Droids in Star Wars might take on every role imaginable in the galaxy, but they are definitely not pets. Right?
The first character to appear in the entire Star Wars Saga was a droid. Then that droid was subjected to on-screen bullying for three movies (I can think of seven instances where C-3PO is told to shut up explicitly or physically restrained from speaking in the original trilogy.) Viewer relationship to C-3PO is typically separated into three camps– Hate him, Love him, or hopelessly identify with him on a personal level.
These relationships with C-3PO only work for one reason– his emotions and personality are clearly defined on-screen. Droids have a complex role in the Star Wars Universe, and it’s tough to pin down their social status in the galaxy.
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Just about every droid on the hero side has defining qualities that make them original and almost human. Each of our droid characters tends to have highly personalized relationships with our living heroes. R2 was loyal to Anakin and Luke, K2-SO was close with Cassian Andor, and Lando had a…um… complicated relationship with L-3. Despite these qualities, they are frequently dismissed in-universe as by-products of programming and other alterations. They can’t think, have a programmed purpose and their autonomy is viewed as a malfunction.
"“If droids could think, there would be none of us here would there” – Obi-Wan Kenobi"
There is an expectation that droids are meant to behave exactly as they were designed. Obviously, with any artificial intelligence, things don’t always go as planned. K-2S0 developed a seemingly self-aware personality with the ability to disobey orders, make jokes, and make decisions that he deemed productive to his mandate. Cassian Andor explained this behavior as a by-product of his reprogramming. But it feels more like evolution to become closer to his organic companions.
L3 follows a similar path to K2. She is opinionated, dreams of a crusade for droid liberation, and bitterly refers to her “organic overlords”. The origins of L3’s personality are never explained beyond Lando saying he doesn’t have her mind wiped because “She has the best damn navigational database in the galaxy.”
There is an acknowledged level of control over droids by our living characters throughout the Star Wars Universe meaning to reduce a droid to its essential functions. C-3PO had his mind wiped at the end of Revenge of the Sith, K-2SO is reprogrammed to serve Cassian, and restraining bolts play a major role in controlling a droids movement and behavior, emphasizing their need to fulfill their purpose.
In this case, droids are property. By the Jawas placing bolts on R2 and 3PO, the two droids were confined to being farmhands and tools for moisture farmers. The transaction between Owen Lars might be the perfect microcosm for the existence of droids in the Galaxy. They can be bought, controlled with restraining bolts, and repurposed to serve their owners. It’s tough to give this more than a second thought. They are just non-living robots after all.
"“Droids are not good or bad. They are Neutral reflections of those who imprint them” – Kuiil"
The Original trilogy struggles to convince viewers that our living characters care about our droids on a human level. And this might not be illogical. If droids are not living things, they cannot feel. And if they do not feel, it might be easy to disregard their capacity to experience life as living things (this concept is confusing if we consider this scene from ROTJ).
In the season finale of The Mandalorian, IG-11 sacrifices himself for the group, not out love for his friends, but to fulfill his purpose of protecting the Child. He can’t get around his original source programming of self-destructing to avoid capture. Again, a droid is an instrument for a specific means and takes action to fulfill that means, instead of making a conscious decision. Battle Droids, for example, were built for ‘pone purpose– Destruction. They follow orders and were built in mass to overwhelm and eventually be destroyed. They were tools. Same for Probe Droids, Gonk Droids, and countless other units. Even C-3PO was programmed to understand human behavior and can’t exceed his mandate on Endor despite motivation from his friends.
However, it seems possible that droids have the capacity to learn behavior, either intentionally or unintentionally. Of any character in Star Wars, R2 had had the strongest relationship with Anakin. R2 was loyal and eventually brought his loyalty to the next generation with Luke and Leia.
The loyal and opinionated astromech superseded his programming as a mechanic and became a message courier, swiss army knife, and regular savior of his companions, (until he is stored in the Resistance attic next to a box of Christmas decorations for who knows how long… but whatever.) Ultimately, R2-D2 becomes more than his programming, likely the results of never having his memory erased.
Dave Filoni compared R2 to the family dog and Chopper to a cat when describing the moody astromech from Rebels. Despite both droids having the same utility and same role within their companions, they, like our own pets have different personalities and behavior. Your pet can be your companion and they can be trained for certain tasks, but you are ultimately held responsible for their well being and transgressions.
Comparing droid companions to pets might be selling droids short– I mean C-3P0 knows over six million forms of communication, R2-D2 is elite hacker, and K-2SO can handle a blaster when given the opportunity. But if you consider their roles and relationships with other characters, it might not be a total stretch. They can be valued members of their families or teams, even loved, but it’s tough to place them in the same in-universe social standing their living counterparts.
Of course, L3 would have a serious problem being compared to a pet. And she might have a point.
If we take L3’s point of view, the next logical question has to be asked– are droids people too? In The Mandalorian, Kuiil points to an interesting argument in defense of the reprogramming and trusting IG-11. He tells Mando, “Droids are not good or bad. They are neutral reflections of those who imprint them.” There are parallels to the age-old philosophical questions of whether people are inherently good or bad. You can take a neutral approach and say people are neither good or bad, but products of their environment.
That’s similar to what Kuiil says in support of IG-11. They aren’t created in one way or another, but dependent on those around them. You can even teach them to be good, as Kuiil did, just as you can teach them to be bad.
Droids might be programmed to perform or behave in a certain capacity, but we already know that certain behaviors can be learned. L3 wasn’t programmed to be a droid revolutionary and R2-D2’s behavior surely surpassed that of a mechanic.
These behaviors make certain droids closer to living than not. Such characteristics inevitably generate responses from living characters. For instance, Mando’s PTSD results in his distrust of all droids– until IG-11 protects The Child and saves the group.
Perhaps one of the more belligerent examples is the bartender in the Mos Eisley Cantina. In a strange and offputting display of prejudice, the Bartender shouts to Luke that C-3PO and R2 must wait outside, since “they don’t serve their kind there.” Generating such a horrible and emotional response seems strange for a non-living patron who wouldn’t even be interested in their drink service anyway. The response is akin to any other prejudice against a race or species. It doesn’t align with our typical notions of robots. So in some respects, droids must be viewed as a counterpart by living beings in the Star Wars Universe. Perhaps not all droids, but some.
I’m not sure there is a proper way to categorize droids in a Star Wars social hierarchy. We know what L3 thinks, and we know Anakin valued R2 way more than property. R2 was a friend. Yet throughout the Saga, there is a limited amount of empathy and consideration in regards to droids, despite droid characters displayed varying levels of autonomy and capacity for relationships. So droids must be pets. Or people. Or maybe just property.
Who is the best droid in the Star Wars Saga? Let us know your opinions below.