A staple of science fiction is the mechanical man, the “tinnie,” the robot, the cyberman, the droid. Since Robbie the Robot from The Forbidden Planet (a 1956 film with special effects by Ray Harryhausen that’s held up surprisingly well), we’ve been fascinated with tin men. Well, okay, so maybe it goes back further, to Frank L. Baum’s Tin Man and Tick-Tock.
In any event, we have come to love our droids … and hate them. In the long-lived British series, Dr. Who, we found that the Cybermen made a great collective “villain” because they were cold, implacable, and you could blow them up without pity or remorse. Of course, the more recent exploration of droids as actual life-forms has given us a more nuanced view of them, and Star Wars has been in the forefront of that exploration.
Star Wars showed us that droids could be the scariest of enemies—after all, they feel neither pity nor pain. It also showed us that droids—even non-humanoid droids like R2-D2—could warm the cockles of our hearts. Whereas a battle-droid was programmed to kill, R2 was programmed for loyalty. I don’t know about the rest of you, but I always think of R2 as a sort of mechanical dog—loyal to a fault, willing to brave any danger to protect his human … or his humanoid droid, C-3PO.
But what makes us loathe such droid villains as Centurions (Battlestar Galactica) and love R2-D2? I think it has to do with sound. The Centurions make only a mechanical hum. The ones that speak, speak in an inhuman drone, heavy on the bass. We instinctively fear the silent, hulking, inhuman Thing. Of all Dickensian ghosts, it is not the clanking, groaning Jacob Marley that has terrified generations of readers and viewers, but the silent, wraith-like Ghost of Christmas Future. And bass frequencies, as all audio-experts know, create feelings of dread all on their own. If you doubt me, watch five minutes of Jaws with the sound turned off and see how un-scary the tin shark looks without his soundtrack.
It’s the element of sound that works in R2’s favor as well. He makes cute, perky, high-pitched tweets and whistles that intrigue and amuse us. In a word, he communicates. In a sense, it’s sound that endears C-3PO and I-5YQ to us as well. They are talkers with definite (and markedly different) personalities. C-3PO is nervous, easily offended, and a bit of a snob. I-Five is fearless, cynical, and has a dry, acerbic wit. C-3PO is a product of programming (though he’s shown signs of transcending it). He is programmed to be a bit fussy and hyper-concerned with diplomacy. I-Five, on the other hand, is sentient. He has been programmed to transcended his programming. (No, I’m not telling you how.)
Needless to say, before I worked with Dash Rendar’s droid, LE-BO2D9 (Leebo), I took note. Leebo’s personality is that of his previous owner—a standup comic who needed to flee a gig so urgently that he traded his droid for passage on a freighter owned by our hero. Now, here’s the quandary the writer faces: It’s tempting to write Leebo as if he, like I-Five, has somehow achieved true sentience, but how many sentient droids can there be in one little galaxy far, far away? So, I need to ask myself, as I write Leebo’s dialogues, what sort of personality a bad comic would have. How would he react to such things as being shot at by Imperial soldiers or having to return fire on a vessel containing sentient beings? How can he contribute to his own “fleshing out” and Dash’s if his personality is a product of programming? How can I give him a set of responses that at once suggest programming and personality?
One of the things I considered was that a droid has programmed responses to certain input. If you say something it doesn’t get, it will request more information. A lowly mech droid might say, “Please specify.” 3CPO might say “I beg your pardon, Master Solo, but I fail to understand the point you-” And that’s about as far as he’d get before Han pulled his plug. Leebo, meanwhile, might say, “Hello? Am I supposed to understand what you just babbled, boss?” or “Care to try that again in Standard?”
As Jar-Jar would say, “How rude!” But it’s not really. It’s just programming, after all. Isn’t it?
Next time: Story-weaving in the science fiction age—this is how we roll.