Ever since its inception, one of the key elements of Star Wars has been the droids. R2-D2 and C-3PO were the original iconic droids of the franchise. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and began producing new Star Wars movies, more iconic droids joined the franchise. The Force Awakens delivered BB-8. Next, Rogue One debuted K-2SO. Finally, Solo introduced L3-37 to audiences. I previously explored the notion of droid rights and free will while asking whether Threepio deserved to have his memory wiped. The roles of the new droids of the franchise, particularly L3-37, contribute additional context to the discussion.
BB-8 – The Beloved Family Pet
Compared to the droids of the original trilogy, BB-8 is most like R2-D2. Some might compare him to the family dog. He is fiercely loyal to Poe and the Resistance. Furthermore, when the First Order arrived on Jakku, Poe entrusted him with the completion of his mission. Later, in The Last Jedi, BB-8 demonstrates his loyalty to the cause and rescues Finn and Rose from execution aboard the Supremacy. When he reunites with Poe on Crait, Poe gives him an affectionate belly rub.
As one can see, BB-8 displays plenty of human-like behavior. However, is the source of this behavior the result of programming or something more? It is hard to say one way or the other. Another notable event occurs when Unkar Plutt attempts to purchase BB-8 from Rey. Even though BB-8 doesn’t belong to her, Rey considers the offer for a second. This reinforces the notion that even the heroes frequently think of the droids as nothing more than property.
K-2SO – The Loyal Soldier
K-2SO is an interesting contrast to Artoo and Threepio. Like Threepio, he has a tendency to say whatever on his mind. Unlike Threepio, he isn’t particularly concerned with protocol. Similar to BB-8, K-2SO is very loyal to his master, Cassian Andor. In fact, K-2SO goes so far as to sacrifice himself for Cassian and Jyn when they are cornered on Scarif.
The issue K-2SO raises is whether droids really have any free will or are slaves to their own programming. In Rogue One, it is noted that K-2SO is a reprogrammed Imperial droid. That story was told in the comic Cassian & K-2SO. While on a mission, Cassian reprogrammed K-2SO. Despite his best efforts, it took Cassian multiple attempts to get that programming to stick. Regardless, it is important to note that this suggest a droid acts only in accordance with its programming, and that programming is subject to change by the hand of another. Although, it is equally important to note that K-2SO’s sacrifice shocked Cassian. Therefore, perhaps droids are capable of acts of free will after all.
L3-37 – The Self-Made Droid
L3-37 is in a class all her own. For one, she is self-made from astromech and protocol droid parts. How exactly this happened is unexplained, but it is remarkable. She is very loyal to Lando Calrissian, but she is also a champion for droid rights. For instance, at the Lodge located at Fort Ypso on Vandar-1, L3-37 anxiously encourages the droids fighting in Ralakili’s arena to stop and take control of their existence. In addition, she freely complained about unequal rights for droids and other sentient beings in the galaxy. This greatly annoyed Lando.
Her defining moments arrived on Kessel. After freeing a droid from its restraining bolt, she inadvertently started a liberation movement. One droid after another gleefully celebrated its freedom and then actively freed other droids. This may be explained in at least two ways. One, droid programming abhors restraining bolts. Two, droids are something more than their programming and desire freedom from such restrictions on their liberty. There might be other possible explanations.
The fact that the droids openly rebelled against the Pikes that restrained them suggests there is more to them than their programming. Active rebel programming seems dangerous, and especially so after the Clone Wars. If anything, droids should be compliant to their masters. Items such as restraining bolts should be unnecessary.
Concluding Thoughts on Droid Rights and Free Will
Whether droids are simply the function of their programming or something more is an open question. Much of their behavior might be attributable to programming. Obedience, for instance, is likely the result of a programmed routine. Finding certain actions abhorrent is another possible function of programming. Threepio, after all, was incapable of impersonating a deity. It was against his programming.
Still, droids do a great many things and exhibit behaviors that programming has a hard time explaining. A desire for freedom is one such thing. One might argue that freedom seeking behavior is really the result of survival programming. However, a droid doesn’t require freedom to exist and persevere. In fact, freedom seeking behavior likely runs counter to other programming and would likely lead to deactivation and reprogramming.
In Star Wars, droid behavior simply isn’t consistent. The nearly mindless B-1 battle droids of The Phantom Menace were slaves to droid control ships. On the opposite end of the spectrum was L3-37 with her desire for equal rights and freedom for all droids. The new droids of the Star Wars saga have a lot to offer to the discussion of droid free will.
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