The New Emperor Scene In ‘Empire Strikes Back’ Is the Worst Post-Release Change in All of ‘Star Wars’
It feels like several lifetimes ago, but it was just last November that Disney+ launched and the world first heard what’s become one of the most notorious words in the history of Star Wars.
That was the inexplicable exclamation uttered by Greedo before he and Han Solo exchange blaster fire in the Tatooine cantina. When Star Wars premiered in theaters in the summer of 1977, Han Solo shot Greedo before his rival bounty hunter could take him out. When George Lucas updated the film for its 1997 “Special Edition,” he switched it so Greedo shot first, missing at point blank range. Further tweaks followed. Some 40-plus years after the debut of Star Wars: A New Hope, and some eight years after he sold his company to Disney, George Lucas was still tinkering with his masterpiece. (According to reports at the time, the version of A New Hope on Disney+ was the final one Lucas oversaw before he sold Lucasfilm in 2012.)
“Maclunkey!” was the cherry on top of the garbage sundae that’s now known as “Han Shot First,” arguably the most infamous change Lucas made to Star Wars for the Special Editions. And each time Lucas futzed with Han and Greedo’s standoff, the sequence got worse. Still, even with “Maclunkey!” Greedo shooting first isn’t the worst post-release change in the history of Star Wars. Not even close.
The worst post-release change in the history of Star Wars is the current version of the Emperor Palpatine scene in The Empire Strikes Back.
The scene was always part of the movie, but it’s been significantly altered from its original form. In every version, the basic plot is the same. The Emperor makes a holographic FaceTime call to Darth Vader, warning him about their new enemy, Luke Skywalker. The Emperor insists that Luke must not become a Jedi; Vader suggests they instead try to turn him to the Dark Side, an idea the Emperor finds agreeable.
The entire scene lasts less than a minute. In the version of The Empire Strikes Back released to theaters in 1980, the Emperor — who still hadn’t been named Palpatine at that point — was performed by Marjorie Eaton and voiced by Clive Revill.
That was the Emperor’s only appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. When he returned in Return of the Jedi, he was now played (in a similar costume, but different creepy makeup) by Scottish actor Ian McDiarmid, who then reprised his role as Palpatine in the three Star Wars prequels. Those films chronicle how a cunning and manipulative Senator Palpatine consolidated his power, and turned the Galactic Republic into a dictatorship.
By the end of Revenge of the Sith in 2005, McDiarmid had appeared in more Star Wars films than Mark Hamill or Harrison Ford, and the Emperor himself had taken on an increasingly central role in Star Wars mythology. Even more than the iconic Darth Vader, Palpatine became the living embodiment of the Dark Side of the Force. So what Lucas did next made some amount of sense — at least on paper.
He decided to reshoot the Emperor’s Empire Strikes Back scene with McDiarmid, and insert him into the film. If he’d had McDiarmid re-record Revill’s dialogue exactly, most modern viewers would have assumed McDiarmid was always there, and those that knew he wasn’t wouldn’t have much of an argument against him, other than preferring nostalgia for its own sake.
That is not what Lucas did, however. Instead, he made several small but hugely important changes to Palpatine’s dialogue. See if you can spot them in the updated scene below.
In the original version of the scene, the Emperor and Vader appear to be on basically equal footing in terms of their knowledge of their “new enemy,” Luke Skywalker. The Emperor calls him by that name, and Vader does not act surprised when he does. Vader says Luke’s “just a boy,” which indicates that he’s fairly familiar with his opponent, and could hint at some paternal feelings towards his son before the audience is aware of their relationship.
In the updated version with McDiarmid, the Emperor is all-knowing and Vader is surprised. Now he says their “new enemy” is “the young Rebel who destroyed the Death Star. I have no doubt this boy is the offspring of Anakin Skywalker.” Vader responds “How is that possible?” as if he’s learning that his children survived the events of Revenge of the Sith for the very first time.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison video that shows the specific alterations between the old and new cuts:
Luke and Darth Vader never really meet in the original Star Wars, so it’s plausible that Vader wouldn’t know his son was the guy who blew up the Death Star — if The Empire Strikes Back didn’t make it clear in several scenes before this one that Vader is already quite aware of Luke and his parentage. The famous Star Wars opening crawl mentions him by name, noting that “The Evil lord Darth Vader” is “obsessed with finding young Skywalker.”
If you really wanted to give George Lucas the benefit of the doubt, you could say the opening crawl is written from the perspective of an omniscient narrator who knows that Luke is the one who blew up the Death Star, and that Vader is, at this point, just searching for whoever the culprit is, not necessarily his long-lost son.
Unfortunately, that theory gets blown out of the water just a few scenes later when Vader mentions Skywalker specifically by name in conversation with several Imperial officers. I couldn’t find a suitable YouTube clip, so here’s a script excerpt, which is verbatim to the dialogue in the finished Empire Strikes Back:
Again, if you really wanted to give Lucas the benefit of the doubt, you could say, “Well, he knew this guy was named Skywalker. He didn’t know he was his son.” But to even make that argument, you have to assume Darth Vader learned that a powerful Rebel destroyed the greatest space station ever devised by human hand with a one-in-a-trillion lucky shot and then went “Skywalker, huh? Eh, probably just a coincidence!”
Is Skywalker a very common last name in the Star Wars universe? Is it like the equivalent of Smith in the galaxy far, far away? Because that’s the only way it’s remotely believable that Darth Vader would find out someone named Skywalker blew up the Death Star and not immediately go “Uhhhhh, what’s the dude’s first name? Any chance he had a twin sister?”
The tinkering takes a scene that worked perfectly fine and breaks it. The current version of the scene doesn’t square with either of those earlier moments in The Empire Strikes Back. In the original sequence, Vader bows obsequiously, but his dialogue suggests he may be trying to influence the Emperor to suit his own ends — or, perhaps, that the Emperor is influencing Vader into thinking he’s getting what he wants, when this is all part of Palpatine’s master plan. The update turns Darth Vader, one of the greatest villains in movie history, into a gigantic chump.
When it comes to Star Wars, I am but a mere padawan compared to Ryan Arey, who edits all of ScreenCrush’s YouTube videos. When I pressed him to justify the new sequence, he put forward a theory that Vader knows Luke blew up the Death Star and is his son, but is feigning ignorance in front of the Emperor to manipulate him.
But that would make the Emperor, who’s consistently sneakiest dude in the entire franchise, the one who is a gigantic chump. Plus, there’s very little to imply in Empire Strikes Back that Vader has some sort of 12-dimensional chess game he’s playing behind everyone’s back. The best evidence of that is during the final fight between Luke and Vader when he suggests they should rule the galaxy as father and son (and, by extension, dethrone the Emperor and take his place). Still, even if that is Vader’s plan, the original dialogue — with Vader going out of his way to mention this young boy could be turned to the Dark Side — works better for that purpose.
Again, you reeeeeeeally have to want to give George Lucas the benefit of the doubt to make any of these even remotely work. At a certain point, after grappling with all of these contradictions that never even existed before he started fiddling with what he’d previously made, you really don’t want to give him that benefit of the doubt. At a certain point, you watch this and you just want to scream in frustration. And I can promise you, the word you want to scream is not “Maclunkey!”
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