Andor delivers what I’ve wanted from Star Wars for years

What happens when you put story before toys?

Andor delivers what I’ve wanted from Star Wars for years
Image: Lucasfilm 

For years, Star Wars creator George Lucas has steadily maintained what his intentions are with the film franchise he created back in 1977: "The films were designed for 12-year-olds. I said that right from the very, very beginning and the very first interviews I did for A New Hope."

12 is a good age to be introduced to the films (as I was): there's exciting scenery, lots of lightsabers, some some lofty ideas about the nature of the universe that feel mindblowing at that age, and of course, a merchandizing machine to accompany it all.

It's an approach that's worked for decades: Star Wars has become a multigenerational affair, as parents introduce their kids to the latest releases, who in turn become new fans who'll stick with it. Films and TV shows like The Force Awakens and The Mandalorian were designed to cater to a wide audience of fans, with enough callbacks to the older works for the nostalgic fans, and enough advancement of the larger story to keep things fresh and somewhat new.

I've long thought of Star Wars as a genre unto itself, and within the confines of that world, you have the building blocks and framework for an unlimited number of stories. You'll see the shows and books take some detours from the space opera fantasy that largely defines it, occasionally taking detours into horror or straight-up military science fiction, all while exploring some of the bigger ideas that are floating around in the cultural zeitgeist.

But even a well-developed framework and formula can get old after many iterations. We're attracted to stories because of what they elicit from us: delight, wonder, surprise, and as you chip away at the novelty, or retread over the same path, the impact and stakes of that story begins to erode. The emotional impact of a character in peril doesn't quite hit as hard when you can guess the rough direction of where they're headed.

This is an intrensive problem with some of these longer-running franchises: in the race to attract a wide, global audience and fandom, many of these studios have opted to return to what's broadly familiar. The result? Stories like The Mandalorian that show off a slightly new and different corner of the universe, but which aren't really upending it in or advancing it in a substantial way. At its best, you get The Mandalorian, which shows off the familiar in a neat and engaging way. The times it doesn't work? You get something like The Book of Boba Fett, which felt entirely like it was designed for those familiarities.

Nostalgia’s limits
The Book of Boba Fett was a nice bit of worldbuilding, but that’s about it

(This sounds like a dig, but it isn't: I think there's certainly enough space within an established universe to continue an ongoing story and to have fun with it without the need to reinvent the wheel every time.)

When those creators do write something that's game changing for the universe, it's cause to sit up straight and pay attention. It's why The Empire Strikes Back is still routinely named as one of the best entries in the franchise: it pushed its characters to their limits and introduced some unexpected directions. Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire was innovative in upping the stakes for the heroes, The Last Jedi undercut some of the franchise's long-runing tropes in the form of Luke's journey, and Rogue One was a gritty war/espionage story about sacrifice. We can add its prequel series, Andor, to that list.

When it debuted in theaters back in 2016, Rogue One has become something of an unlikely cult favorite (if you can call a movie that grossed a hair over a billion dollars a cult hit). It had a famously production that saw Lucasfilm bring in Tony Gilroy to tighten it up in the months before it hit theaters (he characterized the film as being in "terrible trouble" when he came onboard.) Film media spilled plenty of ink about this and what the implicatons were (myself included), and after The Force Awaken's $2 billion box office haul, there were plenty of folks who wrote the film off as being something of an aberration, a big-budget experiment. But the film has had staying power: even as some vocal segments of the fan community have complained about the Disney era of Star Wars storytelling being an abject failure, many will accept that this film was a good one.

There's a lot of reasons for this. It picks up the familiar-but-different tendencies of the franchise, but puts a darker and complicated spin on them. The film shows that the heroes we grew up rooting for might not have been quite so morally pure, in a way that recalls the gritty realism that the 9/11 attack and the subsequent Global War on Terror brought to the rebooted sci-fi series Battlestar Galactica. And of course, a reminder of why Darth Vader is somthing to be feared. For the first time in a while, it felt like Star Wars had told a story for the grownups in fandom, those who wanted to see it do something a little more realistic.

In Rogue One we met Cassian Andor (played by Diego Luna), and from the very beginning with his introduction, it was clear that he had a complicated backstory. He shoots an informant in cold blood, and later told his companion Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones): "Some of us - well, most of us - we've all done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion. Spies, saboteurs, assassins. Everything I did, I did for the Rebellion. And every time I walked away from something I wanted to forget, I told myself it was for a cause that I believed in. A cause that was worth it."

I've been excited to see what that backstory would look like when Andor was announced back in 2018, and especially with the word that Gilroy would return to write it a year later. I've been a fan of his for a while: he was the writer behind the Jason Bourne series, as well as the fantastic George Clooney legal thriller Michael Clayton (which he also directed), and a key thing that I think he brought to the table was a detachment from the universe: he wasn't a fan of the franchise. "I’ve never been interested in Star Wars, ever," he explained. "So I had no reverence for it whatsoever. I was unafraid about that.”

That's a pretty remarkable contrast to the stable of directors that Lucasfilm has brought onboard for their films and TV shows, who've talked extensively about what it was like to play in a franchise that they grew up loving. The result is an entry in the Star Wars franchise that feels like – maybe for the first time – where the story was put ahead of a list of toy tie-ins that needed to be included.

The result is an entry in the Star Wars franchise that feels like – maybe for the first time – where the story was put ahead of a list of toy tie-ins that needed to be included.

That's no small thing: Force Awakens/Last Jedi/Solo/Rise of Skywalker/Mandalorian/Book of Boba Fett/Obi-Wan Kenobi is chock-full of references to the rest of the franchise, either in the form of physical items (ships flying around in the background, characters, aliens, weapons, armors, etc.), or callbacks to stories (Think Ahsoka showing up in The Mandalorian, or Thrawn in Rebels.) Again, none of this is bad, but it does feel like it's restrictive if you're looking to tell stories that are either pushing the boundaries of one's world, or if you're looking to tell something that's relevant to your readers/viewers.

This is what makes Andor feel so different from its predecessors. There are some congruities with the world: some familiar things: familiar costume and set designs, a Y-Wing, some planet names that we've heard or seen before (there'll be more to come soon, judging from the trailers), but those items were at the edge of the action, than the in-your-face easter eggs that crowd some of the other recent projects. Indeed, Gilroy told IGN that "We didn’t want to do anything that was fan service,” and that “the mandate in the very beginning was that it would be as absolutely non-cynical as it could possibly be, that the show would just be real and honest.”

[Spoilers ahead]

From those first three episodes, it looks very much that "real" and "honest" is what this show is going to be. The opening titles shows that it's set around five years ahead of the events of Rogue One and A New Hope, and we meet Cassian as he enters a private corporate sector on a planet called Morlana One. He's looking for a missing woman from a planet called Kenari, and ends up running afoul of two security goons. In the struggle that ensues, he kills both of them.

That killing galvanizes an eager young security officer, Syril Karn (Kyle Soller), on the planet to investigate why two of his men have been killed, even as his overseer looks to sweep the killing under the rug. Over the three episodes, we follow Syril as he disregards his instructions and closes the net around Cassian, who's also desperate to get offworld, and jumps at the chance to meet an informant who's willing to pay for a piece of stolen imperial tech that he's had stashed away. Those three episodes culminate in a tense action sequence as Syril's security teams close in.

The scene reminded me more than a little of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down (I'd be unsurpised if we see that as an inspiration) as the three teams descent upon the city, and move in to arrest Cassian for his crime. Their mission quickly goes south, and Cassian escapes with Stellan Skarsgård's mysterious broker, Luthen Rael, while Syril is left fuming and emboldened with a purpose: this is now personal for him.

The beginning of a revolution
Andor is coming! The next live-action Star Wars series is inching closer to its release, and last week, series star Diego Luna visited Good Morning America to bring along a full trailer for the series, a couple of months after a teaser dropped at Star Wars Celebration. Teasers usually just

Gilroy's had a lot of experience with these sorts of espionage thrillers, and back in 2016, he came onboard Rogue One after helping out with some behind the scenes work on The Bourne Identity (and seems to have connected to Lucasfilm via Kathleen Kennedy's husband, Frank Marshall, who produced and directed parts of the film.) That detached approach to the Star Wars universe and his background here gives those three episodes an entirely different flavor of the Star Wars universe: it's deliberate, tense, and shows off a new side of the world that we haven't really seen before.

Andor and Rogue One is part of a handful of projects that have been slowly filling in an enticing bit of the world: how do you go from the Republic to the Galactic Empire? Sure, you have a military coup where your soldiers kill off the Jedi Order, but that's just one step: how do you show the galaxy under its control? Over the course of the franchise, we've seen this conflict in black and white terms: the Empire's certainly willing to use unimaginable force to hold its subjects in line, from forced conscription to destroying entire planets. When you have these black and white sides, how and why do people go along with it? That's been one of the missing puzzle pieces that Rogue One hinted at, and which is front and center in Andor.

In Andor, the camera follows ordinary citizens trying to make their way through live on the planet Ferrix, where Cassian has settled. It's clear from their faces that they're scraping by. These aren't the smugglers, scavengers or military officers or bounty hunters who're typically the hero of the story. These are ordinary folk, and the world is just stressful enough to push them to a tipping point. Inject a flashpoint – Cassian murdering two security officers and the subsequent heavy-handed response from their colleagues – and we come away with a better sense of how the people of the world are discontented with life under the Empire and proxies. That's a key ingredient for understanding the stakes of the entire conflict behind the conflict, something that we've only really had told to us in the major films. The Empire is bad because they resort to genocide, but they're also responsible for wider-scale oppression and authoritarianism that reduces the quality of life for everyone under their rule.

Everything in this series seems designed for that: the camera that lingers over a rack of gloves, the weary faces of the workers in a scrap yard, the glee in a security officer's face when he's finally let off the leash, and the story that's slowly putting bits and pieces of the plot into motion. I

As such, we really haven't seen Star Wars take on this type of story before: this isn't really fodder for the 12-year-old fan (indeed, I've heard from a couple of friends who've said that they enjoyed it, but their kids didn't or were indifferent. My own son shrugged when I asked him if he wanted to watch the latest episode after seeing the first one.) It's a series that puts a more complicated spin on the world, one that you don't necessarily see or understand as a kid.  

It's certainly a series that feels as though it's deeply informed by the spread of authoritarian governments here at home and around the world. (When Rogue One debuted in the weeks after the 2016 presidential election, it felt like it hit with even greater importance: resisting tyranny at all costs.) It's examining the deeper causes of discontent that slowly boils under the surface, rather than the most dramatic examples that erupt after the pressure becomes too much.

This isn't the type of series that feels designed to sell action figures or to be an easy win for nostalgic fans, but rather a series designed to consequentially move the needle for the types of stories this world can tell. That's a good thing, because if Star Wars is its own genre, then variety is good: variety provides depth and nuance, and the ability to explore the world from new angles. After a string of hits that are firmly rooted in the DNA of the original film, I think it'll be a good thing for the world as a whole, and it makes me a little more interested in some of the other projects in the pipeline like the prequel series Acolyte.

Star Wars might have originally been intended for the 12-year-olds looking out for excitement in the world, but those fans have grown up since their first viewings, and the franchise should continue to grow and evolve as they have. So far, it's off to a very promising start.  

That's it for today. I've got a pile of longer reads and links to share out at some point: expect a roundup in the next couple of days if I have time this weekend.

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Have a good weekend,