Save the lightsaber, there are few elements of Star Wars more iconic than the Star Destroyer and the faceless legions of the Imperial Stormtrooper Corps. Every conflict requires its threat and every hero their villain, and there exist few adversaries in fiction as memorable and infamous as the many and varied minions of the Galactic Empire. For an entity so inseparable from the fundamental image of Star Wars, one would logically assume that it would continue to be a major obstacle for our protagonists and play a significant role in the future of the universe well beyond the setbacks it suffered in Return of the Jedi.
Alas, the Expanded Universe had other ideas. The surviving Imperial forces provided little more than a superficial backstory for the comically evil mustache-twirling warlord-of-the-week and generic lightsaber fodder for our heroes to cut and shoot their way through. The likes of Grand Admiral Thrawn, Trioculus, mad Admiral Daala, the warlord Zsinj, Hethrir, and Ysanne Isard all made use of Imperial resources in their battles against the victorious rebels and the New Republic, but remarkably little attention has ever been paid to the Empire’s perspective in all of this – their leaders visible to us only when plotting some diabolical new scheme, otherwise existing only as a menace for our heroes to vanquish.
With the 1997 release of Specter of the Past, the first half of Timothy Zahn’s Hand of Thrawn duology, the once-mighty Galactic Empire was reduced to a pitiful shadow of its former self, so weak and insignificant that its leader began the novel considering the terms of their surrender to the New Republic. A vast state that had once encompassed an entire galaxy and over a million inhabited worlds now amounted to only a mere eight sectors containing a thousand backwater solar systems. A virtually invincible armada of twenty-five thousand Star Destroyers that had struck fear into the hearts of any sentient being bold or foolish enough to oppose it had been reduced to two hundred.
The fifteen years after the Battle of Endor did not simply mark a decline for the Empire – it had collapsed so completely and so thoroughly that what remained was barely recognizable as the same nigh-unstoppable force that destroyed Alderaan, crushed the rebel base on Hoth, and had the Alliance fleet severely outmatched before the destruction of the second Death Star. The Imperial Remnant was little more a pariah state, roughly equivalent in size and menace to our own world’s North Korea.
Perhaps even more embarrassing for the Empire is the history of its leadership in the aftermath of the Emperor’s death. After splintering into more than a dozen factions ruled by various warlords who would not look out of place playing Bond villains, Kevin J. Anderson’s 1995 novel Darksaber saw the fractured remnants of the Empire “reunited” by Admiral Daala when she called a convocation of thirteen Imperial warlords and summarily gassed the lot of them. Her success proved absurdly short-lived, however, and her new fleet was vanquished by the end of the story after a failed assault on Luke Skywalker’s Jedi Praxeum on Yavin IV.
Barely surviving the debacle, the admiral resigned her rank and control of the Empire fell into the lap of Vice Admiral Gilad Pellaeon, a simple Star Destroyer captain at Endor whose sole notable feat was in outlasting all the higher-ranking officers who preceded him. All things considered, a rather tragic squandering of the potential of internal conflict over who should succeed the Emperor. During the Roman Crisis of the Third Century, numerous “barracks emperors” laid claim to the throne, and the Roman Empire itself was carved into three competing entities for a time. Rather than relying on parading out the Imperial bogeyman whenever we feel our heroes have had too much time to rest, we should be exploring how the Imperial political web frays after losing its spider, and treating the common servant of the Empire as having a point of view as valid as any representative of the New Republic.
More than any warped and wicked warlord or severely shrunken successor state, the Imperial Remnant offers the greatest potential as a legitimate political, military, and economic rival to the New Republic, capable of challenging it on equal footing. The Original Trilogy was, in many ways, analogous to World War II. It only seems fitting that, as we move past the Galactic Civil War and establish the New Republic as a legitimate government, the galaxy might progress to a Cold War-inspired rivalry between the two sovereign powers. The long-term survival of a powerful Imperial state would add an entirely new political dimension to every action the New Republic takes, forcing it to weigh the consequences of each move on the galactic chessboard carefully, lest they reignite a war they are not yet ready to fight.
Technologically, the two might find themselves locked in an arms race, each seeking to develop that one new weapon that will tip the balance in their favor. Border skirmishes and proxy wars would be numerous, and countless stories could be told of espionage and covert operations conducted behind enemy lines, similar to the legendary CIA-KGB conflicts of our own history. Though the MMORPG The Old Republic has often been criticized for borrowing excessively from the imagery of the Original Trilogy, especially with regard to Imperial symbolism, I found its treatment of the Empire as a Soviet-esque competitor to the Old Republic to be an inspired model, and one worthy of emulation in the post-RotJ Expanded Universe.
Furthermore, such a setting would also offer the potential to pit the Empire and the New Republic against each other philosophically, comparing and contrasting the advantages and disadvantages of their different approaches to the complicated matter of governing a galaxy of trillions. What would our heroes make of remote worlds which continue to openly and enthusiastically embrace Imperial rule for the order they imposed where lawlessness and chaos once reigned? Instead of liberating worlds by force, finesse would be the order of the day as ambassadors from both sides court neutral and newly-discovered worlds, each bearing gifts of aid and whispering promises of protection from the other.
Even the story of the rebirth of the Jedi Order is enhanced in this scenario. If the Jedi are meant to serve all living beings and not just the interests of one state’s citizens, Luke Skywalker’s New Jedi Order could potentially find itself with no choice but to have dealings with their former enemies, despite any ongoing conflicts. Few in the New Republic would be in favor of such an idea, but the Jedi would likely be no more comfortable with writing off the plight of billions simply because they happen to live in the wrong part of the galaxy, especially in light of the limitations of their ability to operate in the Outer Rim under the Old Republic.
Apart from the ongoing astropolitical situation of the galaxy, the broader implications of Palpatine’s death and the Empire’s collapse present us with a unique opportunity to tell a great many sorts of stories unrelated to the usual diet of war and political intrigue. With the defeat of the titanic Imperial war machine and the fracture of its armed forces into myriad warlord camps, the galaxy could find itself flooded with legions of wandering mercenaries, spies, assassins, and bounty hunters, to say nothing of the threats posed by the surviving members of the Emperor’s inner circle and his now masterless dark side minions. In the absence of stability and order, criminality often flourishes.
Without the ever-vigilant eyes of the Emperor upon them, rogue Imperial scientists might sell their secret doomsday machines, biological weapons, and other technological wonders of war on the black market to the highest bidders. If you think a warlord or criminal kingpin is dangerous on their own, imagine one with the capacity to decimate entire cities or small moons with only the press of a button. Entire systems and sectors could be subjugated by powerful new tyrants and demagogues while the New Republic is occupied fending off the Remnant’s advances and powerless to intervene in more remote matters.
Some might feel that the era of the Galactic Empire ended with Palpatine’s death in Return of the Jedi, and along with it its place in the ongoing Expanded Universe, but I would argue that this represents a colossal waste of potential and an inclination to ignore the very real political implications of successfully displacing the single most powerful political entity in a galaxy by means of a violent revolutionary movement.
A living Empire presents us with a great many more compelling options when weaving new tales than a dead or dying one, and a strong rival for the New Republic gives them much more to think about than the isolated and toothless military dictatorship that the Expanded Universe occasionally calls upon to provide political intrigue when it grows tired of having our heroes persecuted by their own government. It is unlikely that the Sequel Trilogy will feature the Empire as its primary antagonist, but I do not take that as meaning that there is nothing further that can be done with it. The intervening years are hardly insignificant in number, and there still remain countless stories to be told about the Empire’s fall from power and its struggles to find a new place in a galaxy that no longer rushes to obey its every whim.