As the big science-fiction and superhero franchises have proliferated, their mantra has been that television is a place for diversification and creative freedom — to do something different, within reason. Hence Marvel’s strenuously meta “WandaVision” or Paramount’s goofy, animated “Star Trek: Lower Decks.”
“Andor,” the newest series in the “Star Wars” universe (premiering Wednesday on Disney+), doesn’t take one of those hard detours. But it’s different in its own way. In the four (of 12) episodes available for review, it continually feels as if the people who made it like a lot of things — “Blade Runner,” “Avatar,” “Casablanca,” Vietnam War metaphors — better than they like “Star Wars.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. The defining feature of “Andor” is how it takes a “Star Wars” story and, without getting conceptual, transposes it in visual and tonal terms. Heavily latexed aliens, plastic-suited storm troopers and vast, exotic landscapes are, for the most part, out; humans (or humanoids) wearing nondescript uniforms in a battered, urban-industrial backdrop are in. Costume-heavy Saturday-serial space opera is replaced by straight-ahead sci-fi action with a real-world anti-corporate theme.
And the good news about “Andor” is that the new look and feel are rendered meticulously and evocatively; a lot of effort, led by the creator and showrunner Tony Gilroy, has been spent on giving the show a gritty and realistic texture. Moment to moment, it’s easy to just relax and enjoy the change. The opening scene, a “Blade Runner” homage that leads into a dark, seamy version of the typical “Star Wars” cantina, is a witty example of the show’s method.
But making “Andor” less like “Star Wars” means, in this case, making it more like a lot of other science-fiction dramas. And while its surface attractions are significant, you may find yourself looking for things that other sci-fi stories supply, like compelling characters and a narrative pulse.
Following the general pattern of serialized franchise extensions, “Andor” goes back in time, fleshing out and coloring in a small, retrospective piece of the overall story. (Advancing the narrative is still the province of films.) In this case it’s an even smaller piece than usual. Cassian Andor, played by Diego Luna, was a character created for a movie, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” that was a stand-alone time capsule in its own right. Giving him a back story in “Andor” is embroidering on an embroidery.
Gilroy was brought in to do rewrites on “Rogue One,” and perhaps he had a sense of unfinished business, because the real challenge of putting Cassian at the center of a series is that he’s a cipher in that movie — a rebel operative with a ruthless streak and a shady past who’s just there as a foil for the film’s young heroine. When he joins her in a haze of self-sacrificial glory, his epiphany feels completely unearned.
There’s no reason that such a character couldn’t be turned into something more interesting for the series, but through the early going, “Andor” doesn’t pull it off. Cassian’s antisocial tendencies, and his resourcefulness, are given a foundation in a childhood on a planet whose Indigenous people are exploited by an Empire-sanctioned mining company. (These forest-planet flashbacks are an unusually clear expression of the hoary colonialist clichés “Star Wars” falls back on when depicting the Empire’s reach.)
But that new information doesn’t make him any more interesting; neither does the attempt to make his adult character, a thief and black marketeer, into a Humphrey Bogart-style cynical romantic, declining to choose sides until his hand is forced. That’s the primary narrative thrust of the early season, as a covert rebel leader played by Stellan Skarsgard tracks down Cassian and enlists him in a dangerous mission against the corporation that ravaged his home planet.
The scene in which Skarsgard’s character recruits Cassian while they’re pursued by corporate goons takes up much of the fourth episode, and it’s an exciting, well-executed action set piece. But the recruitment pitch is notably uninspiring, and that’s typical of “Andor,” in which action and design are more than satisfactory while the thinness of the characterizations leaves you unfulfilled. (The same could be said of old-school “Star Wars” films under George Lucas’s helm, of course, but they could make up some of the balance in emotion and sheer, propulsive entertainment value.)
Luna, who shot to stardom in America with “Y Tu Mamá También,” in 2001, is a fine actor, but he’s still unable to bring much besides an air of juvenile grievance to Cassian, who’s just awfully hard to care about. Thin writing is an issue up and down the cast list; people seem less important than the depictions of political intrigue and corporate malfeasance, which are handled well but aren’t that different from any number of other dystopian dramas. Fiona Shaw stands out in a supporting role as Cassian’s rough-and-tumble mentor, and Adria Arjona is fun to watch as his sparring partner and probable love interest.
It’s typical of “Star Wars” projects that the best performances tend to be given by robots. That was the case in “Rogue One,” where the hulking war droid voiced by Alan Tudyk was the best reason to watch. “Andor” has a small, decrepit, R2-D2-like figure named B2EMO, voiced by Dave Chapman and sort of a cross between a toolbox and a shop vac. He doesn’t have a lot to do in the early episodes, but he has signs of personality. Keep an eye on him when the fighting really breaks out.