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Star Wars | Pit Droids: In Praise of Tatooine's Mini Mechanics

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I don’t know about you but I’m quite a fan of the short Star Wars introductory sequences which currently appear before every episode of The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett on Disney +. They only last a few seconds. First, we see the face of Darth Vader, then BB-8, then C-3PO, Kylo Ren, R2-D2, an unknown Rebel Pilot, an anonymous Stormtrooper, and finally the Mandalorian himself. All the faces are shrouded in darkness but are lit briefly by what is presumably the glow of a lightsaber passing before their eyes. 

Some might grumble, of course. Why were these particular Ghosts of Star Wars Past selected and not others? Where’s Luke, Leia, Yoda, or Admiral Ackbar (for example)? But, in truth, for the reflecting effect to work properly, the intro clearly relies on characters who wear masks, helmets, or who already have robotic metal faces. 

The intro also relies on brevity. It would lose all impact if it went onto long and featured too many characters. Look at the Marvel one if you don’t believe me: once it was just a few flashing images from a comic. Now it seems to go on for about half an hour.

Ody Mandrell’s team of Pit Droids do what they do best in The Phantom Menace. | Lucasfilm, 1999.

Despite this, I would, however, like to add one suggestion to add to the list of characters who should rightly appear in the line-up. It is the face of a simple Pit Droid. For too long now the tireless work of these concise and amiable maintenance droids has been criminally overlooked.

At the end of the day, if you ever find yourself on the planet Tatooine and want to win a pod race – or customize an antique Naboo Starfighter – then rest assured: these ARE droids you’re looking for.

This article is here to support Databank Dive Episode 8, in which ForceCenter’s Joseph Scrimshaw and Ken Napzok explore the on-screen history of the self-same jittery bots.

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Vorsprung Droid Technik

Pit Droids are small but perfectly formed, somewhat skeletal androids possessed with an almost ant-like ability to work effectively in groups and to lift objects which are much larger and heavier than they are themselves. They are just over a meter in height and have broad domed-like heads reminiscent of a military helmet in appearance. They can communicate with each other through a variety of squeaking sounds, courtesy of small antennae attached to their heads. They are occasionally clumsy depending on the comedic needs of the scene.

If you want to see lots of Pit droids in action, the quickest way is to start watching The Phantom Menace (1999) from a point around 55 minutes from the start. At this point you will see that the great Boonta Eve Classic at Mos Espa is about to begin, the film’s answer to Ben-Hur or at the very least, The Wacky Races. The Pit Droids – who arguably bear a slight resemblance to the characters in the popular animation Antz which was also released around this time – can mostly be seen scuttling around back and forth in the background. They are often carrying things or are generally busying themselves preparing the Pods for the race, working so effectively in teams that they’ll happily form a Pit Droid pyramid in lieu of scaffolding. This is their primary function.

Pit Droids really only get to enjoy the center stage three times during The Phantom Menace. About half an hour into the film, Jar Jar Bink’s inane pratfalling results in a dormant Pit Droid being briefly awoken at Watto’s Shop. Chaos briefly ensues until young Anakin (hinting at the assertiveness which he would later become famous for) tells him to hit it on the nose. This demonstration of their functionality – they collapse and expand into a compact little box that you can stick in the boot of the car next to the spare tire – offers a glimpse into the simple but effective design that made them the workhorse of the Outer Rim motorsports circuit.

Peli Moto’s team of Pit Droids recover from a bruising first encounter with Mando in The Mandalorian, ‘Chapter 5: The Gunslinger’ – S1, Ep5. | Disney, 2019.

Later, back at the Pod Race, we see three Pit Droids get to briefly share the limelight as the commentator of the event (perhaps best described as ‘the Podcaster’) celebrates the “record-setting Pit Droid team” of driver Ody Mandrell. Unfortunately, the next time we see them, one of the pit droids accidentally gets sucked into the pod’s engine. Although the droid itself escapes, the engine is destroyed completely scuppering Mandrell’s chances of competing in the race.

Too DUM to Live

In truth, the DUM series (bit harsh, what about their self-esteem?) of Pit Droids never escaped this reputation for being cheaply made, clumsy, and inadequately programmed. Initially mass-produced by Serv-O-Droid, Inc. in factories on Cyrillia, the Pit Droid slowly passed out of fashion. The banning of all Pod Races soon after the start of the rise of Darth Vader would also have played a critical role in their demise. Although they can do basic maintenance, servicing pods is a big part of what they do.

That said, a number of Pit Droids can be seen in both The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett, in the service of motormouth mechanic Peli Moto (Amy Sedaris), proving that the little buggers still have some merit even if their obsolescence makes them a nightmare to maintain:

“You know, it’s costing me a lot of money to keep these droids even powered up.”

Peli Moto, The Mandalorian, ‘Chapter 5: The Gunslinger’ – S1, Ep5.
Peli Moto (Amy Sedaris) squeezes in a game of Sabacc with her team in The Mandalorian, ‘Chapter 5: The Gunslinger’ – S1, Ep5. | Disney, 2019.

In the real world, we can see now not all elements of The Phantom Menace were universally well-received, Pit Droids are perhaps, along with the creation of the character of Darth Maul, one of only a few new ingredients to the franchise which were generally popular.

Today, we expect our Star Wars robots to be a bit different, and to be proudly individualistic. Once it was R2-D2 who was a curmudgeonly outlier, but now restraining bolts and memory wipes are totally not cool, and you definitely couldn’t get away with a Prequel Trilogy-style Battle Droid massacre without being forced to consider just how hapless and neurotic those little guys are.

Now even the most humble droid is expected to be a sympathetic eccentric (Rise of the Skywalker‘s D-O, Rebels‘ Chopper), a plucky best pal (BB-8), a deadpan sociopath (Rogue One‘s K-2SO, Book of Boba Fett‘s 8D8, and The Mandalorian‘s IG-11 and Q9-0), or even a straight-up droid rights activist (Solo‘s L3-37).

Pit Droids remind us of an earlier time – not the good old days (nobody deserves to get sucked into a jet engine), but certainly the old days. They were dutiful, determined, and fearless in their work, and fearful literally everywhere else. Perhaps that’s what Peli Moto sees in them – she certainly has an eye for the idiosyncrasies of a design classic.

In short, it is high time they took their rightful place in the sun. Or in Tatooine’s case: suns.

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Chris Hallam is a published author and freelance writer based in Exeter. In the past, he has written for magazines such as DVD Monthly and Geeky Monkey. He provided all the written content for the Star Wars Clone Wars and Smurfs annuals for 2014, and the Transformers annual 2015. He continues to write for Yours RetroBest of British, and The History of Comics, 1930-2030.

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