'Rogue One' and the Death Star Plans: Revisiting the 1981 Origin Story

NPR had the details more than three decades ago (no, really).
Courtesy of Disney

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the death of "many" Bothans wasn't necessary to bring us the events of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

That's not just because Gareth Edwards' new movie offers a new, canonical take on how the Death Star plans ended up in the hands of the Rebel Alliance prior to the first Star Wars movie. 

It's also because the "Many Bothans died to bring us this information" line actually comes from 1983's Return of the Jedi, talking about the second Death Star.

Nonetheless, it shouldn't be surprising that the theft of the original Death Star plans is a story that has been told before Rogue One.

Before Star Wars mythology was redefined in 2014, the tale of how the Rebels ended up with plans for a massive Imperial space station was first told by NPR, of all places.

The Battle of Toprawa, as it became known in fan circles, was one of a number of story expansions of the original movie created by writer Brian Daley for NPR's audio adaptation of Star Wars, which aired in 1981.

The adaptation took the two-hour movie and transformed it into 13 half-hour episodes, which required a lot of new material, including a significant amount of story set before the movie's opening scenes.

The radio drama doesn't actually catch up to the movie until its third episode; everything prior to that is brand-new prologue, with the first episode revealing Luke Skywalker's life on Tatooine, and the second exploring the Rebellion learning about the Death Star.

In Daley's version of events, Princess Leia is told of the existence of the Death Star by a Rebel spy, before accidentally revealing this knowledge to an Imperial officer, thereby outing herself as part of the Rebellion and forcing her to become a more active part of the conflict — and travel on the Tantive IV (the ship pursued by the Empire in the opening scenes of Star Wars) to retrieve the Death Star plans from a planet called Toprawa.

The radio drama makes taking possession of the plans sound relatively straightforward: The Tantive IV arrives at Toprawa and receives transmission of the plans, before having to beat a hasty retreat once an Imperial Star Destroyer shows up.

As Star Wars grew in popularity, and the amount of spinoff material began to proliferate as a result, however, the story started to evolve.

Eventually, thanks to (now noncanonical) novels, 1993's Jedi Dawn and 1998's Rebel Dawn, the story became far more complicated, requiring both ground and space battles between Rebel and Imperial forces, with the entire mission soon established as the first large-scale success by the Rebel Alliance against the Empire.

That success came at a cost, however; in the sprawling mythology of the Expanded Universe-as-was, the Empire took revenge on Toprawa, destroying the planet's industrial complexes and enslaving its populace.

How much of this detail will survive into the new Star Wars canon remains unclear at this point; certainly, the teaser for Rogue One suggests a mission more covert than the dual-front battle at Toprawa, although it's not impossible that the more threadbare version of events from the NPR audio drama could survive relatively unscathed.

More will be inevitably revealed as Rogue One nears its Dec. 16 release, but there's one thing we can all hope will be established sooner, rather than later: That Felicity Jones' Jyn Erso will be Bothan — but that she won't die to bring us the information.

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