What’s in a Droid: Getting to the Heart of the Galaxy’s Greatest Companions

They carry stolen plans, stop trash compactors, and deliver secret maps. Here's why droids are essential to Star Wars.

“We don’t serve their kind here.”

Whether they’re being denied entry to a sleazy cantina or serving as punching bags for irritable Imperial officers, one terrible fact has rung far too true throughout the growing history of Star Wars stories: It ain’t easy being a droid. Commonly treated as though they’re worth even less than the tools they were built to be, the often complex and highly advanced droids that feature in many of our favorite stories have been, time and time again, tossed to the sidelines in some form or another. While emotions and other elements like friendship, heartbreak, and even bloodlust are seen as natural or expected of sentient life forms, droids are often denied that sort of agency by the people that surround them. While this is often seen as commonplace within the context of the story, the denial of that complexity has proven to be a serious underestimation, particularly when it involves armed droids built (or modified) for murder.

Created for countless purposes ranging from ship repair to basic companionship for the lonely, droids dawdle in and out of stories often unnoticed or abused, but many of the galaxy’s most famous units have broken the mold of basic programming and become something more. Look no further than the first pair of droids that fans were introduced to, C-3PO and R2-D2, for examples of exactly what that means: through arguments and countless obstacles over the years, the infamous duo has proven that their care for their friends, and each other, is more of a driving factor for their existences than the servitude they were programmed for. But beyond that, the two have given an in-depth look at what exists beneath their outer plating — the hard-earned ability to lead all-droid teams of their own, and the memories of the past that they share.

Droid Story - C-3PO

While C-3PO’s memory has likely been wiped twice as often as Artoo’s, his standalone comic release this month revealed that even the tightest programming and the cleanest wipes might not be enough to erase the “memories” of droids like Threepio. In the comic, Omri, an RA-7 protocol droid, compared the process of memory erasure to the focus of the comic itself — Threepio’s newly-lost arm. “Having had my memories erased is like having a phantom limb inside my memory banks,” explains the droid. In one gorgeous panel, some of Threepio’s memories seem to spread outward from his head like fog; the luxurious skyline of Naboo pans into a blurry, vague memory of Anakin and Obi-Wan’s final battle on Mustafar. For however many times Threepio’s memory has been erased, that “phantom limb” seems to exist in these two protocol droids; something that might be considered a miraculous accident of artificial intelligence.

Star Wars - R2-D2

Some fans (read: me) consider R2-D2 one of the greatest heroes of the Star Wars saga, and for good reason: for three generations, the fiery astromech has risked life and limb (along with some sweet rockets that he lost during the Clone Wars) in situations that go beyond protective programming. One might argue that, were it not for R2-D2’s quick thinking and impulse to protect them, there might not be a single Skywalker left to speak of. Artoo’s animated conversations with characters like Luke, Anakin, and Threepio show the complexity of a droid that can not only comprehend, but demonstrate otherwise sentient feelings like frustration, loneliness, fear, and friendship.

In fact, friendship — however droids might perceive it — is often a driving factor behind renegade actions or spur of the moment decisions. In Star Wars Rebels, Chopper’s newfound friendship with AP-5 (coincidentally, another RA-7 protocol droid) is what prompts the latter droid to turn against his abusive masters within the Empire in order to assist the Rebellion in establishing a new base. While perfectly murderous in his own right, Star Wars: Aftermath’s Mister Bones, a heavily modified Clone Wars-era B-1 battle droid, was wholly devoted to the teenage Temmin Wexley and demonstrated that his decision-making skills (thanks to his unique programming and long-standing friendship with his master) existed in a place beyond simply “performing violence.” Countless other stories of droids making decisions that go against their programming have been aided by the fact that the droid held an actual sense of care for someone involved.

Darth Vader comic - Triple Zero and Beetee

On the other hand, some droids just like to watch the world burn. Case in point: 0-0-0 and BT-1 of the Darth Vader comic series, who jump at the chance to wreak havoc, burn things down, and tear most enthusiastically at human flesh. While Beetee and Triple-Zero are slightly extreme examples (and were, for what it’s worth, programmed by the rather unpredictable Dr. Aphra) droids deciding to follow dark paths is not necessarily new, and is probably best represented by IG-88’s decision to become a lone bounty hunter, though details on IG-88’s logic behind this decision are still pretty vague.

The Force Awakens - BB-8

The latest robotic hero of the saga, BB-8, seems like the result of all this complexity wrapped into travel-sized ball of infinite possibility. It didn’t take long for the little droid to roll onward and into the hearts of millions just as his predecessors did, but that’s because BB-8 packed all of those familiar elements (friendship, compassion, unpredictability, and learned decision-making skills) into one incredible performance. From his emotional whine of defeat when Poe was believed to be dead to his constant need to protect Rey, BB-8 serves as the perfect display of droid complexity, and perhaps just how far that technology has come over the course of the story. Throughout The Force Awakens, BB-8 forms strong friendships, overcomes humongous emotional and physical obstacles and helps awaken R2-D2, the predecessor that carved the path for characters like BB-8 today.

It would be silly to call droids “human” at the end of the day, because regardless of emotion or complexity, they simply aren’t. The point, though, is that the inner workings of everyday droids are elaborate and often more sentient kind of being than many give them credit for. They may not bleed when you cut them, but somewhere deep in those memory banks, they might remember the pain of betrayal, and marks like those don’t buff away. The stories weaving within and out of Star Wars often bridge away from that of the Skywalker legacy to explore what the rest of the galaxy has to offer, and for that reason, paying attention to the stories held within the databanks of the galaxy’s droids might uncover far more mysteries than you might think.

Catrina Dennis is a writer and Star Wars die-hard. In her spare time, she tells stories, yells very loudly about soccer, and hosts a few very cool podcasts. Catch up with her on Twitter @ohcatrina.