Doctor Who: Is It Time to Break The Sonic Screwdriver Again?
The sonic screwdriver... aside from the Tardis itself no object is more directly tied to The Doctor. It's his handy dandy, all-purpose, non-lethal tool, ever ready to do whatever he needs in a pinch. It's hard to imagine him without the device.
And it's also time to shatter it into a million pieces.
Let's look at a bit of screwdriver history, shall we? The screwdriver first appears on television during the Second Doctor story "Fury From the Deep" (It shows up technically prior to that in the novelization of "The Faceless Ones" but this is generally considered an error), and is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a pen light. The Second Doctor had a tendency to carry a variety of unknown technological marvels in his pockets, which being Time Lord technology were bigger on the inside than the outside. An example of this is the unknown device that he used to safely test (or nullify) the doors in "Tomb of the Cybermen".
Over the course of his next three incarnations The Doctor upgraded the screwdriver considerably. By the time the Fifth Doctor wielded it it could break a hypnotic trance, repair wires, shut down robots, crack safes, augment size, ignite a Dalek bomb, create a shield of piercing noise, reverse magnetic fields, breach force fields, remotely detonate mines, and even unscrew things upon occasion.
Now, this sounds wonderful, but from the very beginning of its existence showrunners had to be very careful of the sonic lest it become a cure-all for lazy writers. During Jon Pertwee's run it was kept at a safe distance, and through the first half of Tom Baker's run it was still regulated to the sidelines.
Then, as Baker continued in the second half of his time in the role the sonic took on the life most producers had feared. It had become the perfect MacGuffin, used to get The Doctor out of every corner the writers had written themselves into. That's why during Peter Davison's time as The Doctor producer John Nathan-Turner decreed that the sonic be broken. Indeed it was in "The Visitation." It would not reappear until the 1996 movie, and even then mostly as a cameo.
As quick as I am to mock JNT for his ideas in Doctor Who, here he was so clearly in the right. The sonic screwdriver had become a crutch, and three (Or four depending on how you count) Doctors survived perfectly fine without the device. I'm sure Seven in particular would have found some use for it, but by and large the device disappears from the Whoniverse during Davison's time. In fact, it could be argued that The Doctor is without the sonic almost as much as he is with it.
The question is... do the same writing tropes that precipitated the sonic's destruction in the '80s exist now?
Piece continues on next page.
When the series re-debuted Nine was never without his new and improved sonic, and yet of the modern three he used it the least. It was most often employed as, well, a screwdriver, or at least a more conventional multi-use tool. He scanned the victims of The Empty Child, but he never gave any indication that he was using it as anything more than a flashlight. Sure, Rose and Nancy took it to repair a barbed wire fence in the same adventure, but the very fact that he so casually tossed it off was a good indicator that he wasn't all that dependent on it.
As David Tennant took over the sonic started to become more and more of an essential part of The Doctor's arsenal, and it's also when you start seeing it overused. Some of it was just flash, but by the time "Forest of the Dead" rolls around you start running into storylines that simply cannot be resolved without the sonic. It's a pretty big jump from being able to pick a lock to being able to store an entire recording of a person's consciousness.
Now that Matt Smith's time has officially come to an end, I hope that he takes the sonic with him when he leaves. His Doctor's screwdriver has long since jumped the shark from improbable piece of technology to plain old magic wand. You even get moments like "The Doctor, The Widow, and the Wardrobe" and most recently in "Cold War" where when he is without the device or runs into one of its rather contrived weaknesses he becomes almost completely inept and ineffective. More than any Doctor in the history of the show, Eleven is dependent on the sonic to accomplish anything.
See also: Doctor Who: A Regeneration FAQ
That could be just a predilection of Eleven, but it's pretty easy to chart overuse of the sonic as the series continues to go on. After eight years it's once again becoming a crutch for writers and the character, not to mention an excuse to sell toys. Peter Capaldi promises some change to the series. It would be nice to see The Doctor once again as effective as Seven with just his wits, or to look back all the way to Hartnell and see how easy it is to avoid the easy path in a story like "The War Machines."
If WOTAN returned in a new story every third scene would involve using the sonic to hack into something. Hartnell could make due with only a few choice lies, his brilliant mind, and some loose scruples about destroying things and still pull of a save. It's time to break the sonic again, and force The Doctor stop resolving every single problem with an effortless push of a button and flick of the wrist.
Get the Theater and Arts Newsletter
Exclusive discounts and announcements to Houston theater shows and art events