wars story, and ended up digging out Aronica's proposal. Lucas was skeptical of the idea, but gave them the go ahead, and Bantam Spectra brought in Zahn to write the first trilogy, starting with Heir to the Empire.

Image: Andrew Liptak

Zahn was given a handful of directions: he had to set the story after Return of the Jedi (the Clone Wars were strictly off-limits, as Lucas wanted that territory for himself), and he couldn't bring back anyone who'd died, like Darth Vader.

But what he could do was build a sequel with the same tone and feel of the films that preceded it: an epic struggle for control over the galaxy that would challenge the heroes, new characters and worlds, and most of all, a formidable villain, Grand Admiral Thrawn. With help from the West End Game guidebooks, he wrote Heir to the Empire in six months.

Related: Building a Galaxy: Heir to the Trilogy

Fans responded to it passionately when it hit stores in May 1991: the first installment of the trilogy climbed to the top of The New York Times bestseller list, and demonstrated the appetite for new adventures in that far away galaxy. The sequels, Dark Force Rising and The Last Command both followed suit, and Lucasfilm quickly lined up a number of other novels, which also sold well as they constructed a new story out of the ashes of the original trilogy.

Around the same time, Lucas was getting the urge to revisit the franchise, and in November 1994, he sat down to begin writing the treatment for what would eventually become the prequel trilogy. In How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, Taylor noted that a number of factors prompted Lucas's return: film technology was coming along (J. Michael Straczynski's science fiction show Babylon 5 had just debuted, the first such production to regularly use CGI assets), and the budding Expanded Universe demonstrated that fans of the franchise were eager for more. "  

Taylor notes that while Zahn pushed back against the idea that he resurrected the franchise, he "made key choices about the directions the universe would expand in — choices that would lay down a template for what worked in Star Wars literature."

Part of the appeal was in Zahn's characters. Countless fans had put together their own stories with action figures or roleplaying sessions, but actively introducing a consequential and meaningful challenge for the franchise's heroes was a formidable challenge.

Zahn explained that the story needed an antagonist who was different from Darth Vader or Emperor Palpatine. They were characters who wielded their power bluntly to rule the galaxy. Darth Vader strode into wherever he was needed and force choked someone. The Emperor orchestrated his power brutally through his minions. Thrawn needed to be something different, and Zahn's solution was to look to military history for inspiration. He drew up a commander with real strategic brilliance, someone who could outthink and out fight his opponents, something that the Rebels really hadn't come across up to that point.  

When I spoke with Zahn in 2017 about the character, he noted that "readers like their villains to be a challenge to the heroes because that forces the heroes to bring their best game to the field. The more clever the opponent, and the more difficult the fight, the more satisfying the victory."

Heir to the Empire starts on an ominous note. We're introduced to Thrawn within pages, a demonstration of how different he was from the Imperial officers like Admiral Ozzel or Piett, radiating competence and intellect as he directs an attack from his quarters before laying out his goal: "the complete, total, and utter destruction of the Rebellion."

Thrawn's singular focus drives the rest of the trilogy. The New Republic has established itself as the dominant force in the galaxy, but the Empire isn't down and out just yet — and the former Rebels are dealing with the problem of actually ruling the galaxy. Thrawn moves to take advantage of those problems and divisions, all while he works to track down a depot of advanced weapons left behind by the Emperor (and finds an insane clone of a Jedi Master while he's at it), figures out a way to negate Luke Skywalker's powers, blockages the galactic capital of Coruscant with cloaked asteroids, locates a lost fleet of Clone Wars-era battleships, and moves to threaten Han and Leia Solo's family by sending commandos after their children.

And along the way, the Rebels get thrashed. Thrawn sets them back on their heels more than once, and throughout the entire trilogy, it's an honest, open question as to whether or not the good guys will actually prevail. And they almost don't, had Thrawn not found the sharp end of a knife wielded by one of his own bodyguards.

With his trilogy, Zahn set an exceptionally high bar for the books that would come after, and few authors met or even exceeded that mark. In the years that followed, the Expanded Universe became mired in a series of superweapon of the month / threat to the Skywalker family situation, and while there were some good experiments and attempts, Bantam Spectra's editors and authors rarely seemed to understand what Zahn seemed to: the heroes needed to face real, existential stakes. Even when that happened, the results were mixed. Aronica's original plan had been for a new novel a year: it feels as though the real problem was that by putting the core characters through the same adventures over and over again, the result was diminishing returns.

Thinking back to the Star Wars Expanded Universe, Zahn's characters like Thrawn, Mara Jade, and Talon Karrde spring immediately to mind — and with some exceptions, like Ysanne Isard (the main antagonist from Michael A. Stackpole's X-Wing series) — a lot of those Star Wars adventures just fade into the background, because the focus on characters just wasn't as crisp and polished.

Zahn might have set the template for the Star Wars novels that followed, as Taylor noted. While the Star Wars EU was eventually rendered non-canon in 2014, Thrawn went with it.

So it was a surprise in 2016 when Lucasfilm announced that it was bringing the character back as the main antagonist in its new animated series, Rebels, and that he'd get the origin story that we'd always wanted, with Zahn back to write it. In retrospect, it shouldn't have been too much of a surprise: upon the character's return, it was clear that the reasons for why he was so impactful back in 1991 were still in play in 2017: he was a cold, calculating commander who was dangerous because he was genuinely better at warfare than the people he was going up against. (That announcement, along with my first screening of Star Wars and the return of The Clone Wars is one of those moments that's branded into my memory).

Lucasfilm has always been good at recycling, especially when it comes to Star Wars, but the characterization and work that Zahn put into Thrawn that made him stand out in the first place meant that he was always a good candidate to return somehow, and given that it seems likely that he'll be returning to the franchise in live-action form, it seems like that characterization is still useful and relevant.

Ironically, it's the tendency for overuse that could be plague the character moving forward. Zahn's origin story Thrawn was a solid novel, but its sequels, Allegiance and Treason, as well as the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy have felt like they're missing something — that what we've already seen from Thrawn is... all we're getting. And that's a shame: the character broke out from the pack because he was different from the other villains.

But maybe there's an opportunity and lesson here for the next generation of creators: the next best thing that'll power the next three decades of Star Wars won't be a rehash of the characters that we've already seen, but something new and unexpected, much as Thrawn was 30 years ago.