Dr Who and the Sonic Screwdriver

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.

Third Doctor Jon Pertwee detonates mines with the sonic screwdriver

Third Doctor Jon Pertwee detonates mines with the sonic screwdriver

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 Fifth Doctor and his crack team of bumbling teens

The Fifth Doctor and his crack team of bumbling teens

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.

Tenth Doctor David Tennant uses the sonic screwdriver to... uh... I have no idea

Tenth Doctor David Tennant uses the sonic screwdriver to... uh... I have no idea

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.

24 thoughts on “Dr Who and the Sonic Screwdriver

  1. the doctor should always have the screwdriver! it’s badass!! but yeah, he should use it way less. they’re gonna ruin it. it should only be used to change tv channels, warm his tea, and unlock random doors every once and awhile. RDT is lame! i’m gonna go watch some old school hartnell shit. i finally get to say goodbye to idiot dodo and hello to the lovely ms. polly wright. she’s hot.


    • What… just what was the deal with Dodo?

      I beg you to answer that one. Polly isn’t much better as far as usefulness or smarts, but at least Polly is hot, but Dodo??? What were they thinking??


  2. Actually, it was the Fox TV movie that brought back the Sonic Screwdriver, although they may have just not known it was destroyed in the later episodes. Rusell T just made it the exact thing previous producers complained about. (heh)


      • Since that was a regeneration story, then Paul McGann isn’t the 8th Doctor anymore? That doesn’t sound right, I don’t care who hates the “half-human” line (which I still think could be used somehow by a good writer). Besides, considering the guy can’t get the Doctor’s age right (although Romana could be right about the Doctor lying about his age), and find a way to CRASH the TARDIS almost every Christmas like an “ordinary” ship, I’m not sure how much faith to put into any history he didn’t create himself. (ex: Time War)

        Then again, Moffat could find a way to bring the Time Lords back. I know I have a theory. I just hope your right about the control room. I hate that set as it currently stands.


  3. Careful, you’re sounding as disheartened as I do whenever I write about Dr Who!

    The Fox movie deserves to be forgotten for so many reasons, only one of which is the ‘I’m half human’ line that RTD took a jab at in his tenure as head writer of the new series. However, McGann is just a terribly great Doctor, isn’t he? Maybe a bit too traditional, but still… he hits all the right notes. Too bad the story was incomprehensible (which happens so often in Who, doesn’t it?).

    I’ll also be happy to be rid of Murray Gold whose music has all the subtlety of a spinal tap. We get it Murray… it’s exciting! He even does his best to ruin Shameless each episode and I love that program. The head writer, leading man, console room and signature theme all need an upgrade away from whimsical and back to bizarre and weird which is Who at its best if you ask me.

    But no one really needs to ask me my opinion on Dr Who, do they?


    • Nobody ever asks our opinions. That’s why we both have blogs. πŸ™‚

      Without the movie, we wouldn’t have the mag comics and audio dramas. Those really used the 8th Doctor to their fullest. You can’t tell me Lucie Miller isn’t worth sitting through the movie. πŸ™‚

      The only movies not in canon last I heard were the Cushing movies. Russel T. (and there are part of his run I’d rather ignore, even if he is responsible for bringing the Doctor back to us) also contacted the magazine comics and wanted them to do the regeneration, although then he wanted to unceremoniously drop his commpanion for Rose so they turned him down, and just jumped straight into Doctor 9.

      Frankly, this is the first I’ve heard about Russel declaring the movie non-canon.


      • The classic example of RTD saying it’s non-canonical is his Queer As Folk episode where a character states that the movie ‘doesn’t count.’ For the entire first series, you could even say that Chris Eccleston’s Doctor had nothing to do with the classic program at all aside from the TARDIS and the episode DALEK. It’s really not until the Doctor meets an older Sarah Jane that the two programs are linked… and boy does it go downhill from there.

        I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the program’s biggest failing is linking it to the classic program at all. Every time they insist that Tennant’s Doctor has anything to do with any of the other incarnations it just doesn’t feel right to me. I really think that the new series is at its best when it attempts to do something new rather than something referential to the old show.

        It always feels like a campy Star Wars Holiday Special when the new program tries to connect to the old. I’m waiting for Brian Blessed to prance on the screen next Christmas winking at the camera from under a samurai helmet, ‘remember me, kids??’

        I loved seeing Peter Davison return, for instance (even though he’s not a favorite Doctor of mine), but Time Crash made absolutely no sense. I mean, why was the current Doctor praising an older incarnation of himself? I get that it was Tennant/RTD/Stephen Moffat giving Davison a big man hug but as entertainment and narrative… it’s just nonsense.


  4. Let’s be honest. Fun as the Doctor team-ups are, they’re always anniversary fan-boy goofiness and we love them for it. (Although The Three Doctors at least affect the Doctor afterwards, allowing him to get back to time/space travel.)

    I’m not sure I can accept RTD using one show that isn’t part of the Whoniverse to decide what is or isn’t Whoniverse cannon. (Especially one I’m less of a fan of than allegedly IN-canon Torchwood.) Plus it would then elminate all the good stories of the 8th Doctor by Big Finish because he wasn’t really the 8th Doctor now, even though everyone’s pretty much accepted that he is. It’s like reversing gears and making Richard Grant’s Doctor into canon out of the blue.


  5. Oh surely yes the anniversaries are goofy… but Timecrash was just crap and didn’t need to be. The only moment where a past Doctor got to be in the new show and they chatted about how gay the Master is?

    There is a place within Who or maybe it was in an interview where Russ stated he didn’t think that the TV movie was canon. I can’t remember anymore. But then he shoe-horned those silly drawings of past Doctors into ‘Human Nature’ including McGann, so who knows what the guy is thinking. The fact that they adapted ‘Human Nature’ into a modern story at all is confusing enough.

    But the McGann thing continues to wrangle fans who are left without a link from 8 to 9. And still Eccleston will not talk about Dr Who in interviews. Each year fans wait with baited breath to see if McGann will guest-star and instead we get Captain Jack.

    Thanks, Russell. That guy never gets boring, does he?

    And wait… Richard E Grant isn’t canon?

    Just kidding. I think REG even removed that from his CV.


  6. tv movie counts. but he’s not half human cuz that’s lame. time crash counts too cuz it was just about having fun for the fans and a nod to a happier time. i still don’t know what i think about “dimensions in time” tho, that was just a cluster fuck but it was awesome! what needs to happen now is dr.who/red dwarf crossover. that would prolly be the best day of my life lol. maybe even paul darrow from blake’s 7 as avon or something…


  7. oh man! i’ve never heard of this! i don’t know how i missed this all these years, this is insane! i can’t find any videos and i only found 1 torrent and it’s gonna take forever but i’m freakin stoked! thankz a million for the heads up on this!


  8. I don’t find anything wrong with having a Sonic Screwdriver that has sonic properties, can “upgrade” a thousandfold any other gadget’s functions and is capable of opening electronic (but not simple) locks. It starts being weird when it burns ropes, rewires machinery by itself (instead of being a tool in the hands of the Doctor) and detects things.

    A wand is a wand. A beatless wand is boring.


      • ha! beatless wand?!? but yeah, wtf is up with burning ropes! that was bull shit!
        strangerers rules btw. i was up all night waiting for it to finish downloading. it’s got peterson from red dwarf!! this show is crazy so far.


      • Yeah, it’s like every fear they had about the old Screwdriver when they dropped it has been realized and overdone.


  9. Its not just the sonic magic wand thats crap now its almost everything. This week David Tenant ran like some kind of super hero towards a super charged villian (The Master Reborn) with god like powers into a rain of electric charged balls and thought nothing of it, but when the swat team arrived shooting bullets, he ran away.

    What a Joke.


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