The new Star Wars film, Rogue One, plugs a very important plot hole in franchise lore. Born out of the second sentence of A New Hope’s opening crawl, the film will finally answer a question that fans have been asking since it was first revealed that Rebel spies stole Empire plans to the Death Star: What exactly are the Death Star plans? And what form did they come in?
A New Hope was released way back in 1977, when the internet was a slow experimental tool used by the government and academics. External hard drives and USB sticks were decades away from invention. And we never see any Rebel soldiers carrying around bundles of paper, that’s for sure. But we’re not entirely clueless; over the years, we’ve discovered a few things about what’s in them. Here’s an overview of what we know going into Rogue One.
Attack of the Clones
The second prequel film reveals the plans’ unconventional origin: They were a Geonosian design from the Separatists taken by Count Dooku in a handheld data device to Darth Sidious. The plans are eventually used to build the Death Star for the Empire once Sidious/Palpatine became the Emperor and destroyed the Republic as seen at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
A New Hope
Eventually they serve as the main MacGuffin moving the narrative forward for the original film. After the events of Rogue One (as retrofitted by Lucasfilm), they’re somehow stowed away on Princess Leia’s consular ship, the Tantive IV. The Princess is trying to ferry them safely to her step-father, Bail Organa, on her home planet of Alderaan. The ship is intercepted by Darth Vader, who is actively searching for the physical copy of the plans, but before she is caught she uploads a version of them into R2-D2 using what looks like a floppy disc.
Leia knows the Rebels had no chance of escaping Vader’s forces so she programmed him to deliver them with a message to Obi-Wan Kenobi on the nearby planet of Tatooine where, unbeknownst to her, her estranged brother also lives. Eventually, when she’s captured by Vader, she denies ever knowing about any sort of plans.
Later, when the crew of Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon escaped the Death Star with Leia and Luke (minus Obi-Wan, RIP), they head to a Rebel base on Yavin 4 with Artoo and the plans intact. They don’t have much time to analyze the plans, as Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin track them to the base in the Death Star, which causes the Rebels to quickly plan an attack to destroy the battle station. Their Hail Mary: Attacking a small thermal exhaust port that would cause a fatal chain reaction if hit directly with proton torpedoes. Luckily, Luke uses the Force to make sure that happens, but he wouldn’t have known where to aim without those plans.
Before the new Star Wars canon was set after the Disney acquisition in 2012, then-writer for StarWars.com and current Lucasfilm Story Group Head Pablo Hidalgo hinted at the complex importance of the plans to the saga. “If you had to throw a dinner party and invite everyone who had ever stolen the Death Star plans, you’d be surprised at how many place settings you’d have to worry about, he said. But thankfully a lot of the confusing Expanded Universe lore about the plans can be thrown out the window now that there’s one specific continuity, and it all goes back to Rogue One.
Galen Erso — the father of lead character Jyn, who was conscripted in the Imperial army and became a reluctant participant in the construction of the Death Star — apparently sent a secret transmission to warn the Rebels of the impending doom of the planet-destroying station. But that unto itself gets to one of the main problems of the limited data flow of the tech in Star Wars, as he couldn’t just send the actual plans via the same sort of secret communication link.
Furthermore, once she got the plans, why couldn’t Leia just beam the data to the Rebellion once they came into her possession? It would figure that in a galaxy in which there’s a technologically advanced Death Star and ships with hyperspace capabilities that they’d be able to send an email with a PDF attachment of the schematics without it being a big deal.
But data is a strange thing in the Star Wars universe. There is a sort of galactic internet proxy called the HoloNet, but that is an Imperial-controlled network that apparently limits what can and can’t be transmitted. It’s similar to the current Great Firewall internet regulations in China.
It seems that the Death Star plans are a set of digital schematics, as seen in the pre-battle conference scene in A New Hope, but ones that are only kept on a physical disc drive. This makes sense considering their secrecy and one-of-a-kind importance. It implies that Jyn steals the plans and bring them in person somehow to Leia’s Rebel ship too, since they can’t simply be transmitted to the Tantive IV. Later in A New Hope, an Imperial officer reassures Vader that, “the battle station plans are not aboard this ship,” and “no transmissions were made.”
So all signs point to the Death Star plans being kept on an obsolete physical data drive. They were front and center in a slow motion scene from the Star Wars Celebration Reel, and can be seen in toy versions of Jyn, though the Hot Toys version of the highly detailed action figure conveniently refer to them as a “portable case.” But this also perfectly lines up with dialogue from A New Hope which refers to the technical readouts of the Death Star plans as “stolen data tapes.” The small portable case that Jyn is holding certainly can be categorized as a data tape, however cheesy that sounds in 2016.
Even back in 1977, George Lucas was skeptical of the power of technology, despite making such a big science fiction extravaganza. A New Hope was critical of the way cutting edge and innovative technology can be skewed by people who claimed it could improve the world. Maybe that explains the anachronisms. The way to transmit data, to paraphrase Vader, is insignificant compared to the power of the Force.
It seems the pesky reshoots kind of threw us off to exactly how they’d treat the actual plans in Rogue One. That exhilarating looking scene with Jyn and Cassian in full sprint on the beaches of Scarif with the former clinging to the stolen data tapes that have the Death Star plans? Cut entirely from the movie. Instead, here’s how the data transfer is treated in the final film.
It seems in the post-reshoots Rogue One, without the epic beach run, there’s a two step process that is complicated by the various criss-crossing narratives going down on Scarif. First, Imperial defector Bodhi Rook instructs the Rebels to find the Master Switch, the communications lever on the planet’s surface that they must use to hack the closed radio system the Empire uses to communicate to their ships orbiting the planet.
Once they flip the switch, he’ll have to warn the Rebel fleet that they need to blow up the Shield Gate so Jyn can beam the Death Star plans to them. Even if Jyn somehow was able to steal the relevant info and try to beam the data up to the Rebels, the signal would simply bounce off the planet-wide energy shield and never get to Admiral Raddus or anyone listening.
The plans themselves can be transmitted, and actually aren’t limited to being delivered in person. But the second part if a bit more difficult than that. As one character says, “It’s the size of the data files that’s the problem.” Once Jyn and Cassian use K-2SO to hack into the communications towers where the servers for all the secret Imperial military projects are kept, they can’t just upload the plans to any Imperial kiosk. She needs to use the huge communications dish that sits atop the Citadel to safely transmit the Death Star plan data. So she takes the physical data tape up there, and eventually after some squabbling with Director Krennic and Cassian is able to realign the dish to upload the plans.
Unfortunately it’s a bit too late. Tarkin shows up with the Death Star and makes the Imperial base go boom, killing Jyn and Cassian. Despite Darth Vader’s best efforts to stop them, the Rebels are able to get the plans to Princess Leia, leading into the events of A New Hope.