‘Sonic Screwdriver’ is about to be added to the Oxford English Dictionary as an official phrase in the English language, joining fellow Doctor Who-related entries such as Dalek, TARDIS and Cyberman. This demonstrates how ingrained the sonic screwdriver is in the consciousness of Doctor Who fans and, by extension, the country as a whole, but why is this the case? The sonic screwdriver is constantly criticised for its overuse in the show, and what was once a multi-functional scientific instrument designed to open doors and turn screws has now become a catch-all deus-ex-machina maker in the eyes of many fans. But the sonic persists in the show as it always has… or has it?
The truth is that the writers of Classic Who were just as conscious of the shortcomings of the sonic as modern writers and fans are today, to the extent that the sonic was ‘killed off’ in the Fifth Doctor serial The Visitation, and was never brought back for the entire of the Classic series. Colin Baker briefly used a temporary replacement in the sonic lance but this was short-lived and he appeared to show little regard for the device, a stark contrast to Peter Davison’s reaction to the destruction of the sonic as the loss of an ‘old friend’. The first reappearance of a true sonic screwdriver was in the 1996 TV Movie, in which the Seventh Doctor inexplicably carried one (despite never doing so at any point during his era) but this was almost certainly due to the fact that Doctor Who was being ‘rebooted’ and the writers were working on the assumption that you can’t have Doctor Who without the Doctor’s sonic.
This was the same logic behind resurrecting the sonic again for the 2005 revival, with Christopher Eccleston’s sonic being the beginning of the ‘weaponised’ sonics – held more like a weapon than a tool, pointed ‘at’ the monster rather than ‘towards’ it. David Tennant was further criticised for his overuse of the sonic – for an example of this, watch the opening of The Impossible Planet. When the Ood emerge from the doorways to menace the Doctor and Rose, watch Tennant’s reaction. Rather than surrender or attempt to run like his previous incarnations did, Tennant draws the sonic and points it at the Ood. What is he hoping to achieve? This is even referenced in the 50th Anniversary episode Day of the Doctor. When the three Doctors are surrounded by soldiers, Ten and Eleven draw their sonics and wave them around at the guards, to which Hurt’s incarnation states: “They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”. To put this into context, John Hurt was playing the War Doctor – an incarnation of the Doctor that is supposed to be aggressive and trigger-happy. And even he doesn’t wave his sonic around like a weapon.
So is there any point to the sonic anymore? If it can be used to solve any problem, even to the extent of being seen by the Doctor as a weapon, then does it still have a place in the show? The fans seem to think so, as when the sonic was temporarily replaced with the ‘sonic sunglasses’ in Series 9, there was an instant backlash, with some fans even claiming that the sonic was ‘integral’ to the show itself. It is laughable to think that a device that didn’t even exist either at the beginning or the end of Classic Who is as ‘integral’ to the show as the TARDIS, the companion, or even the Doctor himself.
However, there is an element of context to take into account when it comes to comparing NuWho and Classic Who, and it all comes down to time. For a Time Lord, the Doctor certainly doesn’t seem to have as much time on his hands nowadays as he did back in the 20th century, with most episodes now being restricted to a mere 45 minutes – and only double that in the rare instance that we get a two-parter. This is far less time to tell a coherent story than the 100-minute 4-part stories that were commonplace in the Classic era, with some even being up to 200 minutes long. In NuWho, there simply isn’t the time to spend an entire 25-minute serial watching the Doctor figure out how to escape a prison cell with an umbrella and a stick of celery. Times have changed, and so has television.
As a result of this, the sonic screwdriver basically performs any task that the Classic show would have taken an entire episode to carry out – thereby cutting down the time needed for each story and vastly improving the pacing. If the sonic was removed from NuWho, we wouldn’t see an increase in inventive and ingenious methods of escaping from deadly traps – all we would see is a series of conveniences and more deus-ex-machinas. It is, in many ways, the lesser of two evils.
That being said, it would be nice to see Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor going sonic-free for at least a while in her new series – for the simple reason of having something to hold back for the audience. The sonic should be unveiled when it is needed most, and its use as a makeshift weapon should certainly decrease. The sonic is a useful tool, not a weapon, and it should always remain so. For the sonic to work with the Doctor’s character, it should be used sparingly, and when it is used, it should stay true to the Doctor’s nature of giving a helping hand rather than doing the job itself.