Is the Sonic Screwdriver Overused?

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Guest contributor Caleb Howells on whether the gadget has become too much of a convenient plot device.

The Sonic Screwdriver is a very iconic feature of the show, like the TARDIS, or the Daleks, though not quite to the same degree. It’s a very cool, ever useful little gadget for the Doctor, but some people say that it’s actually too useful. They say that it’s become a deus ex machina to get the Doctor out of a vast range of situations. Well, like with a lot of subjects, this is very subjective, so there’s no wrong or right answer. But I can give my own opinion of it, which is exactly what I shall proceed to do.

In the Classic series they got rid of the Sonic Screwdriver during the Fifth Doctor story The Visitation, because the producer thought that it had become too much of an easy get-out from trouble. And as I mentioned above, some feel that the same problem is developing again. Locked doors, for instance, are no problem at all for the Doctor (unless they’re wood). But now, as someone once pointed out, the writers have developed what is essentially a diabolus ex machina (deus ex machina’s evil twin), in the form of the deadlock seal. And one of those is apparently physically impossible to open, according to the Doctor in The Time of Angels. So this is basically used whenever the writer doesn’t want the Doctor to get past the door.

Another option for the writers is to simply take the Sonic out of the equation in some way (such as in The Eleventh Hour). In this case, when it comes to getting past locked doors, the Doctor would have to find another way to do so. But really, just how much of a difference would there be in having the Doctor pick the lock instead of just Sonic it? Yes, it would take a little longer, but given that the more skilled of us mere humans can pick a lock in only a minute or two (or even less than ten seconds, depending on the type of lock), I’m sure it wouldn’t take a Time Lord longer than a matter of seconds to do it. So with simple mechanical locks, it would hardly make a difference at all in terms of difficulty for the characters. But as I said, that’s for mechanical locks. It would be a different matter entirely if he was trying to get past an electronic one.

Another criticism about the Sonic Screwdriver is its use as a medical scanner. This feature isn’t used as often as others, but one example of when it’s been used is in The Empty Child, to diagnose several of the gas mask patients. This is, the in opinion of some, a stretch too far, and is an unrealistic feature of our favourite high-tech screwdriver. However, the fact of the matter is, it’s one of the most realistic abilities of it. Using sound waves to medically scan people is something that’s already in use today, in real life. So the idea that a massively high-tech race can do that same thing, but better and in a smaller device, is a perfectly reasonable concept.

Something else people bring up is the fact that the Sonic Screwdriver is capable of hacking into computers. Personally, I think this is fine, as long as it’s not too over the top. For instance, in The Hungry Earth, the Doctor hacks into the drilling company’s computer system to check something. That, in my opinion, was perfectly fine. I don’t have a problem with believing that highly advanced alien technology could do that. But there are other cases, like in The Power of Three, in which it’s done terribly. It isn’t necessarily what happens, but rather, how it happens. So the Sonic can hack into the ship’s computer system. Ok. That’s fine. But he does it so quickly and effortlessly, it’s literally like he’s waving a magic wand that fixes everything. Now, I don’t hate that resolution as much as a lot of other people, but it certainly demonstrates the problem with the Sonic being able to do so much so easily.

It’s examples like that, I think, that are perhaps the main cause for some people disliking the gadget. Would it be better if the writers got rid of it? Well, maybe. It would certainly make things harder for the characters. The Doctor wouldn’t be able to scan things, nor instantly unlock doors. But would that actually be much of a good thing? The Doctor scans things so much lately, and there are many of the stories that I can’t really picture working very well without that ability. But then again, maybe it would be a good thing. The episodes would have to be written quite differently sometimes, and it’s entirely possible that having the Doctor know so much less would be a lot more entertaining.

But personally, I really like the Sonic Screwdriver. I can’t imagine the Doctor without it, and I think it would be more effective in terms of drama to have just the odd episode when it’s taken away from him, meaning the Doctor has to try a lot harder than normal. But I do think the hacking ability should be toned down quite a bit, to avoid a repeat of The Power of Three’s error.