A short history of the sonic screwdriver

Not even Q could produce a gadget as enduring and versatile as the Doctor's personal get-out-of-jail-free card...

Is there nothing that it can't do?
The sonic screwdriver is the most enduring of all the Doctor’s personal items. Over the years these have included a recorder, a blue ring, 500-year diary, a bag of (inexhaustible) jelly babies, a yoyo, a cricket ball, cuddly toy, stick of celery, cat badge, a ‘question mark’-handled umbrella, psychic paper and a pair of thick-framed spectacles. Okay, I lied about the cuddly toy. Who knows, maybe Matt Smith will adopt a cuddly toy as a personal mascot?

The device made its debut in 1968 during the Patrick Troughton era. The Doctor produced it from his pocket to open a black metal box in episode one of Fury From The Deep, a serial now sadly missing from the archives. Troughton didn’t rely on the sonic screwdriver as much as his successor, the gadget-loving Jon Pertwee. The third Doctor famously used the screwdriver to frighten away the eponymous creatures in The Sea Devils, by exploding mines along a beach.

Fourth Doctor Tom Baker loved the idea that the sonic screwdriver (as a plot device) could open any door… except the ones that it couldn’t! The mischievous Baker was keen to exploit the comedic potential of the prop. Indeed, at one point the Doctor breaks the ‘fourth wall’ and addresses the audience in his frustration: “Even the sonic screwdriver won’t get me out of this one…”

Eighties Producer John Nathan-Turner decided the sonic screwdriver was too often used as a ‘magic wand’ to solve any dilemma the Doctor faced. Keen to distance the show from magic, and in an effort to make the fifth Doctor more vulnerable, Nathan-Turner had the device written out. The sonic screwdriver was destroyed by the leader of the Terileptils in the 1982 Peter Davison adventure The Visitation, prompting the Doctor to mourn its passing: “I feel as though you’ve just killed an old friend…”

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In the 1996 Doctor Who TV movie, seventh Doctor Sylvester McCoy finally managed to get his hands on a restored sonic screwdriver, albeit in his swansong as the Timelord. Paul McGann’s Doctor only got the sonic screwdriver back at the end of the film and used it to repair the TARDIS console.

When the show was re-imagined by Russell T. Davies, the sonic screwdriver made a welcome return and, perhaps with an eye to the inevitable merchandising, it was redesigned and improved. One of the highlights of the first series was an amusing exchange between Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor and Captain Jack Harkness in The Doctor Dances:

Jack: (mocking): “Who has a sonic screwdriver?”

Doctor: (annoyed): “I do!”

Jack: “Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks, hmm, nice but could be a bit more sonic?”

Doctor: “What, you’ve never been bored?… Never had a long night, never had lots of cabinets to put up?”

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The sonic screwdriver even has its own imitators in the form of The Master’s laser screwdriver seen at the end of series three and Sarah Jane Smith’s sonic lipstick in the spin-off Sarah Jane Adventures.

Two characters in series four, Miss Foster and River Song had their own sonic screwdrivers.

Arguably, David Tennant’s Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver more than any of his predecessors, especially in the BBC books and audios where it is often annoyingly referred to as “the sonic”. Clearly it has become an essential tool all over again.

So, despite the best efforts of the Terileptils over a quarter of a century ago, the sonic screwdriver lives on. Whether it will be a ‘weapon of choice’ for upcoming Doctor, Matt Smith, remains to be seen, but it is undoubtedly one of the great iconic motifs of the series.

How did William Hartnell and Colin Baker ever cope without it?

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