WARNING: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
Droids are a common sight and a constant presence throughout the Star Wars series. They can be found in a variety of roles, including doctors, soldiers, farmers, and even pit crew. Each droid appears to have a personality of its own, able to interact with the organic beings of the galaxy in a more or less conventional fashion. But are they truly alive, independent, self-aware beings, or are they merely convincing automata designed to mimic organic behavior? Do the thoughts and feelings they exhibit come from a sense of self-awareness or are they dictated by a series of logic processors?
Droids are essentially treated as property. But if they have even a spark of self-awareness, then this practise is akin to slavery. But if they are not truly sentient, then is everything a droid thinks and feels a cleverly-crafted and well-disguised lie? An illusion that they have a choice when in truth they are only able to act according to the limitations of their programming?
K-2SO: Reprogrammed Imperial Droid
In Rogue One, we are introduced to K-2SO, a captured and reprogrammed Imperial security droid. It’s Captain Cassian Andor‘s companion and bodyguard. A side-effect of the reprogramming is that K-2SO now has the tendency to say whatever it thinks. It has no verbal filter, and what it says is invariably the truth. At least, truth as far as it believes. K-2SO is also possessed of a deadpan, snarky humor that manifests itself nearly every time it speaks.
But if K-2SO’s new personality is a result of its reprogramming, can it – or any droid – be considered “alive?” Presumably before its reprogramming, K-2SO had the stock personality of a standard KX-series Security Droid. If a droid’s personality and loyalties can be changed, then has there ever been a “real” K-2SO? Radical personality changes aside, can any droid ever become more that its programming if any evolution of its personality can be undone? Regular memory wipes are considered to be standard practise for droids in the galaxy.
Droid characters throughout Star Wars are often shown apparently thinking for themselves or doing things that are seemingly against their programming. These characters are treated as being as “alive” as any organic character. C-3PO has a worrisome personality, R2-D2 is rebellious, Chopper is homicidal, and BB-8 is cute. But are their actions anything more than the sum of their programming? If not, are they even aware that the choices they make are predetermined by an algorithm? Does every droid believe that their actions are made freely and has a droid ever truly thought for itself?
Snark, Banter, and Heroic Sacrifice
On the face of it, K-2SO serves the purpose of nearly every droid within the Star Wars series – comic relief. Even the Trade Federation battle droids are treated as such. Many of Rogue One‘s funniest moments are the product of K-2SO’s dry sense of humor and inappropriately timed comments. But under the surface of the humor lies something else: a droid more than willing and able to kill. Does K-2SO have any choice in the imperative to kill or injure stormtroopers? Is it a part of its reprogrammed self or a moral choice it makes as a member of the Rebellion?
K-2SO provides some of the film’s lightest moments. But in the end, it also provides one of the genuinely saddest moments of the film. With stormtroopers approaching from all sides, K-2SO makes the choice to hold them off long enough for Jyn and Cassian to retrieve the Death Star plans. Riddled with blaster fire and close to deactivation, K-2SO uses its final efforts to lock the vault door and suggest a course of action that would still allow Jyn and Cassian to steal the Death Star plans. It is the first of the main characters to die, and the rest follow in short order. But to suggest that in its final moments K-2SO was not perfectly aware of what it was doing does a great disservice to the character.
As viewers, we ascribe certain characteristics to non-human characters like droids. We’re the ones who imbue them with life and see them as more than mechanical parts and circuit boards. To us, they’re alive and vibrant characters. If they weren’t, then we’d feel no sadness at their passing. At the end of the day, maybe it doesn’t matter if droids in the Star Wars universe are truly sentient or not. Because as long as we the viewers believe they are, then they’re. And K-2SO died a hero because it chose to be one and not because its circuits dictated it should.