we soon learned that he was only a servant of someone far more dangerous: the Emperor. The galactic dictator became an ever-more present threat in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI. Years later, we learned the story of his rise to power, and how he destroyed Anakin Skywalker, in the Prequels.
Now, in STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the Emperor has returned! Since the Big Bad was presumed dead at the end of RETURN OF THE JEDI, we have questions. How is the Emperor still alive? What does he want? And how is the Emperor connected to THE RISE OF SKYWALKER? The answers to some of those questions are huge spoilers for the new Star Wars movie, and we're not going to tell you everything.
But knowing all about the Emperor's past will answer some questions — and help prepare those who haven't yet seen THE RISE OF SKYWALKER for the epic final chapter of the Skywalker Saga. Here's everything you need to know about the Star Wars Emperor.
Note: There are no STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER spoilers ahead, but we will talk in detail about all the other movies in the series.
The Emperor's true name is Sheev Palpatine. He was a Senator in the Old Republic who used a combination of political savvy and evil power to gain full control of the Senate before dissolving the Republic and become Emperor of the new Galactic Empire. While acting as a Senator, Palpatine was also secretly a Sith Lord and used the name Darth Sidious.
While the Emperor was introduced in the original Star Wars Trilogy, the name "Palpatine" was never spoken in those films. Then he was simply called "the Emperor." The name Palpatine originally appeared in the novelization of the original STAR WARS, written by Alan Dean Foster based on a set of George Lucas's script treatments. When Lucas made the Prequel films, beginning with THE PHANTOM MENACE in 1999, the Emperor was revealed to be Senator Palpatine.
As a Sith, Palpatine apprenticed under Darth Plagueis the Wise. He murdered his master and became the dominant Sith Lord. His apprentices were Darth Maul, and then Christopher Lee’s Count Dooku, who was eventually known as Darth Tyranus. To catch up on all this story, check out our guide to watching Star Wars in order, which turns a list of Star Wars movies into a definitive franchise history.
Technically, three people have played the Emperor, but one actor is best known for playing Emperor Palpatine: Ian McDiarmid. The Scottish actor first played the Emperor in 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI, but that wasn't the villain's original appearance.
The original STAR WARS referenced the existence of the Emperor in 1977, but audiences did not actually see the black-robed ruler until THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK came to theatres in 1980. In that first STAR WARS sequel, the Emperor was played by Marjorie Eaton for a scene in which Darth Vader communicates with the galactic despot via hologram. Make-up and special effects — including animal eyes superimposed on Eaton's face during post-production — created the character's grotesque image. His voice was provided by actor Clive Revill.
When the Emperor became a key character in RETURN OF THE JEDI, which fully reveals the aged man's bent but powerful figure early in the story, he was played by Ian McDiarmid. The actor had few film credits and was known primarily for his work on stage — in fact, he didn't even audition for the role but was brought in to meet George Lucas and director Richard Marquand, who cast the 38-year old actor to play the wizened Emperor.
In 1999, George Lucas brought McDiarmid back to play a younger version of the character, when he was still a Senator. Ironically, at this point, the actor was actually the same age as the character, despite having first played him many years earlier. In 2004, when the Star Wars Special Editions came to DVD for the first time, George Lucas replaced the original version of the Emperor in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK with McDiarmid, to create continuity with the other movies.
We’ll try to keep this simple. In THE PHANTOM MENACE, we learn that Anakin Skywalker, who eventually becomes Darth Vader, didn’t exactly have a father — his mother believes she simply became pregnant. That story led to assumptions that Anakin was actually created by Midi-chlorians, which act as go-betweens that connect the Force and humans. (Read more about that here.)
Years later, in 2018, Marvel Comics published “Darth Vader” #25, which suggested that Palpatine manipulated Midi-chlorians to create Anakin. Why? There are two big fan theories. One theory says that Palpatine created Anakin so he would have the ultimate student, and ultimately a successor. The other says that he wanted to ultimately take over Anakin’s body, in order to achieve something like immortality.
Regardless, Palpatine was very good at manipulating Anakin. He used the young Jedi’s desire for love and acceptance to warp Anakin into a powerful soldier for the dark side of the Force. Encasing Anakin in Darth Vader's black armor following the young Sith Lord's final battle with Obi-Wan Kenobi was a life-saving formality; Anakin had become Darth Vader long before. Ironically, since Anakin allied with Palpatine in hopes of being able to cheat death for Padme, it is Anakin who evades death, in the worst possible way.
One of the most important moments in the Emperor's Star Wars history is from 2005's REVENGE OF THE SITH. Before fully revealing his identity as a Sith Lord, Palpatine plotted to coerce Anakin to the dark side of the Force. Knowing that Anakin has had visions of Padme dying during childbirth, Palpatine tells Anakin of Darth Plagueis the Wise, a powerful Sith lord who learned how to use the dark side to conquer death. Watch that scene below.
[Image credit: Lucasfilm]
Here's where things get tricky and interesting. RETURN OF THE JEDI introduced Force lightning to the roster of Force powers in the Star Wars galaxy. The Emperor could fire electrical bolts from his hands. This energy could incapacitate whatever it touches while causing excruciating pain.
In the Prequels, we also learned of Emperor Palpatine's devious ability to manipulate other people. This isn't a power derived from the Force so much as an innate talent. This makes Palpatine an effective politician, and, combined with his hidden mastery of the dark side of the Force, allows him to take over the Imperial Senate and eventually dissolve the Republic before crowning himself Emperor.
Palpatine also understands the value of cloning; he seized power by using an entire clone army, after all! Is Palpatine himself a clone? We don’t know, but it seems like one possible way he could have returned from apparent death. Just as THE LAST JEDI did, STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER expands our understanding of Force powers. The Star Wars landscape is forever changed by events of this new chapter; what that means for the next Star Wars movie, we can only guess.
All images courtesy of Lucasfilm.