Some of the most interesting bits of world-building introduced in the most recent Star Wars spinoffs have come from the films’ droid characters. Sure, droids have always been a part of Star Wars’ mythos, but what’s been so surprising about Rogue One and Solo is how they gave us a glimpse at the inner lives of droids—which inadvertently highlighted how much we don’t know about them.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are undoubtedly two of Star Wars’ most iconic and important characters. But when you think about it, there’s still quite a bit we don’t know about their identities that speaks to a larger lack of general information about droids throughout the franchise. R2's the most skilled, sarcastic astromech co-pilot you could ever want, and C-3PO, nervous mess that he is, is both dependable and deceptively clever for a protocol droid. But these personality traits don’t exactly reveal all that much about their characters, or about what droids’ lives are like outside of performing the basic functions they were designed for.
Droids have rolled, walked, and flown through dozens of backgrounds of Star Wars scenes. But because their characterisation has largely been limited to their jobs, there’s a fascinating way in which the movies especially depict them as being kind of flat and one-note. You could chalk this up to writers simply assuming excited beeps and boops and chrome plating were all audiences expected from sentient robots back in 1977. Or you could consider that Star Wars has never really delved into droids’ interiority because the films are all shot from a predominantly organic perspective.
There’s an argument to be made that by Star Wars reducing its droid characters to workers, the franchise is actually subtlety showing us how humans and other organics see them: as mass-produced tools who were created for labor. But because droids have varying levels of sentience, this interpretation means that in the world of Star Wars, they are slaves, which raises a number of intriguing moral questions.
Artificially intelligent beings agitating for their freedom and civil rights is a concept that’s been explored in genre fiction before, but Star Wars is uniquely positioned to tackle the idea in ways that other franchises aren’t. Unlike robots in most other movies, Star Wars’ droids are almost universally able to interface with every other piece of sophisticated technology (including one another) found across the galaxy. The droids are, in a very real way, a part of Star Wars’ infrastructure, giving them a unique vantage point because of the vast amount of information they’re able engage with and the fact that, in theory, they’re functionally immortal.
What kind of stories do the Midwife Droids have to share about their lives? How do droids feel about their restraining bolts and what all does it mean for a droid to remove its bolt and regain its free will? These are the sorts of questions one imagines Solo’s L3-37, the custom piloting droid who pieced herself together from spare droid parts over the course of years, spent a lot of time thinking about. Perhaps more than any other droid, L3 displayed a level of compassion and emotional intelligence that she channelled into her fight for droid rights.
L3-37 soon after setting her droid brothers and sisters free on Kessel.
Though she was never in a position to enact large-scale change for her people on a legal level, she strongly (and rightly) believed that they deserved the same kind of protections and opportunities afforded to their organic counterparts. Interestingly, when she sets off a small rebellion freeing a number of Wookies and droids on Kessel, she’s baffled when another droid asks her in earnest what it should do with itself after losing its restraining bolt. It’s a brief moment that’s played for laughs in Solo, but it demonstrates that her kind of thinking is somewhat unique and perhaps rather revolutionary. It’s the same kind of distinctly human aspect to Star Wars droids that makes BB-8 and K-2SO so charming in the sequel trilogy and Rogue One, respectively, and it’s something worth delving into even deeper.
From L3's conversations with Qi’ra and BB-8's character in the Poe Dameron comics, we know that droids are capable of multiple kinds of emotional and physical intimacy with both other droids and organic creatures. But they are also able to feel the devastation of loss in a way that leaves you wondering how they experience memory, time, and the nature of their own existences (that is, when their minds aren’t wiped to erase those memories, like C-3PO’s was at the end of Revenge of the Sith—which itself is a horrifyingly accepted practice).
BB-8 and R2 frequently express sadness when parted with their organic companions, but how much of those emotions are borne out of a concern that they might not ever see one another because they themselves might perish? Droid deaths are common across Star Wars media and more often than not, they’re mourned as if their destructions are final, but that would suggest that a droid’s physical frame and its mind are effectively one and the same. That could very well be the case and if it is, then it’s an element of a droid’s existence that deserves more inspection and opens up the possibility for all kinds of potential new stories.
Solo never really gets quite this heavy, but L3 and Lando Calrissian have an exchange in Daniel José Older’s Last Shot that really hammers home just how much more there is to Star Wars’ droids that’s yet to be properly dissected on screen. Though she may not have been “born” in the same way that he was, L3 explains how they’re both in the constant, active process of becoming new versions of themselves, as all living things are:
“Sure, some guy in a factory probably pieced me together originally, and someone else programmed me, so to speak. But then the galaxy itself forged me into who I am. Because we learn, Lando. We’re programmed to learn. Which means we grow.
We grow away from that singular moment of creation, become something new with each changing moment of our lives—yes, lives—and look at me: these parts. I did this. So maybe when we say the Maker we’re referring to the whole galaxy, or maybe we just mean ourselves. Maybe we’re our own makers, no matter who put the parts together.”
A movie about a bunch of droids networked together as they contemplate whether they have souls or not would probably be overkill (that I’d pay good money to see). As the franchise marches forward like so many B1 battle droids, though, that’s a space where Star Wars could do well to broaden and deepen its canon—if only because the droids, like the Force, are important parts of the connective tissue that hold these fantasies together.