Moral relativity is hard to do in Star Wars, because it’s a tale of good versus evil. However, sophisticated storytelling expects that things are rarely black and white. Add in the influence of fans, and it’s not surprising that villains end up being quite popular in Star Wars. The Galactic Empire is probably one of the most popular villains in fiction, and so it’s easy to see why there’s an interest in presenting the Empire as a little more nuanced than purely evil. This always runs the risk of whitewashing Imperial atrocities, or presenting the “good Imperial” – the person who is certainly not a Rebel, but also not a bad person. We’re personally always suspect of the idea of the “good Imperial,” because while we very much enjoy reading about Imperials we also don’t want to sacrifice the theming of the Star Wars saga.
The new Star Wars canon has done a good job addressing this issue so far, from realistically portraying how people end up buying into the Imperial system in Lost Stars, to exploring the loss of innocence and seduction of evil in the Servants of the Empire series, to examining the mindset of an Imperial Security Bureau agent in Rebels. At the end of the day though, the people who stick with the Empire are usually either delusional, corrupted, or participants in the Imperial system – at least those who are involved in furthering its goals. But not always. There are certainly the rare Imperials who serve with honor and distinction, and try to refuse the worst orders – even if they’re not “good” compared to the heroes of the saga, they might be good by Imperial standards. But there are also those who realize their decency isn’t compatible with Imperial service, it’s these people we want to talk about today: Imperial defectors.
In the Legends EU, many prominent Rebel characters – including film characters such as Jan Dodonna, Crix Madine, Biggs Darklighter, and Derek “Hobbie” Klivian – began their careers as dutiful Imperial officers. EU mainstays such as Kyle Katarn, Soontir Fel, and Tycho Celchu also started out as Imperial officers. These officers defected to the Rebellion when they realized that the Empire wasn’t living up to its own honorable ideals, often in response to atrocities they were ordered to commit. Biggs and Hobbie defected almost right out of the Academy, taking their ship – the Rand Ecliptic – with them. Imagine what other defectors flew with them – heroic, goodie-two-shoes aren’t the only kind of people who might’ve left the Empire’s service and we’re missing out on good characters if we think that. Lost Stars and Aftermath both gave us examples of flawed, human Imperial officers who defected to the Rebellion – but there’s such storytelling potential in exploring the different types of people who might come to a realization that Imperial service just isn’t for them.
Different types of Rebels
Imperial defectors are rebels, even before they became Rebels. They’re different than the typical Imperial officer, because they’re individuals in a system that tries to break down individuality. I’ll be forever grateful to Lost Stars for showing us the individuality and humanity inside the Empire, so let’s understand that “individuality” in this context means free thinking and deviation from sanctioned norms instead of a robotic lack of personality (though that happens in the Empire too: see Servants of the Empire and its portrayal of stormtrooper training). People defect from the Empire because they were unable to cope with the restrictive political constraints of the Empire, and that’s what makes them interesting characters.
We started this piece off by talking about “good Imperials,” and those are perhaps the Ur-example of Imperial defectors. These are your Crix Madines, your Jan Dodonnas, your Tycho Celchus – good men who come face to face with Imperial atrocities and realize that the system of justice that they thought they were upholding not only failed to measure up, but was in fact quite monstrous. These are some of our most beloved characters from the old EU. But they’re only the tip of the iceberg, and we’re missing out on good storytelling opportunities.
For instance, consider a slight variation on the above. A law and order Imperial defects, but also has trouble fitting in with the Rebels. Perhaps this former Imperial wasn’t comfortable with Imperial atrocities because they went against her view of order, but isn’t all that comfortable with the more free-wheeling Rebels. Perhaps the defector is a royal or aristocratic Rebel, but unlike Leia, actually believes in class distinctions and isn’t a fan of Rebel egalitarianism. No friend of the Empire, this more élitist defector might still find the Rebels distasteful and hope to restore the more class-conscious Old Republic. Or perhaps have a narrower goal of disliking the Empire simply because the Empire moved against her family and holdings, higher ideals be damned.
Or, let’s take it to the furthest end of the spectrum: Imperial conscripts. We’ve seen something like this in The Force Awakens, with Finn basically never having a choice when he joined the Empire. But he was young when he got sucked into the First Order. We saw Imperial conscripts in the EU to an extent, but we never got inside the head of characters such as Zeth Durron. It would be fascinating to get into the head of someone who never wanted to be an Imperial in the first place, and was old enough to resent conscription. Seeing what that character would do when given the opportunity to leave the Empire – would that character choose to fight against the Empire, or simply be done with all of it? Possibilities abound.
The vehicle for storytelling
One of the more famous Imperial defector stories is that of the crew of the Rand Ecliptic mutinying and joining the Rebel Alliance. Like the theft of the Death Star plans, the story’s been told over and over in the EU with the facts changing each time – variously a freighter and variously an Imperial cruiser, the Rand Ecliptic was the vessel for Biggs Darklighter and Hobbie Klivian to defect to the Rebel Alliance. It’s a story that’s been told many times, but it’s a story that – like Rogue One and the Death Star plans – deserves to be told again. This isn’t merely to establish a single canonical event. To be honest, the fact that everyone and their mother claimed to steal the Death Star plans and the fact that the identity of the Rand Ecliptic keeps changing is not only hilarious but also well in keeping with the notion that everyone wants to take credit for something and that stories are often exaggerated.
No, the reason why the Rand Ecliptic story deserves to be told in the new canon is because of the great storytelling potential it has. Not only is this the occasion for the defection of two well-known Rebel pilots, but it features the defection of an entire ship and its crew. The different types of defectors discussed above could easily fit in, along with characters who might want to defect but aren’t comfortable with mutiny, as well as Imperial loyalists who are friends of the crew but can’t follow them into treason. The story’s ripe for interesting character moments.
Honestly, it could support an entire novel or comic miniseries. We could see the Imperial Academy training of these cadets, how they bond with each other (or not) despite coming from different backgrounds, their reaction to graduating, the incident that provokes their defection, and the different responses they all have to that critical turning point.
The new canon’s already explored the idea that there are decent people on both sides of the war, that there are complex moral decisions to be made, and the idea that sometimes relationships between people and their loyalty to causes might conflict. The story of the Rand Ecliptic is dying to be told, and it fits into the kind of stories that the new canon is telling. It’s even set in a popular time period, before A New Hope.
Forging a new future
The Rand Ecliptic is the ideal way to explore this kind of story, but it’s not the only one. There are characters tailor-made for an Imperial defector story, who could cameo on Rebels without stretching into small universe territory. Jan Dodonna’s one of them – the Rebels crew could easily coax him out of retirement to serve the Rebellion, or make a change from his EU story and have him be a still-serving Imperial Naval officer until the Spectres convince him the Empire is wrong. Or the crew could help Crix Madine defect (presumably defecting earlier than he did in the EU, then).
Ultimately, We’d just like to see more exploration of what it means to fight for a cause, the various motivations that bring one to serve the Imperial or Rebel military, and the reasons why someone might leave it. We haven’t even gotten into the dark twist of a character who feels compelled to leave the Rebellion and serve the Empire. There’s a lot of storytelling opportunity out there, and it seems like the kind of story that follows naturally from what we’ve gotten already. Whether it’s the ready-made Rand Ecliptic scenario or a brand new story, the new canon could make great use of the EU’s development of Imperial defectors.