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In the arid wilderness of Tatooine, Jawas scavenged the wastelands picking up stray bits of junk and wayward droids. Their sandcrawler was a rusted mobile transport teeming with life, but not of the organic variety. The crawler stopped at a remote settlement to barter with a homestead owner and his nephew who were in the market for droids that could help them run their farm. Specimens of all shapes and types were brought out and lined up properly for inspection. Owen Lars, the homesteader, approached protocol droid C-3PO, and with a little bit of persuasion on the droid’s part, Owen decided to purchase him for the dual purpose of knowing the binary language of moisture vaporators and the ability to speak Bocce.
Luke, Owen’s nephew, chose at random an unassuming red and white astromech droid, even though the blue and white astromech beside him had been C-3PO’s surly companion through many years and adventures (unbeknownst to Luke, of course). As C-3PO and the red and white droid were led away, the blue and white droid called to them with agitated beeps and chirps. He was clearly upset with this forced separation. His protest was quickly halted by a Jawa activating his restraining bolt. C-3PO witnessed the moment but was powerless to take exception to it. He turned away with silent resignation and continued to follow his new masters.
If not for the sudden and fortuitous malfunction of a bad motivator in the red and white astromech, Luke would not have been forced to select a different astromech, and C-3PO might have never seen his friend, R2-D2 again. In this scene we learned a lot about the role of droids in the Star Wars galaxy. They are emotional and sensitive and loyal, but they also knew their place. They are tools first and foremost. Maybe in rare circumstances they could also become companions, but that was clearly not their purpose. Companionship was often a byproduct of their close working relationship to humanoids. But self-actualization was rarely a consideration on the part of their owners. Maybe droids were just programmed to mimic self-awareness. At what point, however, does a thing designed to seem alive, actually become alive? Droids could certainly think and feel. But did they have souls? Were they more than the sum of their parts?
There is a wide host of characters in the world of Star Wars from which to study the subject of droid individuality. They include the most recent K-2SO, the reprogrammed Imperial droid who shows little concern for social etiquette, but is willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his team. The Rebel crew of the Ghost has Chopper, a curmudgeon who possibly suffers from PTSD. And there is diminutive BB-8, who displays tangible grief at the news that his beloved master Po Dameron might not have survived a Tie Fighter crash. But in order to tackle this question head on, it’s best to focus on the two droids that started it all.
C-3PO, The Long-Suffering Linguist
C-3PO (or Threepio, as he was affectionately nicknamed) began his life many years earlier on Tatooine when he was cobbled together from parts and software that young Anakin Skywalker collected from the junk shop in which he worked as a slave. Threepio’s software was designed to allow him to communicate in over 6 million forms of language, although it is unlikely that was Anakin’s original intention when he assembled him to help his mother with her chores. It’s more likely that Threepio’s programming was the result of the luck of the draw from the available software Anakin was able to scrounge together to form his personality matrix.
When Anakin was invited to join Qui-Gon Jinn on his journey to Coruscant, Anakin said goodbye to C-3PO and apologized for not getting the chance to finish him. Threepio, lacking an exterior covering for his gears and circuitry, was shocked to learn that his completion was little more than an afterthought. But this afterthought resulted in Threepio retaining his programming as translator and protocol droid, even though it would be several years before he would have the chance to put those skills to use in the service of Senator Padme Amidala of Naboo.
Always the eager servant, Threepio often found himself the victim of circumstance, whether it was stumbling into a Geonosis factory and becoming grafted onto the framework of a battle droid, or working for notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt as translator and hapless witness to his master’s sadistic impulses. If Threepio had free will, he rarely exercised it. He was an eternal pessimist who believed that he was powerless to control his fate or the fate of others. After all, in his experience, droids were made to suffer. “It’s our lot in life,” he once groaned. Adding to his plight, many of Threepio’s caretakers saw him merely as a translation resource — a bipedal Rosetta Stone with a fussy disposition and an off switch during his most grating moments.
However, there were times when he was regarded as something more. In Cloud City, when Threepio happens upon a hidden garrison of stormtroopers and is blown to pieces, it is Chewbacca who finds and rescues him from the Ugnaught incinerator and endeavors to put him back together. To most beings in the galaxy, droids were disposable. But not to Chewie. Wookiees, like droids, were not highly regarded in the social hierarchy of the Empire. Perhaps Chewie took pity on the droid out of a sense of solidarity. Maybe he just missed his friend and needed something to keep him busy during his captivity at the hands of the Empire. Whatever the reason, C-3PO spent the next leg of the adventure strapped to the back of the Wookiee, barking commands and registering complaints about his half-assembled state. But he was there all the same — carried by someone who thought enough of him to bear his weight through siege and firefights.
When a team of Rebels led by Han Solo found themselves captured by a tribe of Ewoks on the moon of Endor, it was Threepio who was tasked with the role of storyteller to communicate the history of the Rebellion in their fight against the Empire. The droid who had so often been dismissed or disregarded by his masters was vital in sharing with the Ewoks the adventures he had witnessed firsthand. This connection through tale and deed enabled the Rebels to be accepted into the Ewok tribe, which helped to turn the tide of battle. A robot that is merely a tool to translate languages would lack the insight necessary to tell the story of the Rebel Alliance in a meaningful and affecting way. He may have been a mere droid, but C-3PO played no small part in defeating the Empire.
R2-D2, Loyalty Defined
C-3PO was a passive malcontent, but the other half of this odd couple couldn’t have been more different. Where Threepio saw only setbacks, R2-D2 saw challenges. If Threepio was the gray cloud, R2 was the silver (and blue and white) lining. If there was a malfunctioning hyperdrive to fix, a locked door to open, an elevator control to enable, deadly buzz droids to dispatch, or shutting down a trash compactor or a conveyor belt in the nick of time, R2-D2 was the astromech for the job.
The aforementioned companionship between master and droid was never stronger than it was between R2 and the ones he bravely served. Queen Amidala first recognized his worth when he helped her escape the Trade Federation blockade of her home world. He had numerous adventures in the Clone Wars assisting Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Anakin became so attached to the little droid he once risked everything to find R2 when he was lost in battle and presumed destroyed.
R2-D2’s stalwart dependability was most akin to that of the lovable family pet, loyal and yet fiercely independent. But as with C-3PO, there was more beneath the surface. More than an ingeniously adept service droid, R2 was up close and personal to several momentous events in the history of the galaxy. He may not have been Force sensitive, but he was not blind to the inner turmoil that his master Anakin Skywalker was feeling in the final days of the Clone Wars. He was present on the planet Mustafar when Obi Wan confronted Anakin during his turn to the dark side as Darth Vader, and he witnessed the birth of twins Luke and Leia, a secret which would be kept hidden from Vader for 20 years. While his partner C-3PO had his memory wiped in order to protect the Skywalker secrets, R2 was allowed to retain his. He was more than simply a memory bank. He was an important transcriber of the events that reshaped the galaxy. And most important of all, in the Rebellion’s most desperate hour, Senator Leia Organa entrusted R2 with the stolen plans of the Death Star with the belief he could safely deliver them to Obi Wan Kenobi on Tatooine. This, of course, would be a reunion of sorts as R2 found himself paired with Anakin’s son, Luke Skywalker.
So close, in fact, was this bond with the Skywalker family, that many years later after the Empire was defeated and Luke had established a new Jedi Order, R2 was at his side when Luke first laid eyes upon the destruction wrought against his school and all his students who were lost. Seen as a flashback in The Force Awakens and again in the trailer for the upcoming The Last Jedi, Luke falls to his knees and places a single hand upon the silver dome of his beloved companion. No one shares their grief with a mere appliance.
R2 was more than a droid, a metal can with software and algorithms. His sensitivity and loyalty and bravery were qualities that would be difficult, if not impossible, to program. He was the Skywalkers’ most trusted ally and servant. But more than that.R2-D2 was family.