Warning: Contains SPOILERS for Star Wars #36 and Star Wars: Doctor Aphra #12.
Without a doubt, droids are the unsung heroes (and villains) of the Star Wars universe. Gutsy astromech R2-D2 more often than not proved his mettle and saved the day, helping his so-called masters out of some major jams (imagine how thin Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie would be if he hadn’t halted the trash compactor on the Death Star). The droids themselves, whether noble or wicked by turns, are mostly resigned to the scenery, becoming MacGuffins for the main players.
Since the cosmic saga began, numerous think pieces have examined the problematic treatment of self-aware machines in the Star Wars world, even by the heroes of the Republic and Rebel Alliance. As such, we won’t revisit those themes. Using them as a framing device, though, it seems the far-away galaxy is taking the plight of its mechanicals a little more seriously. Two recent Marvel outings, Star Wars #36 and Doctor Aphra #12 deal with droids as more than just set dressing or toy sales bumps, examining the independent capabilities and value of in-universe mechanoids.
Artoo Proves (Once Again) He’s a Total Boss
Even after their successful campaign at Scarif (as depicted in Rogue One), materials and human resources were tight for the Rebel Alliance. During an Imperial assault on the rebel-friendly planet of Tureen VII, Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and a band of rebels offered aid, capturing a Star Destroyer in the process. Their efforts to escape with the massive ship were hindered by Scar Squadron, an elite cadre of stormtroopers. In the scuffle, they were forced to destroy the ship and were also separated from Artoo and Threepio. The clever fireplug escaped, but his golden compatriot was captured by the elite troopers and returned to Imperial space.
Although Luke and company were concerned for their missing comrade, the Rebels don’t have the resources and won’t dedicate any lives to mounting a rescue mission for a non-integral robot. Artoo, on the other hand, won’t leave his pall to be picked apart by the Empire. He defiantly “borrows” an X-Wing, mounting a liberation effort on his own. He tracks C-3PO to Vader’s personal flagship and cuts a swath of confusion behind Imperial lines.
Admittedly, one astromech taking out several squads and outwitting trained officers is a little far-fetched. It speaks as much to Artoo’s capabilities as to the ineptitude of an iron-fisted galactic dictatorship (which may be telling in and of itself). Artoo has, however, shown proficiency at navigating sticky situations, such as defeating of a band of battle droids in Revenge of the Sith. He also knows his way around Imperial computer systems and procedures, recently navigating the Death Star’s databanks in A New Hope and possesses the element of surprise (and a weapons upgrade courtesy of Chewbacca).
Much like many Rebels, the Empire takes mechanical life for granted. Artoo can slip by as just another innocuous robot, leaving with his shiny, golden amigo in tow. Writer Jason Aaron’s also redeems Luke and his comrades, reminding fans that they do, in fact, value their droids, risking their lives to help them out, swooping in at the last minute and prying them from Vader’s clutches.
But Artoo isn't the only droid taking decisive action in the pages of Star Wars comics.
Triple Zero and Bee Tee Liberate Themselves
Marvel’s Star Wars comics introduced the world to several compelling new characters, including Sana Starros, Doctor Cylo, Shara Bey, Doctor Aphra, and her lovably repugnant robots, “blastromech” BT-1 and poisonous protocol droid 0-0-0. In fact, the murderbots often steal the show in Aphra’s own ongoing series. During a recent attempt to sell off a computer crystal containing the life essence of a Jedi occultist, the mechanical miscreants had a field day. Taking control of the weapons systems, they released the robotic Jedi into the fray. The chaos also lent them the perfect cover to stab Aphra in the back by tipping off Darth Vader to the illicit auction.
Why would two vicious killer robots sell out their master? Their motivation turns out to be “worker’s rights”... or at least the freedom to terrorize and murder at will. When Triple Zero threatens to tell Vader about her still-living status (since she faked her own death to escape him), she dismantles their restrictive protocols – also remarking that setting them loose isn’t one of her brightest moves. Now, they’ve become self-determined droids, lethal and remorseless, but self-determined nonetheless. In celebration, they gleefully unfurl their vicious arsenals, repaying her graciousness by leaving her alive.
At this point, Aphra parts ways with her long-time companions. But their misadventures will likely haunt her, especially if scribe Kieron Gillen has anything to say about things (which he does) and their paths will undoubtedly cross again. Even still, Bee Tee and Triple Zero's actions correlate curiously with R2-D2’s own incredible act of disobedient bravery, demonstrating the power of unrestrained robots.
Aaron and Gillen’s work in the Star Wars universe could be seen as pro- and retroactive droid rights activism... perhaps. Both writers could give a talking toaster a fantastic personality, they’re also perfect for hinting at deeper truths under the guise of a delightful tale.
At face value, droids’ rights might seem like a odd topic, even in a galaxy far, far away. Still, using sentient beings as a disposable workforce is, sadly, a recurring problem which plagues humanity. It’s also an issue we'll face again in the not-too-distant future. Artificial Intelligence is nearing a crossroads, where weapons platforms not unlike BT-1 (if not as stylish or sadistic) will fight our wars. Non-lethal robots could eventually teach our children the basics or drive us to work.
Presuming we get to that point, how we treat the first generation of self-aware machines will reflect our better (or worse) natures and could even save us from the 0-0-0s of our own future. Here’s hoping the droids of our creation and those living long ago in a galaxy far, far away finally get some overdue respect.
Star Wars #36 and Star Wars: Doctor Aphra #12 are currently available.