“Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They’re scientific instruments, not water pistols!” the War Doctor (John Hurt) says to Ten (David Tennant) and Eleven (Matt Smith) as they meet for the first time in “The Day of the Doctor.” Just a few moments later when all three come under a new threat and Ten and Eleven are once again aiming their ‘water pistols,’ the exasperated War Doctor exclaims, “The pointing again! They’re screwdrivers! What are you going to do, assemble a cabinet at them?”
Let’s give Hurt’s character a slight reprieve because he may have had no idea how The Sonic has been upgraded since the old days. Though, technically, since he regenerated from Eight (Paul McGann) he should have some meager knowledge of the new-improved capabilities. Still, originally, it was for picking locks and (thanks to a quick check of the insightful TARDIS Data Core) it could also project sound which comes in right handy when detonating bombs. By the time of Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor, though, that handy gizmo was being practically aimed like a weapon to thwart all types of incoming nasties. In a nice tip of the hat to critics who have grown weary of the all-purpose gadget, “The Day of the Doctor” has Clara Oswald seemingly surprised by the fact that the doctors have become so dependent on the sonic device that when thrown in a dungeon cell with a wooden door (the device “doesn’t do wood”) they don’t even bother to manually check if they are locked in. She says, “Three of you, in one cell, and none of you thought to try the door?” To them, what’s the sense. It’s kinda sorta like looking for a pay phone when the cell battery dies.
The screwdriver was written out of the series in 1982’s “The Visitation” during the Fifth Doctor’s (Peter Davison) run. A reptilian humanoid Terileptil destroyed The Sonic with a laser blast. The camera lingers on the beyond repairable tool so there’s no doubt in viewers minds it’s really gone for good. The Doctor laments, “I feel as though you just killed an old friend.” The series producer at the time, John Nathan-Turner, according to Wikipedia, was eager to get rid of the device because of the limitations it caused to the script writers, and yet somehow, miraculously, the Doctor is able to get along without it (though it’s worth mentioning that in 2007’s “Time Crash,” the Tenth Doctor collides with his earlier celery-sporting self and mocks, “Oh no, of course, you must have went hands free, didn’t you, like, ‘Hey, I’m the doctor. I can save the universe using a kettle and some string, and look at me, I’m wearing a vegetable.’”).
However, in the 1996 TV movie, the versatile screwdriver made its way back into the hands of the Doctor and has been used in full force ever since. Sidebar: In 1989’s Ghost Light, the Seventh Doctor (Sylvester McCoy) yanks two utility devices from his pockets including a cumbersome looking radiation detector. One can only assume he began working on The Sonic soon after to lighten his load.
Much has been made, in various fandom circles over the years, of whether Superman is too powerful a superhero and unless a bad guy had a pocketful of Kryptonite how could he honestly fight and win against a demigod. For a story to work thematically, the audience has to believe our hero could possibly lose or else we know the ending before it starts, right? And for that reason among others, there are guidelines in place that once the TARDIS lands, the time traveler can’t simply go back inside his own timeline to correct certain situations that have become thorny, though there are “wibbily wobbly timey wimey” exceptions.
But what about the sonic screwdriver that can be used for virtually any sticky situation, including “repairing electronic equipment; re-attaching materials such as barbed wire; detecting, intercepting and sending signals; remotely operating the TARDIS; burning, cutting, or igniting substances; fusing metal; scanning and identifying substances; amplifying or augmenting sound; modifying mobile phones to enable ‘universal roaming’; disabling alien disguises; resonating concrete; reversing teleportation of another entity” (via Wikipedia). Whew! That’s quite the accomplished list. But is it a deus ex machina device that makes it a bit too convenient to get out of a predicament?
What say you: Is it time to lose the sonic screwdriver again, or perhaps limit its functions, or maybe just leave it as it is?
It seems for the time being The Sonic is safe in its role for the upcoming season. In the marvelous Peter Capaldi debut “Deep Breath,” Twelve, while still regenerating, swipes a horse to pursue an exploding dinosaur and escapes being bound up, saving Clara in the process, thanks to the handy device. I’m sure there’s always another way, but it’s so much easier with the sonic screwdriver.
David Cranmer is the publisher of the BEAT to a PULP webzine and books and editor of the recent collections The Lizard’s Ardent Uniform and Other Stories and A Rip Through Time: The Doctor, the Dame, and the Device.