Monday, October 2

Countdown to Ahsoka: Revisiting ‘Heir to the Empire’ and Speculating How it Could Inform the Series

Welcome back to another installment in Star Wars News Net‘s “Countdown to Ahsoka” series. In today’s entry, we will take a little detour from the title character to take a look back at Heir to the Empire, the novel that first introduced the series’ main villain — Grand Admiral Thrawn, as well as many other elements that continue to be definitive parts of Star Wars to this day.


In the late eighties, when it was clear that George Lucas was not pursuing any more movies, and Star Wars as a phenomenon was beginning to fade out of sight, Lucas Licensing executives Howard Roffman and Lucy Autry Wilson took a gamble. The kids who bought the toys were grown up but the desire for stories was still there, so they decided to launch a new wave of adult books. They took the idea to George Lucas and to a series of publishing houses, neither of whom believed that anyone would want to buy Star Wars books. Eventually, they gained the support of Bantam Books, who brought them to Timothy Zahn. The result was Heir to the Empire, which, in 1991, debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list!


Ahsoka calls Thrawn the "heir to the Empire"


The novel was a huge success and is credited with kick-starting the Expanded Universe, now known as ‘Legends’. The novel has had a lasting impact on the fandom and the creatives at Lucasfilm and proof that it has influenced Ahsoka is clear just by looking at the series’ blue-faced antagonist; for more on-the-nose proof, the title is openly name-dropped in both trailers for the series. I highly recommend reading it, but as you might struggle to get through 400 pages before the 23rd I’ll give a brief summary of the novel and pick out the elements I think are most likely to cross over into the series.


Heir to the Empire


Mount Tantiss first appeared in Heir to the Empire
Mount Tantiss in “STAR WARS: THE BAD BATCH”, season 2 exclusively on Disney+. © 2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.


Grand Admiral Thrawn has rallied the remaining Imperial fleet under his banner. No match for the full New Republic fleet, the Chiss seeks power to restore the Empire to its former might. They head to the planet Wayland, to seek out the Emperor’s vault on Mount Tantiss and encounter the rogue Force-user Joruus C’baoth. (Fans may be interested to know that according to Zahn it’s pronounced Sa-bay-oth), who turns out to be an unstable clone of a Jedi Master. Thrawn convinces the dark Jedi to join him and sends his personal Noghri bodyguards to capture Leia and her twin children to be his apprentices.


Meanwhile, on a mission to seek out allies for the New Republic, Luke, Han, and Lando also wind up on Wayland. Luke encounters Mara Jade, who reveals herself as the former Emperor’s Hand and tries to avenge the Emperor by killing him so he has to flee. Han and Lando fail to get allies but do receive intelligence that Thrawn is planning an attack on a New Republic shipyard. They arrive in time to warn the shipyard but instead of launching his fleet, Thrawn uses cloaking devices and stealth tactics to steal ships out from under their noses. Only the quick thinking of Han and Lando, along with the timely arrival of the Rogue Squadron, prevent Thrawn’s victory… for now.


The Big Blue Guy

Grand Admiral Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) in Lucasfilm’s STAR WARS: AHSOKA, exclusively on Disney+. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.


In crafting the first story set after the events of Return of the Jedi, Timothy Zahn was keen to have a distinctive enemy from what had been seen on screen so far. He wrote in the annotated version of Heir to the Empire:


“The Star Wars movies revolved around villains who led by coercion and fear. That may work for a short-range operation (Vader’s crew certainly put thier hearts into their work) but it’s not so good long-range or long-term

So I decided to do something different to try to create a commander who could lead by loyalty.

What qualities does such a commander have to have? The first, obviously, is strategic and tactical skill. His troops must believe that any operation they’re going into has a good chance of success, with as few casualties on their side as possible.”


His idea to create a military genius paid off. In the opening chapter, Thrawn is seen studying art and by the end of the chapter, his understanding of the species who created it leads to his being able to conquer their planet by altering his tactics to confuse and overwhelm them. Thrawn is always presented as the smartest guy in the room and was able to inflict massive damage on the New Republic without a huge fleet of Star Destroyers to back him up.


It’s this Thrawn I expect to see, with the blue-skinned Grand Admiral having first made the leap to canon through Rebels and now in live-action. We see a fairly large New Republic fleet in the trailers but I anticipate that Thrawn will be able to outmaneuver and outwit them — at least, at first. It’s hard to say at this point, how big Thrawn’s role will actually be. Heir to the Empire set up the Grand Admiral and ended with a skirmish at Sluis Van which then led to larger-scale battles in the sequel novels Dark Force Rising and The Last Command. I think it’s likely we will get something similar in Ahsoka, we will get a battle to show the might of Thrawn, setting him up for Dave Filoni’s movie while the central story focuses more on reuniting the Rebels crew.


I do also expect we will see Thrawn at his most villainous in this series. Obviously, things were toned down for the animation audience of Rebels, and Zahn’s newer Thrawn books are written from the perspective of the Chiss himself and so paint him as the hero of his own story. But, in Heir to the Empire he was a villain. A different class of villain, maybe, but a villain nonetheless and I hope to see him at his most dangerous in Ahsoka as he was back then.


Captain Pellaeon?

Captain Pellaeon was a key figure of Heir to the Empire


The novel’s simple opening line introduced Thrawn’s right-hand man, Captain Gilad Pellaeon. He was introduced as a senior military man, leading by example to maintain order in the remnants of the once-mighty Imperial fleet. Zahn cautiously decided that writing from an alien’s point of view might be too distracting for the audience so Pellaeon gained an expanded role in the book from simply the second-in-command to the audience’s perspective in scenes with the Chiss genius — much like how Sherlock Holmes stories were written from Watson’s point of view.


Pellaeon, as the Imperial man of honour, struck a chord with the fandom and far outlived the Thrawn books. He played a key role in several successive books and other media, where he effectively became the leader of the Imperial Remnant, and made the sensible decision of signing peace accords with the New Republic.


Pellaeon’s fan-favourite status was never more evident than at Celebration where the hall erupted at his appearance during an early screening of The Mandalorian Chapter 23: The Spies. The canon version is still closely linked with Thrawn, name-dropping him multiple times during his appearances. I strongly suspect that his appearance was set for a larger role in either Ahsoka or the upcoming crossover movie; I’d be shocked if he didn’t at least make another cameo in this series.


Dark Jedi in Heir to the Empire


(L-R): Baylan Skoll (Ray Stevenson) and Shin Hati (Ivanna Sakhno) in Lucasfilm’s AHSOKA, exclusively on Disney+. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.


The idea of Thrawn allying himself with Dark Jedi would tie in very well with his partnership with Joruus C’Baoth in the books. While he relied on his own intellect and tactical knowledge to lead the Imperial Remnant, Thrawn was well aware of the advantage that the Force brought to the table and allied himself with the rogue Force user, after taking precautions to protect himself from his abilities.


The key difference in Ahsoka is that the two dark side users, Baylan Skoll and Shin Hati, are the ones seeking the Grand Admiral out, not the other way around. The pair are clearly formidable both in lightsaber combat and mastery of the Force, so it will be interesting to see what ‘power’ they hope to gain by joining Thrawn.



Interestingly, given recent events, one of the key points that came out later in the Thrawn trilogy was a plan to clone Force-sensitive individuals. Joruus C’Baoth himself was a clone of a dead Jedi Master and he went on to create a clone of Luke Skywalker by using DNA obtained from his severed hand. We’ve seen a similar plot in The Mandalorian with Gideon’s plot to combine his DNA with Grogu’s to create Force-sensitive clones of himself. I think we’re done with that plotline by now, so I don’t expect it to feature in Ahsoka, but it’s another example of the influence of the book today.


The New Republic


Mon Mothma (Genevieve O'Reilly) in Lucasfilm’s Ahsoka, exclusively on Disney+. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly) in Lucasfilm’s Ahsoka, exclusively on Disney+. ©2023 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.


As well as giving us some fun adventures with Luke, Han, Leia and the gang, Heir to the Empire gave the first proper look at the New Republic, the government born from the victory of the Rebellion. It showed the struggle of Mon Mothma, Leia Organa, and Ackbar as they transitioned from military fighters to political leaders. As well as familiar faces, Zahn brought in new characters such as Bork Fey’lya – a senator who worked primarily for his own political gain and, though not a villain, was a continual thorn in the side of Mothma.


While we’ve seen hints at the New Republic in The Mandalorian, it seems we are going to get our best look at the Government in Ahsoka. We see Genevieve O’Reilly return as Mon Mothma, seemingly being challenged by Hera Syndulla to take the threat of Thrawn seriously. Something on Mothma’s face seems to indicate that the Rebel fighter in her wants to act, but things aren’t so simple when you’re the galaxy’s head of state. It’s possible there may be a Fey’lya-type character who hampers the right cause for their own gain. We currently know nothing about the other senators, other than Hamato Xiono (to the right of Mothma), who is the father of Kaz from Star Wars: Resistance.


Zahn presented the idea of a government that was undoubtedly on the right side, and a great improvement from the Empire to be sure, but wasn’t always effective in responding to the threats out in the galaxy, particularly ones that moved as stealthily as Thrawn. We’ve seen the same in The Mandalorian and it looks like that thread will continue in Ahsoka, though I hope we get to see the post-rebels do some good in the galaxy too. As someone who grew up on New Republic vs Imperial Remnant stories I am really excited to see what plays out on screen!


Other Connections

The Mandalorian Season 3 Trailer


Those are the key plot points I expect will connect Heir to the Empire with Ahsoka when the series debuts on the 23rd of August on Disney Plus. Don’t forget to check back daily for more in our “Countdown to Ahsoka” series of articles but before I sign off I’ll just share a few other familiar names first created for the book:


  • The name Coruscant (meaning ‘glittering’) was first coined by Zahn. Before this, the planet had only been referred to as ‘Imperial Centre’ in other materials. Zahn was as surprised as anyone when George Lucas chose to use the name in the prequels.
  • The character Rukh, who appeared as Thrawn’s personal assassin in Rebels, and his species the Noghri first appeared as Thrawn’s personal bodyguards.
  • Thrawn’s flagship, the Chimaera, also seen in Rebels, was brought in on page one to mirror the Star Destroyers in the opening shots of the original trilogy.
  • Mount Tantiss, as seen in The Bad Batch was one of the first locations Thrawn visited in the book.


A teacher from Wales in the UK, Aled has loved Star Wars ever since that Star Destroyer flew over his head and blew his mind.