Of all the backstories that Star Wars fans were dying for after The Force Awakens premiered in theaters, the origin of C-3PO’s red arm was probably not at the top of the list. And yet, with Marvel’s latest Star Wars one shot, this is just what acclaimed comics team James Robinson and Tony Harris, best known for their work on DC Comics series Starman, have set out to do with Star Wars: C-3PO #1.
Providing an engrossing pre-Awakens tale of survival and companionship starring the frequently unsung heroes of the Star Wars saga, the droids, Robinson and Harris provide a fascinating glimpse into the minds of these mechanical intermediaries, illuminating the viewpoint of intergalactic warfare from those mechanical individuals rarely able to chose their side.
The story takes place on an undisclosed, uninhabited planet, as a flaming Rebel vessel crash lands into a desert. C-3PO (alternatively, “Threepio”) exits the ship with five other droids, including a prisoner First Order protocol droid named Omri, before the ship explodes. Realizing they’re the only survivors of the crash, the droids decide they will all have to traverse the alien landscape to a crashed First Order vessel nearby, which is emitting a beacon they can use to call the Rebels. Threepio then takes the lead in the treacherous journey across the desert.
To see C-3PO — one of the most famous side characters in film — in a position of leadership is definitely an interesting change of pace, especially given his famously passive obedience and slow gait. It’s equally amusing to see Threepio try to corral the rag tag team of droids together, the non-vocal of whom appear to be rather boorish, based on Threepio’s reactions to their bleeps and bloops.
As the droids begin their journey, Omri comments on the absurdity of their taking him prisoner, given any of them could have been in his position.
“For all you know, any one of you could have been serving the other side at some point,” he says. “As droids, our memories are often wiped.”
The conversation is cut short as one of the droids detects a series of tremors, which the group quickly realizes isn’t an earthquake as giant spider-like beasts emerge from the ground. The droids quickly attempt an escape, warding off the spiders with the few armaments they possess. One of the armed droids, a security droid named PZ 99, sacrifices himself so the others may escape.
As Threepio honors Peezee’s sacrifice, Omri comments that it was only because Peezee was programmed to. Threepio calls Omri out on his callousness, commenting on his demonstrated disdain for droids’ programmed obedience.
“It’s the curse of protocol droids,” responds Omri, “that our tasks require an extra degree of sentience. I think that added awareness causes us to question. Flashes of past events — were they grand events or nothing to speak of? How important have I been?”
Threepio remarks that he, too, has flashes of memories from his past.
“For just a moment… places. Rocks… a factory of droids… A single city spread far as my optical sensors could see. I have memories too. And yes, sometimes I allow myself to wonder about them. But I also accept it is a droid’s lot in life to be in service to its master.”
With this exchange, Robinson manages to make what was at most a throw-away continuity fixer in Episode III, the erasing of C-3PO’s memory, into a fascinating question of droid interiority. Given how simple a function the erasure of memory on a machine seems to be, what is the case with a machine with a certain degree of sentience? What is, in a sense, mechanical amnesia and recollection?
What’s all the more fascinating is that such residual memories are probably not something that could have been anticipated in the creation of droids and their memory banks, and begs the question of a droid’s spiritual evolution beyond its circuitry. It’s a question that’s arisen countless times in classic sci-if, and to see these themes arise with famous robots is an intriguing character study.
Additionally, as Omri indicates, just as a droid’s memories can be changed, so can its very purpose and directive. The idea that a characteristically innocent droid like C-3PO could at one point in the extended Star Wars history have been servant to a Star Wars villain would seem to undermine the concept of a “good” or “bad” droid. Can a character be a hero or villain when it’s in their programming to serve whoever controls their thoughts and programming?
As much as fans like to think so, is Threepio even inherently good? While the story never doubts or discredits Threepio’s good-heartedness in his purpose, it paints a curious picture of an R2-D2 or C-3PO serving the Dark Side, especially given the latter’s dedication to a droid’s function of serving its master, whomever that may be. The droids don’t even need a Sith Lord to seduce them, either: just a handy mechanic.
The surviving droids continue on their way, only to again find themselves under attack, this time by tentacled river monsters. Omni and Threepio barely make it across the river, as the other droids are torn apart. Not, however, before one of the beasts latches onto Threepio’s arm and tears it off. Omni, pulling Threepio away, leads them to safety.
As the two walk through the desert, finally seeing the beacon emitter, they find themselves at the mercy of a storm of acid rain. They take shelter under a crashed TIE fighter, only to realize it will soon dissolve. Omri then makes a faithful decision: to step out and redirect the beacon, summoning the rebels to their location.
“I just transferred to you the location where the First Order is holding Admiral Ackbar,” he tells Threepio.”
“I don’t understand,” responds Threepio, “You’re changing sides?”
“I’m not choosing sides,” says Omri. “I’m choosing friendship.” Omri then steps out and changes the beacon. As he dissipates, he notices red primer under his left arm, wondering when in his existence it was applied. Soon, the mysterious red arm is all that’s left.
Threepio is soon found by Poe Dameron and BB-8 and brought aboard a rebel vessel. The comic ends with Threepio standing with BB-8 on the ship’s bridge, brandishing his new red arm.
“I will keep it for a while,” he tells BB-8. “To remember.” A reflection of the droids appears in the window in front of them, as translucent as the other memories Threepio’s found himself recalling.
In a single issue, Robinson crafts a compelling script that asks a number of thoughtful questions regarding droid existence. From haunting fragments of memory, to literal and figurative layers of existence and history, Robinson provides a convincing parallel between robotic and human function and place in the larger machine of warfare, asking how much humans are simply recreating their own spiritual crises of conflict and loyalty in manufacturing droids.
The relationship between C-3PO and Omri, of two pawns drawn together despite their opposing sides, is a great reflection of similar stories within real-life and fictional warfare (just look at Poe and Finn). Harris’ gorgeous illustrations and landscapes help bring the Star Wars universe to life, and bring a humanity and depth to something as aesthetically unemotional as robotic beings.
Perhaps the issue’s only flaws are in its pace, as the story might have proved more effective as a several-issue mini-series, given its complexity. Additionally, the dialogue between C-3PO at times falls into the usual pitfalls that become a story where only one person in a conversation speaks English, in that the English speaker is then obliged for the readers’s sake to repeat exactly what the other has said (“what do you mean ‘according to your sensors, it’s not the ground that that’s moving’?”), which comes across as clunky.
Further, at times, one can’t help but feel the story is trying too hard to provide an epic story for C-3PO’s discolored arm, which could have been lost a countless number of ways (he’s been torn apart enough over the course of the saga). But these are small criticisms for a story that is overall a heartfelt, intriguing and brilliantly illustrated look into the minds and souls of the Star Wars universe’s most beloved background characters.