You may have heard that a character called Grand Admiral Thrawn is going to be appearing in Star Wars Rebels. His appearance in the trailer shown at Star Wars Celebration Europe caused a giant reaction, but if you’re not a Star Wars obsessive, that may have seemed confusing. Here’s a little explanation why fans are freaking out.
Biographically, Grand Admiral Thrawn is a male Chiss—a species with a humanoid build, light blue skin, dark blue hair, and glowing red eyes. The Chiss come from the “Unknown Regions,” a.k.a. the part of the Star Wars galaxy unexplored by the Republic/Empire. His real name is Mitth’raw’nuruodo, which is a mouthful so his core name is the name everyone knows: Thrawn.
In the old Expanded Universe—Star Wars Legends now—Thrawn was a talented Chiss commander whose tactics led to his people exiling him to the edges of their space. Which, ironically, brought him closer to the Empire and ended with Thrawn leaving the Chiss Expansionary Defense Force for the Imperial Navy. His skill allowed him to rocket to the top of the hierarchy there, even with the Empire’s anti-alien stance.
His survival of the events of the original trilogy—and the reason someone so highly ranked was unknown to many—was because he was in the Unknown Regions at the Battle of Endor. Eight years after the events of A New Hope, Thrawn showed back up to take control of the remains of the Empire. And when he did, the New Republic was immediately in trouble from his devastating attacks.
Of course, none of that is canon now and Star Wars Rebels is not beholden to keep any of that. And the specifics of his biography aren’t the reason everyone’s so thrilled for him to show up in Rebels.
Among EU fans (I guess we’re Legends fans now?), Thrawn is iconic. His name didn’t really need to be said in the Rebels trailer for people to go nuts. Once you’ve got a blue face with glowing red eyes in a white and gold Imperial uniform, there is only one person it could be.
Thrawn made his debut in the Star Wars universe in 1991, in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire and he made an impression. Zahn invented the rank of grand admiral specifically because “admiral” was too “commonplace.” Presumably, the white outfit with gold epaulettes, which is very different from the grey and black other Imperial officers wore, was invented with a similar intent. Also because it sounds cool. Thrawn being a nonhuman in charge of the Empire also immediately distinguished him—Thrawn had to be amazing to get where he was.
Next to his look, the other famous characteristic of Thrawn is his collection of holographic art. One of the keys to Thrawn’s success was that he learned the psychology of a people through an in-depth understanding of their art. And then used that to plan stratagems targeted against the psychological weaknesses he found.
It only failed him once.
Zahn made sure to prove Thrawn’s brilliance. His plans involved a lot of lateral thinking, foresight, and making a lot of limited resources. For example, the problem with cloaking devices was that they also took out the sensors of the ships using them, so Thrawn parked the devices on meteors and set a bunch of large, invisible rocks around the capital planet of the New Republic. This also made it look like there were hundreds more ships than there really were. Thus blockading Coruscant without actually having to leave a bunch of his ships there.
Thrawn’s command style was ruthless, but pragmatic. He’d execute a man for failing and then refusing to admit he’d done something wrong, but he was also willing to retreat rather than throw away lives on a doomed venture. Thrawn’s personality was cool and collected, never engaging in the usual villainous mwahahas. What he did wasn’t personal and it didn’t seem like ideological zealotry, either.
Lots of Imperial leaders had a tendency to egocentrism and homicidal mania, often tinged with a delusional devotion to the Empire. Thrawn’s differences made him a completely new kind of threat.
The look. The calm, pragmatic, and analytical nature. The art. His mysterious background. These are the things that made Thrawn so popular. And that’s exactly what the Star Wars Rebels trailer locked into. Even from a few seconds, Rebels appears to have nailed all of those aspects, bringing what made him a fan-favorite character of the old Expanded Universe into the new Star Wars canon.