I recently wrote a short piece about U-3PO, the other protocol droid on that Tantive IV at the beginning of A New Hope. I did so because a friend had asked me about the protocol droid, wondering if I had any information about it. After writing that post, I got this crazy idea to write some more posts about protocol droids which appear off to the side or in the background of scenes throughout the Star Wars saga. And so, in this post, I want to jump into The Empire Strikes Back and offer some brief background, along with my unsolicited thoughts, on K-3PO, the dead protocol droid in the Rebel base on Hoth.
Easily identified by its white-plating and two red dots on the right side of its chest, K-3PO is a protocol droid that works in the Echo Base command center. The first time K-3PO appears in The Empire Strikes Back is when Han Solo enters the command center to tell General Rieekan that he is planning to leave the Alliance. In that scene, K-3PO is working at a tactical screen as Solo walks by. Later, when the fleet of Imperial Star Destroyers arrive in orbit above Hoth, the protocol droid can be found once again in the command center, just before the ion cannon is fired, standing behind Toryn Farr, the woman who is speaking in this particular scene.
After the Battle of Hoth commences, with the Rebels fighting desperately to hold off the advancing Imperial Walkers, we once again return to the Rebel commander center with Han Solo. Questioned by Princess Leia about why he is still in the base, Solo comments that he heard that “the command center had been hit” by the Empire. The scene suggests as much, with the twisted wreckage of screens and computers strewn about the icy room. And there, among the wreckage, is the “lifeless” form of K-3PO, right arm missing and a massive scorch mark emblazoned on its white chest.
To be honest, I have always appreciated that K-3PO is laying among the wreckage in the command center. I admit this seems a bit strange, an odd expression of enthusiasm over K-3PO’s demise. But this is not to say I wanted the droid to die. Far from it. No, what I appreciate is that the protocol droid’s “death” adds an extra layer, even a small one, to the dire situation the Rebels find themselves in at this moment in the film. While K-3PO is not the focus of the scene, its prominent place in the foreground as Han Solo climbs over debris forces the audience to take notice, to recognize that this Rebel droid is a casualty of the Imperial attack. Every time I watch The Empire Strikes Back I cannot help but look at the dead protocol droid, a droid I have seen, albeit briefly, actively working in this very command center in those two previous scenes. I may not have known this protocol droid, not in the way I know R2-D2 or C-3PO, but a tiny amount of sympathy never-the-less takes hold when I see its broken, inactive form among the mangled screens, wires, and debris of the Rebel base.