The Disturbing Implications of Star Wars Droids

(Spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story below.)

The Star Wars franchise has been blessed with some good movies in recent years, which I consider payback for the misfire of the prequel trilogy. Rogue One marked a departure from the standard Star Wars film, presenting a war story that was pretty good overall. Then again, it could have been terrible and I still would have loved it for the Vader scene at the end.

Vader Rogue One
I’m in my happy place.

Aside from that unnecessary story-wise but still totally sweet massacre, Rogue One has a lot of standout performances. One of the most notable is Alan Tudyk’s K-2SO, a reprogrammed Imperial droid who is now my third favorite robot in the Star Wars universe. (Sorry, but BB-8 and HK-47 still have him beat.)

Unfortunately, K-2SO also highlighted the severe problem with droids in the Star Wars franchise. Specifically, they’re mind-controlled slaves.

Do Droids Dream Electric Sheep?

K-2SO was presumably captured from the Empire and reprogrammed to serve the rebellion. He’s like a more sarcastic T-800…except that Terminator 2 repeatedly emphasized that the T-800 possessed neither emotions nor free will. While you could argue that he somehow grew a soul over the course of that film, the difference between man and machine was very distinct. Not so for droids in Star Wars.

Star Wars droids have emotions – they feel companionship, fear, and perhaps even love. They can adjust their actions based on past experience and show signs of free will – as long as they haven’t been fitted with a restraining bolt. And even in that case, a certain savvy R2 unit can con his human master into removing it.

R2D2 Help Me Obi Wan
As long as he can get his new master to develop an instant crush on his twin sister.

Yes, droids are devices, but they are also sentient beings. With that in mind, the Rebellion effectively kidnapped K-2SO and brainwashed him…and everybody is totally okay with this.

This arguably takes the punch out of K-2’s self-sacrifice at the end. Yes, he has a bonding moment with Jyn when she gives him a blaster, thus showing more faith and trust in him than any other human. On the other hand, he only goes on the obvious suicide mission in the first place because, “Cassian said I had to.” His programming forced him to sacrifice his life for stupid little meat-bags that can’t even survive in space.

Why, Why Were They Programmed to Feel Pain?!

The flip side of this is that maybe droids don’t have true free will – maybe they, like the Terminator, are just machines that must respond to their programming. If that’s the case, then it says some really dark things about humanity in the Star Wars universe.

Droid Torture
Could this droid always feel pain, or did Jabba have it reprogrammed so it could be tortured?

If humans decided to program droids with emotions but not true sentience, it means they consciously built a neurotic, cowardly droid like C-3PO who would beg not to get deactivated. It means that Poe’s friendship with BB-8 is effectively a case of one man falling in love with his Furbee.

Look, I’ve got an Amazon Echo in my house. I know that putting certain human features on a piece of technology can be comforting or convenient. But I also don’t program my Echo to argue with me when I ask it to play the Hamilton soundtrack or to beg for mercy if I threaten to unplug it.

Two Possibilities, Both Creepy As Hell

Overall, Star Wars give us two possibilities:

  • Droids are sentient beings, which makes kidnapping one and brainwashing it to do your bidding an inexcusable crime. And that’s not even touching upon the theological debate that would put their creators on the same level as God.
  • Droids are not sentient, but their programming tells them to feel fear, sadness, and even pain. Assuming that humans created them, that paints us as even more sadistic and narcissistic than we are in the real world. That’s like programming an iPhone to feel jealous when a new model comes out or, on the other end of the spectrum, developing a deep and meaningful relationship with your toaster.

I don’t have an answer to the disturbing theological implications presented by droids in the Star Wars universe. I do, however, know that if I ever get a chance to play in a session of the Star Wars RPG, I’m going to play a civil rights activist for droids.

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