Where were you when Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star?
In terms of how Star Wars fans measure years in canon, everything happens either before or after the Battle of Yavin, aka, that defining moment at the end of A New Hope when Luke switches off his targeting computer, trusts in the Force, and saves the day.
For diehard fans, “BBY” and “ABY”(which stand for “Before the Battle of Yavin” and “After the Battle of Yavin,” respectively) are common parlance, but it’s never before been used in Star Wars canon. Until now.
In Star Wars: Andor, this extra-fictional dating system is presented in-universe as onscreen text. This means that, somewhere within the Star Wars universe, characters are also using these abbreviations. This creates a massive metafictional question: Who is telling this story?
Intruiged? Let’s dive in. (Spoilers ahead for the first three episodes of Andor.)
5 BBY in Andor, explained
As the on-screen text tells us in the first episode, Andor takes place in “5 BBY,” meaning it occurs five years before the Battle of Yavin. This puts Andor in the same time period as the first season of Star Wars Rebels and, more importantly, five years before Cassian’s demise at the end of Rogue One. (That film and A New Hope both happen in 0 BBY/0 ABY.)
The fact that Andor occurs in BBY isn’t weird, but the fact that there’s text on the screen relating that information is. For one thing, no character in Andor would ever refer to the year they’re living in as “5 BBY” because the Battle of Yavin hasn’t happened yet. This is why people in movies about Julius Caesar don’t say, “Hey it’s the year 10 BC.”
In Star Wars Rebels, we learned that most planets have their own local dating system, which makes sense. For example, 5 BBY is 3272 LY on the Lothal Calendar, used on the Planet of Lothal in the Outer Rim Territories.
So if Cassian and all the characters in Andor aren’t time travelers, why do we get text on-screen that says 5 BBY?
5 BBY is both canon and extra-fictional
Because 0 BBY is the year of Cassian’s death, one could view the text on-screen as a reminder that our main character will, in fact, die at the end of all of this. This gives the series a kind of novelistic quality, which is something its creator Tony Gilroy has said is intentional. Early reports about Andor’s plotting described the series as having “Dickensian detail.” In some Charles Dickens books (most notably A Tale of Two Cities), deaths are foreshadowed before they happen. In this way, by having “5 BBY” on the screen at the start of the show, Andor is telling us: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”
Like the opening text crawls at the beginning of most Star Wars films, there’s no stated writer of that text. George Lucas originally intended for the entire story of Star Wars to be told by timeless beings called the Whills, which would have created some kind of in-universe grounding for where all that narration comes from. But as it stands, Star Wars has no unified “narrator.”
However, the prescient “5 BBY” in Andor does kind of imply a narrator, or at least a POV that is separate from any other kind of narrative framing we’ve seen in Star Wars before. You could say “5 BBY” on the screen is no different than the opening text crawls from the films, but those text crawls never predict an event five years in the future of the story you’re about to watch. Instead, they give us backstory and present-tense context.
So, the question is: do people in the Star Wars galaxy actually end up using this dating system after A New Hope, or is it just something to help geeky fans keep track of the timeline?
The origin of BBY and ABY
The first time the Star Wars timeline was organized using the “BBY” and “ABY” designations was in 1996 in the Star Wars Roleplaying Game sourcebook by Bill Smith. Wookepidia considers “BBY/ABY” canon as of 2014 because two in-canon reference books “made extensive use of this system.” But this is the first time we’re seeing it in a major Star Wars release.
There’s one other issue with making BBY into canon: Why would anyone within the Star Wars universe use the Roman alphabet?
For the most part, the universal alphabet in Star Wars is Aurebesh, and those letters don’t consistently match up with English letters. “BBY” in Aurebesh would be the letters Besh Besh Yirt. Obviously, a suspension of disbelief is needed here because in Star Wars we’re meant to believe that “Galactic Basic” sounds like English to our ears.
Some English letters do appear on screen in Star Wars from time to time, notably in the theatrical release of A New Hope, which clearly had the words “tractor beam” on the control panel Obi-Wan fiddled with. (This was changed to Aurebesh in the special editions.) But for the most part, fans now read any English text as mistakes or strange aberrations in canon.
The existence of Aurebesh also makes super-common Star Wars abbreviations like C-3PO and R2-D2 somewhat confusing since, again, those letters and numbers don’t have those exact pronunciation equivalents in-universe. This same logic would apply to “BBY.” Nobody would call it that because the letter “B” isn’t a thing in Star Wars canon (even though BB-8 clearly exists).
The only real explanation for all of this is that Star Wars has been “translated” for us by someone else, which is why we’re able to see the written Aurebesh but are intended not to worry about whether the spoken language matches up. What Andor has done with “BBY” is brought the audience slightly closer to the narrative framework of all of Star Wars. By using this fandom year system, Andor subtly acknowledges that the audience exists, which is something no other Star Wars story has done in this way before.
Andor is streaming now on Disney+.