Introduced in the 1968 story Fury From the Deep, the sonic screwdriver was actually the invention of actor Patrick Troughton (though author Victor Pemberton also claims to have created the gadget). A simple pen light, the device allowed the Doctor to easily remove a screw from an access cover hatch.
It was not until the arrival of the gadget-loving third Doctor in 1970 that the device became a hallmark for the program. Used to open doors and even act as a radiation detector. That being said, the Doctor had to fiddle with each time to alter its function. As a device used to escape from a jail cell or a tight spot, it was surprisingly limited. It could not be used, for example, to open a traditional door lock or primitive wooden slat lock. This limitation changed from writer to writer, but it was no mistake that the Doctor relied heavily on his prop of choice.
When John Nathan Turner took over the program in 1980, he inherited the decisions of his predecessors, leaving him with a pair of super genius aliens (the Doctor and Romana), a boy genius (Adric) and a brilliant robot dog that shot lasers (K-9). The production team decided that the heroes had become far too powerful and a magical device that opened doors was just too easy an out for lazy writers. Therefore, out went Romana and K-9, the sonic screwdriver was destroyed and Adric was blown up.
The result was pretty extreme, to be fair.
The now de-powered Doctor was surrounded primarily by bumbling idiots and young boys trying to kill him. Left with only his wits to get out of tight spots, the challenge was put to the writers to script a smarter story.
There were a few gadgets that popped up from time to time, such as Sixth Doctor Colin Baker’s laser lance, but the move to limit the hero was cemented in place.
… until 2005’s remake of Doctor Who by Russell T Davies introduced a sonic screwdriver that could do absolutely anything that the writers could imagine. So far the device has detected anything from life signs to traces of alien technology, burnt rope, kill Cybermen, rewired circuitry, and opened absolutely any door including the TARDIS doors. The manner in which the Tenth Doctor aims the sonic screwdriver about also implies that it is a weapon of some kind. In fact, the Doctor has directly threatened enemies with the sonic screwdriver, something that is very un-Doctor-ish indeed. In the modern Doctor Who series, the sonic screwdriver has more in common with a magic wand than an actual mechanical device.
As he is leaving the program at the end of the three-part story airing this coming Christmas Holiday, actor David Tennant has been conducting many interviews about his departure. Recently he stated that he would like to take the sonic screwdriver with him. I understand that he is talking about the prop, but I really wish that the gadget would go away.
With incoming producer Steven Moffat introducing a new Doctor (Matt Smith), a redesigned TARDIS interior (the first redesign in over ten years) and new incidental music, I can only hope that he will also come to the same conclusion that John Nathan Turner did back in the day. The Doctor has to start figuring his way out of problems rather than being written out of them with the assistance of a magical device.
For anyone keeping track I have again praised the JNT era over the RTD era… which is troubling.
I can only hope that the Steven Moffat era proves to be more intelligent and less whimsical than the current series. Given the high quality of Moffat’s scripts so far, it looks promising.