MAY THE FOURTH BE WITH YOU

First, a little Biodefense Graduate Program-Star Wars parody to kick off the festivities.

Happy Star Wars Day! A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…there were also biological weapons, believe it or not. While certainly not an elegant weapon for a more civilized age, these bioweapons (BW) varied in sophistication and caused their victims much suffering. They were a threat in most major conflicts throughout the history of the galaxy and were a research priority of the Galactic Empire. Fortunately, the Alliance to Restore the Republic prioritized destroying Imperial BW facilities throughout the Galactic Civil War and beyond. Join us for a recap on uses of BW throughout Star Wars Canon and Legends and don’t forget to re-watch your favorite Star Wars movie or show (and by that we mean Episode V) today and see if you can spot some of these examples. This is the way.

Refresher: Canon vs Legends

Since the premier of Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, the epic space-opera franchise we all know and love has grown massively. Today this includes the nine films of the Skywalker Saga, the two anthology films (Rogue One and Solo), a whole array of TV shows from Droids and Ewoks in the 1980s to The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett today, and countless books, games, and comics. It is a lot to keep up with. Originally, everything outside of the films and certain other productions (like The Clone Wars TV show) was considered the Expanded Universe (EU). The EU covered events from more than 36,000 years before the events of Episode I: The Phantom Menace in the Dawn of the Jedi comics to over 100 years after Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in the Legacy comics. Interestingly, the EU is also technically older than the films themselves. This is because the novel adaptation of Episode IV was released six months before the film in 1977.

Anyway, in 2014, in preparation for the sequel trilogy, Lucasfilm (acquired by Disney in 2012) announced that everything previously considered EU was going to be re-branded as Legends and would no longer be adhered to. This meant that there was now new continuity consisting of the original six films, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and any future material- this became the official canon. In January 2021, Lucasfilm announced six new eras dividing all of the canonical content to help organize the expanding franchise: The High Republic, The Fall of the Jedi, The Reign of the Empire, The Age of Rebellion, The New Republic, and The Rise of the First Order. Right now, the canon consists of 12 movies (the nine films of the Skywalker Saga, the two anthology films, and the 2008 animated film, The Clone Wars), several television shows (The Clone Wars, Rebels, The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett), EA’s video games (Battlefront, Battlefront II, Jedi: Fallen Order, and Squadrons), and a ton of books. Everything published or produced after 2014 is canon; everything else is considered Legends. There are at least 381 novels under the franchise, including famous series like Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy and his follow-up Thrawn Duology. There are also well over 100 comic series between those published by Marvel and Dark Horse Comics. So, as you can imagine, there have been plenty of opportunities over the years for bioweapons to make an appearance or two in this franchise, some of which we’ll cover today.

Biological and Toxin Weapons in Star Wars Canon

Do you recall any examples of BW use in Star Wars over the years? There is a great chance you don’t. Fortunately, some of us had a lot of free time before graduate school and, as a result, are all too aware of these instances. While we don’t know a ton about BW use in the early history of the canon, we do know that the Empire was very interested in these weapons (particularly neurotoxins and defoliants) throughout its rule. The Separatists during the days of the Galactic Republic were also interested in biological and toxin weapons, most notably Blue Shadow Virus.

Fall of the Jedi- Blue Shadow Virus

This virus makes appearances in both Canon and Legends stories, but in the canon, it is said to have spread across the galaxy like a plague many years before the Clone Wars. Blue Shadow Virus is a waterborne virus that the majority of carbon-based lifeforms were susceptible to. It is said that patients infected with this virus had only 48 hours before the resulting disease would prove fatal, with 96% of carbon-based life-forms succumbing to the virus. Patients generally experienced coughing and fatigue in addition to developing visible blue veins over their bodies. Originally infamous for being incurable, it was discovered that a cure (described in the franchise as an antidote) could be derived from the reeska root, a rare plant originating only on the planet Iego in the Outer Rim Territories.

Because of its wide spread thousands of years before the Clone Wars, efforts were successfully made to eradicate it. However, Dr. Nuvo Vindi (pictured in the Tweet below), working under the Confederacy of Independent Systems, created and weaponized an airborne version of the virus during the Clone Wars. He planned to use bombs to spread the weapon across the galaxy, working on his plot in a Separatist laboratory hidden in the swamps of Naboo. Eventually, the Royal Naboo Security Forces intercepted a tactical droid returning to the lab, prompting Senator Padmé Amidala and Representative Jar Jar Binks to return to their home planet to investigate. They were captured by Vindi’s battle droids, though they were later rescued by Jedi Generals Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker and Anakin’s Padawan, Ahsoka Tano. They thwarted Vindi’s plot but, as the facility was being decontaminated, a service droid stole a sample of the virus and detonated one of the remaining devices, trapping Amidala, Tano, Binks, and Captain Rex and his squad in the lab with a few remaining battle droids. As the clock ticks, Kenobi and Skywalker travel to Iego to collect the reeska root, eventually returning to Naboo with the cure just in the nick of time.

The Reign of the Empire and Beyond

In Aftermath: Life Debt, Imperial Navy Vice Admiral Perwin Gedde oversaw one of the Empire’s largest, most brutal BW programs. Under his direction, “ancient diseases” were tested on annexed planets’ civilians. After the Empire was defeated on Endor, he escaped and hid out on Vorlag with Slussen Canker, a slaver and crime lord. Gedde was wanted by the New Republic for his war crimes and was eventually tracked down by a team of Imperial hunters led by Norra Wexley following a galaxy-wide manhunt. While Gedde temporarily subdued his hunters with the assistance of Jas Emari, she later betrayed him, leading to Gedde being imprisoned on the Halo as the team returned to Chandrila. Under the orders of Imperial Navy Admiral Rae Sloane, he was poisoned with a mycotoxin by the bounty hunter Mercurial Swift so that he could not provide information about his BW work to the New Republic.

In Star Wars: Commander (a mobile strategy game), it is revealed that the Imperial Military Department of Advanced Weapons Research organized a program called Project Blackwing on Dandoran. The project was tasked with discovering how to create immortality, principally by using Sith alchemy to create a virus that could reanimate the dead. However, this did not go according to plan as there was the accidental creation and release of the Blackwing virus, AKA “the Sickness”, sometime between the Battles of Yavin and Hoth. The virus killed its hosts and turned them into cannibal zombies. While the zombies did move slower than their living hosts had previously, they had much more stamina and strength than before. Worse yet, the virus allowed the zombies to act as one and to learn from others, allowing them to use weapons and pilot starships. The outbreak spread across the secret installation, earning the new Undead Troopers the collective name “Army of the Dead” as they eventually came to be supplemented by Heavy and Scout Undead Troopers. Both the Empire and the Rebel Alliance worked to contain this threat, eventually succeeding, though the rebels did have to contain a second outbreak later on. This virus also appears in Legends work.

Finally, Battlefront: Twilight Company reveals that during the Galactic Civil War, the Empire hosted a BW research facility on Coyerti. The Distillery was the main hub of the BW operation on the planet, making it an important strategic target during the Coyerti campaign. Though there are not many specifics, it is known that the Distillery created, tested, and exported toxin (and even some chemical) weapons. During the Coyerti campaign, the Alliance’s 61st Mobile Infantry (AKA Twilight Company) successfully destroyed the Distillery. However, weapons from the Distillery stockpiled on Nakadia were later used on Twilight Company, claiming many rebel soldiers, including Maediyu after her internal organs liquified.

“These aren’t pesticides. They’ve got military-grade bioweapons, be careful.”

Hazram Namir, Battlefront: Twilight Company

That wraps up examples in the canon. Check out Star Wars: The Clone Wars S1:E17 and 18 (“Blue Shadow Virus” and “Mystery of a Thousand Moons”) to see Blue Shadow Virus in action. And before you say, “But what about the Kamino saberdart?” Well…more on that at the end.

Biological and Toxin Weapons in Star Wars Legends

As you might have guessed, BW is much more prevalent throughout the much larger Legends side of the franchise. While we can’t possibly cover it all in this post, we will hit some of the highlights. Much like in the canon, it is known that bioweapons have been used across time and space in the galaxy. Ship, the sentient spacecraft who existed in the intergalactic void, recalled the use of the Plague bomb during a war in a distant galaxy. Ship reveals in “Star Wars 38: Riders in the Void” that the bomb destroyed the home world of Ship’s pilot, with the pilot being the only known member of the species to survive the outbreak. The Charon are also known to have used BW frequently.

More recently, the Old Republic era saw the use of many bioweapons, such as Trihexalon in the Star War: Jedi Starfighter game. Trihexalon, AKA hex or dragon’s breath, was a weapon created by the Trade Federation using ore from Mount Merakan. It was said to cause “complete biomass conversion” in targets and it could be either tailored to target a specific individual or used against an entire planet. Once refined, hex was a dust that was inert and stable at very low temperatures. This was kept in vials that allowed the agent to be released when ready, causing a massive energy burst. A palm-sized sample was enough to kill as many as 300 Wookies, though this depended on the blast size generated by the special vial.

Later on, the Empire developed nano-destroyers, engineered viruses designed to destroy a victim’s body a single cell at a time. These were first introduced in Champions of the Force and have since been briefly mentioned in The New Rebellion and The New Jedi Order: Agents of Chaos I: Hero’s Trial. The destroyers were said to bind to the victims’ cells, causing them to have powers such as increased strength and speed or rapid healing. However, they also caused the victims to mutate and turn into mindless beings who fed on others. Though there is mention of a cure developed on Carida, little other information is provided about it.

A Sith scientists named Vul Isen developed a weapon using “viral spores” during the Second Imperial Civil War for use as a force multiplier against rebelling planets. Essentially, these weapons killed every living creature in a target planet’s oceans within a matter of days, rendering the oceans totally uninhabitable and eventually killing off the entire population of the planet. He developed several versions of this weapon before finally creating one potent enough so that one vial had the destructive capacity to end life on an entire planet. He intended this final strain to be used on Utapau, where remnants of the Galactic Alliance maintained a base. Later, Isen was ordered by Darth Wyyrlok to release the spores on Dac to punish the Mon Calamari for aiding the Alliance. Within a few days of doing so, millions of Dac’s inhabitants died, floating on the water’s surface and prompting Rogue Squadron to incorrectly conclude that a new landmass had formed on the planet because of the size of the collection of corpses. Galactic Alliance Admiral Gar Stazi became aware of the plot and successfully organized a massive evacuation of Dac, allowing 20% of the planet’s inhabitants to escape before the rest succumbed to the spores. This attack outraged many across the galaxy and set Jedi Cade Skywalker on a warpath for Isen, whom he called the “Butcher of Dac”.

“Poisons? Toxins? Destroy them from space with bombs!”

“As I have explained before, Darth Azard, we’re not here to make the inhabitants really, really sick. We’re to make certain they all die.”

Vul Isen to Darth Azard in Legacy 49: Extremes, Part 2 (2006)

The last one we’ll touch on today is Vira606, a virus engineered by the Imperial Security Bureau that appeared in the Stars Wars: The Roleplaying Game campaign book, The Far Orbit Project. Basically, the ISB created this virus to be 100% fatal, though it was not contagious. There was, however, a very specific series of serum injections that could keep it at bay for a time, preventing death until another series was needed. The ISB used this to maintain control over enemies and agents, ensuring their loyalty and forcing them to do tasks in order to get a ration of the injections in time.

Final Thoughts and Further Reading/Nerding

In case it isn’t clear, some times the Star Wars universe confuses BW and CW and sometimes the causative agents and mechanisms of these weapons just do not add up. While it is likely that societies in a galaxy where inter-planetary travel and jumps through hyperspace are common have more advanced bioweapons than those in real life, their designs are not always clear to us here in this galaxy. However, it is still interesting to see how these kinds of weapons are represented in popular culture, especially since BW doesn’t quite have a key, iconic representation in film a la Dr. Strangelove.

BW’s presence in pop culture did grow during the Cold War, though it has appeared in written and film media for much longer (check out Albert Robida’s La Guerre au vingtième siècle/The War in the Twentieth Century for a 19th century take on weaponized disease, for example). Some of this mid-20th century fascination seems to have influenced parts of Star Wars’ take on BW as well. For example, Dr. Nuvo Vindi speaks with a distinctly German accent. He also weaponizes a previously eradicated pathogen, paralleling the real-life threat of smallpox weapons following the disease’s eradication and the end of civilian vaccination campaigns. Of course, in recent years, zombie films have been huge in the United States, though the South Koreans definitely do zombie movies best. Iconic outbreak films like Outbreak, Contagion, and I Am Legend also naturally experienced renewed popularity in 2020. Whatever the era or genre, it seems we just can’t get enough of the psychological terror the idea of an infectious disease killing everyone off brings- even in the classic space opera in a galaxy far, far away.

For more BW+space opera fun, this Wookiepedia page offers a great jumping point to learn more about all the uses of BW in Legends materials. This one offers examples of BW use appearing in canon work. If you’re more interested in CW, check out this Wookiepedia listing for weapons that use different chemicals (including lots of assassination weapons). Make sure to check out this post on the Star Wars official site called the Phlegmpire Strikes Back, which discusses other bioweapons and naturally-occurring illnesses in the galaxy. Finally, if you want a video on the Imperial BW Program, check out EckhartsLadder’s video on the program here on YouTube. Now, about that saberdart…

The canon isn’t always clear on if the Kamino saberdart uses a toxin or a poison to kill, but it is more clear in Legends work that these darts can use either type of weapon. Love or hate the Dex’s Diner scene in Episode II, this weapon helped drive the plot along while establishing that CBW are also used for assassinations in this galaxy. Now if only we knew more about disinfo campaigns in the galaxy…

That wraps up this special feature. May the fourth be with you all, Pandora Report readers. We’ll see you on Friday for the weekly newsletter!

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