Credit: Lucasfilm
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After Vader, there was Thrawn.

That’s why the presence of this blue-skinned Imperial officer has longtime Star Wars fans beside themselves with the arrival of season 3 of Star Wars: Rebels this week.

Above, we feature a clip from episode three of the new season, in which the pilot Hera Syndulla falls under the ruby-red gaze of the commander while on a covert mission. (More on this scene below.)

When the Disney XD animated series returns on Saturday, Sept. 24 (8:30 p.m. ET/PT), it heralds the return of the villain who first picked up the pieces of the shattered galactic Empire and served as antagonist in the ongoing stories of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo.

Thrawn was the central foe in author Timothy Zahn’s trilogy of Star Wars novels in the early 1990s, which became a new hope of sorts for fans who suddenly found the story didn’t end with Return of the Jedi.

“It was a huge deal. You couldn’t believe it,” says Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni, who was just a kid when the first book in the Thrawn trilogy came out in 1991. “I would go the bookstore and you’d see all the Star Trek books, tons of Star Trek books, and nothing Star Wars. Then all of a sudden this standee appeared! We waited for that book and we devoured it because we were so hungry for the continuation of the saga.”

Those books were shelved when Lucasfilm erased the so-called Expanded Universe of storytelling from the official canon to clear way for The Force Awakens and the new series of films to tell the continuing story of Luke, Leia, and Han in their own way.

Filoni has been recanonizing parts of these stories by working them into his show, and Thrawn marks the biggest, most beloved effort yet to pull a major character out of the “Legends” realm and back into the official storyline.

Credit: Lucasfilm

The scene above is from an upcoming episode titled “Hera’s Heroes,” in which she and the Ghost crew run a rebel supply mission to her homeworld, Ryloth, and decide to recover a cultural memento that is precious to her people.

Thrawn, who has been tasked with stamping out this simmering rebellion, is a tactician who knows that to dominate a people, it helps to understand them. Naturally, he is curious about the item he finds in her hands, after mistaking her for a servant.

Filoni says this speaks to why Thrawn remains such a compelling bad guy.

“He really stuck out because he was through and through an Imperial officer. He was not facing doubt, he didn’t have these abilities that make all the big arch villains up to that point arch. He wasn’t inept so much like Piett, he wasn’t playing politics like the rest of the Imperial officers, he was purely a military strategist.”

Also, he had savoir faire. Sophistication. He was like a Bond villain in a Star Wars movie.

“His love of art, his study of that was something that really stuck with me,” Filoni says. “That’s really smart because he is getting to the root and tendencies of people, and I never heard of anybody attacking it that way. He stars to remind you of people like Patton, very into history and poetry.”

One of the Ghost crew rebels, Sabine Wren (Tiya Sircar) is a graffiti artist, and her paintings become a focus of the Admiral’s during this season.

“It’s something for him to dissect,” Filoni says. “He’ll bring [fellow Rebel hunter] Kallus into his office and be like, ‘What do you make of this Agent Kallus?’ And almost like a Banksy, he’s removed Sabine’s art work from a wall and brought it into his office. He has the whole wall relief sitting there and he’s like, ‘Look at this, what do you think this means?’”

To pull that off, he also needed a voice actor who could deliver the necessary iciness. That led him to Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen, brother of Mads Mikkelsen (who plays Jyn Erso’s scientist father in the live-action Rogue One film)

It was the actor’s work as the Putin-like Russian leader on House of Cards and as the blackmailing newspaper impresario on Sherlock that led Filoni to Lars.

“I needed an actor that could bring this kind of marvelous intellect and I wanted a voice that wasn’t just another British officer,” Filoni says. “He’s this really evil character that is just dripping with intellect and you’re like, ‘Wow, he’s going to see right through me.’ But Lars couldn’t be a more fun, happy guy to be involved with Star Wars. He’s so excited about it and he will do it again and again, and he wants to get it right. I love that in an actor, when there’s that enthusiasm.”

Although Thrawn was always a post-Vader villain, Filoni says his inclusion in Rebels — when Vader is very much alive and at the peak of his power — should show a different side of the Thrawn that Star Wars fans love to hate.

“He must have had a story pre-Jedi because he had risen to Grand Admiral, and I’ve kind of told myself, ‘Well, I’m not changing much of what Tim did, I’m just putting him in this time period, which wasn’t really explored to my knowledge,” Filoni says.

Meanwhile, Zahn is hard at work on a new Star Wars novel — titled simply Thrawn — which will be canon and could help clarify his role in the new galactic timeline. It’s starting with the events leading up to his appearance in Rebels, but someday perhaps we’ll find out how far that journey goes.

For now … Thrawn lives.

For more Star Wars news, follow @Breznican.

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