When The Phantom Menace was released in 1999 there were many things that were, rightly, lambasted but I am not going to go into that here. What I am going to go into is the damage done to just one character. While the damage wouldn’t become immediately obvious it was where the blow was first struck and from there the damage would spread to the point where it may now be irreparable. I am talking about the damage done to the character of C-3PO.
‘But Dave’ I hear you cry ‘surely C-3PO has always been nothing more than irritating comedy relief.’ To which I would say that you are mis-remembering and so did George Lucas when he wrote the character in the 90s.
Let me take you back to the origins of the character. The idea of showing a battle from the point of view of the lowliest people involved was taken from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress which was a story told from the point of view of two peasants involved in a battle between clans. Lucas took that idea and gave us R2-D2 and C-3PO. It would be from their point of view that we would initially experience the world of Star Wars. C-3PO is the first character speak and gives the viewer background information about the status of the battle and who is on board. This is a character who is worried he is about to be destroyed. There is no comedy in this scene, which would have killed the tension, C-3PO is the character entrusted with the task of putting over to the audience how grave the situation is and it works.
As the narrative continues C-3PO is placed in the role of reluctantly heroic lead. That may sound silly but consider that he is the only speaking character to escape the Tantive IV (that the audience can understand). It is clear that while R2-D2 is embracing his role as keeper of the Death Star plans and his mission to get them to the rebellion C-3PO knows nothing about the plans, the mission or the message to Obi-Wan. He didn’t ask to be involved in any of this he just finds that he is. Once the story reaches the Lars residence C-3PO relinquishes the role of protagonist to Luke Skywalker but up to that point he has been the character that the audience has been asked to follow and invest in.
Once Luke takes over as the protagonist there are funny moments to come from C-3PO but none of it is the prissy slapstick that would be inflicted on the character in the prequels. In fact it is all character based comedy. See his culture clash meeting with Owen Lars which shows the character is a quick thinker. Threepio is essentially bartering for his survival as who knows what the Jawas will do to him if he doesn’t sell himself to Owen. Owen spots that he is a protocol droid and that he has no need of one but Threepio doesn’t let it lie. Instead he gives himself a sales pitch and offers relevant previous experience that gets him bought. Not only that but when the R2 unit Owen chooses burns out he does the same thing for Artoo. Threepio keeps them at the Lars farm and thus enables the rest of the story to happen. The comedy in these scenes is from the odd couple banter between Artoo and Threepio which is mainly sold through Threepio’s dialogue.
Before moving on the last moment I will mention from A New Hope is the scene in the garbage compactor. Luke is desperately trying to get hold of the droids to get the get the machine shut down but they are in their own peril as the room they have locked themselves in is about to be opened by Stormtroopers. Armed only with some quick thinking and the knowledge that the troopers will assume that the droids have always been there, and as such have no reason to lie, Threepio bluffs his way past them. It is a tense moment and any comedy comes from Threepio overacting a little to sell what the audience know is a lie. But that comes from a place of character as Threepio is scared and having to think on his feet. Then comes the moment where, having re-established the com link with Luke, he is panicking while trying to get Artoo to shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level. When Artoo is successful Threepio mistakes their whoops of joy for screams of agony. It is a moment played for comedy because of the misunderstanding but in that moment Threepio is experiencing genuine sorrow and regret. He blames himself and says “Curse my metal body, I wasn’t fast enough”. That is heart-breaking in context and speaks to how C-3PO in A New Hope is as fully rounded a character as K-2SO is in Rogue One.
Flash forward to The Empire Strikes Back. Now I will cheerfully admit that Threepio is a much more overtly comic presence in Empire but I would also contend that it is still character based comedy. This comes from the fact that he finds himself in situation that Artoo would be far better suited for. On board the Millennium Falcon with Han Solo, a man with even less need of a protocol droid than Owen Lars, and being part of an all action escape. He is the source of some great moments in Empire. He gives Han the feed line for his badass “Never tell me the odds!” quote but there are more subtle moments as well. These include Han passing off Threepio’s work with the Falcon’s computer as his own engineering expertise and Threepio enthusiastically reporting his engineering success to Han while being totally oblivious of the moment he has just interrupted between Han and Leia. While some might find it irritating it helps to endear the audience to the character and helps to sell what is the first genuinely shocking moment of the film, as Threepio accidentally stumbles across the platoon of Stormtroopers lying in wait and is apparently destroyed. While he is later found and repaired that moment is sold as the death of a main character. It is a sudden, brutal moment in a scene that is ostensibly establishing Bespin as a safe haven. Once again it is Threepio who is being used to put across to the audience that how grave the situation is.
Once he is found by Chewbacca and spends most of the rest of the film in a bag he does become the C-3PO that most people, including Lucas, seem to remember. While those scenes are silly they do perform an important function to help to lighten what would otherwise be a pretty unremittingly grim third act. Even in this form it is Threepio who gives an explanation of carbonite freezing and saves Chewie’s life by warning him of impending attack from Stormtroopers. He makes more of a contribution to the action while in a bag than he does for the entirety of Revenge of the Sith.
Then we come to Return of the Jedi which, to my mind, contains some of Threepio’s greatest moments. Once again the film opens on Threepio and Artoo and much like in A New Hope Artoo they are on a mission that Threepio knows nothing about. As far as Threepio is concerned they are just there to deliver a message to Jabba from Luke and he has no idea that he is about to be gifted to Jabba (Which is frankly a dick move on Luke’s part). From then on Threepio is in fear of his safety, after having seen that Jabba has no problem shooting the messenger and then experiencing abuse from Jabba first hand during the negotiations with Boosh. He attempts to warn Luke that he’s standing on the trapdoor to the Rancor pit and obviously takes no pleasure in translating Jabba’s threats or offers to beg for mercy. Once again it is through Threepio’s eyes that we are introduced to Jabba’s palace and shown how dangerous it is.
After being brought to Endor to as part of Han’s commando raid to destroy the Death Star shields (and somewhat negating the camouflage that everyone else is wearing) Threepio finds himself being worshipped by the Ewoks as a God. Han wants to exploit this but Threepio refuses saying that it wouldn’t be proper and he does have a point.
My absolute favourite C-3PO moment is when the droid relating their story so far to the Ewoks. Why? Well it is the culmination of a very small character arc. In A New Hope when Luke finds out that Threepio and Artoo have been part of the rebellion he asks for more details and whether they have been in many battles. Threepio gives a very dull answer and apologises saying that “I’m little more than an interpreter and not very good at telling stories”. Here he is on Endor; having gone through battles, being physically blown up, making friends, fearing for their lives and now joining them on a dangerous mission; not only proving that he is so much more than just an interpreter but he is telling a story and his audience are enraptured by it. For me that is the moment that shows how much the character has grown over the three films. It is a small thing but it gets me every time.
Then the prequels are made and all Lucas seems to remember of the character is that he is a bit prissy and was used for laughs. The main problem with C-3PO’s appearances in the prequels is that, unlike his use in the original trilogy, he serves absolutely no purpose to the plot. You could cut all of his scenes from the prequels and not lose anything from the narrative at all. You can’t say the same for his presence in the original trilogy. It isn’t helped by the fact that what he is given to do is such weak comedy that Anthony Daniels appears to have decided that the only way to make the best of it is to ham it up and Lucas let him. In The Phantom Menace he has the annoyance lighting rod of Jar-Jar Binks to take some of the heat of but in Attack of the Clones he is given woeful comedy shtick in the droid factory and subsequent battle. By the time you get to Revenge of the Sith he spends the film stood on a balcony with an equally wasted Padme and, as if to underline how utterly misjudged his inclusion in the prequels was, has his memory wiped at the end of the film.
C-3PO was only included in the prequels because R2-D2 was also there. The difference being that Artoo plays a part in the plot but poor old Threepio is wheeled out to say ‘Hey, remember this guy?’. He didn’t need to be there and his inclusion only served to dilute the appeal of the character.
This has had a knock on effect come The Force Awakens. This is a film having C-3PO appear in would make sense but his appearance is based on his comedy relief turns in the prequels rather than the original trilogy so instead of thinking how nice it is to see the him in action again, as you do with all the other returning characters, the first reaction is ‘Oh God, not him again.’ And that is rather sad.
C-3PO started out as our entry point into the Star Wars universe and played his part in driving the story of those original three films along. Now he has become a byword for annoying, superfluous characters and that is a tragedy. Next time you re-watch those original films try to take a moment to appreciate just what C-3PO contributes to them. He isn’t perfect but he deserved better than the fate that was handed to him.