Why Star Wars Space Nazis Shun Killer Robots

By Jeremy Hsu | January 19, 2018 2:50 pm
Captain Phasma stands with several of her First Order stormtroopers in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Credit: Disney

Captain Phasma stands with several of her First Order stormtroopers in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Star Wars films tend to dwell upon space fantasy adventures that mix starships with space wizards wielding laser swords in a galaxy far, far away. Despite that focus, a number of Star Wars films also happen to feature another staple of science fiction: killer robots.

Fictional killer robots often represent either the agents of greater villains or the primary existential threat to humanity in many science fiction films. Iconic Star Wars villains such as Darth Vader and Kylo Ren would seem to naturally go glove-in-hand with the idea of commanding killer robot armies to do their bidding. But the Star Wars films generally go in a different direction by featuring villains who mostly disdain the use of killer robots—even if the bad guys may secretly like the idea of mindless automatons doing their bidding.

Turn back now if you want to avoid spoilers on any of the Star Wars films other than “The Last Jedi.”

Rise of the Killer Robot Armies

At first glance, the Star Wars prequel trilogy appears to follow the traditional “killer robots are bad” script. The initial threat from armies of killer robots help set events in motion that eventually bring about the downfall of both the Old Republic and the Jedi Knights: a monastic order of warriors that had protected the Republic based primarily on their mastery of the mysterious power known as the Force.

During the prequel films, a group of star systems and corporations forms a Separatist Alliance with the goal of breaking away from the Old Republic’s rule over most of the known Star Wars galaxy. The Separatists deploy large armies and fleets of military robots that come in all shapes and sizes, including humanoid battle droids carrying energy weapons and droid starfighters capable of space combat.

Despite some notable deficiencies, the battle droids still manage to cause a considerable number of casualties among the Old Republic’s forces that consist primarily of human clone troopers. The battle droids even prove capable of taking down lightsaber-wielding Jedi—arguably the most powerful combatants in the Star Wars galaxy—with enough massed firepower. (That does not stop the prequel’s main protagonists, including Anakin Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi, from cutting through the battle droids like butter.)

A small circle of Jedi with lightsabers tries to fend off the huge army of battle droids closing in around them in "Star Wars: Attack of the Clones." Credit: Disney

A small circle of Jedi with lightsabers tries to fend off the huge army of battle droids closing in around them in “Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

But the Star Wars prequels begin to turn away from the traditional Hollywood script of “bad killer robots” when they reveal the true villains of the trilogy. It turns out that the Separatist leadership is actually being manipulated by the evil Darth Sidious, who happens to be Chancellor Palpatine in his day job at the head of the Old Republic.

The Separatists and their battle droid armies end up being mere puppets of the truly villainous Palpatine, who uses the conflict between the Separatists and Old Republic to drum up political support for himself and make his grab for dictatorial power. The killer robot armies are apparently finished once the Separatist Alliance’s leadership is eliminated by Palpatine following the end of their usefulness to him.

A Star Wars Ban on Killer Robots

While the films do not show what follows, Star Wars reference materials suggest that the battle droids were mostly deactivated following the supposed victory over the Separatists. That victory sets the stage for Palpatine to declare himself emperor and transform the Old Republic into the Galactic Empire. This officially ushers in the “space Nazi” era for the Star Wars films that include the original George Lucas trilogy and the sequel trilogy being produced by Disney.

The Star Wars films do not offer any clear explanation about why Palpatine and the Galactic Empire choose not to deploy killer robot armies. But some background reference materials indicate that the Galactic Empire actually outlawed the production of battle droids and military robots designed for combat.

The reasoning for the Empire’s killer robot ban must remain in the realm of speculation without clearer clues from the official Star Wars canon. But it seems unlikely that the Empire decided to ban killer robots because it felt that such robots were militarily useless. After all, the Separatist battle droids managed to perform fairly well in battle for the most part and did not seem to exhibit any serious rebellious behavior or malfunctions.

Han Solo fires upon an Imperial probe droid on the icy planet of Hoth in "Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back." Credit: Disney

Han Solo fires upon an Imperial probe droid on the icy planet of Hoth in “Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Furthermore, the Empire seems fine with using some killer robots in supporting roles to supplement its ranks of human stormtroopers and starship crew members. The second film of the original trilogy, “The Empire Strikes Back,” begins with an Imperial probe droid landing on the snowy planet Hoth. This probe droid shows clear lethal intent when it opens fire with a blaster cannon on Han Solo and Chewbacca after the duo discover the droid scouting around a Rebel Alliance base.

Additional evidence for the Empire’s use of killer robots comes from the Disney-produced standalone film “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” The stormtroopers in that film are sometimes accompanied by KX-series security droids that are described in a reference book as being “programmed without the standard restriction against harming organic sentient lifeforms.” These droids have a license to kill, unlike most of their hard-working brethren in the Star Wars galaxy.

Seeking Explanations for the Ban

It’s tempting to imagine that the Empire’s choice to shun armies of killer robots stems from the same political and cultural reasoning for placing a general ban on killer robots in the first place. Maybe the large armies of killer robots were still associated with the former Separatist movement and were therefore seen by most citizens of the Empire as only being used by the “bad guy” Separatists.

There is some support for this idea of a general anti-droid sentiment in the official Star Wars reference materials. But that explanation seems partially undercut by the fact that the Empire still uses some military droids in certain supporting roles. Furthermore, many citizens of the Empire still seem fine with non-combat droids performing various jobs, which raises the question of whether the general anti-droid sentiment remains very widespread by the time the original Star Wars trilogy takes place.

An alternative explanation of the Empire banning killer robots because of ethical or humanitarian reasons seems laughable when considering the Empire’s policies of repression and intimidation. It’s hard to expect humanitarian consideration from an Empire that makes casual use of the Death Star—the main Star Wars weapon of mass destruction—to wipe out an entire planetary population based on the justification that “fear will keep the local systems in line.”

Director Krennic led the Galactic Empire's research effort that developed the Death Star in "Rogue One." Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Director Krennic led the Galactic Empire’s research effort that developed the Death Star in “Rogue One.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

One of the best explanations of the Empire’s disdain for killer robot armies was inadvertently offered by the Thrawn book trilogy in the Star Wars Expanded Universe. The book series suggested that Emperor Palpatine, aka Darth Sidious, actually exerted a form of mind control over all his Imperial troops. It’s easy to imagine how an Imperial military based primarily upon weak-minded humans—susceptible to direct control by only the most powerful Force-users such as Palpatine—might be more appealing than a robot army in that scenario.

Unfortunately, this Force-based explanation must be considered null and void because the Expanded Universe books are not considered an official part of the canon Star Wars galaxy laid out in the main films.

A Human-First Ideology

My favorite speculative theory is that both the Galactic Empire and its successor in the Disney-produced sequel films, the First Order, generally shun the use of battle droids and other killer robots because of their “space Nazi” ideology. Both the Empire and First Order seem to share a similar xenophobic ideology of “humanocentrism” that elevates humans above all other alien races in the Star Wars galaxy. Their disdain for non-humans may also extend in some form to droids.

The xenophobic ideology of the Empire and First Order may go hand-in-hand with the broader anti-droid sentiment that lingers in the Star Wars galaxy. It’s not hard to read echoes of xenophobia in the anti-droid sentiment uttered in the classic cantina scene from “Star Wars: A New Hope” when a bartender growls: “We don’t serve their kind here. Your droids! They’ll have to wait outside, we don’t want them here.”

The practical implications of this xenophobic ideology can be seen in the military culture of the Empire and the First Order. The military ranks of both organizations are generally filled with humans serving as stormtroopers, starship crew members and other military personnel. By comparison, the Rebel Alliance and Resistance that oppose the Empire and the First Order, respectively, have plenty of aliens among their ranks. The Rebels and Resistance even tend to treat droids as equals.

General Hux is the main military commander of the First Order in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi." Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

General Hux is the main military commander of the First Order in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

The Empire’s heavy reliance upon human troops suggests that its military culture has been infused with an overbearing confidence in human superiority: a confidence that could have been reinforced through Imperial propaganda following the apparent victory of human troops over the Separatists’ battle droid armies. Such a worldview may leave little room for factions that might be more open to expanding the use of killer robots in the Imperial military.

Control and Obedience

That human-first mindset apparently carries over to the First Order after the fall of the Empire, as evidenced by an argument between Kylo Ren and General Hux in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” After a First Order stormtrooper goes rogue, Ren raises the question of whether General Hux’s stormtroopers can be relied upon as truly loyal. “Perhaps Leader Snoke should consider using a clone army,” Ren says sneeringly.

Hux bristles at both the challenge to his authority and the implication that his First Order stormtroopers are somehow deficient: “My men are exceptionally trained, programmed from birth!

Nobody in this conversation raises the idea of building a killer robot army in the style of the battle droid swarms that once challenged the Old Republic. Nor do Ren or Hux suggest rallying some powerful alien races to the cause of the First Order. Instead, they focus on debating the choice of using either human clone troops or human stormtroopers. That seems very telling in a manner that is consistent with their humanocentric ideology.

The debate between Ren and Hux reflects their mutual interest in creating a First Order military that consists of fanatical humans completely subservient to their leadership. Hux emphasizes that idea of utter obedience with his description of First Order stormtroopers as being “programmed from birth.” Such wording implies that Hux expects his stormtroopers’ indoctrination to be roughly equivalent to programming obedience into a battle droid.

Stormtroopers and other human military personnel of the First Order. Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Stormtroopers and other human military personnel of the First Order. Credit: Lucasfilm | Disney

Meanwhile, Ren’s suggestion of raising a clone army for the First Order refers back to the Old Republic’s obedient clone troopers. Such clone troopers were grown in a manner that seems eerily similar to manufacturing an army of killer robots, with the main difference being between flesh and machine. They were even genetically altered to be less independent and more docile. Last but not least, Emperor Palpatine secretly had inhibitor chips installed in the brains of all clone troopers so that he could exert direct control over them.

The villains of Star Wars may have largely disdained the direct use of killer robots. But in the bigger picture, they seem to expect complete obedience from the rank-and-file human troops in a manner that suggests they view their stormtroopers as mindless cannon fodder. Given such dehumanizing treatment, the Empire and First Order might as well be using killer robot armies at the end of the day.

Disclaimer: It would almost certainly be a mistake to assume that George Lucas and Disney have put much thought into creating a consistent and logical portrayal of how the Star Wars galaxy would use killer robots in a military capacity. Still, the appearance of killer robots in certain Star Wars films provides an opportunity to speculate on how the depiction of killer robots fits into the cultural norms and ethics of the film’s heroes and villains.

Additional Star Wars Reading:

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Lovesick Cyborg

Lovesick Cyborg examines how technology shapes our human experience of the world on both an emotional and physical level. I’ll focus on stories such as why audiences loved or hated Hollywood’s digital resurrection of fallen actors, how soldiers interact with battlefield robots and the capability of music fans to idolize virtual pop stars. Other stories might include the experience of using an advanced prosthetic limb, whether or not people trust driverless cars with their lives, and how virtual reality headsets or 3-D film technology can make some people physically ill.

About Jeremy Hsu

Jeremy Hsu is journalist who writes about science and technology for Scientific American, Popular Science, IEEE Spectrum and other publications. He received a master’s degree in journalism through the Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program at NYU and currently lives in Brooklyn. His side interests include an ongoing fascination with the history of science and technology and military history.

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