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Lucasfilm's bosses brought Palpatine back to Star Wars when George Lucas wouldn't

By Jacob Oller
Rey and Palpatine in Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker has been a contentious finale to the Skywalker saga, with its 55 percent Rotten Tomatoes score the lowest since The Phantom Menace turned in a disappointing 53 percent, with many of its plot decisions the most criticized elements. One of its biggest ideas goes directly against what George Lucas himself decreed when the legend finished up his original trilogy. The first out-of-this-world piece of the RoS story that shook fans to their cores was revealed at Star Wars Celebration upon the trailer’s debut: Emperor Palpatine was laughing. He was back. Even actor Ian McDiarmid was in attendance.

According to Chris Terrio, who wrote The Rise of Skywalker with J.J. Abrams, this plot point came from on high at Lucasfilm. According to McDiarmid, Lucas told him that Palpatine was dead. What changed? Well, Lucasfilm changed hands over from Lucas’ control to Disney and the managerial purview of president Kathleen Kennedy and senior vice president Michelle Rejwan — two executives and producers that Terrio, in an interview with Awards Daily, credits with shaping the end of the Star Wars saga.

"Kathy Kennedy and Michelle Rejwan had a clear plan for where they wanted things to end," Terrio said. "They had clear plans about certain narrative marks they wanted us to hit." When asked if that involved the return of Palpatine, who ends up having intense plot significance, Terrio demurred. "Well, I can’t speak to Kathy’s overall intent,” the screenwriter couched. “That was certainly discussed and was discussed before I ever came on. Kathy had this overall vision that we had to be telling the same story for nine episodes.”

So if Terrio didn’t come up with the idea, who did? Co-writer and director J.J. Abrams? It seems like if it was Abrams, Terrio would know, since Abrams brought him on board the project and co-wrote the script with him. So someone at Lucasfilm, then, is all Terrio can offer. Interestingly, this goes against what the founder of Lucasfilm, George Lucas, had in mind for Palpatine.

Speaking with Digital Spy, McDiarmid said that he was convinced of the Emperor’s deceased fate at the end of Return of the Jedi. “I thought I was dead! I thought he was dead. Because when we did Return of the Jedi, and I was thrown down that chute to Galactic Hell, he was dead,” the actor explained. And if that cause of demise wasn’t gruesome or convincing enough, he went to the man himself for clarification. “And I said, ‘Oh, does he come back?’ And [George] said, ‘No, he’s dead.’ So I just accepted that,” McDiarmid said.

Whether it was a screenwriter or an executive who came up with the cyclical inclusion of Palpatine in RoS, one of the things it’s most indicative of is the franchise’s push-and-pull relationship with the man who started it all.

The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.