Staring into the Darkness: Do We Really Want to Know More About Star Wars' Emperor Palpatine?
The recent news of a shelved 'Star Wars: Underworld' TV series that was to focus on Palpatine's backstory and make him a relatable character, have brought attention to a fascinating question.
The idea of exploring the character of Emperor Palpatine, or should I say Darth Sidious, is like staring into a mysterious dark cave or standing at the edge of a seemingly bottomless pit. It looks menacing but you don't know what exactly is inside. Furthermore, part of you probably doesn't want to know. Yet, you can't help but to be fascinated by it. The recent news of a shelved Star Wars: Underworld TV series, that was to focus on Palpatine's backstory and make him a relatable character, have brought attention to a fascinating question that many (including myself) have pondered over for ages. Should we explore that character further? Let's look at some some of the arguments on why we should (a spin-off or a TV show), while also offering some counter arguments on why he should be left as he is now.
There Is A Character To Explore
Before having a look at some more interesting reasons, let's start with the most basic one. Palpatine is a hugely iconic and impactful character in the Star Wars lore, who is left largely unexplored throughout movies and TV shows (The Clone Wars, Rebles) at least. Although he is easily one of the most captivating characters in the Star Wars saga (largely thanks to an amazing performance from Ian McDiarmid), how much do we actually know about this character?
Firstly, we rarely see him in a scene alone. Secondly, he always has an agenda, which he is determined to see through at all costs. In the prequels, practically everything he said and did was with a purpose to turn the Galactic Republic into a dictatorship and Anakin into the path of darkness (Vader). In the original trilogy, it was really all about replacing Vader with a newer and better model (Luke) and crushing the rebellion. Furthermore, we have only ever seen him as an old man - a person whose beliefs and motivations have already been fully developed.
The only thing we know about his character is his lust for power. That is a character trait worthy of exploration, since there is obviously more underneath. He is portaryed as an extremely knowledgeable and intelligent person. Therefore, his quest for power through dark side of the force must be a result of a long and multilayered personal evolvement . So far, we have seen only small glimpses into his dark character (the opera scene in Revange of the Sith and his clear disappointment at failing to convert Luke into the dark side in Return of The Jedi).
Christopher Waltz, who has played many villains, once said that, in his mind, he never plays villains, he plays characters. I want to know more about the character of Palpatine whatever might lay there.
Exploring Palpatine Is Exploring The Entire Star Wars Mythos In A New And Interesting Way
Considerable part of the Star Wars DNA is exploring the grey areas between the good and evil. As the universe of Star Wars has expanded, so has that exploration. Looking further into the character, who is almost synonymous with the dark side, the Sith Code and well... evil, would also be an exploration of Star Wars mythos in new and extremely interesting ways.
As we have established, Palpatine is an extremely intelligent and knowledgeable character, whose point of view is formed throughout a long life. Therefore, however horrible his point of view is, it still a drastically different one. Exploring it can only enrich the Star Wars universe and our enjoyment that we gain from it.
Star Wars Should Be Able To Define Itself Without A Clear Antagonist
The main counter argument (which we'll get to a little later in this article) against exploring him is that, perhaps, Palpatine's main function is simply to be this ultimate evil. One could argue, that he should just serve as this clear opposite and antagonist for the main characters to fight against. However, in my opinion, that approach would do the universe of Star Wars a bit of a disservice. At this point, reducing Star Wars to good guys vs bad guys is simply leaving too much untapped potential on the table.
Let's put it like that, when struggling to define one's identity and motivation's without a clear opposite or antagonistic figure, it is probably time to take a good look in the mirror. I believe that Star Wars has enough depth for defining the characters and their motivations without the help of a completely evil antagonist. Of course, exploring what is behind this apparent embodiment of evil, might be more challenging than simply letting him be evil, but it can also be more rewarding.
Ask yourself this? Was Palpatine really the true evil in the prequels? Or, was it a corrupt political system that granted him the power, he needed, to establish dictatorship and the Jedi order, that had lost it's ability for self criticism, however noble their purposes were?
Having said that, let's look at some of the counter arguments
Maybe, Palpatine Should Just Remain Evil
Although I have explained above why this argument doesn't hold water for me personally, it is still one to be considered.
We should remember that along with the exploration of these grey areas between good and evil, another part of the Star Wars DNA has always been simplicity. In the heart of this huge universe and space opera have always been these simple, timeless stories and philosophies. Therefore, presenting Palpatine as this unquestionable evil gives the story a clear aim and focus. Whether you agree with it or not, one has to admit, it does make everything more straightforward and easier to follow.
We Already Have A Bunch Of Tragic Villains
Palpatine stands out in the Star Wars franchise because he is the only villain who really has no obvious redeeming or at least relatable qualities. Let's take a quick look at some other Star Wars villains. Darth Maul was given no choice but to train in the ways of the dark side and was later betrayed by his master (quess who). Count Dooku was a man disillusionised by the Jedi Order and corruption in Galactic Republic. Darth Vader/Anakin is the very symbol of a fallen hero who finds redemption. Kylo Ren is extremely conflicted about his path towards the dark side.
Palpatine really doesn't have that side to him and, perhpas, it's nice to have something different in that regard. Even when there clearly is potential for exploration, we don't always have to do it.
Risk Of Losing The Edge And Menacing Appeal Of The Character
Most would agree, that a big part of Palpatine's appeal and intimidating aura comes from the mystery that surrounds him. As said before, we only see glimpses into his dark character and, maybe, that is all we need.
For example, the representation of the iconic villain, Blofeld, in the latest Bond movie Spectre. Although I genuienly loved this movie for what it was, I did have a small problem with the character of Blofeld being reduced to somone who just had a grudge against Bond from their childhood. Blofeld's main appeal is being this ultimate and relentless puppetmaster, who seeks power as a form of self fulfillment. Part of that was lost and along with it, some of his edge and menace. Making a Sith Lord and the Empror of the Galaxy a person with a tragic love story can have a similar effect. Of course, the fact that it is tricky to pull off, doesn't mean it's not worth the risk.
To Sum Up
In Empire Strikes Back, Luke asked Yoda whether the dark side is stronger. Yoda replyed that not stornger, but quicker, easier, more seductive. Same thing can be said about the question whether or not to explore the character of Palpatine. It is a lot easier and less risky to simply keep him as this ultimate evil compared to making him a more sympathetic character. However, the latter approach has the potential to be a more rewarding one for the fans and for the Star Wars mythos in general. Therefore, in order to be more enlightened, perhpas, we should take this look into darkness.
We do actually already have his backstory ;)