Previously… On Imperial officers old and new.
Today, I would like to take a look at the most famous and most distinctive of all the Imperial officers we have seen in the original Star Wars films. He was the commander of the first Death Star and equal in status and prestige to Darth Vader himself. In fact, recalling princess Leia’s words upon meeting him aboard the Death Star, “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash”, he was perhaps even much more than that.
I would say Tarkin represents exactly what the Empire is, apart from the menacing power of Darth Vader and the evil rulership of Darth Sidious. He represents what is, in fact, the majority of the Empire: the efficient, militant totalitarian machine. If you are thinking about the roles Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux and possibly Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma might take in The Force Awakens, the template of Tarkin’s character might be exactly what we are looking for.
Tarkin has a major role in Episode IV, so major that unlike in the case of other Imperial officers, everyone who has seen the movie would acknowledge his existence. However, he still gets somewhat eclipsed by Darth Vader – simply because Vader is such a powerful character, wielding the unfathomable power of the Force, which calls to our attention much more than the wonderfully performed and dominant villain. After all, we see evil generals in every historical war film, while black-armoured Force-users are not that common.
I would argue, however, that Tarkin presents us with what is in fact the real face of the Empire, before it gets eclipsed by the more metaphysical struggle of the Light and the Dark Side in later episodes. The Empire and the story of the Galaxy and its war is more the issue of Tarkin and people like him (that’s not to deny the Force being probably still the most important part of the universe). Only because we are following Darth Vader’s hunt for young Skywalker, Imperial military and governors are somewhat pushed into the background. Yet in Episode IV it is still Tarkin who entrusts Vader with the task of finding the rebel base, Tarkin ordering Vader to stop choking admiral Motti on an officers’ meeting, Tarkin fearlessly pointing out to Vader that he is “taking an awful risk” by letting the Millenium Falcon escape. The Sith is really nothing more than Tarkin’s dog here, a dark knight in the service of the evil realm, and only in Empire Strikes Back the black-armoured villain takes charge, because he is on his own personal mission to capture the young Skywalker. Consider: Episode V is much about Vader, that is also where he got his own iconic theme! But Episode IV is a different thing, and its main villain is Tarkin – because he’s so closely connected to the Death Star.
And it is people like Tarkin who, without any doubt, would have helped the Empire survive in some form after the death of both the Emperor and Darth Vader. From what we know about The Force Awakens, the Empire has somehow survived – or transformed – in the organisation called The First Order, which is obviously military in essence. I have no doubt people who act like Tarkin have to be in charge, even if they are not Tarkin themselves.
If you asked me to take a shot in the dark, I would bet on Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux being something akin to Tarkin: the officer in command, with methods which allow him to keep the system in line. A younger version of Tarkin, if you will, which would of course make the character different – you can’t copy Tarkin, and I doubt the makers would even want to do that. Tarkin was unique, with the brilliant actor Peter Cushing endowing him with absolutely revolting, but undeniably charismatic personality – despite the actor himself being, in his own words, “a gentle fellow” who “never harmed a fly” and “loves animals”, as he confided in one old interview for ABC Film Review. Strange to hear that from the one whom you probably recall ordering the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet. And that command was uttered with his unforgettable accent – which made it sort of a rule that in all Star Wars films, series and games the evil officers’ speech should be distinctively British and the closer to Tarkin’s evil voice, the better.
Speaking of that, Tarkin’s character has received some expansion by his portrayal in the Clone Wars and Rebels animated series (of course now voiced by different actors), and very recently he also got his own book which is canon in terms of the newly redefined SW universe. I am not sure if these portrayals do him justice, certainly not if you compare the animated Tarkin to the real Peter Cushing. Nonetheless, the move behind highlighting him and revisiting his character is entirely logical – Tarkin is, and remains, the one non-Force-using Imperial villain who deserves his spot in the Galactic gallery of bad guys.