We’ve finally gotten our first look at Star Wars: Episode IX, thanks to the movie’s debut teaser trailer, which was released during a panel devoted to the film at Star Wars Celebration. We also learned the title of the movie–The Rise of Skywalker–and caught a new tidbit that’s teasing a big new development in the final movie of the Skywalker Saga: the return of Emperor Palpatine.
If you didn’t catch Palpatine’s return, it’s likely because it was a bit subtle. The trailer, which features voice-over from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), ends with a spooky laugh. You’d be forgiven for not realizing the creepy cackle belongs to Ian McDiarmid, who plays Palpatine, but Disney confirmed fans’ suspicions by bringing McDiarmid out on stage after revealing the trailer. (You can check out our trailer analysis for a breakdown of other key moments.)
Palpatine has been Star Wars’ major villain for quite a while. We saw how the Sith Lord known as Darth Sidious pulled the strings of the galaxy in the prequel trilogy to turn the Old Republic into the Galactic Empire, and how he turned Anakin Skywalker from a Jedi into the galaxy far, far away’s most feared villain, Darth Vader. Sidious was famously killed by Vader in Return of the Jedi, in order to save his son Luke Skywalker’s life. So how can Palpatine be back?
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We know from that Palpatine had a bunch of contingency plans in place in the event of his death, like what we saw in Star Wars: Battlefront II’s story. In Star Wars lore of the past, Palpatine’s plan was to use hidden clones in case he was killed. Though it’s no longer canon, the old Star Wars Expanded Universe included a lot about Palpatine’s return after his death. In those stories, Palpatine had created a secret cloning facility where copies of himself were being grown, which he could use in the event of his death. In his search for immortality, he’d learned about a Force technique that allowed him to transfer what was essentially his spirit into other bodies–effectively allowing him to keep moving from clone to clone forever.
In the Expanded Universe, the trouble was that Palpatine’s clones were never very good. They were only viable for a short time; at first, the bodies only lasted about a year, and he had to continually transfer himself. That still allowed Palpatine to spend years in hiding, marshalling his forces for an attempt to restore the Empire after his defeat. He even briefly turned Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side to serve as his apprentice.
Palpatine was ultimately defeated by Luke and Leia, as well as some sabotage from his inner circle. Leia saved Luke from the Dark Side and they managed to destroy most of Palpatine’s clones, while what remained had been sabotaged by Palpatine’s own royal guards, causing the last clone to deteriorate much more quickly than the others. When Palpatine tried to transfer into the body of Leia and Han’s son Anakin, another Jedi Palpatine had struck down, Brand, managed to drag Palpatine into the Force, leaving him a disembodied spirit forever.
Obviously, lots of the big portions of that story are no longer possible because of changes since Disney acquired Star Wars, but we’ve seen the Disney Star Wars canon borrow ideas from the Expanded Universe before; Grand Admiral Thrawn, for instance, was the villain of a trilogy of Expanded Universe books, and has been brought into the new canon with a 2017 novel and Star Wars Rebels. Palpatine making some clones for himself tracks with what we’ve seen of him in the past, too–we know his mentor, Darth Plagueis, was searching for immortality, and it would make sense that Palpatine would continue the search for those same Sith secrets.
The return of Palpatine doesn’t have to be precipitated by ideas from the Expanded Universe, though. It’s possible The Rise of Skywalker could expand on an idea first floated in Star Wars: Rebels. In that series, Palpatine attempted to enter the World Between Worlds, a nexus that connected all of space and time together. He was thwarted by Jedi Padawan Ezra Bridger in that show, but the setup for Palpatine to pull some Sithy time travel shenanigans is there.
And while that laugh is Palpatine’s, that doesn’t mean Palpatine will return in a form we all expect. It’s possible what we’re hearing is some recording or artifact that contains Palpatine’s will, his memories, or his personality. We saw a powerful Sith holocron, an artifact that contains information, in Rebels, and that one included something called “The Presence,” which seemed like an artificial intelligence. And back during The Clone Wars, there was another Sith holocron that actually held the ghost of the Sith Lord Darth Bane, which means Palpatine could take a similar approach, even without clones. Battlefront II also saw the Emperor ordering his soldiers to destroy a bunch of Sith artifacts before the Rebels got hold of them, which might have related to Palpatine’s plans to survive beyond his demise.
We won’t know exactly what method Palpatine uses to come back into the galaxy, but one thing’s for sure–Rey and Kylo Ren probably won’t be able to use a Jedi mind trick to cut him in half.
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