Andor, the new live-action limited series that premiered on Disney Plus on Wednesday, is pitched as a gritty adult spy drama, the rare mass-marketed entry into the canon to frame Star Wars as the story of a political revolution on a galactic scale. The 24-episode, two-season series follows the life of Rebel operative Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), first seen in the 2016 feature film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Through the viewpoints of both its title character and that of Senator Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), Andor will tell the story of how isolated cells of resistance against the Empire became the Rebel Alliance, setting the stage for Rogue One and the original Star Wars.
During this period just before the outbreak of the Galactic Civil War — which Obi-Wan Kenobi dubs “The Dark Times” — the Star Wars galaxy is a true dystopia, an authoritarian nightmare whose citizens are either ignorant of its atrocities or hopelessly outmatched against them. This fascinating era has been the subject of some of the current canon’s most interesting ephemera. But for those who would prefer not to spend weeks untangling the intricacies of the first Galactic Empire, here’s a brief guided tour to set the stage for the franchise’s next grand opus.
Scarred and deformed
While the Galactic Republic officially becomes the Galactic Empire in 19 BBY (before the Battle of Yavin at the end of A New Hope) at the conclusion of the Clone Wars, totalitarian regimes are not born overnight. The degradation of the Republic into the Empire takes place over the nearly four-year span of the war, and its roots go much deeper than that.
As seen in the prequel film trilogy and explored in greater detail in the Clone Wars animated series, Supreme Chancellor Sheev Palpatine spends years orchestrating the conflict that would destabilize the Republic and enable him to seize power. Though very few individuals are aware at the time that Palpatine controls both sides of the Clone Wars, puppeteering Separatist leader Count Dooku via his alter ego Darth Sidious, the Senate eagerly indulges his power grabs in the name of galactic security, or in some cases, personal profits from the war effort. With the Republic’s entire clone army at his command (along with the Separatists’ entire droid army, through back channels), it’s unlikely that the Senate could have wrested power from Palpatine even if they’d wanted to. The only institution that stands a chance of dethroning him is the Jedi Order, most of whom are executed by their clone troops in the final days of the war.
Once Palpatine declares himself emperor and christens the first Galactic Empire (as seen in Revenge of the Sith), the fascistic power structures that he has been reinforcing throughout the war quickly kick into gear. Within days, the Empire phases out the Republic’s currency, requiring that citizens register for the new “chain code” identification system in order to exchange Republic credits for Imperial legal tender. Planets that were fortified by the Republic Army during the war remain occupied, and local governments who speak out against their continued presence are removed, sometimes violently. The Imperial Navy demolishes the cloning facility and uses the remaining clone troopers to train a new generation of soldiers recruited the old-fashioned way: by exploiting poverty and fostering jingoism and xenophobic paranoia.
These early changes are explored in the first season of the animated series The Bad Batch. While not officially adopting human supremacy as a platform, the Imperial government and military edges out nearly all “aliens” and justifies the enslavement of various sapient species, such as the Wookiees, by officially reclassifying them as “non-sentient.” The military exercises eminent domain at will across the galaxy and rescinds environmental protections on “legacy worlds,” displacing or exterminating residents and wildlife in the name of industrial and military expansion. The most egregious overreaches of authority occur far from the galaxy’s wealthy core systems, and public perception is skewed in the Empire’s favor by the manipulations of their propaganda machine. (Their exploits, as well as those of their opponents, are detailed in the fascinating in-universe reference book Star Wars Propaganda: A History of Persuasive Art in the Galaxy by Pablo Hidalgo.)
Throughout all of this, the Galactic Senate continues to exist, though mostly in name. Elections are held and two thousand seats are still filled, but their resolutions against Palpatine’s fascist agenda hold no real sway. True power over star systems is wielded by regional governors appointed by the Emperor. Given that the Senate has already gained a reputation of being aloof and ineffectual, it likely takes some time for the public — the human public, at least — to even notice that their government has meaningfully changed. The military authority that inflates during the Clone Wars simply never deflates, bestowed with a mandate to protect the newborn Empire against crime and sedition. A new, inescapable normal is born that survives for the better part of 20 years. The novels Catalyst: A Rogue One Novel and Tarkin, both by James Luceno, offer a detailed picture of the expansion of Imperial military might.
It’s against this backdrop that we get Cassian Andor, who says he has been fighting the empire since he was 6 years old. The Rebellion he’s played a part in building still looks a lot different than what we’ve seen in the hidden-away bases of Empire Strikes Back or The Last Jedi. These Rebels have yet to score any significant victories or unite under one flag. At this point, their greatest weapon is their anonymity.
The sparks that light the fire
Andor kicks off at 5 BBY, tracking the formation of the Alliance to Restore the Republic (better known as the Rebel Alliance) though bits and pieces of this story have been depicted across other media over the years. But the first embers of resistance predate even the official establishment of the Empire.
In a subplot deleted from Revenge of the Sith, Senators Padmé Amidala, Mon Mothma, and Bail Organa establish the Delegation of 2,000, a political caucus that challenges Palpatine to relinquish his wartime powers once the Separatists are defeated. (It would not be surprising to see these scenes reincorporated into Andor as flashbacks, particularly given that Genevieve O’Reilly portrays Mon Mothma there as well.) Needless to say, open political dissent becomes impossible once Palpatine becomes emperor, and Organa and Mon Mothma pivot to more cautious or covert tactics, leaking intelligence or aiding communication between the small resistance cells that crop up across the galaxy over the next decade and a half.
The first and most infamous early insurgency to spring up against the Empire after the fall of the Republic is the Partisans, a traveling terrorist band led by Onderonian Clone War veteran Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). The Partisans are relentless and violent, willing to permit shocking collateral damage and employ child soldiers such as Jyn Erso, whose years in their service are described in the Rogue One prequel novel Rebel Rising by Claudia Gray. Mon Mothma and Bail Organa withdraw their support from the Partisans, but continue to secretly aid a number of other cells whose tamer tactics don’t draw as much bad press. Though they’re not seen much in the films, Mon Mothma and Organa are the key architects of the Rebellion, connecting isolated pockets of resistance into one formidable whole.
Another close look at the birth of the Rebel Alliance can be found in the animated series Rebels, whose timeline overlaps significantly with Andor. Rebels follows hard-luck heroes the Spectres as they gradually consolidate their forces into the organized Rebellion that we see in A New Hope, and features appearances from a number of familiar faces from the original trilogy as well as Rogue One. It also reveals that the secret nerve center between Rebel cells — an agent known to most only as Fulcrum — is in fact the defrocked Jedi Knight Ahsoka Tano, the breakout character of The Clone Wars who has since appeared in The Mandalorian and will soon star in her own event series. Ahsoka isn’t the only Jedi to survive the Purge (in fact, the Star Wars expanded canon is littered with them), but those who remain are forced into hiding by Darth Vader and the Inquisitorius, a small group of Force-adept warriors trained to hunt errant Jedi and indoctrinate Force-sensitive children. Some of the Jedi and Inquisitor activity during this period is covered in Rebels, the TV miniseries Obi-Wan Kenobi, the video game Jedi: Fallen Order, the novel Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston, and the 2017 volume of Darth Vader comics.
While Ahsoka, Rebels’ Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger, and Fallen Order’s Cal Kestis and Cere Junda all eventually come out of hiding to fight the Empire (to say nothing of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker), the Jedi who made the earliest and most violent contribution to the nascent Rebellion is Ferren Barr, who within a year of the Empire’s birth secretly orchestrates a war between the Imperial Navy and the planet Mon Cala. Mon Cala’s refusal to pay protection money to the Empire, combined with their apparent assassination of an Imperial envoy (actually killed by Barr), leads the Empire to pulverize the planet. (This story is told in the Darth Vader comics arc “The Burning Seas” by writer Charles Soule and artists Giuseppe Camuncoli, Daniele Orlandini, and David Curiel.) The Empire makes a violent example of Mon Cala that ends up serving both Imperial and anti-Imperial narratives as a pre-Death Star example of the consequences of dissent. The Mon Calamari refugee fleet, led by one Gial Ackbar, eventually becomes the heart of the Rebel Alliance flotilla, as seen in Rebels, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi. Meanwhile, the Empire begins waging military campaigns against its own subjects as a matter of course, sometimes under the pretense of expelling “alien invaders,” such as the invasion of Mimban in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
By the year 5 BBY at the beginning of Andor’s first season, Imperial oppression is simply a fact of life, and resistance is viewed as a dangerous idea. It’s an environment more akin to 1984 than to Flash Gordon, a departure from both the epic warfare of the core films and the “Wild West” atmosphere of The Mandalorian. Andor offers an opportunity to dig deeper into the nuance of the Star Wars dystopia, arguably its most intriguing and relevant facet, and flesh it out for a mass audience.
It’s easy to dismiss Star Wars as kids’ stuff, because, frankly, so much of it is. Creator George Lucas may publicly lament that his film universe, which takes both visual and conceptual inspiration from World War II and the Vietnam War, is most famous for its nigh-infinite merchandising potential. In fairness, he bears as much responsibility for the corporatization of his vision as Disney, who purchased the rights from him in 2012. Even his own prequel film trilogy, which depicts in broad strokes the collapse of a republican (small “r”) government into a dictatorship, is packed with transparently toyetic characters and concepts. Still, beneath the fun but facile “good versus evil” drama of the original and sequel film trilogies and the complicated but lifeless intrigue of the prequels lives a complex political ecosystem with a rich history, explored across hundreds of novels, comics, video games, and television series.
A 24-part series about espionage and insurgency within an entrenched totalitarian regime, one where the usual gods and monsters are pushed to the background, could be a very exciting new addition to the canon. Star Wars is about good versus evil, but as so many comics, novels, and even cartoons have demonstrated, even righteous battles are messy business.
The first three episodes of Andor are now streaming on Disney Plus. New episodes drop every Wednesday.