J.J. Abrams' decision to bring back Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (opens in new tab) was a controversial one. However, what if the idea to bring back the galaxy's biggest bad wasn't Abrams' idea at all – but one that originally came from George Lucas?
First, we should note that Lucas has always been coy about revealing his plans for the sequel trilogy that never happened. We know that his Episode 7 would have seen Luke – a hermit living on a secluded planet – training a young, female Jedi named Kira. The story would have also dived into the mysterious ways of “the Whills,” an order of immortal beings who controlled everything through the Force.
That's about all we know for certain about Lucas' vision for the sequel trilogy. There's been no public mention of villains – returning or otherwise. So why do we think that Lucas had a hand in bringing back the Emperor? Look no further than the original Expanded Universe, which now falls under the "Legends" banner at Disney.
The Expanded Universe consists of books, comics, and video-games telling the various stories of Star Wars characters outside of the movies. While everything produced before Disney bought LucasFilm is no longer canon, those stories have influenced what remains canon. For instance, the blue Twi'lek Jedi, Aayla Secura, was originally created for the Expanded Universe, but Lucas saw an image of the character and decided to bring her into Attack of the Clones (opens in new tab).
Another example – and the one we want to talk about – comes in the controversial series Dark Empire. First published in 1991, the series takes place six years after Return of the Jedi and starts with Luke and Lando under attack on Coruscant. Leia and Han come and save the day, but, before they leave the planet, a strange storm approaches. Luke decides to stay while the others escape to fight another battle. Luke gets swamped by the electrical storm and awakes onboard an old Imperial ship being led by (you guessed it) a returning Emperor Palpatine.
The Sith Lord had cloned himself and was resurrected following his demise. Knowing that striking down Palps will only lead to him manifesting in another clone, Luke bows down and becomes his apprentice. Of course, Luke does not turn completely to the dark side, and – with Leia – they eventually defeat the Emperor. Then the Emperor appears again in a Dark Empire sequel, and they defeat him again. Such is the way of the Force.
The decision to bring back Palpatine was a controversial one at the time (as was the official return of Boba Fett depicted in the same story). Tom Veitch acted as writer and Cam Kennedy as the artist on Dark Empire and Dark Empire II, and Veitch went some way to defend the series.
"We had great response. I still get letters from people telling me that Dark Empire was the best of the continuing stories, that it should be made into a movie, that it should be a novel, etc," he told UnderGroundOnline (opens in new tab), a now-defunct pop-culture website. "George Lucas told me personally that he loved it."
Veitch continued: "Some people had a problem with the bringing back of the Emperor. But as I have explained elsewhere, we did that under George Lucas' direction. Originally we asked him if we could bring back Darth Vader, assuming that the Empire would want to perpetuate the image of Vader in order to strike fear into the hearts of billions. So they would put somebody else inside the Vader costume, of course. But George nixed that and told us we could bring back the Emperor."
That last line is particularly interesting. We already know that Dark Empire served as minor inspiration for The Rise of Skywalker, but that the idea of bringing back the Emperor came from Lucas himself is particularly interesting. Was Abrams following Lucas's vision for the sequels more closely than we thought?
However, before we get too carried away, this seemingly contradicts something that Ian McDiarmid said during the run-up to the release of The Rise of Skywalker.
"I thought he was dead," the actor, who plays Palpatine, told Digital Spy (opens in new tab). "Because when we did Return of the Jedi, and I was thrown down that chute to Galactic Hell, he was dead. And I said, 'Oh, does he come back?' And [George] said, 'No, he’s dead.' So I just accepted that. But then, of course, I didn’t know I was going to be doing the prequels, so in a sense he wasn’t dead, because we went back to revisit him when he was a young man. But I was totally surprised by this."
Perhaps Lucas had not thought of bringing back the Emperor when McDiarmid asked on the set of Return of the Jedi? Whatever the case, we will probably never know exactly what Lucas had planned for the sequel trilogy – hopefully, one day, we'll get a closer look at what the creator of that galaxy far, far away wanted to do with Luke, Leia, and Kira.