When Star Wars Rebels Season 3 debuts tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET/PT on Disney XD, fans will be introduced to Grand Admiral Thrawn, a brilliant military strategist tasked with "tearing apart the Rebel Alliance piece by piece," as he said in the trailer. While this is some fans first encounter with the character, longtime fans of the Expanded Universe, now known as Legends, have been clamoring for Thrawn to come to the screen for twenty-five years. Even showrunner Dave Filoni had no idea just how loud that clamor was.
Thrawn debuted in the novel Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn, that offered fans the first (and considerably different) look at life in the galaxy far, far away after the events of Return of the Jedi. His stories, however, were relegated to non-canon when Disney bought Lucasfilm and decided to streamline their continuity. At Star Wars Celebration Europe in London this past July, however, Filoni and the Rebels team brought Thrawn into canon with a wink and a nudge as he announced, "Let's Expand the Universe."
"It was pretty amazing," Filoni told ComicBook.com in an interview about Thrawn's reveal to a crowd of 4,000 screaming fans. "It's definitely one of those things as you build up to it that you're wondering, 'Okay, is this actually ... Was this a good idea'" You always have that moment. No matter how much you like it and think it's good and made the right decisions. There comes that time when you're about to show it to an audience, and you're like, 'Oh, I wonder what they're really going to think of this.'"
The executive producer said the work of actor Lars Mikkelsen in portraying the fan-favorite character helped ease his concerns and left them confident, and said he looked at Thrawn's on-screen debut as a "responsibility."
"We just wanted to always make sure that the character that we were bringing to the screen is very, very, very similar to what Timothy Zahn did in the book. If it couldn't be, then it wasn't going to be true to Thrawn, and we should just make it somebody else," Filoni said. "I think that we were able to do that faithfully, and the energy in the room... People were... I have to say though, I was really surprised. I know how much people like the character, but I think when it's not from one of the films you can always easily underestimate how much it means to somebody."
Bringing Thrawn in to challenge the crew of the Ghost on Star Wars Rebels allows Filoni and his Lucasfilm Animation team to do something "we've never experienced in a cinematic form in Star Wars." Grand Admiral Thrawn is "a pure military strategist," and that lets Filoni illustrate something new about the Star Wars universe in the era between the prequel and original trilogies.
"For a while now on Rebels, I've just been searching for a way to really explain how powerful and vast the Imperial military really is," he said, "that one of the issues with the Imperial military is that it's so massive that these small Rebel incursions actually are effective to a degree because they just aren't seen as a threat. If you had someone in the military that wasn't very career minded, but was object oriented, mission success minded, that they would actually do rather well against the Rebellion.
"The way Thrawn combats them isn't like anything they've experienced either. They've never really dealt with an Imperial officer who's patient, who's observant, who takes their time. Even Tarkin came in and just laid everything down right then and there and blew up the transmission tower and said, 'I know what it takes to win a war, and you don't.' He was very in their face, I-need-results. Tarkin's also very politically minded. He has aspirations of power for himself.
"I never get much sense ... Thrawn just seems like he's such a duty-oriented person. He serves the Emperor, and he understand the Imperial machine. I think he believes in the Imperial machine, that it's a necessary thing for a secure galaxy. They're fighting somebody that they're very unfamiliar with. None of their usual tricks are going to work on this guy, and that's what was really compelling about him. Plus the patience he's willing to take and experimentation to see and understand what will give him total victory. He's not just looking to win. He's looking for total victory, and I think the first two episodes illustrate that."
Grand Admiral Thrawn "will be a challenge for the heroes, for sure" due to his new way of approaching the Rebel problem for the Empire, Filoni promised. That threat is illustrated in a unique way in the first two episodes airing tonight. After his appearances this season on Rebels, fans will also get to return to Thrawn the way many of them met him: in a novel by Timothy Zahn. Returning to the character for a book titled simply "Thrawn," Zahn will flesh out his story in the new canon.
It's a good time to be a Star Wars fan, and fans of those old Legends stories have a lot to look forward to. Like Ahsoka said in season two, "There's always truth in legends."