The role of droids in the Star Wars universe has always been fairly clear, and yet tinged with some troubling implications. They’re servants, essentially, but they’re also companions and, most interestingly of all, they have emotions. Even the R2 unit – ostensibly an all-purpose utility and piloting-assist droid – has a full range of feelings, including the capacity to undergo long periods of public grief. That’s a curious trait for a piece of hardware to have, and it doesn’t seem to be particularly germane to its function. Even the pronouns get confusing when speaking of droids: characters in Star Wars use personal pronouns (almost exclusively male), but the droids aren’t really living things, and they’re always subservient to humans. Humans place “restraining bolts” on them, which are essentially electronic shackles and chains, and think little of erasing their memories when it becomes necessary to cleanse the droid of any previous allegiances or attachments. Droids accept all of this as a fact of life, happily submitting to the rule of these creatures of flesh and blood.
It’s hardly a novel idea, but the disturbing implication is that droids aren’t so much robots or servants as slaves. It might be strange to think of Luke Skywalker or Rey or Poe Dameron as slave owners, but that’s precisely what they are. Benevolent, to be sure, but slave owners nonetheless. How that colours our perception of the Star Wars heroes is of course up to the viewer, but it’s an inescapable implication of the society it depicts. No matter how cute BB-8 is (and he’s damn cute).
In the Star Wars films, all of these problematic droid-human relationships are simply shown, with no sense of self-consciousness whatsoever, and no character ever stands back and questions the established order. Probably the most interesting thing about Marvel’s C-3PO: The Phantom Limb comic is that it actually touches on the subject, and shows us a droid character willing to examine the meaning of his existence.
Ostensibly, this comic exists in order to tell the story of how C-3PO got his red arm, which features in his appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The quick and easy answer to that question is that he got it from another droid after it was destroyed. Simply to tell that story would be, other than a bit lazy and obvious, to simply repeat any number of other one-off adventures that various characters have in the Star Wars comics. Instead, writer James Robinson (along with an extensive team of story editors from Lucasfilm) make the donor of the arm one of the more interesting characters presented to us from the Star Wars universe.
The book itself is not perfect — some of the dialogue doesn’t seem to fit with the Star Wars sensibility and the plot, featuring a journey through a savage alien planet, isn’t particularly original — but Omri, the droid at the centre of the story, makes it compelling. As the comic opens, Threepio and four other droids are the only survivors of a crash on a hostile alien planet. They’re transporting Omri, a droid allied with the First Order, back to Resistance headquarters, where the Resistance leaders can extract from him the location of a kidnapped Admiral Ackbar. All the other droids, which include a security guard, a construction droid and a medical droid, get opportunities as the story unfolds to demonstrate heroism and sacrifice, but Omri constantly wonders, in a continuous dialogue with Threepio, about the true nature of a droid’s sense of loyalty.
Omri himself is officially a First Order droid, but he wonders exactly why he, or any of his companions, show loyalty to any particular group of humans over another. Are they free to choose their own masters, or are they bound by their programming to mindlessly obey? C-3PO himself has clearly never wondered about this issue, and accepts everything his masters have done with him, including a nearly-complete memory erasure that occurred sometime between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. (This gives him a great opportunity to confess that he sometimes has flashes of memory about past events and gives us a verbal montage of arresting images drawn from the prequels, about which he remembers nothing else. We should all be so lucky.)
But it’s Omri who constantly tries to frame this control that humans have over his memory as some sort of violation. At one point, he compares his lost memories to the feelings one would have towards a lost limb (the symbolism is a bit on the nose, but it works in the context of the story), always nagging at the fringes of his mind. In the strictest sense, he and Threepio are enemies, on different sides of the great galactic conflict, but Omri points out that they could very well have been allies in the past — friends, even. It’s those feelings of friendship that ultimately lead Omri to switch sides, give Threepio the information he needs willingly, and sacrifice himself to save the golden droid’s life. He isn’t “changing sides” as he sees it, merely “choosing friendship”, but the very act of shifting loyalty from human to droid is a monumentally significant act for an individual in this slave society. He’s making a statement that droids are emphatically more than hardware, but are in fact sentient beings capable of free and original thought.
Morally, this ending leaves the Star Wars universe in a bit of a tight spot. Clearly, C-3PO is only too happy to play his role in society, but if at least some droids are capable of self-awareness, it seems as if it will only be a matter of time before they’ll ask for their freedom. Star Wars itself, at least in the canonical films, gives no hint that a slave revolt is even possible, but it’s good to see that some creators, working in the corners of the expanded universe, are considering it. Other books, such as Descender, tackle the topic head-on, but Star Wars is supposed to be fun space fantasy, not darkly introspective hard science fiction, so perhaps the subject is a bit too weighty for the series. Still, anyone who has read this comic will never look at C-3PO’s red arm in quite the same way again.