Doctor Who’s Biggest Deus Ex Machina

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Guest contributor Stewart McDonald on why the Sonic has become the deus ex machina of Who.


The Sonic Screwdriver, as we all know, is the Doctor’s scientific device. It has helped him scan many things from ancient artifacts to people’s biology. It’s gotten him out of more scrapes than his quick thinking has. This has become more true lately, with the Sonic Screwdriver sometimes serving as a handy plot device to either get the TARDIS crew out of a quick scrape or as a convenient means to wrap up plot devices, turning off doomsday machines and unlocking locked doors.

Now, I’ve seen some articles and different viewpoints on the Doctor’s ‘magic wand’ and the most common criticism comes into Steven Moffat’s era with the much bigger and often much more used Screwdriver used by the 11th Doctor and soon, the 12th Doctor. It seems that the Sonic Screwdriver has become too convenient a plot device for writers to fall back on when thinking of a way to help out the Doctor. But is that such a bad thing? Why shouldn’t he be allowed to rely on a device that is arguably as iconic as the time travelling police box we all know and love?

Well, I think we should take a look…

An App For Everything!

To start off with, let’s step away from the show itself and look towards the reality we are submersed in every single day of our lives. Every. Single. Day. Smart phones. It seems to be that the current generations of the 21st Century are practically stuck to their iPhones and tablets with industrial strength adhesive, or perhaps the Wire is slowly feeding on their electrical energy in the brain. Let’s be honest, either situation isn’t exactly pleasant to suffer through.

In a world where technology is constantly evolving and becoming more and more of an effective tool in our daily routines, simply saying the words “I’ve got an app for that” couldn’t be closer to the truth even if it was a ten foot sign with big flashing lights telling you exactly where to go to get to the truth.

Applications for our phones are everywhere and they are practically compatible with every device and machine known to man. Thus, they make our lives less complicated and a whole lot easier. But as every changes and adapts to overcome the next great hurdle, why can’t the Doctor? Why can’t his trusty little screwdriver keep up with the times?

A Reflection of Reality

50th-trailer-totters-classicsonicMy point, in case its not that clear, is that as the Sonic Screwdriver adapts and changes, it starts to reflect our current society and technological advancements. The Sonic Screwdriver for the Doctor is what the smart phone is to we humans. It is small. It is an effective tool. It has become something that our fleeting lives depend on. I sometimes wonder if the writers were consciously thinking about that comparison when drafting the next episode, or were they just looking for a way to propel the story forward to the conclusion. Who knows?

As I look back through Doctor Who’s history, I find myself paying attention to how the Sonic Screwdriver was utilized. When it was conceived in the Classic Era, I find that it looked to be used as a futuristic piece of technology that was seemingly capable of anything. It was with the Doctor everywhere he went and its destruction at the hands of the Terileptils in ‘The Visitation’ caused the 5th Doctor considerable remorse:

“I feel as if you’ve just killed an old friend.”

Eric Saward explained the reason for killing it off as being done on the instructions of John Nathan-Turner because a device that could help out in any situation was limiting the story. And so, the Sonic Screwdriver was no more. But let’s be real, people. This is Doctor Who! Nothing stays dead forever.

When the show returned in 2005, the Screwdriver was a lot smaller and a lot more limited. the Doctor mainly utilized it for scanning equipment and repairing small robot dogs. This suited the times we lived in. Everyone had various bits and bobs and nifty little gadgets for different situations. A single device for everything was not something we seen a great deal of. The closest piece of technology I can recall being close to that was the universal remote. The Sonic Screwdriver is a useful metaphor for today’s time. It upgrades as we upgrade our computers and phones. It adapts as we adapt. the Doctor’s dependence on it increases as ours does. You get the idea.

Even when it gets fried in a scanner or eaten by a shark, the Doctor simply swaps it for a new one. I’ve done that too. My iPhone or my iPad breaks and I simply have it replaced for a brand new model. Usually the same model, but I’m not going focus on that.

The Deus ex Machina Problem

power-of-three-spoiler-pics-(9)Once we moved into the 11th Doctor’s era, the Sonic Screwdriver became the most simple way to keep the story going. It became quite the cheap trick to get the Doctor out of a jam. I’ll admit, when I sat down every Saturday to tune in to the next adventure, I actively expected the Sonic Screwdriver to save the day. When it wasn’t used, I was actually surprised and somewhat confused, especially in ‘The Crimson Horror’, where Clara and the Doctor both favoured a simple wooden chair to defeat Mrs. Gillyflower and to escape so they could rescue Ada. It was refreshing to see them using a more hands on approach to solve the problems they faced. However, the rest of the time it feels like a luxury not afforded to us as much as it used to be.

Too many times the writers rely too heavily on the Sonic Screwdriver. At first I didn’t mind, it was nice to see it become a more useful prop. Now it just feels like an overplayed song on the radio. You can’t go five minutes without hearing or being reminded of it. The worst offence I have seen of this has been narrowed down to three different stories:

The Power of Three: In this episode, the Doctor used the Sonic Screwdriver to call off a second wave of the small black cubes that were causing complete heart failure for anyone near them. He then waved it around a little more and brought all those affected back to life and subsequently destroyed the Shakri ship. If the Shakri was an ancient myth for the Time Lords capable of wiping an entire species from the cosmos, I doubt they could be defeated by a gangly man in a bow tie with a metal wand that lit up at one end.

Closing Time: There was only one big offence in this episode, which wasn’t as bad as the other two on this list. This is the episode that inspired this whole article. the Doctor uses his Sonic Screwdriver to disable a lonely Cybermat in the shopping centre. Later on, it comes to life once more and attacks an unsuspecting Craig Owens. the Doctor uses the Screwdriver as a gun, more or less, and shoots the Cybermat. Now I’m all for him having an app for almost anything, but essentially turning it into a projected energy weapon? That’s pushing it, don’t you think?

The Day of the Doctor: Along with many Whovians, I loved this 50th Anniversary special. Unfortunately, there was one part that annoyed me. When the Doctors trapped themselves inside the ‘Gallfrey Falls’ painting to sneak into the Black Archive. When a Dalek approaches them yelling, “EXTERMINATE”, they simply turned around and used their Sonic Screwdrivers to force the Dalek through the painting giving everyone under the Tower of London a jolly big fright. While it was an amazing spectacle, I didn’t understand how that was possible. You could just write it off due to them being in a painting, but that fees too easy. The War Doctor even made fun of their reliance on the trusty device, which left me a little cheated when they turned around and simply shoved a Dalek through a painting with their screwdrivers.

The Verdict (if you can call it a verdict)

The times are changing and so is Doctor Who. It has become a more modern show, with more advanced aliens and futuristic tech. However, as we become more dependent on technology, it has shown in the writing. I think it is about time that we started to rely less on the Sonic Screwdriver and more on unconventional means of saving the day. Now I’m not saying we go to the lengths that the Classic series did and ‘retire’ the device, but I do believe that writers should learn to use the screwdriver in moderation.

The Sonic Screwdriver is the deus ex machina of Doctor Who. While it is clear that it has become overused, the least I can do is understand why.