Get to know the real Artoo Detoo

8 February 2012
Categories: Film buff, Star Wars

Years ago, I came to realize that the real hero of Star Wars is not the guy everyone assumes it is, Luke Skywalker—rather, it’s that plucky little astromech droid, Artoo Detoo. I had some fun writing a revisionist narrative of A New Hope based on that assumption, and have to say that I’m a little surprised never to have seen anyone else come to this realization, even though it’s obvious when you really think about it. Among the hints:

  • Artoo Detoo—and his comic-relief sidekick, See Threepio, because every good action hero needs a comic-relief sidekick—appears in all six Star Wars films.
  • Only the principal bad guy, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, can claim the same. (Obi-Wan Kenobi is a ghost in Episodes V and VI, so I don’t think that counts.)
  • In A New Hope, the droid duo are the very first main characters to appear and to speak. That’s a standard trope of the Saturday-afternoon popcorn serials to which Star Wars is an homage: establish your hero right off the bat, so everyone knows who to root for.

I made some statements in that narrative that might seem a bit far-fetched, and not based in the “reality” of what’s on-screen. In particular: Artoo Detoo is the Death Star Destroyer. However, I can prove it.

1. The plans provided by Leia to Artoo are the Death Star’s original design specs.

When the Corellian transport Tantive IV is attacked and captured by Vader’s Star Destroyer in the opening scene, the Death Star is not yet 100% operational. It is, shall we say, still on its shakedown cruise. The Empire’s still peeling off the shrink-wrap in many parts of the battle station.

We know this because after Leia’s capture, General Tagge mentions that the Death Star is not yet fully operational, and Grand Moff Tarkin refers to its use against Alderaan as “a ceremony that will make this battle station operational.” It had to have taken some time for the Rebel spies to acquire the plans and provide them to Leia. Therefore, they must be plans from earlier in the construction project—most likely the original design specs, or some portion of them.

2. Artoo steals a complete set of as-built specs while aboard the Death Star.

When they arrive aboard the Death Star, the first thing Artoo does is plug into the main computer. Why? He doesn’t need to find a way to the tractor beam controls so they can get away; presumably he already has this information in the stolen plans. (And no, he doesn’t need a monitor to display the route to Kenobi—he has a freakin’ holographic projector in his dome!)

Artoo patches in because he’s an experienced soldier in enemy territory who wants to maximize his battlefield situational awareness. He immediately starts downloading all the data he can grab, including (but not limited to) construction details, disposition of troops, and the current alert status. How do we know? For this reason: he finds Leia. When last he saw Leia, she was about to be captured by a Star Destroyer near Tatooine, in an entirely different star system light-years away from a Death Star near the remains of Alderaan. Artoo has no reason to think she’d be alive, much less anywhere nearby, and thus has no reason to look for her. Yet he finds her, because a prisoner manifest happens to be among the reams of data he’s absorbing throughout their sojourn aboard the battle station.

3. Without those as-built specs, the Rebels would have had no plan of attack.

It’s highly unlikely that the Death Star’s intended design included a two-meter-wide thermal exhaust port, unshielded against projectile weapons, leading directly to the main reactor. That would be an insane Achilles’ heel.

I believe the original plans as stolen by the Rebel spies would have shown some kind of particle shielding or other defense system—heck, even a simple steel grate—covering that exhaust port. Without the as-built specs, marking that particular piece of the project as still on the “punch list,” the Rebels would have thought the Death Star utterly impregnable. (Which it would have been, had it not been rushed into operational status.)

4. Artoo not only devised the plan of attack, he programmed the photon torpedoes to hit the target.

When Artoo and company arrive on Yavin 4, technicians download his massive data trove—and in just a few hours they have their plan of attack ready for dissemination to the flight crews. How did they come up with a solution so quickly? Because Artoo is not some passive hard-drive—he’s a veteran astromech droid. He had several more hours to peruse the specs (and days longer to view the original plans), analysis time that would have allowed him to find a solution on his own.

Moreover, during the attack, if hitting the exhaust port were really as easy as “bullseye[ing] womp rats in my T-16 back home,” why do several shots using the Rebel Alliance’s best targeting computers go astray, just impacting on the surface? And yet a kid with exactly zero time in the cockpit of an Incom T-65 X-wing Starfighter, with his targeting computer disabled, is able to pull the trigger at random, and “blow this thing and go home.”

Why? Because Artoo, unlike every pilot—and every other astromech droid—on the mission, has a complete understanding of the target. He knows the exhaust port’s exact location, appearance, and surroundings. He alone can direct those photon torpedoes to hit it accurately. Fortunately he’s able to do so before Luke’s novice combat-piloting skills put his dome in a TIE fighter’s crosshairs. (An idle thought: perhaps Vader, who shoots Artoo, recognizes him and is aiming for him; maybe Artoo—and not Luke—is the object of Vader’s comment, “The Force is strong with this one.”)

Meanwhile, I suspect that turning his targeting computer off is the one smart thing Luke does, as it prevents the computer from overriding Artoo’s re-programming. But that’s really a wild surmise.

At any rate, now that I’ve further defended the statement that Artoo Detoo is the real hero of Star Wars, I have another revelation about that plucky little droid.

Artoo Detoo is a sarcastic, potty-mouthed wiseacre.

By the time we meet him in ANH he’s been through decades of wars and adventures: seriously kicking ass, seldom taking names, and getting little-to-no credit for his actions. Artoo is getting pretty tired of this shit—if he were capable of anger he’d be called irascible. Plus he’s never had a memory wipe; according to one online source, “Industrial Automation spent a great deal of time in the design of the R2-series astromech droid’s personality matrix. The droid was obliging, quick witted, and sincere. If the droid was not subjected to periodic memory wipes, it could develop a headstrong, self-reliant disposition.”*

Consider this: only Threepio understands everything Artoo says, and being a protocol droid he’s unlikely to repeat anything impolite or impolitic. But I believe that pretty much any time Artoo speaks, with the exception of imparting direct, factual information, he’s emitting scathing one-liners and cheerfully ripping everyone around him a new one. He’s not being a jerk, and he has no ego to be egotistical about it; he’s actually very charismatic and chipper—surprisingly so considering the rough treatment he’s received throughout his service. Besides, he has a diehard steadfastness and loyalty toward humans, even though they rarely hold up their end of the symbiotic relationship between humans and droids.

The empirical fact is that no one—heck, no one army—has done as much to save the Galaxy from the Empire as Artoo Detoo has. He’s earned himself a little snarkiness.

For illustration, here are a few excerpts, with my impressions of possible subtitles in the place of Artoo’s bleeps, bloops, and whistles.

Opening scene

C-3PO: Did you hear that?
R2-D2: [Of course I fucking heard that. I’m not deaf, you know.]
C-3PO: They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness.
R2-D2: [This is war, same as it ever was. Get your bipedal ass moving. And ditch your shitbox silver twin.]

C-3PO: We’re doomed.
R2-D2: [How very helpful, Glass-half-full.]
C-3PO: There’ll be no escape for the princess this time.
R2-D2: [Princess schmincess, as long as she bothers to hand off the secret plans first. Where the fuck is that girl?]

Later, on Tatooine

C-3PO: Just you reconsider playing that message for him!
R2-D2: (In a disingenuous tone, feigning hopefulness) [Why? Doesn’t the idiot farm boy like me?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t think he likes you at all.
R2-D2: (Still disingenuously, with added sarcasm) [Et tu, Threepio?]
C-3PO: No, I don’t like you either.
R2-D2: (A descending whistle of pure, distilled sarcasm) [Nuts.]

In Obi-Wan’s home

Obi-Wan: Which reminds me… I have something here for you.
R2-D2: [Hello? Droid with Death Star plans here!]
Obi-Wan: Your father wanted you to have it, when you were old enough, but your uncle wouldn’t allow it. He feared you might follow old Obi-Wan on some damn fool idealistic crusade like your father did.

Luke: What is it?
Obi-Wan: Your father’s light saber.
R2-D2: [Better stand back, old man, before that imbecile waves that thing through your head.]

Obi-Wan: Vader was seduced by the dark side of the Force.
Luke: The Force?
Obi-Wan: The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.
R2-D2: [Hey Kenobi, if you’re done bullshitting that kid about who his father really is, maybe you’d like to take a look at the message I’m carrying before a bunch of goddamn stormtroopers show up.]
Obi-Wan: (Pretending not to understand Artoo) Now, let’s see what you are, my little friend…
R2-D2: [’Bout time.]
Obi-Wan:  …and where you come from.

Aboard the Death Star

C-3PO: I would much rather have gone with Master Luke than stay here with you. I don’t know what all this trouble is about, but I’m sure it must be your fault.
R2-D2: [Oh, for fuck’s sake! Did you take another memory wipe?]
C-3PO: You watch your language!

C-3PO is tangled up in wires after a run-in with TIE fighters

C-3PO: Help! I think I’m melting! This is all your fault!
R2-D2: “(Makes a series of beeps that sound like chuckling)” [IMDb]

The examples go on and on, and as much as this started out as kind of a joke, there’s an element of truth to it. There are hints throughout the films that Artoo is not just making random chirrups of sweetness and light, such as when he calls Threepio a “mindless philosopher.”

Just imagine the rant Artoo voices when Luke, after confidently stating he’d like to pilot the X-wing for a while, crashes it into a swamp on Dagobah. “Nice landing, hot shot,” would be the mildest part of it.

  1. John C. Cordell
    February 8th, 2012 at 13:00 | #1

    Great stuff Kevin. Artoo’s banter had me laughing loud enough my neighbor in the office next door told me to “keep it down over there!!” Nice work.

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