This continues our series of looking at the Star Wars movies and their galactic spanning conflict from the POV of a specific character. Follow this link if you also wonder why Chewbacca isn’t more depressed.
Let’s talk about the droids in Star Wars. Now, I know people who nitpick movies sort of suck. Whenever I read Neil DeGrasse Tyson pick apart the science in Gravity or Arrival I bristle a little – not that I don’t love Neil (I do) and not that I don’t love science (I do) but it’s a gosh darn movie! I’m willing to have passable believable if not accurate science in service of the story the filmmakers wanted to tell (and again, I know Neil is a smart guy and is mostly just using a popular film as a teaching moment, but still).
But the droids in Star Wars are different. It’s not a question of believability, it’s a question of morality, and it’s a question that affects the way we view other characters in Star Wars. And that question is: should droids have rights?
When I wrote my Tragic History of Chewbacca I claimed in earlier drafts that Chewbacca was the only character to witness all seven central movies. Sam corrected me. “R2 and C-3PO are in all the movies,” he said. And it was true… sort of. Are the droids characters? Do they have personalities in the traditional sense? Do they have rights? Should they have rights?
“They’re weird because they have varying levels of autonomy and consciousness so it’d be weird to give them all equal rights,” Sam responded, which is essentially true (all quotes here pulled from our text conversation on the matter). And it’s true. Would the mouse droid live a varied exciting life left to it’s own devices? Does it yearn for freedom? Probably not. But then again IG-88 is allowed to roam the galaxy all on its lonesome. (If you’re worried about my credentials to write this article, please know I knew both those names off the top of my head).
“We all know C-3PO lives the saddest life of all. Created with crippling anxiety,” said Sam. And this raises the first real moral implication of droids. They are created with hard-wired personalities (and those personalities include faults). Why? What possible purpose does this serve? Why would a young slave boy on a backwater desert planet build an annoying ass stuck-up fidgety British protocol droid (never mind how). Why would Anakin Skywalker choose to make C-3PO such a nuisance? Why would the Trade Federation build their Droidekas with no discernable personality while installing their Battle Droids with hilariously incompetent personalities, personalities that often shrug off noises they hear instead of investigating, personalities that are varied enough, and this is important, to have different opinions, ask questions, or even to reassure each other occasionally.
Are the droid personalities hardwired? Or, like humans, are there some elements of both nature and nurture. We all know R2-D2 as a plucky fun loving droid who doesn’t put up with C-3POs nonsense. But was he programmed that way? When we first meet him in the beginning of The Phantom Menace he is one of four droids sent to go repair the shields, and the sole survivor. Were the other droids also filled with their own plucky wise-cracking personalities? One would have to assume so, but no one onboard mourns them. Does R2-D2 mourn his fallen siblings? Does he remember their personalities? He appears capable of remembering different humans, of sustaining relationships and caring for people. Why not other droids? Furthermore: does R2-D2 begin with bravery, or does he learn it through his near brush with death?
It would appear in at least some ways droids are the product of their past as well as their hardwiring, even if it is just in their loyalty to various people (R2 wasn’t hardwired, for example, to be loyal to Anakin and Obi-Wan because he didn’t know either of those people existed when he was created). We can assume that C-3PO and R2 are autonomous beings who draw both on their inherent “genetic build” as well as a wealth of history and memories. Which drags into question the moral implications of wiping C-3POs memory at the end of Revenge of the Sith.
It’s a form of murder, right? And a murder of someone they’d known for a pretty long time. If you had a friend who you were afraid was going to say something wrong, a friend you’d known for years, your solution would probably not be “oh, just destroy everything he’s ever learned and turn him into a baby again, start at square one”. It’s a deeply f*cked up thing to do, and they do it without blinking. Do they consult C-3PO? Strap him down to a chair and just get to work? Does he beg for his friendships to be preserved? What does R2-D2 think when C-3PO comes out and re-introduces himself? Is R2 like “oh, god, I guess I have to re-befriend this idiot”. When C-3PO is in pieces in Empire does R2 say: “Remember when this same thing happened and you were a battle droid?” and C-3PO is like “I say, R2, what a strange idea! I don’t know what a battle droid is!” Why not wipe R2s memory? Do they just trust his discretion more (if so, they made a good bet as he and Obi-Wan don’t tip off anyone in A New Hope to the enormous amount of backstory they know about each other and everyone else).
It’s a question that bothers me whenever it shows up. Is stripping someone of their memories murder? In X-Men, Days of Future Past Logan Prime lives in a dystopian future, then in the 70s for a moment, and then in future TimeLineTwo. So his memories are different than the body he now inhabits. What happened to the original TimeLineTwo Logan? What happened to his memories? In stealing his body, did Logan Prime essentially snuff out his existence? It may be a point for another article, but the question of murder still stands. Do Obi-Wan and Bail Organa callously murder C-3PO? Are they within their rights to do so?
I’d say no. I can’t imagine how icky it would be if a close friend I’d known since close to my birth sat me down some day and told me they were going to erase all my memories, but not to worry, my body would persist with a new set of memories and I’d get to meet all my friends all over again. But then again, as Sam said, C-3PO was conceived to be a cursed individual since the day Darth Vader started to build.