Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker resurrected Emperor Palpatine, with the Expanded Edition novelization offering further insight into the decades-long process behind his return. Turns out, cloning and the Sith Eternal, a cult who used unnatural Force techniques, were involved in the spectacular feat. A fascinating new theory, however, claims this wasn't his first revival. Palpatine may have already been dead in Return of the Jedi.
George Lucas retroactively superimposed Ian McDiarmid’s version of the character into The Empire Strikes Back. In the Emperor's earliest on-screen appearance, Darth Vader and Palpatine have a conversation about Luke, with the Sith lord appearing to Vader in holographic form. It’s Clive Revill’s voice; McDiarmid’s scenes were filmed two decades after Return of the Jedi and his visage was edited back into Episode V by Lucas. Thus, that’s the primary explanation for why McDiarmid’s Palpatine looks older in Empire Strikes Back than he does in Return of the Jedi.
Reddit user karldasbrot theorizes that Vader may have killed Palpatine long before he was tossed down the shaft of the Death Star II in Return of the Jedi. The theory hinges on the idea that the Vader comic series would reveal that Palps killed Padme. Angry at his mentor for killing his wife, Vader murders Sheev in cold blood.
Here’s where it gets a bit more complicated. Instead of simply dying and becoming one with the Force, Sidious “came back to his body and sucked some life force from Vader to heal his wounds.” The theorist suggests that Sidious’ potential actions not only explain why he looks younger in Return of the Jedi, but also why Vader barely used the Force in Episode VI, choosing the Light side of the Force and doing away with Sidious for what was presumably the second time.
Obviously, behind-the-scenes logistics reveal the real reason Palps looks the way he does in Empire Strikes Back and it’s unlikely that Vader would kill his mentor two movies in a row. The chances of the first death having happened offscreen are even slimmer. That being said, the theory does raise a fascinating possibility about Palpatine’s existence.
We now know Palpatine was cloned and the Sith Eternal went through a long process to bring him back. With that in mind, any version of Palpatine could technically be a clone of his original form. It’s creepy to think about, but knowing that he had a whole cult tinkering with the unnatural — not to mention his obsession with immortality — lends some credence to the idea that Return of the Jedi’s version of Palps was one of the earliest examples of his resurrection.