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The Episode IV-VI movies never mention the Emperor's name. In Episodes I-III, we can guess that Darth Sidious will be the emperor, but what about Chancellor Palpatine? If the audience didn't know that he was Sidious, the impact of the reveal would be far different than if they did.

But I did. In all the novels and comics that came out after "Return of the Jedi", the Emperor's name was stated plainly: Palpatine.

So when I saw the prologue movies, for the life of me I couldn't figure out: was I supposed to know that Palpatine was the villain?

Maybe the filmmakers figured that most of the moviegoing public never got into the Expanded Universe. But they had to know that the hardcore fans would know. Or maybe when you watched the movie, even if you hadn't heard of Palpatine, it was supposed to be obvious?

What was the intent?

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    Anecdotally, I accidently spoiled this for 2 people just hours before we went to see Revenge of the Sith. They'd never seen anything but the movies, and since the name Palpatine was never mentioned in dialogue, they had no idea. – Drew Jun 8 '18 at 20:25
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    I never read any EU novel, or anything, but I remember clearly in 1999 watching Episode I on opening night that I knew for a fact that Palpatine was the Emperor. Not because of the actor, but the name. I think there's a question around here asking "how did I know that?". – tilley31 Jun 8 '18 at 21:58
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    Wait... Palpatine is Darth Sidious??? :( – par Jun 9 '18 at 22:31
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    @tilley31 for me the same and I was only 12 years old then. I'm not sure but I think it's also partially because of the star wars toys, the emperor being labeled as "emperor palpatine". – Ivo Beckers Jun 10 '18 at 0:01
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    If you're worried that it might be a spoiler, using "Is it a spoiler that..." isn't the most sensitive way to proceed. Especially when the question hits HNQ. – David Richerby Jun 10 '18 at 10:17
77

Palpatine's name was first given in the prologue to Alan Dean Foster's novelization of Star Wars (it was credited to Lucas, but he didn't write it), which came out in November 1976, six months before the May 25, 1977 release of the actual film.

So Palpatine being the Emperor was literally known before the public ever saw a Star Wars movie. It was, in fact, one of the very first things people could find out about the Star Wars universe.

The point of the films wasn't to conceal the fact Palpatine would end up the Emperor (or was Darth Sidious), it was to show that he was a masterful chessmaster who conned everyone, and that in large part it was the good guys responsible for his rise because of their own blindness. Amidala initiated the vote that removed his predecessor. Jar-Jar initiated the vote that gave him emergency powers. The Jedi Council allowed him to operate under their noses. Anakin never suspected he was being manipulated until too late, and so on. Just as the trilogy was meant as a tragedy showing Anakin Skywalker's rise and fall, it was an additional tragedy in that the person responsible for the whole mess was standing right there the entire time, in the case of the celebration at the end of The Phantom Menace quite literally.

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    Excellent point about "before the public ever saw a Star Wars movie", although I still wonder how many moviegoers recognized the name. – Shawn V. Wilson Jun 8 '18 at 19:41
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    Yeah, well, one would assume that after 23 years of the presence of something that wasn't a secret to begin with, there's not a whole point in spoilers any more. And, as was also pointed out, there was zero effort to conceal the fact Palpatine was Sidious. – Keith Morrison Jun 9 '18 at 0:14
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    Incidentally, that original prologue paints a very different picture of the Emperor from the one we see in Return of the Jedi. "Once secure in office he declared himself Emperor, shutting himself away from the populace. Soon he was controlled by the very assistants and boot-lickers he had appointed to high office, and the cries of the people for justice did not reach his ears." Whether that's early installment weirdness or a deliberate error in an in-universe document (or early weirdness reconned to an in-universe error) is anyone's guess. – Arcanist Lupus Jun 9 '18 at 0:28
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    I went to a preview screen of Phantom Menace with a movie reviewer from my paper and commented to him afterward that Palpatine turns into the Emperor. "How can you know that?" he asked. Lucasfilm had been promoting the return of Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine (along with Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Kenny Baker as R2-D2) to emphasize the continuity with the original trilogy. – jeffronicus Jun 9 '18 at 16:04
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    Remember, the novelization came out before Lucas had finished Star Wars, and since he didn't even write it, Foster was going off of Lucas's original notes. It's not surprising that a fair number of things deviated from what eventually came out. – Keith Morrison Jun 9 '18 at 21:58
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Not only was it not an actual secret, but more importantly, knowing this information arguably leads to better appreciation of the story than not knowing it.

If the first time that someone realizes Sidious and Palpatine are one and the same is late into the prequel trilogy, that person has missed many dramatic elements which were never intended to be obscure.

And it was indeed supposed to be pretty obvious. If not, the filmmakers wouldn't have allowed the Emperor's and Sidious's face to be so easily seen. It wasn't at all hard to recognize Ian McDiarmid in that big hood.

Also note the absence of any "big-reveal" scene. No swelling music and sharp crescendo, no tense pacing and abrupt close-up, no shocked reactions by anyone else on-screen.

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    Indeed. Knowing that Palpatine is Sidious turns that whole final scene in The Phantom Menace on its head from what it appears on the surface: aside from the comment to Anakin already mentioned by Buzz, there's Padmé congratulating Palpatine on his election, not realizing she's helped the man who tried to arrange her murder, and just after Yoda ominously informs Kenobi that there has to be another Sith out there...there is, right there, smiling pleasantly. It's the equivalent of seeing the heroes escape the vampire at the end, only the audience knows one of them was already turned. – Keith Morrison Jun 8 '18 at 22:39
  • Speaking of that final scene, the leitmotif used for the final parade score is actually the Emperor's theme. :) – Dave B Jun 11 '18 at 16:29
14

It was no secret to anyone who cared to look. The fact that the emperor in Return of the Jedi was played by the same actor who played Palpatine and Darth Sidious made it pretty obvious. Moreover, it was stated explicitly in pre-release reviews of The Phantom Menace that Sidious would be the emperor.

The scene at the end of Episode I where Palpatine says that he will watch young Anakin's career with "great interest" was played for heavy dramatic irony; the audience knows what that will mean, but the characters apart from Palpatine are completely oblivious. And one of the things I think the prequels actually did really effectively was to show clearly how all the wars going on were a set-up, with Palpatine actually in control of both sides.

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    pre-release reviews of The Phantom Menace – Well, reviews can spoil, can’t they? – Wrzlprmft Jun 9 '18 at 8:11
10

I watched the entire prequel trilogy as well as both Clone Wars series paying specific attention to anything that plainly links Palpatine to Sidious for the viewer. The closest things I found were:

  • Palpatine and Sidious have a similar chin and nose. Now we know that there is the same actor underneath in the movies, and in freeze frames (which normal viewers don’t do), they seem to match very well, but I am still not sure that Ian McDiarmid didn’t wear prosthetics when playing Sidious (follow-up question). Most importantly there are several indications that the creators did not want the similarity to be clear or assumed that it wasn’t clear:

    • In the first Clone Wars series, there were visual differences between Sidious and Palpatine as shown here.

    • Sidious and Palpatine aren’t even supposed to look identical. Sidious is disfigured by the force and putting on a magical mask when posing as Palpatine (see this question).

    • In particular in the movies, Sidious is almost only shown with lighting from below, which is rather unusual and makes his face leave a considerably different impression.

    • In universe, hoods plus hologram seems an effective means of concealing your identity. This is particularly made clear in a scene in Clone Wars, where the Kaminoans talk to Tyranus’ hooded hologram, but clearly fail to identify him as Dooku – who was a well-known political figure. In that case, the audience knew very well what was going on, but if the creators wanted to use any suspension of disbelief, they needed to believe that hoods were effective.

  • There are some occasions with ominous music, camera moves (such as the funeral in Episode I), or Palpatine making non-sequitur grimaces to the camera and only to the camera.

  • Sometimes, Palpatine learns some information and briefly afterwards Sidious reveals this to his minions.

  • In S5E16 of The Clone Wars, there is one fifteen-second scene where Palpatine asks for his ship to be prepared and briefly afterwards, Sidious lands on Mandalore. (If I were to show somebody without any prior exposure to Star Wars all canon material in in-universe chronological order, this is the only scene I would remove before Sidious reveals himself to Anakin.)

This strongly suggest that there was a protocol in place not to reveal that Palpatine is Sidious, which was prominently broken in the last incident. Contrast this to how often other secrets (to the galaxy) are explicitly confirmed to the audience, e.g., that Dooku is Tyranus and in league with Sidious.

Note that when Sidious reveals himself to Anakin in Episode III, he does so slowly, probably because a great shock would endanger his plans of turning him. Thus it makes still sense that there is no big reveal moment. Also note that the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sister was done similarly unspectacularly.

Also note that there was some speculation that Episode III would contain as a big twist that Palpatine and Sidious are not the same person. It did not happen, but the fact that this was actually considered shows that the question was sufficiently open.

Taken all this together, I think that the prequel trilogy was made with the intention that an uninitiated viewer would not know that Palpatine is Sidious until he reveals himself to Anakin in Episode III. I am however sceptical that the creators assumed a relevant fraction of the theatre audience to be uninitiated viewers. Finally, note that this is about what was intended, not about what was achieved.

  • There is also a theory that Jar Jar was the real Sith Lord behind everything. Theories don't have to be reasonable to exist. – JAB Jun 9 '18 at 22:06
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    @JAB: Sure, but I hope we can all agree that the theory in question was more plausible than the clumsy side of the force. – Wrzlprmft Jun 9 '18 at 22:57
3

Ian McDiarmid has a very distinctive voice. Even though his face was disguised by all the "shriveled look" prosthetics, and even though he alters the sound of his voice somewhat to be the Emperor in "Return of the Jedi", I connected the two as soon as I heard him speak his first lines in "The Phantom Menace". I suspect I was not the only one, and the folks at LucasFilm would have fully realized that any audience member who had seen "Return of the Jedi" would connect the dots long before it is made explicit in "Revenge of the Sith".

3

Palpatine's name was well known in the 90's

As you could see from this, name Palpatine was published in numerous novels, comics and games.

Perhaps games are most important in this, because novels and comics were usually read only by hardcore fans. But games circulated among more casual audience, even those who didn't care much about SW and perhaps only watched original trilogy would play games like Shadows of the Empire, Star Wars:Rebellion or Star Wars: Tie Fighter. And, as you could see, all three games contained the name Palpatine.

Considering usual hype and marketing ploys that LucasArts used for selling their merchandise, they could hardly consider Emperor's identity to be a secret if so clearly stated.

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  • oh wow - +1 just for the "Rebellion" game reference. That's a name I've not heard in a long time....a long time – NKCampbell Jun 11 '18 at 20:04
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    @NKCampbell Personally, one of my favorites. – rs.29 Jun 11 '18 at 20:19
1

I think the lore was already out there that Palpatine was The Emperor. In Heir to the Empire (1991 novel, no longer canon) they mentioned that Jorus C'Baoth was an assistant to Palpatine (mentioned by name here), and noted that Palpatine became the Emporer. So it was already somewhat well known by then. Serious fans would have known the name for sure by the time Episode I came out.

  • Yes, but were they taking into account the mass of "non-serious" fans? – Shawn V. Wilson Jun 8 '18 at 19:17
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    @ShawnV.Wilson I think it was something of an "open secret". If you really wanted to know, the information was readily available. If not, it didn't detract from the story as presented. – Machavity Jun 8 '18 at 19:19
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    More to the point, it wasn't a bit of information which needed to be concealed from those unfamiliar with it. – Beanluc Jun 8 '18 at 22:21
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    This just restates the question..? – Edlothiad Jun 9 '18 at 5:35

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