Today, we talk about the Galactic Empire. Always popular, either as a villain or by Imperial fans in general, the Empire’s making a rather splashy comeback as the primary villain of the new television series, Rebels. The promotional material leading up to the television show has featured a heavy dose of in-universe propaganda, and there’s a palpable excitement from the creators and the fans on having the Empire as a villain again. Despite being the primary villain in Star Wars from the beginning, the return of the Empire has people energized again – this article aims to answer the question of why, and suggests that future villains could take lessons from the Empire and avoid the pitfalls of the less-than-compelling Separatists.
We propose that the Empire was an exciting villain for three reasons: firstly, because it’s compelling (or cool, if you prefer), second because it’s actually villainous, and thirdly because it is multifaceted and complex. We will discuss the influence of the films as well as the Expanded Universe in making the Empire an interesting and well-developed villain, but we will not be engaging in a full length exegesis on the internal politics and structures of the Galactic Empire – as much as it would be our pleasure to do so. For that, we recommend reading the essays published at the Domus Publica.
So let’s begin.
There’s one essential attribute that the Empire has that other Star Wars antagonists — such as the Prequels’ Separatists and the EU’s Yuuzhan Vong – lack: the Empire is iconic. From easily recognizable symbols such as Darth Vader, the Death Star, stormtroopers, and TIE Fighters, there’s a certain familiarity to the Empire as an antagonist. Even its musical cues are iconic, with the Imperial March being familiar to sports fans around the world (always played in reference to the opposing team). In fact, it may even be arguable that the Empire is a little too iconic – the inability of The Old Republic to move beyond Empire-wannabes for its antagonists shows a vital lack of creativity.
Because the Empire is iconic, it’s “cool” – it’s the sort of villain that people love to see, even while they’re rooting against this. A large element of this is nostalgia: the creators of Rebels are intentionally going for “retro” in channeling Ralph McQuarrie, and fond memories have tremendous appeal. But it’s important to realize that the Empire didn’t begin as a fond memory: the original films were once new. A New Hope had to introduce the Empire, The Empire Strikes Back had to maintain its vitality as a threatening villain while increasing its complexity, and The Return of the Jedi had to up the stakes for a climax to even function.
The evil empire
As a sign of the influence of the Star Wars films and the iconic nature of the Galactic Empire, U.S. President Ronald Reagan appropriated the Galactic Empire in his Cold War speeches, describing the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” – as empires were simply a form of government in the West, Reagan was appropriating the palpable evil of the Galactic Empire in his assertion that the Soviets ruled not just an empire, and they were not only bad, but that they were the evil empire. This is an element that is essential: in order to be a villain, the Empire had to be evil. This doesn’t mean that the Imperials need to be mustache curlers, or that the cackling villainy of the Emperor was essential – in fact, we’re about to argue that a black and white portrayal is dull – but it simply means that in order for the heroes to seem heroic in the classical fantasy or adventure serial sense, the enemy had to be a bad guy.
Despite being villains, there was something innately interesting about the Empire. They were villains, but they were insidiously attractive villains – there was something about their crisp uniforms, sharp spacecraft designs, and catchy theme music that gained the Empire a large fan following. Much of this is just fans having fun with a well-designed element of the Star Wars universe, but the appeal of the Empire was by design – there was a message in it. As we note in Part I of this series, the Empire was based on a lot of real-life governments: the Roman and British Empires, as well as Nazi Germany. The histories of the former two entities are mixed with both positives and negatives, while the legacy of the latter is unambiguously awful: but these governments served as object lessons to Lucas. In interviews, Lucas revealed that he wanted the Empire to be a terribly seductive sort of evil – an evil that one gives in to for all the right reasons, only to find out too late that one has turned to the moral dark side. This was a moral lost in the confused narratives of bureaucracies and hidebound Jedi traditions that was the Prequel trilogy, but the personal arc of Anakin Skywalker’s fall to evil was to parallel the grand scale of the galaxy willingly giving way to evil. The Empire was a potent villain because it was more than a science-fiction or fantasy villain seeking to destroy all: its dangers were all too real. That little dose of reality in the escapist fantasy that was Star Wars was the perfect combination, in the right proportions, and in the right place: the background, the aesthetic, the very feel of the Empire.
One Empire, or many?
The Expanded Universe made a vital contribution to the vitality of the Galactic Empire, which could have – and eventually did – get stale as a villain. In the films, the Galactic Empire is presented as a monolith because it had to be: Lucas was absolutely correct to keep his narrative and thematic focus tight, and that focus required the Empire to be the nexus of darkness in the galaxy. Yet even within that nexus, there was still complexity: Darth Vader, the very face of the Empire to most fans, had a kernel of good in him. The Expanded Universe, from the very beginning, developed that concept.
West End Games, publishers of the original Star Wars d6 role playing game, was one of the best things to happen to the Expanded Universe. Among their many guides and sourcebooks, they released a work called Heroes and Rogues, which advised players on how to create characters with interesting backgrounds for use in their various gameplay scenarios. The guide offered advice on how to create a character who served the Empire, noting that the Empire was different things to different people: for some, it was just the government, while for others it was the tool that allowed them to act on their evil desires.
Many authors followed in this path. Timothy Zahn presented the Empire of the soldier – the honorable warrior who was simply doing his or her duty, and who resented the higher ups for the power-mongering just as much as they rejected the boot-lickers who followed them. Aaron Allston showed a variation of this, presenting a very “old school,” gentlemanly portrayal of an Imperial officer in Admiral Teren Rogriss (a personal favorite of ours). Michael Stackpole presented a wide variety of Imperial characters, from the simple bureaucrat whose only objective is to make the world work, or the middling evil of a Kirtan Loor who hurts others to benefit his career, all the way to the grand evil of the genocidal dictatrix Ysanne Isard. These authors handled handled the Empire with such grace and such sophistication that fans sometimes accused the Expanded Universe of making the Empire look too good, too efficacious, in comparison to the largely inept New Republic formed by our movie heroes. The latter issue is tackled by Nick Adams and Alex Gaultier here on this site, but the point remains that these writers fleshed out the Empire to such an extent that its characters were just as interesting as the heroes, if not more so in some instances. This is not to say that they suggested that the movie heroes were on the wrong side – the key in all of this is that the Empire of Zahn’s Grand Admiral Thrawn was still very clearly evil: the man, despite his mellifluous charm and cultured sophistication, was still a ruthless man who had no qualms about hurting small children. They did create an Empire where characters such as Allston’s Rogriss or Stackpole’s Baron Soontir Fel were ultimately decent men, and men who left the Imperial service when they realized that it was they who were on the wrong side.
Villains of the future
In presenting this article, we have neglected to show the bad examples for want of space. In brief, we note that the Empire has not always been well-utilized: the Expanded Universe had a habit of rotating Imperial or Imperial-wannabe villains on a regular basis who were scarcely differentiated as interesting characters to such an extent that some early EU novels were labeled “warlord of the week” stories. Many of these villains lacked motivations, or anything to make them remotely interesting. There was – and still is – a tendency to copy the Empire’s traits onto villains from other eras in the Star Wars canon, with The Old Republic’s “Sith Empire” as a prime example.
What the new films and the EU need to do is craft villains which are interesting in their own right without being rehashes of the Galactic Empire. These villains need to be interesting visually and thematically, and they need to be more than a monolithic, incomprehensible evil. The films failed with the Confederacy, and while the Expanded Universe had mixed success with the comparatively creative Yuuzhan Vong, it has failed with its endless Sith rehashes. Star Wars villainy cannot be so creatively impoverished, can it?