History of Palpatine

(Welcome to The Emperor Reborn, a three-part series examining the role of Sheev Palpatine and the long shadow he casts over the Skywalker Saga, including the upcoming Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.)

“No one’s ever really gone.” – Luke Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker will be the ninth and final episode of the Skywalker Saga, according to director JJ Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. The film’s teaser trailer had fans losing their collective Bantha poodoo over the news that Ian McDiarmid will return to portray Palpatine, the Dark Lord of the Sith and Galactic Emperor who died in 1983’s Star Wars – Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

We also know the Knights of Ren are returning to the fold, after a brief introduction in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It appears that we’ll be taking a journey back to some familiar settings, as the wreckage of the Death Star II factors heavily into the plot. Also, we know the mysterious, red-armored First Order Sith Troopers will join the fight against the Resistance, but under whose command?

To unpack the revelation that Palpatine survived his Death Star II Nestea Plunge, and what his return means for The Rise of Skywalker, we have to go back to the character’s origins. After all, if one is to understand the great mystery, one must study all its aspects, not just the dogmatic, narrow view of the Jedi. If you wish to become a complete and wise leader, you must embrace a larger view of the Force.

Origins of Evil: The Prologue

The first mention of the name Palpatine appears in the prologue of Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker, Alan Dean Foster’s 1976 novelization of Star Wars. Foster writes:

“Aided and abetted by restless, power-hungry individuals within the government, and the massive organs of commerce, the ambitious Senator Palpatine caused himself to be elected President of the Republic. He promised to reunite the disaffected among the people and to restore the remembered glory of the Republic. Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears.”

Star Wars creator George Lucas’ conceptualization of Palpatine and the role the character plays in his space-fantasy saga has changed over time. Initially, the character was a corrupt politician turned ruthless ruler inspired by Julius Caesar, Napoleon Bonaparte, Adolf Hitler, and Richard Nixon, with a dash of Flash Gordon’s Ming the Merciless for good measure. He became much more than that – an icon of American pop culture symbolizing the corrupt, greedy, and sinister among us. 

The Galactic Emperor: The Original Trilogy

“Palpatine represents the devil. He represents the pure evil – the Dark Lord of the Sith who is purely out to get more power.” – George Lucas

In 1977’s Star Wars, later subtitled Episode IV – A New Hope, the Emperor is briefly mentioned by Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, who tells his fellow Imperials that the Emperor has just dissolved the Imperial Senate, sweeping away the last remnants of the Old Republic forever. 

After the success of Star Wars, Lucas hired screenwriter Leigh Brackett (The Big Sleep, Rio Bravo, The Long Goodbye) to write the sequel with him. During story conferences for Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas and Brackett decided that the Emperor and the concept of the Force were two primary concerns of the film. As noted in Laurent Bouzereau’s Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, “The Emperor had barely been dealt with in the first movie, and the intention in the sequel was to deal with him on a more concrete level.”

In JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas continues to define the Emperor’s role. “The introduction of the Emperor is a major plot development. He may be the one who is saved for the end. When you get rid of the Emperor, the whole thing is over. The final episode is the restoration of the Republic.”

By November 1977, Lucas had produced a handwritten treatment that’s similar to Empire’s final script, minus one major revelation. In Brackett’s first draft, based on the treatment, Luke’s father appears as a ghost to instruct his son. Unfortunately, Brackett died of cancer before a second draft could be written, leaving Lucas to pen the next draft alone. In this draft, he introduced a new plot twist: Vader as Luke’s father.

In 1979, Lucas commissioned Lawrence Kasdan to write the next drafts with additional input from director Irvin Kershner. In Michael Kaminski’s The Secret History of Star Wars, the author notes that the decision to combine the characters of Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader had massive implications on the series. In Lucas’ new backstory, the Emperor wasn’t just a power-hungry bureaucrat but a Dark Lord of the Sith – an evil Force wielder who rose to power, in part, by corrupting Anakin Skywalker and rebranding the fallen Jedi as his Sith apprentice, Darth Vader. 

In the finished film, the Emperor makes his on-screen debut, albeit in hologram form. Played by Marjorie Eaton and voiced by Clive Revill, with special makeup effects by Phil Tippett and Rick Baker. For the 2004 DVD re-release, the original version of the Emperor was replaced by actor Ian McDiarmid, and the dialogue between the Emperor and Darth Vader was revised. 

The Emperor appears to inform his apprentice that they have a new enemy: Luke Skywalker. “The Force is strong with him. The son of Skywalker must not become a Jedi.” A subservient Vader persuades his master that the young Jedi would be a great asset if he could be turned to the dark side of the Force. 

By establishing Vader as the Emperor’s pawn, Lucas and Kasdan set the stage for the character’s redemption in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. This change also provided a springboard to the “Tragedy of Darth Vader” storyline that would serve as the backbone of the Prequel Trilogy.

Palpatine becomes the ultimate personification of evil in Star Wars, replacing Vader as the central villain. As Kasdan notes in Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays, “My sense of the relationship between Vader and the Emperor is that the Emperor is much more powerful… and that Vader is very much intimidated by him. Vader has dignity, but the Emperor in Jedi really has all the power.”

In JW Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, creature and makeup designer Phil Tippett talks about the Emperor’s look. “The arch-villain was intended to be a Methuselah figure kept alive and intact by some unknown magic.” Early art of the Emperor featured an age-wrinkled face with a large split cranium that was beginning to grow apart. This unused concept seems to have inspired the design for the Sequel Trilogy’s Supreme Leader Snoke. 

Lucas and director Richard Marquand cast Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid to play the expanded role of Emperor Palpatine for Return of the Jedi. In the film, the Emperor arrives to oversee the final stages of the second Death Star’s construction. The Sith Lord assures his apprentice that together they will turn Luke Skywalker to the dark side and complete his training, but both master and apprentice have ulterior motives. Palpatine wishes to replace Vader with Luke, while Vader wants to turn Luke so they can destroy Palpatine. 

When Vader brings Luke before his master, the Emperor tries to lure Luke to the dark side by appealing to the young Jedi’s fear for his friends, who have been lured into the Emperor’s trap. This leads to a lightsaber duel in which Luke defeats and nearly kills his father. The Emperor tells Luke to destroy Vader and take his place, but Luke refuses and declares himself a Jedi. Enraged, the Emperor tortures Luke with Force Lightning. Unable to bear the sight of his son in pain, Vader throws the Emperor into the Death Star’s reactor, killing him… or so we thought

As a side note, in an early draft of the script, Luke picks up Vader’s helmet and puts it on. The Emperor leads his new apprentice to the controls of the Death Star superlaser to destroy the rebel fleet. Instead, Luke aims it at Had Abbadon — the Imperial capital, later identified as Coruscant — and destroys it. 

The Trilogy That Wasn’t: The Sequels That Never Materialized

Before we dive into the Expanded Universe – Lucasfilm’s stockpile of officially licensed books, comics, video games, television series, spin-off films, and other media created outside of the official canon – we’ve got to talk about the Return of the Jedi that almost was, and the Sequel Trilogy that never was. 

According to producer Gary Kurtz (American Graffiti, Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back), after the massive success of Star Wars, he and George Lucas came up with the idea that the film was actually the fourth chapter of a nine-part series and penned rough outlines for each episode. After releasing The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas made Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) with Steven Spielberg. The success of that film – and booming Kenner Star Wars toy sales – convinced Lucas to increase the action and “toyetic appeal” of the sixth episode. 

In these rough outlines, the Emperor doesn’t make an appearance until Episode IX. There is no Death Star II. Luke and Leia aren’t siblings. In this incarnation of Return of the Jedi, Han Solo dies during a raid on an Imperial Base. Leia grapples with her duties as the newly elected Queen of her people, and Luke goes off into exile “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns.” Sound familiar? 

Episode VII would focus on Luke’s life as a Jedi while Episode VIII would see him reuniting with his twin sister, Nellith Skywalker, who is mentioned in Leigh Brackett’s draft of The Empire Strikes Back. In Episode IX, Luke and Nellith would team up to battle the Emperor. 

Ultimately, Return of the Jedi became the end of the Skywalker saga, and Lucas’ third trilogy never materialized. Instead, Lucasfilm established the Expanded Universe as a way to enhance and extend the life of the theatrical films with books, comics, and video games about that galaxy far, far away.  

The Emperor Reborn: The Expanded Universe

In 1991, Palpatine returned in the Dark Horse comic book series Dark Empire, written by Tom Veitch and illustrated by Cam Kennedy.  In the series (set six years after Return of the Jedi), Palpatine is resurrected as the Emperor Reborn or “Palpatine the Undying.” His spirit returns from the netherworld of the Force and possesses the body of Jeng Droga, one of the Emperor’s Hands, a group of elite assassins not unlike the Knights of Ren or Snoke’s Praetorian Guard in the Sequel Trilogy.

Then things get really wild. Sate Pestage, one of the Emperor’s advisors, exorcizes Palpatine’s spirit and channels it into a clone created by Palpatine before his death. Palpatine attempts to resume control of the galaxy but is defeated when Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa Solo, who has received Jedi training from her brother, repel a “Force Storm” conjured by Palpatine and turn it back onto him, destroying his physical form once again. 

In an interview with Star Wars Underworld, Tom Veitch discusses Palpatine’s master plan. In Return of the Jedi, when the Emperor says, “Strike me down with all your hatred, and your journey towards the dark side will be complete,” he seems indifferent to his own death. “He feels that whatever the outcome of this confrontation with Luke, he, Palpatine, will conquer.” 

According to Veitch, the Emperor chose this moment to come out of the shadows because he no longer feared for the safety of his physical form. With one swift stroke, Luke would fall to the dark side, and Palpatine would be reborn. “His mastery of the dark side had become such that he was now ready to make a transition he had been working toward for many years — namely the replacement of his aging, diseased, and crippled body with a young clone.”

The decision to resurrect Palpatine was a controversial one. Many fans – and creators – took issue with the clone storyline. In Vision of the Future, Timothy Zahn includes a conversation that refers to the events of Dark Empire with Luke Skywalker mentioning “the resurrected Emperor” and Mara Jade countering with, “Whatever. Personally, I’m not convinced it was actually him.”

Keep in mind that Dark Empire was eight years before Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. While the concept of the Clone Wars existed, thanks to a brief reference in A New Hope, the mythology wasn’t sketched out, and the idea of cloning in the Star Wars universe felt more like science-fiction ala Star Trek than the established space-fantasy of Star Wars. That would change with the Prequel Trilogy.

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This series will continue tomorrow with part two, which examines the Emperor’s role in the prequel films and beyond.

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