Sonic screwdriver

The sonic screwdriver is a fictional tool in the British science fiction television series Doctor Who. Its most common function is to operate virtually any lock, mechanical or electronic. It has also been used for repairing equipment, as an offensive weapon, and occasionally even to drive screws. Like the TARDIS, it has become one of the icons of the programme, and is closely associated with the Doctor.


1968 – 1996

The sonic screwdriver made its first appearance in the serial Fury from the Deep, written by Victor Pemberton. It was then used by the Second Doctor as a multi-purpose tool from that point, with occasional variations in appearance over the course of the series. However, ownership of the concept was retained by the BBC, much to the chagrin of Pemberton, who later told an interviewer for Doctor Who Magazine, "I'm very cross that the sonic screwdriver — which I invented — has been marketed with no credit to myself. ... It's one thing not to receive any payment, but another not to receive any credit.

Its abilities varied somewhat from story to story and the way it worked was never explicitly explained. However, the name implies that it operates through the use of sound waves to remotely exert physical forces on objects, such as the mechanisms inside locks. In The Three Doctors, it functions as a radiation detector. In The Sea Devils the Doctor used it to detonate land mines from a distance, which he did again later in Robot. This particular model had a movable section that bobbed up and down when in use. Also in Robot, the Doctor used the screwdriver as a "miniature sonic lance" to cut out a lock.

The Doctor's Time Lady companion Romana constructed a sonic screwdriver of her own, first seen during the Fourth Doctor serial City of Death. It was smaller and sleeker than the Doctor's, and he was sufficiently impressed with her design that he attempted (unsuccessfully) to swap screwdrivers with her in Horns of Nimon.

The sonic screwdriver was written out of the series in 1982 when it was destroyed by a Terileptil in the Fifth Doctor serial The Visitation in order to prevent the Doctor from escaping captivity. This was done by Eric Saward on the instructions of producer John Nathan-Turner, who felt that the device had become an easy way out for writers, since the Doctor could use it to get out of just about any situation.

Saward had written out the sonic screwdriver believing that the Doctor would simply get a replacement from the TARDIS. However, Nathan-Turner did not want such a scene at the end of this story, or any others (although a scene of this nature did eventually occur at the end of "Smith and Jones"). The reason given was that the use of a device that could save the day in any way possible was very limiting for the script . The series remained sonic screwdriver-free until it ceased production in 1989 (although the Sixth Doctor was occasionally seen using a "sonic lance") and it was not until the 1996 Doctor Who telemovie that the Doctor was seen to have a sonic screwdriver again, with a design that could be telescoped out for use and collapsed again when finished. The Tenth Doctor joked about the Fifth Doctor's lack of sonic screwdriver in the mini-episode Time Crash, by commenting on how he "went hands-free" and could "save the Universe using a kettle and some string".

2005 – present

A completely redesigned sonic screwdriver, with a glowing blue light in addition to the sound effect, appeared in the 2005 series revival and the subsequent episodes that have followed. In its first incarnation, the prop used in the new series was notoriously fragile and was prone to breaking at the slightest strain. The toy version (made by Character Options Ltd.) was slightly larger to accommodate a working pen (with swappable ordinary and ultraviolet ink nibs), sound effects and batteries. It also includes an ultraviolet torch for viewing messages written in the ultraviolet ink. The Doctor Who production team at BBC Wales were so impressed by how much more resilient the toy sonic screwdriver was than the real prop, that they asked for and obtained moulds of the original prototype of the toy to use in the 2006 series. Unfortunatly the aforementioned source posted incorrectly about the two Sonic Screwdrivers in the photo. They were both produced by Character Options, however when the company wanted to add the toys sound effects, they needed to make the toy larger than their prototype which was exacting in measurement to the actual prop. The new prop was built from the prototype as a base, but machined from brass and aluminum, using Character Options sturdier, more efficent construction. The sonic screwdriver toy has two buttons on the side of the slider, for each of its positions, while the actual prop has only one button on the slider, however there are a number of variations of the prop, including static button versions. The Ninth Doctor Screwdriver can be seen still depending on the shots used in each episode.

The new sonic screwdriver seems to derive from the same technology as the new TARDIS console, with the extended portion of the prop bearing a resemblance to the central column of the console. In contrast with Nathan-Turner's attitude that the sonic screwdriver should not be used as a cure-all, the new production team gave it even more functions than previous versions. However, the massive new functionality has only been used as a "fix all" device when they are trying to avoid lags in the plot of an episode.

Some of the uses in the new TV series include: fixing a decades-broken Vortex Manipulator in a matter of seconds; deactivating an Auton arm; detecting and sending signals; intercepting teleportation; remotely activating processes inside the TARDIS; burning, cutting, or igniting substances; fusing metal; amplifying or augmenting sound, usually to stun or incapacitate an enemy; and, occasionally, driving screws. In the episode "World War Three", the Doctor grabs a bottle of port from a side table and threatens to "triplicate the flammability" of the alcohol with the sonic screwdriver, immolating himself and a group of Slitheen that are menacing him, however one of the Slitheen then claims that he is making it up and the Doctor is forced to rethink his strategy.

The sonic screwdriver has been used as a joke on occasion - Jack Harkness made fun of the concept in "The Doctor Dances" by asking "Who looks at a screwdriver and thinks 'hmm, that could be a bit more sonic'?" Later on, Martha Jones asked if the Doctor also had a "Laser Spanner" in "Smith and Jones" (to which the Doctor replied that, in fact, he had until Emmeline Pankhurst took it.)

In "Doomsday", The Doctor states that the sonic screwdriver does not kill, wound or maim. In several episodes, including "The Christmas Invasion", "The Runaway Bride", "The Lazarus Experiment" and The Infinite Quest and The Impossible Planet, the Tenth Doctor brandishes or uses it in a threatening manner. He occasionally goes so far as to use it to damage or destroy an enemy; however, in these instances the screwdriver is used to remotely disassemble a robotic enemy or turn an object into a weapon to use against a living enemy, not to kill or harm a living being directly. In "Partners in Crime" a beam from it was used to make Miss Foster drop her sonic pen; the pen can be observed to spark briefly just before she drops it, suggesting that he caused the pen to shock her.

In several episodes, it has been shown unable to open objects locked with a "deadlock seal"; this is often used as a recurring plot device when the writers want the Doctor to be trapped somewhere. Also, in "Silence in the Library", while trying to open a wooden door, the Doctor told Donna that the sonic screwdriver didn't do wood, also, in the same episode, the Doctor mentions that when Emergency protocol one was activated, he would get a signal from the TARDIS to the screwdriver. In the following episode, "Forest of the Dead" he makes the claim that a few hair driers can interfere with his screwdriver, though he states that he is "working on that". In "The Long Game", "The Parting of the Ways" and "Utopia" it is shown operating and affecting various TARDIS controls from outside the vehicle; when the Doctor attempts to counteract the Master's theft of TARDIS, the bulb portion extends. During "Smith and Jones", the sonic screwdriver eventually burns out after the Doctor uses it to amplify the radiation output of a hospital X-ray machine. The Doctor, though initially saddened at the loss of the screwdriver, obtains a new one from the TARDIS at the conclusion of the episode.

Related devices

  • In the 2005 episodes "The Empty Child" and "The Doctor Dances", Jack Harkness uses a "sonic blaster", referred to by Rose Tyler as a "squareness gun", capable of "digitizing" structures by disintegrating them and then reversing the damage done, among other functions. In "Silence in the Library" and "Forest of the Dead", we see future companion River Song wielding a similar device, also referred by the Doctor as a "squareness gun." Steven Moffat stated in an episode of Doctor Who Confidential that he considered the devices to be one and the same (He suggests that Captain Jack, after leaving the TARDIS crew in Parting of the Ways, would have left the gun, and when River joined the TARDIS in the Doctor's future, she picked it up).
  • In The Sarah Jane Adventures, Sarah Jane Smith wields a "sonic lipstick", which is a gift the Tenth Doctor gave her alongside a new model of K-9. In terms of functionality, it is much like the sonic screwdriver, used primarily for opening and closing locked doors. Like the sonic screwdriver, the sonic lipstick was also created and promoted as a children's toy by Character Options.
  • In "Smith and Jones", the Doctor claims to have once owned a "laser spanner" until it was stolen by Emmeline Pankhurst, described by the Doctor as a "cheeky woman".
  • In "The Sound of Drums", the Master reveals his laser screwdriver. Unlike the sonic screwdriver, it is used as a weapon that can kill as well as artificially age its target, with the aid of built-in technology developed by Lazarus Laboratories originally seen in "The Lazarus Experiment", and includes isomorphic controls, disabling the device outside of the Master's use. The design of the prop was meant to imply that the Master constructed it on Earth, and it was deliberately made larger than the Doctor's sonic screwdriver. Like the Doctor's screwdriver and Sarah Jane's lipstick, the Master's laser screwdriver was also created as a children's toy by Character Options.

  • In the Doctor Who spin-off series Torchwoods series 2 episode "Fragments", genius Toshiko Sato's backstory reveals that she stole faulty designs from the Ministry of Defence and UNIT, which she used to construct a sonic device, referred to as a "sonic modulator", to trade to a terrorist organisation in exchange for her mother. The device is confiscated by UNIT, who imprison Toshiko until she is pardoned and recruited into Torchwood by Jack Harkness.
  • In the series 4 episode "Partners in Crime", the antagonist Miss Foster is shown using a sonic device identified by her as a "sonic pen", which the Doctor describes as being "identical" to his screwdriver in functionality. After being confiscated and briefly used by the Doctor, he later throws the sonic pen into a bin. As with the sonic screwdriver, laser screwdriver and sonic lipstick, this has been made into a toy by Character Options. It is available in a double pack along with the sonic screwdriver.
  • In the episode "Silence in the Library", Professor River Song also possesses her own sonic screwdriver, which she claims is the Doctor's, and was given to her by him in his own future. Hers is slightly bulkier and appears to be made from more antiquated materials. The Doctor mentioned in this episode that he does not give his screwdriver to anyone. In the following episode, Professor Song mentions it has a "red setting" (which, when set, gives a red glow on the end of the screwdriver instead of the usual blue) and dampers, both of which the Doctor hasn't apparently added yet. Also, it contains a secret compartment which contains a neural relay linked to River Song, saving her at the episode's conclusion, which the future Doctor added and it being the reason the Doctor gave it to her.

Other appearances

Doctor Who and related media

The sonic screwdriver is mentioned frequently in licensed spin-off media. The canonicity of spin-off fiction is unclear (with the exception of the televised episodes of Torchwood referenced below).

  • In the Big Finish audio drama Sword of Orion, the Eighth Doctor reveals that his sonic screwdriver has a torch built into the handle.
  • In the Big Finish audio drama Blood of the Daleks the Eighth Doctor uses the sonic screwdriver to trace a transmission beam.
  • In the Big Finish audio Pier Pressure Evelyn Smythe mentions that although the Sixth Doctor didn't possess a sonic screwdriver, he fondly remembered it as his "door key." The Sixth Doctor uses his fingernails as a stand-in for the screwdriver as an escape method in The Nowhere Place.
  • The Seventh Doctor regained his sonic screwdriver in the Virgin New Adventures novels, with its first reappearance in The Pit, but it tended to be used rarely. The More Short Trips short story Special Weapons, set late in Season 24, indicates that the Seventh Doctor also has the Sonic Screwdriver. This same incarnation also uses the device in the Big Finish audios The Harvest and Dreamtime. His companions Ace and Hex use the device in the Doctorless audio The Veiled Leopard. In The Dying Days the Eighth Doctor used the device to reflect the sonic cannon of an Ice Warrior back at his attacker. The Virgin Missing Adventures novel Venusian Lullaby established that the First Doctor had one.
  • The BBC Past Doctor Adventure Dreams of Empire by Justin Richards, set after The Ice Warriors and pre-dating Fury from the Deep, features the Second Doctor utilizing the device to break through a concrete wall. The novel The Murder Game, set much earlier and after The Power of the Daleks, has this Doctor escape from a locked room with a box-shaped sonic device, and muses on the advantages of building a smaller model. Stories with the device used by the Second Doctor before the screwdriver's first on-screen appearance are plausible as the Doctor in that story indicates that the machine "never fails," implying its successful use before that adventure.
  • In the Eighth Doctor novel Alien Bodies, the Time Lord Homunculette has a sonic monkey wrench.
  • A later Eighth Doctor novel, Father Time, features an amnesiac Doctor attempting to recreate the sonic screwdriver with 1980s technology, eventually producing a bulky device nicknamed the "sonic suitcase".
  • The Sixth Doctor used a hand tool called a sonic lance in Attack of the Cybermen.
  • In the New Series Adventures, it was used to cauterise wounds, as a soldering iron and to stop a clockwork mechanism (The Clockwise Man), to tie someone up to a chair by welding wires to the chair (Only Human) and to examine electronic standing stones (The Deviant Strain). However, some alien locks are impenetrable; in the Ninth Doctor Adventure Winner Takes All the Doctor fails to open a lock with it and concludes that it "hints at alien involvement". In The Monsters Inside and The Nightmare of Black Island, it was used simply to provide light, but in The Monsters Inside, it ran out of power in the process. In Only Human, the Doctor informs Quelly that it contains 29 computers. In The Stone Rose, it was used to sedate animals, and in The Last Dodo it was used to distract them. Also in The Last Dodo it was used to liquefy tarmac, and then undo the process. (The Last Dodo) In another book, it is claimed that it has over 8500 different settings. In Peacemaker, it was used to stop bullets and to take apart guns.
  • In the Torchwood episodes "Day One" and "End of Days", Captain Jack Harkness is seen to use a green device somewhat similar to a sonic screwdriver. Its origins and function are unknown.
  • In the Torchwood episode "Greeks Bearing Gifts" a replica of the Doctor's sonic screwdriver can be seen on Toshiko Sato's desk. Toshiko also uses a "lockpick" device in a number of episodes which replicates the door-opening function of the screwdriver.
  • In the Daleks video game (originally published for old operating systems of the early 80's), the sonic screwdriver is the only weapon that The Doctor may use to teleport and defend himself against his robotic enemies, the Daleks.
  • In the untitled story by Gary Russell featured in the first issue of IDW Publishing's Doctor Who comic book (published February 2008), the Tenth Doctor uses his sonic screwdriver to destroy a sword and later sacrifices it in order to defeat a Sycorax hunter. Later, he indicates that he needs time to "grow" a new sonic screwdriver.

Fan publications

  • Sonic Screwdriver is also the name of a fanzine published by the Doctor Who Club of Victoria.

Other media


External links

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