When the news broke that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker would feature the return of Emperor Palpatine, it didn’t take long for Star Wars superfans to come up with a plausible backstory to explain how he got there. Here’s the basic timeline: A few years after Palpatine fell down a shaft on the second Death Star during the Battle of Endor at the end of Return of the Jedi, a growing ethnofascist movement on Earth figured out how to harness fan culture and the rise of social media to recruit and train a new generation of Nazi stooges. After honing their powers during Gamergate, this ragtag band of white supremacist morons turned their attention on the Star Wars franchise, and were such relentless shitheads about the whole thing that they convinced senior management at the Walt Disney Company that Star Wars fans were liddle widdle babies who just wanted to be told the exact same stories about the exact same space wizards over and over and over again, which made Emperor Palpatine’s resurrection at the hands of Sith cultists on the planet Exegol more or less inevitable. That explanation made a certain amount of sense—more than most fan theories, anyway!—but over the weekend, Screen Rant broke the news that the fans somehow got it wrong. It turns out that Emperor Palpatine was a clone!
The definitive explanation for Sheev Palpatine’s long journey from “middle-aged senator from the Planet Naboo” to “physical embodiment of a corporation that has run out of ideas” is found in Rae Carson’s upcoming novel The Rise of Skywalker: Expanded Edition (Star Wars), which includes “all-new scenes adapted from never-before-seen material, deleted scenes, and input from the filmmakers.” The book isn’t officially out until March 17, but it was on sale over the weekend at the Chicago Comic & Entertainment Expo, and it contains a scene in which Kylo Ren draws on his superior knowledge of Star Wars canon—he’s the ultimate fan, after all—to come to the conclusion that the Emperor’s spirit has been transferred into a clone body. Here’s the relevant passage:
All the vials were of empty liquid save one, which was nearly depleted. Kylo peered closer. He’d seen this apparatus before, too, when he’d studied the Clone Wars as a boy. The liquid flowing into the living nightmare before him was fighting a losing battle to sustain the Emperor’s putrid flesh.
“What could you give me?” Kylo asked. Emperor Palpatine lived, after a fashion, and Kylo could feel in his very bones that the clone body sheltered the Emperor’s actual spirit. It was an imperfect vessel, though, unable to contain his immense power. It couldn’t last much longer.
Well, that settles that: The most ludicrous part of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker actually has a perfectly reasonable in-world explanation, and the Walt Disney Company will be glad to tell you all about it for just $28.99 in hardcover. It’s a valuable reminder that it’s foolish to form an opinion about a movie if all you’ve done is watched the movie. You’ve got to make sure you’ve attended all the Fortnite fan events and purchased all the premium add-ons, because a baseline economy-class movie theater ticket is woefully inadequate.
That is clearly how the economy is supposed to work these days, but it’s not how Star Wars books are supposed to work. The way they’re supposed to work is simple: Your parents buy you a copy of Return of the Jedi: The Storybook Based on the Movie, and instead of clearing up your lingering questions about whether or not the Emperor is still alive and hiding in your basement, the book includes pictures from a deleted scene in which Luke tries to escape the Rancor pit by climbing out through the ceiling grate, only to have spectators gleefully stomp on his fingers until he tumbles back to certain doom. This has several advantages over the Clone Emperor approach: It gives young Star Wars fans a whole new genre of nightmare, while subtly suggesting that the very idea of a Star Wars canon is absurd, because industrialized culture inevitably produces these sorts of inconsistencies as stories written by one person become products designed by committees. Trying to puzzle out how and why Return of the Jedi: The Storybook Based on the Movie included a photograph of something happening in the movie that didn’t happen in the movie could—hypothetically speaking!—be a formative experience that permanently colored the way a young moviegoer understands storytelling, film production, copyright law, marketing, and the best method to escape from a Rancor pit.
On the other hand, elderly Star Wars fans are a superstitious and cowardly lot, and they seem to take a lot of comfort from the idea that a fiercely hierarchical organization like the Walt Disney Company can use a top-down management approach to tell interesting stories, then go back in and fix those interesting stories based on feedback from enraged customers whenever they screw up. It’s a simple model, and it’s easy to understand its appeal: Story Groups have direct control over their franchises, while fear keeps local screenwriters and directors in line—fear of the Star Wars fan community Disney has constructed, a technological terror whose power to destroy mentions makes it the ultimate power in the universe. If only someone would make a movie that explored these ideas!