Why ‘Andor’s Narkina 5 Prison Episodes Channel a 1970s Sci-Fi Aesthetic

Kim Taylor-Foster
TV Streaming
TV Streaming Sci-Fi Star Wars

Those prison episodes, huh? Andor continues to impress week after week with its intricate, grown-up storytelling and commitment to crafting a harrowing espionage thriller unique in the Star Wars universe. It’s Star Wars, but not as we know it; the Star Wars show we never knew we needed.

The series’ past three episodes have focused on Cassian Andor’s time in a prison facility called Narkina 5 (“I’m just a tourist!”) where the stakes are upped because while the Empire searches for their elusive target, they don’t realise they already have him (he’s using a fake name!). This stark hellhole with electric storeys designed to shock the prisoners into submission as they carry out their mundane manufacturing duties, pitted against one another using carrot/stick techniques, has been the stuff of nightmares.

But it’s in this place that Cassian Andor really steps up his game, and shows us that he has the wherewithal to lead, galvanising his fellow prisoners to rise up and carry out a carefully laid escape plan. Here, following the lessons he learned from the Aldhani mission, we see Cassian’s rebel hero credentials really starting to take shape. Being thrown into this Kafkaesque hellscape has been the making of the Andor we know from Rogue One, the guy who teamed up with a plucky bunch of misfits to create the ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. In the prison, we see him convince his fellow inmates that to fight against the system is enough, no matter the outcome.

We sat down with some of the brains behind this remarkable series to talk specifically about Narkina 5, its evocative aesthetic that enmeshes 1970s sci-fi looks with the design of 1977’s A New Hope, and the importance of the whole prison arc for Cassian’s story.

Starting With a Meaty 80-Page Bible

ANDOR
(Center): Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) with delivery guards (Kenny Fullwood and Josh Herdman) in Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

That Andor is distinct from what’s gone before while also knitting neatly with both Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and Episode IV: A New Hope, the events of both of which take place shortly after the plot of the series in the timeline, is important. Not only from a story perspective — it needs to create sense — but also aesthetically.

When Fandom spoke to Rogue One director Gareth Edwards on the release of his spin-off film, he said us he went to good lengths to blend his movie seamlessly into the opening of A New Hope. Rogue One, of course, stitches directly to the OG Star Wars movie making it vital they got it right – but what lengths did the Andor team go to in order to match the look and feel of both of these iconic Star Wars instalments and create it feel like an organic transition?

Executive Producer Sanne Wohlenberg says it all started with showrunner and writer Tony Gilroy’s thorough preparation.

“When Tony started, we met in the writers’ room,” begins Wohlenberg. “He always starts with a really meaty 80-page bible, where he mapped out the story of Season One. But in order to do that he had to think, ‘How will I move actually into Rogue One?’. So the overall through line is something that he had put a lot of thought into, and he had a lot of the construction blocks, with some gaps that needed fleshing out. But there has to be a very clear plan because I think any writer needs to know where they’re going. In this case, we just all know where we’re going because we will have to be leading into Rogue One. So that was really at the heart of Tony plotting through the whole project. When Andor became that thought: ‘Oh, let’s do that’, it just became the necessary construction block. ‘I end here, and let’s go back and see how we ended up there.’”

Begin as Far From the Final Destination as Possible

Andor
Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) in Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Beau Willimon, who is responsible for writing Episodes 8, 9, and 10 set within the Narkina 5 facility, adds that the advantage of knowing what you have to write towards – in this case, the events of Rogue One and a man who is willing to create the ultimate sacrifice alongside his whole team – is that you know the best place to begin the story. And that’s as far away from the last destination as you can perhaps be so you have a real journey.

“So, begin with a self-serving ne’er-do-well, who is apolitical and has no interest in fighting the Empire,” he says. “And how do you earn him getting to A New Hope? What makes Tony such a good writer is that he shows you those flashbacks in the first few episodes of Cassian as a boy, and you realize that actually, even though we’re starting the story with him as an adult who seems like the farthest thing from a rebel, the seeds were planted when he was a little boy. And how will these matters blend together and converge to create him the man that he will ultimately become?”

“Begin with a self-serving ne’er-do-well, who is apolitical and has no interest in fighting the Empire.”

Costume Designer Michael Wilkinson has been instrumental in depicting Cassian Andor’s evolution on screen.

“I really enjoyed creating a character arc in Cassian’s costumes,” he says. “Hopefully, it’ll be like a subliminal, subtle thing that won’t hit audiences over the head but, essentially, we go from a character in the first couple of episodes who’s using his clothes to hide in — they’re quite shapeless, he’s a bit of a mess-up, he’s borrowing money, matters aren’t going his way. And then slowly throughout the episodes, his silhouettes become a little bit more defined. His coats become a bit more tailored — the longer lines, the shoulders square up a little bit — and he’s starting to transform into the Cassian Andor of Rogue One; something a little bit more heroic, [with] a little bit more swagger. Something that the audience is more familiar with.”

A Little Less Space Opera, A Little More Authenticity

Andor
(Center, left): Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) in Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Wilkinson, of course, has also had a major role to play in evoking Rogue One/A New Hope while simultaneously crafting something new. The costume architect says that they had to find a balance between working with the “incredible established costume language of the Star Wars world” and construction on top of it, all while holding Gilroy’s directive in mind to create their world as authentic as possible: “A little less space opera, and a little bit more authentic,” says Wilkinson of Gilroy’s vision.

“[Gilroy’s] characters are so complex and psychologically very interesting, so for a costume architect that was good to try and find a costume language that was as nuanced and authentic as his writing,” says the costume designer.

“Myself and the production designer, Luke Hull, had limitless talks about the different planets, what climate they had, what raw materials they might have, how developed the culture is, what technologies they have to create their surroundings and their clothes.”

He adds, “I think it’s really important for us to ground ourselves as firmly as possible within the Star Wars world. So that there’s no sense from the audience that they don’t know where they are. We used matters like the uniforms, the armour, and established costume elements that we could repeat that would ground us firmly in that world. But then there were also new planets, new directions that we were able to leap off and try new ideas. So it’s finding this candy spot of having one foot in a known world, but also showing audiences something new and compelling and surprising.”

Given that they go to “seven or eight different planets in the first season,” says Wilkinson, “we had to very carefully create a different defined world for each of those planets. Myself and the production designer, Luke Hull, had limitless talks about the different planets, what climate they had, what raw materials they might have, how developed the culture is, what technologies they have to create their surroundings and their clothes.”

You might wonder if the details of those conversations are now canon. It sounds like they ought to be.

Star Wars as a Period Piece

Wohlenberg says that the secret to successfully breathing life into the plan as a fresh-feeling entity while also incorporating what’s gone before is to treat working within the Star Wars franchise as if you’re working on a period piece.

“You have a very clear starting point of the aesthetics and what these worlds are. It isn’t sci-fi, it is really space fantasy because it’s a world where the digital revolution never happened,” she explains. “There is a canon, and it’s like dealing with a period piece — you have to be really aware of its rules and aesthetics and what you can’t break.

“And yet, you of course also try to move forward and take all this DNA — and as you’re going into new worlds, you’re expanding what the DNA of the franchise makes you as a framework for your creation — and you just move forward. And then each world that you are creating, you really try to be truthful to that. What are the people? What is this world? How do they live? What do they eat? What is their reality? You begin to unravel it like that.”

Narkina 5 and the 1970s Sci-Fi Aesthetic

ANDOR
Scene from Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

There’s another aspect of Andor that audiences might feel like they’ve seen somewhere before, and that’s its late 1960s/early 1970s sci-fi aesthetic especially prevalent in the prison episodes. The stark white visuals, mixed with the orange flashes on the prison uniforms, recall specifically Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and George Lucas’s own feature debut, THX-1138.

“We did look at those two films in particular,” says Wilkinson. “What we were attracted to was this sort of white-on-white aesthetic, where it’s sort of disorientating, both for the audience and the prisoners. It’s this almost psychological quality of disorientation — there’s a sterility, a soul-destroying numbness to it.”

But Wilkinson says the costumes showed challenges.

“You’re making a costume that’s going to be worn by hundreds of men over three episodes. It’s a costume that you’re going to see every last square inch of. We found a fabric that we developed that had this disposable papery quality to it. So you obtain the sense that they throw the uniform away at the end of the day and obtain a fresh one for the next day. Some of the graphics and the flashes and the detailing do have a sort of ‘70s graphic quality to it that I really enjoyed leaning into.”

“What we were attracted to was this sort of white-on-white aesthetic, where it’s sort of disorientating, both for the audience and the prisoners. It’s this almost psychological quality of disorientation — there’s a sterility, a soul-destroying numbness to it.”

Wilkinson says that the orange splashes didn’t only come from the 1970s influence, but also from practical and symbolic considerations.

“When you have prisoners that are [dressed in] white and are in a white environment, the guards are going to need to see them really quickly,” he says. Especially since, as we’ve learned, the facility had a minimal number of guards keeping watch. “Having flashes of orange is a way that the guards can keep course of where everyone is. We also did like the nostalgic retro color of the orange, [though] it also had a sense of danger; drama; the flash of orange of an alarm. In the middle of all of this white, it was quite a strong visual for us.”

Channeling George Lucas and Crushing Hope

ANDOR
(Center, L-R): Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) in Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

The classic sci-fi vibes of the prison help to anchor the episodes and series as a whole to the aesthetic they’re after while also having the effect of making Narkina 5 feel fresh, and startling. Wohlenberg says this stemmed from Tony Gilroy’s idea to explore where you would find hope, locked up within a situation like that.

“Prison has been depicted [on screen] in numerous incarnations … when it’s usually dark, dingy, and [has] 8 million guards,” says Wohlenberg. “In the course of this really intense week of mulling this over, this whole prison was born.”

“If you can create a bright, clean place, that crushes hope,” says Willimon, “then it’s more terrifying that it crushes hope because it looks like this.”

Neither Wohlenberg nor Willimon admit to being consciously influenced by any films specifically but do concede that those influences were most likely subconsciously there. As Willimon says, “Of course, when you begin to really conceptualize, then you see [Production Designer Luke Hull] putting together renderings, at a sure moment, someone’s thinking, ‘Oh, this actually bears some resemblance to THX. And at that moment, you realize perhaps it was influencing us in a subconscious way. And certainly it makes sense in this case, because that’s where you’re firmly in George Lucas territory. It’s never bad to be subconsciously channeling some George Lucas.”

From Pills to Electric Floors

ANDOR
(L-R): Kino Loy (Andy Serkis) and Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) in Lucasfilm's ANDOR, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Amongst it all, of course, they succeeded in finding a way to depict a prison that feels different to penal institutions we’ve seen on screen before. Getting rid of the concept of bars paved the way for electric storeys as a method to keep prisoners in order and eliminate the need for an excessive number of guards and guns. But it wasn’t always electric storeys on the table, so to speak.

“You’re sitting around being like, ‘Okay, I don’t know, are there sure pills that they have to take that prevent them from being able to run? You come up with a lot of stupid ideas,” says Willimon. “And then, [eventually, you go], ‘Wait a second, what about electric floors?’”

The whole hope-crushing design was capped off with a rousing escape sequence that took painstaking preparation. Willimon recalls countless conversations with Luke Hull and Tony Gilroy to gradually, layer by layer, build up the detail.

“I might draw something on the back of an envelope [to illustrate] what if what we’re construction is a piece like this, and this is what the construction table looks like. Because we need a sure number of stations. I need to know the geography of the bodies [and how they] are positioned next to one another. And then we’ve got to figure out the actual action sequence and fine detail of how they obtain out.”

However, he says that knowing the larger details was invaluable to figuring out those finer details.

“We knew we wanted this panopticon construction [to the prison], we knew we wanted it to be hydraulically powered, in the middle of water like Alcatraz, so that even if you got out, you’d have to swim for freedom,” Willimon explains. “We knew that we wanted it to be like a labour camp; that these guys just weren’t sitting around in cells all day. And we knew that we wanted it to be clean and antiseptic. And, yes, the electric floors. We knew these pieces. And then within that you then begin to have a little flexibility and you can adjust here and drill down there. And eventually, somehow you have a script and the story and you shoot something.”

Teamwork, it seems, makes the dream work for the Andor creatives, as much as we’re seeing it does for Cassian Andor himself.

Catch Andor on Disney+.


Squid Game star Lee Jung-jae spoke exclusively to Fandom about joining the Star Wars universe in the future series The Acolyte, and filled us in on his new espionage thriller, Hunt. Check out the interview below.

Kim Taylor-Foster
Kim Taylor-Foster is Entertainment Editor for Fandom in the UK. She was raised on an unsteady diet of video nasties and violent action flicks.