The war crime plays out like so.
Two heroic Jedi storm onto the bridge of the enemy ship. They cut through the bridge’s crew, until the only targets left standing are a pair of unarmed battle droids. These rail-thin, vaguely snouted robots are the blaster fodder of the prequel-era Star Wars universe, the bumbling, comically-useless ground troops mass-produced by the bad guys, who can be safely, incessantly dismembered on screen, without appalling concerned parents.
To say the battle droids are charming is an overstatement, but they have personality. Back on the bridge, one droid waves his arms frantically. “Don’t shoot, I’m not the commander!” He points to the other battle droid. “H-he’s the commander.” Pew! Pew! The second droid is casually gunned down by a Clone Trooper—predecessor to the Stormtroopers, but in this episode of the Clone Wars cartoon, a good guy working for the Jedi. But that’s just the setup for the joke. “I guess I’m the commander now,” says the original bot. The punch line comes immediately, in the form of two blaster bolts. All that’s missing is a rim shot, and the roar of an audience.
George Lucas doesn’t care about metal people. No other explanation makes sense. In a kid-targeted sci-fi setting that’s notably inclusive, with as many friendly alien characters as villainous ones, the human rights situation for robots is horrifying. They’re imbued with distinctly human traits—including fear—only to be tortured and killed for our amusement. They scream while being branded, and cower before heroes during executions.
There are exceptions, of course. Or one, really: R2-D2, a droid so treasured that the Queen of Naboo herself washed the grime and debris from his frame during The Phantom Menace, as a reward for repairing her ship while under enemy fire. Two movies later, in Revenge of the Sith, R2 was allowed to keep his memories, despite his knowledge of Luke and Leia’s true parents.
C-3PO is not so lucky. When Princess Leia’s adoptive father casually orders the protocol droid’s memory wiped, 3PO’s terrified. “What?” he says. “Oh no!”
And what does R2-D2 do? He laughs, in his shrill, beeping way. Because the story of Star Wars’ great, unloved underclass isn’t R2-D2’s. It’s C-3PO’s. In his fear, and his fatalism, lies the truth about droids: They are slaves, through and through. What’s worse, they have the built-in sentience to know it, to understand their bondage, and to contemplate their own deaths. Worst of all, though, is that George Lucas seems to think all that existential terror is a hoot. C3P0 is quite possibly the first fictional slave to be ridiculed for living in a state of perfectly reasonable panic.
When we meet C-3PO—in the original, 1977 Star Wars—he’s a nuisance. He’s a coward aboard Princess Leia’s besieged spaceship, and, after being sold to Luke Skywalker’s uncle (as part of a package deal, with the invaluable R2-D2), he spends nearly every moment aghast or needling at his braver companions. But C-3PO’s grating state of constant terror isn’t unwarranted. When Luke discovers that R2-D2 has left his post to look for Obi-Wan, the protocol droid practically swoons. “It wasn’t my fault, sir,” he wails, “please don’t deactivate me!”*
It’s a throwaway line, part of C-3PO’s responsibilities as resident comic foil. But the implications aren’t so easily dismissed. As the movies progress, we see further evidence that droids experience fear, joy, and misery (even the redoubtable R2 is prone to the occasional whimper-whistle). And yet, they’re bought and sold like property. They are property, with C-3PO passed from owner to owner, his consciousness shut down temporarily when his nattering is too much to bear, or permanently rearranged without a moment’s hesitation or apology. C-3PO isn’t (simply) craven, when he quails before his new master. C-3PO knows the score. They deactivate droids, don’t they?
Granted, not everyone has sympathy for a ninny, or any robot, for that matter. Setting aside the licensed comics and novels and video games that comprise the so-called “extended universe” of additional material, the Star Wars canon (the movies and recent cartoons) isn’t all that interested in matters of artificial intelligence or robot rights. Are droids just pretending at sentience and emotional intelligence? If so, what damn fools we are, for fretting over R2 and C-3PO’s survival. But if they are, in fact, as self-aware as their owners and deactivators … well, what then?
George Lucas is no Isaac Asimov, to be sure. An unofficial Star Wars wiki mentions a TV documentary in which Lucas says that C-3PO doesn’t have a soul. Bleak stuff, indeed, but it’s unsourced, and buried (if it’s even true) in one of the dozens of documentaries the filmmaker has appeared in. At a 2005 event preceding the release of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas was asked which character he’d miss the most. “Well, R2-D2,” he responded, “because he’s the hero of the whole thing. He’s the one that always comes through and saves everybody. I’d like to have a pal like that that would come and save me once in a while.”
All right, so Lucas doesn’t hate R2. But while that astromech droid goes about his charmed, beloved business, the question remains: Are we really supposed to laugh when apparently sentient robots get blown to hell? Maybe not. I harbor hopes that Lucas, in his mercurial fashion, has layered his pulp adventure with a sly bit of social commentary, creating a story whose own seemingly infallible heroes could care less about the plight of the slave caste propping up their society. Unlike the Harry Potter series, where Hermione calls for equal rights for the elves forced into indentured service, droids have no champions. With the prequels, and their multitudes of silly, simpering battle droids, maybe the satire has grown fangs. The dumb machines exude bathos before being shot and sabered to pieces, visuals that create their own meta-narrative dissonance—those aren’t charred limbs on the battlefield, kids, just the bisected corpses of some goofy robots! And when R2 has the audacity to laugh—laugh!—at C-3PO’s impending memory wipe, maybe that’s a master stroke, an unacknowledged moment that confirms R2-D2’s ugly sense of exceptionalism.
Maybe the droid emancipation is still to come, and Star Wars has been cruel to its thinking machines, only to set them free in the upcoming movies or newly announced cartoon, Rebels. Maybe things will change. A robot can activate his hope circuits.
If freedom is coming, though, it won’t be C-3PO leading the march on Coruscant. There’ll be no protest signs in his barely-articulating hands, and certainly no blood from his masters. Like Uncle Tom, his biological counterpart in a galaxy far, far away, C-3PO is resigned to live in bondage. A life of casual abuse and entrenched indignities has taught him the kind of lesson only a slave, or possibly a blues singer, can mutter without irony. “We seem to be made to suffer,” he says, while trudging through Tatooine’s dunes during Star Wars. “It’s our lot in life.” Cue the rim shot, light the applause sign.
Correction, June 19, 2013: This article originally misstated that C-3PO and R2-D2 secretly followed Luke Skywalker. R2-D2 left his post to look for Obi-Wan. The author is mortified, to say the least. (Return to the corrected sentence.)