Gritty, grim and gripping, Tony Gilroy’s Andor is Star Wars… but not as we know it. The Disney + series, which chronicles the formation of the Rebel Alliance, has restored some desperately-needed credibility to the Star Wars brand after a string of letdowns. And it has given Disney + its first big “prestige TV” hit, even if audiences have largely stayed away.
With the first of two seasons having just concluded, it is clear, moreover, that Bourne Identity screenwriter Gilroy knows what he is doing. Because while Disney + Star Wars shows have tended to fall apart in their final episode (remember Book of Boba Fett and shudder), the Andor finale delivered.
There was another winningly brooding performance from Diego Luna as anti-hero Cassian Andor (introduced as an ardent member of the alliance in Gilroy’s Rogue One – to which Andor is a prequel). And from Denise Gough as Dedra Meero – an Empire spymaster with a vulnerable side that flashes excruciatingly to the surface now and then. Gough was originally due to appear in HBO’s cancelled Game of Thrones spin-off, Bloodmoon: Westeros’s loss is very much Star Wars’ gain.
Alongside the taut drama, Andor’s final episode also delivered an emotive punch as Cassian’s adoptive mother, Maarva Andor (Fiona Shaw) used her funeral speech – delivered posthumously via hologram - to urge her compatriots to rise against the Empire. Yes, Disney, this IS the Star Wars spin-off we’re looking for.
But why did Andor succeed where the Book of Boba Fett and Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi prove so underwhelming? The short answer is that Gilroy knows his way around a bruising nail-biter and has essentially used Star Wars as a Trojan Bantha to smuggle on to Disney + a sinewy sci-fi thriller. The longer answer follows…
1. The glacial pacing
Biff Pow! Pew Pew! Lightsaber hum! Such has been the simplistic, blueprint for much of Disney’s Star Wars “content”. From the terrible JJ Abrams/Rian Johnson movies via The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, the House of Mouse has tripped over itself in its desperation to dazzle George Lucas devotees.
There was, of course, the obviou…s exception of The Mandalorian, with its spaghetti Western vibes. And with Baby Yoda, that cherubic snaffler of blue space cookies. Andor is different from all the above, however, in that it initially proceeds at a creep. Almost nothing happens in its first four episodes. At moments you’re watching space wallpaper dry.
But Gilroy knows what he’s doing; there’s a method to his drabness. The viewers who stay with Andor through those opening chapters are clearly on the showrunner’s wavelength. And, so, are prepared to lean in as he tracks the existential agonies of society figure (and secret Rebel fundraiser) Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly). And also as he explores the dreary reality of life on the prison moon, Narkina 5, to which Cassian is sent on trumped-up charges.
2. No Jedis
“May the Force Be With You” is not a sentence that appears in Andor. Gilroy has been painted as a casual Star Wars fan. Yet he seems to have been paying attention to the original films, in which the Force is regarded as obscure mysticism.
He takes up that thread in Andor by depicting a Star Wars universe that would have been familiar to Han Solo – who famously believed a blaster always trumped a lightsaber.
That hard-hitting sensibility is all-pervading. The story opens in the red light district of cyberpunk industrial planet Morlana One. From there, we accompany Cassian to his home of Ferrix – a rust-belt purgatory, where everything is creaking and in need of new batteries (that’s just the humans – you should see the droids).
In so doing, he connects with the spirit of Star Wars. Remember how the best Lucas film, The Empire Strikes Back, ended with Han betrayed by his best pal and Luke having his arm sliced off? Andor hooks into the dark side of the original Star Wars that we’d all forgotten.
3. Superb casting
Recent Star Wars properties have suffered from maniacally inconstant performances. For every natural-born charmer such as John Boyega or Ewan McGregor, there have been overheated turns by stars on the brink of full space-panto.
Some of the acting was so howlingly bad as to defy belief. It takes a special ineptitude to make Domhnall Gleeson look like a scenery chewer, for instance. Yet that’s what JJ Abrams achieved in The Force Awakens and Rise of Skywalker.
Gilroy, by contrast, gets wonderful performances from his ensemble. Gough, O’Reilly and especially Luna, are unshowy and intense. What perfect casting – a troupe of actors who look like they’ve been knocked about by life and then blasted into deep orbit.
A cost of this calibre doesn't come together by accident doesn’t happen by accident and it is surely no coincidence that Gilroy chose to work with Nina Gold – a giant of the artform who has previously worked on Game of Thrones (she decided Kit Harington was the perfect Jon Snow) and was responsible for the consistently authentic casting on The Crown. And who, famously, discovered Daisy Ridley and John Boyega and put them in JJ Abrams’s The Force Awakens.
It was presumably her idea, too, to work with another Force Awakens alumnus in Andy Serkis. Serkis is best known for his performance capture acting in superior blockbusters such as The Lord of the Rings and Planet of the Apes. In Andor he chucks away the mo-cap suit and delivers a searing turn as lippy prison inmate Kino Roy.
Serkis actually had his doubts about taking the job. He worried fans would assume a link with the Force Awakens in which he was the evil Snoke. “I was slightly trepidatious because when I came into it I was thinking, ‘Oh no, no, the Snoke theories are just going to go crazy! Is this Snoke? Has he come back?’"
He needn’t have fretted – Andor is so far away in feel and subject matter from the Abrams-verse that nobody drew a connection.
4. Production design you can almost touch
Star Wars is associated with blasting lasers, whooshing spaceships and extravagant costumes. Watch the original trilogy today, though, and you can tell that much of it was shot in a creaky warehouse in Hertfordshire, by a crew who insisted on breaking for tea at 5.30 every evening.
The Seventies dystopia which flickered in the background of those films is lovingly recreated by Gilroy. Ferrix is like something from a grim public information video circa 1973. The gleaming imperial planet of Coruscant is recreated as a gilded prison. And the actual prison moon to which Cassian bundled-off is seemingly inspired by the minimalist look of Lucas’s first film, Orwellian art-house feature THX-1138.
One crucial decision was to construct physical sets. That’s a departure for Disney + which, with The Mandalorian and Obi-Wan Kenobi, has made extensive use of “Stagecraft” virtual studios (the Disney iteration is christened Volume).
These are studio-based tech that put a live actor in front of a projected image. The idea is to make the experience more immersive for the performer, compared to the standard green-screen. Which is well and good. But over-used, Stagecraft can give a show the digital version of a fake tan – everything feels flat and inauthentic.
No such concerns with Andor, which featured a grounded look created by Chernobyl production designer Luke Hull. He scoured the UK for dystopian locations – including the shuttered Croyton Refinery in Essex (the landing terminal on Ferrix) and Cruachan Dam, in Argyll and Bute (the Imperial garrison that Andor helps raid). Not since the Seventies heyday of Doctor Who have so many quarries, refineries and brutalist apartment complexes featured on prime time.
“Ferrix should feel like a working town with a small community,” Hull told The Verge. “And the whole logic of how we decided to build that as one big composite set on the back lot was based on that idea. You can get lost in it; when you’re filming, you’re not having to cut between sets.”
5. Fantastic action
As fans of the Bourne films will know, Gilroy loves a brutal combat scene. Amidst all the talkiness, Andor serves up its share. The raid on the Imperial garrison at Aldhani is a pulse-pounding heist. And a later face-off between Stellan Skarsgård's incognito rebel leader, Luthen Rael, and an imperial surveillance craft plays out like an excerpt from an Iain M Banks sic-fi novel: it is both action-packed and, framed by a gleaming blue planet, eerily beautiful.
6. The realism
One of the season’s major storylines concerns Mon Mothma's attempts to conceal the money trail that connects her to the rebels. Another revolves around Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) and his determination that Andor not pose a security risk to the alliance.
The first plot is essentially an accounting conundrum, the second confirms Rael to be just as ruthless as the Empire. Having never participated in an intergalactic rebellion, I can’t vouch for the accuracy of either. But goodness they feel authentic.
7. The music
Emphasising the “capital P” prestige quality of the production, the soundtrack to Andor is by Nicholas Britell, who has Oscar-nominations for Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk and Don’t Look Up. He also won an Emmy for his wickedly catchy theme to HBO’s Succession.
Working with Gilroy, he brings something new to Star Wars. Compared to the standard, swelling George Lucas codas Andor is a galaxy far, far away. The ominous title tune is Stanley Kubrick meets Daft Punk; Maarva's funeral march Britell is a moving mix of Ennio Morricone and colliery bands; later he deploys techno, retro “synth-wave” pop and minimalist classic pieces. At no point does he attempt to copy John Williams.
The secret weapon is his use of analogue synthesisers – a technology that ties in with Gilroy’s concept of the past and future interlocked in a complicated dance. "It's the idea that this comes before that trilogy and before Rogue One,” said Britell “There was something almost retro about it. To me, this retro analogue synthesiser felt like we were going to the before stages that could then grow into the majesty of what we all know Star Wars is.”
8. Stormtroopers who hit the target
In the final face-off at the funeral of Andor’s adoptive mother, the imperial legions shoot to kill – and hit the target again and again as they mow down the citizen of Ferrix. And when blasters are no use, they whip out their nightsticks and beat protestors to a pulp. After decades of inept Stormtroopers, is it okay to admit that we enjoyed seeing them do their job for once?
That plugs into the wider idea of death mattering for once in Star Wars. As anyone who yawned through Han Solo getting bumped off in the Force Awakens will recall, the stakes in the franchise were hugely devalued once Disney came charging in. But Gilroy has restored balance. When fresh-faced rebel Karis Nemik suffers a spinal injury during the raid on Aldhani, for instance, it is made perfectly clear that this is a life-threatening impairment - from which he later dies. In old school Star Wars, he’d have been up waving a lightsaber in no time at all. And the entire back-end of the season hinges on the death of Andor’s adopted mother, sent on her way to the strains of a heartbreaking funeral march.
9. The very British accents
How to convey the banality of interstellar evil? Gilroy’s solution is to cast as the Empire’s officer core washed-out, unshaven actors who looked as if their last job was playing a ne’er do well in Albert Square. Further bonus points for giving us a droid who breaks our hearts in B2EMO: when he/it refuses to leave the home of its late mistress, Maarva Andor, it is impossible not to be moved. Star Wars fans won’t have cried so much since Rise of Skywalker – only this time the tears are a positive.
10. Those speeches
While Star Wars has its quotable lines, it’s not exactly The Godfather. However, Gilroy’s script is packed with devastating lines that amplify the show’s themes of destiny and sacrifice – and the fact that bravery comes at a price.
That is most clear in the character of Luthen, who has gone over to his own personal dark side in order to get the Rebellion off the ground. “What is my sacrifice? I’m condemned to use the tools of my enemy to defeat them. I burn my decency for someone else’s future,” he says. “I burn my life, to make a sunrise that I know I’ll never see. The ego that started this fight will never have a mirror, or an audience, or the light of gratitude. So what do I sacrifice?…Everything.”
Never mind the best in Star Wars - it's one of the finest monologues ever seen on TV.
Andor is on Disney+ now