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Seeing Double: The Rise of Clones in Pop Culture

A significant portion of the Star Wars mythos are the “Clone Wars,” so it comes at no surprise that Palpatine’s son–Rey’s father–was a clone built by the Sith Eternal. This much was confirmed in the Rise of Skywalker novelization and reported by Screenrant.

Rise of Skywalker editor Maryann Brandon confirmed they cut Palpatine’s backstory in an effort to condense the film, a necessary process in all films. Movies must keep things moving, so the purpose of this article isn’t to wade into the exhausting discourse of what level of detail each individual viewer expected to be included in the film. I’ll save that for the interlocutors of Twitter.

Instead, let’s talk about clones in general in the context of nerd culture, and just accept the details presented in the Rise of Skywalker novelization, which was that Palpatine “thrust his consciousness” into a clone body, although “the transfer was imperfect” and members of the Sith Eternal worked tirelessly to engineer a new vessel for Palpatine’s essence.

Science Paves the Way

The first couple of drafts of Star Wars didn’t mention clones, but the term “clone” was added in the 3rd draft in 1975.

Ben: I know who you are. Stand up so that we can talk properly. You’re embarrassing me. I’m not that important.

Luke: But you are… I know your ‘Diary of the Clone Wars’ by heart. My father…

Star Wars (1975) – 3rd Script Draft

Although in 1885 a researcher had “twinned” a sea urchin embryo, it was actually 1975–the same year of Lucas’ script draft–that scientists created the first mammalian embryo by nuclear transfer. And while the word “clone” wasn’t yet popularized, a clone of a sheep from embryonic cells came shortly thereafter in 1984.

Then, in 1996, scientists brought cloning into the limelight with Dolly the lamb. Dolly was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell and her arrival started conversations about the implications of cloning. The first primate coming just one year later brought controversies over human cloning and stem cell research into the public eye. [Learn more here.]

The Deep Roots of Clones in Pop Culture Media

As usual, George Lucas was a man ahead of his time. He brought early real-life scientific developments into the imaginations of movie goers and the cultural connotations of “clones” persist to this day – in Rise of Skywalker and in the real-life scientific community.

George Lucas has enthusiastically spoken of his inspirations for Star Wars, so what could have been his inspiration for “clones,” being that the word and the science was not at all mainstream at the time of the 1975 3rd draft of the movie?

“Dopplegänger” comes close, and that was a term and concept that was present in the pulp stories of yesteryear. Lucas was an avid fan of those, but doppelgängers had more of a horror flavor, not the sci-fi connotations of cloning. Same with the orc-creation(esque) vats of Tolkien.

To be clear, Lucas wasn’t proposing anything novel. Cloning was viable in the scientific community in 1975, and it certainly had been expressed in pop culture. Invasion of the Body Snatchers had a doppelgänger angle on film as early as 1956. But just look at the books that may have inspired Lucas:

  • Nine Lives was Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1968 short story that dealt explicitly with cloning and she was an influence pretty much everywhere.
  • The protagonist of Arthur C. Clarke’s Imperial Earth was a clone, but it was released in 1975 – too late for it to have plausibly influenced Lucas.
  • The Duplicated Man (1953) by James Blish featured a machine that duplicated people.
  • Clone (1972) featured 4 identical clones that were explicitly created in a lab.
  • Destination Void (1965) by Frank Herbert featured clones who served as the crew of a spaceship.
  • Also by Herbert, gholas first appeared in Dune Messiah in 1969 and are basically clones of dead people.

So George Lucas didn’t formulate cloning, nor did Palpatine and his Sith Eternal on Exegol. But Lucas absolutely helped bring it to the public’s imagination on a scale never before seen, and I’m thankful for that.

Like a cloning vat, George Lucas took elements of inspiration from a variety of places and dropped them into a cauldron, where he then wonderfully formulated the Star Wars galaxy, a science fantasy world teeming with mysterious wizards, roguish starship pilots, strange creatures, and scientifically-influenced clone troopers.

Those original script notes from a 1975 draft have now been “cloned” into 10+ movies, hundreds of books and comics, engaging TV programming, and more toys and playtime than can be counted. So what’s not to like about cloning?