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Is that a Sonic Screwdriver in your Pocket, Doctor?

By Jon Preddle

'You are a foolish man, Doctor,' the [Terileptil] Leader said, his eyes falling on the screwdriver. 'Drop the sonic device.'

[The Doctor] obeyed, sending the silver shape slithering across the floor. As it came to rest, the Leader fired, and the sonic screwdriver exploded, bursting into flames. The Doctor looked at the twisted strip of smoldering metal, unable to believe what he saw. 'I feel as though you've just killed an old friend.'

Doctor Who and the Visitation by Eric Saward

The Doctor's sonic screwdriver was, to him, like a friend, a companion of sorts. The Doctor's traveling companions came and went, but the trusty old screwdriver held the record for duration, spanning some 78 stories (although to be perfectly accurate, it appeared in most but not all of these).

The screwdriver, like the Doctor, took on different forms over the years. It made its first appearance in episode one of the 1968 story Fury from the Deep. It was a simple rod-like device with a light on one end (the screwdriver prop being nothing more than a standard pen torch). This only made two other appearances, both in the sixth season.

The Third Doctor had several different models, presumably made by the Doctor while he was exiled on Earth. The first one appeared in Inferno and was a simple silver-banded rod with a black spherical head. It was triggered by pressing the base of the head, and made a whining sound as it operated.

The second one made its debut in The Sea Devils. This consisted of a long silver handle topped by a silver ring-shaped head. There was a yellow band beneath this head, and pulling down the band activated the screwdriver. The intensity of the screwdriver's power could be selected by twisting the handgrip. The sound made by the screwdriver was variable dependent upon the power setting used. This third version disappeared following the recording of Carnival of Monsters so John Horton of BBC Visual Effects built a new one, being a long silver handle with a red ring head. In some of the final Pertwee stories, the head was black. This prop continued into the Tom Baker years. In some stories during the Baker era the head was red, in others it was black. In Robot the Doctor demonstrated that these heads were detachable, and that each different head had a specific function. A new model appears to have been made for Season 18 as the prop has a much larger head than usual (but then it could simply be the same handle with a different head attachment). This version carried on into the first Davison season. Therefore, there seem to have been about five props in total over the years, four of them having the basic handle/ring design.

The final appearance of the screwdriver was in Part Three of The Visitation, a move written into the series when it was decided that the tool was becoming too much of an easy way out for the Doctor. It is curious to note that the screwdriver appears in Kinda, which was recorded after The Visitation. From this it would appear that the prop that was destroyed by the Terileptils was simply a 'stunt' screwdriver!

Here is a complete listing of the screwdriver's appearances, with details of all its uses:

Fury from the Deep
The Doctor first reveals the sonic screwdriver and uses it to open the inspection hatch of a gas-pipe.
The Dominators
The Doctor uses the tool to cut a hole in the bunker wall.
The War Games
The Doctor demonstrates its power by removing the screws from Locke's gun. He later utilises it to remove a wall panel in the Alien HQ, and to open the control panel in General Smythe's office.
Doctor Who and the Silurians
Although the screwdriver doesn't actually appear in this story, the Doctor has mislaid it while working on Bessie.
There are two sonic screwdrivers in this story. Both the Doctor and Liz have one, which they use as a 'door handle' to open the garage where the TARDIS console is housed.
Colony in Space
The Doctor uses the tool to check for booby-traps in the Master's TARDIS.
The Sea Devils
The Doctor uses the screwdriver to detect and detonate a series of landmines, and to open the door to his cell in the Sea Devil base.
The Mutants
Used to open the electronic door of the small room where the TARDIS lands in Sky Base One. Jo uses it to unlock the wrist-bands in episode five.
The Three Doctors
The screwdriver is used as a type of 'Geiger-counter', which detects antimatter.
Carnival of Monsters
The Doctor uses it to detonate marsh gas to scare away the Drashigs. It is in this story that the Doctor declares the screwdriver will work only on electronic locks.
Frontier in Space
By reversing the polarity of the screwdriver's ultra-sonic power source, the Doctor turns the device into an electro-magnet to open a door. When he tries to open his cell door, he triggers off an alarm. It is later confiscated from him when he is sent to the Moon Penal colony. He never recovers it.
Planet of the Daleks
The Doctor has a 'new' screwdriver on Spiridon, so he must have a supply of them in the TARDIS - or possibly he found it in the pocket of the red jacket he gets from the TARDIS wardrobe. The tool proves useless against the electronic locks of the Dalek city, but it does work to fuse a control panel.
The Green Death
The Doctor uses it to open the door of the lift to BOSS's control centre. He also uses the sonic sound to ward off advancing maggots.
Death to the Daleks
It proved handy to scan and detect booby-traps within the Exxilon city, and later the Doctor uses it to dismantle the City's computer brain. He also uses it to 'de-hypnotise' Bellal.
The Monster of Peladon
Used to open the Refinery door.
Planet of the Spiders
In the hands of the clairvoyant Professor Clegg, the device causes him to project images of the Drashigs on the Doctor's IRIS machine scanner.
Using the silver handle (without the head attachment) the Doctor deactivates the mines around the Think Tank bunker. Clipping on the head of the device, he turns it into a sonic-lance which melts the locks of the bunker door.
The Ark in Space
Used to open a control panel, and then to repair severed cables. Later he uses it to unscrew the bolts holding a table to the floor!
The Sontaran Experiment
The Doctor repairs the transmat refractors with it, then drops it. Sarah finds and returns it to him. He later uses it to melt the control panel of the force field that has Sarah trapped, and then to deactivate Styre's robot. He gives it to Harry to open the door to the Sontaran's ship.
Genesis of the Daleks
The device is used to smash a communications control. The Doctor is perturbed when it fails to work on the door of Davros' study.
Revenge of the Cybermen
It proves useful in opening the airlock doors of the beacon, and the door to Kellman's cabin.
Terror of the Zygons
Used to heat up the fire sensor on the Zygon spaceship.
Planet of Evil
Used to open the door to Sorensen's cabin.
Pyramids of Mars
The Doctor deactivates the Eastern generator loop control with it.
The Android Invasion
The screwdriver has a Theta Omega setting, which Sarah uses to melt the plastic vines holding the Doctor to the war memorial. It fails to open the door to their cell, but is able to open one of the floor panels.
The Brain of Morbius
Locked in Solon's castle, Sarah is upset when the Doctor says he left the sonic screwdriver in the TARDIS!
The Hand of Fear
Used to fix the TARDIS thermal couplings. Sarah said that she was "sick" of it!
The Face of Evil
The Doctor uses it to put together a dismantled laser gun, then later he de- hypnotises Leela by using it to vibrate some crystals.
The Robots of Death
The Doctor uses it to open some of the doors of the Storm Mine.
Image of the Fendahl
It is unsuccessful in moving the old-fashioned slide bolt of the cupboard the Doctor is locked in.
The Sun Makers
Used to open the Collector's safe.
The Doctor uses it on the control panel in order to reverse the pumps in the tunnels.
The Invasion of Time
It doesn't work on Borusa's voiceprint door lock. He later uses it on the transduction barrier circuits.
The Ribos Operation
Although they appear to have standard slide bolt locks, the screwdriver successfully opens the doors to the relics' chamber, and to undo the multi-levered interlocks of the display case panels.
The Pirate Planet
It fails in opening the locks of the door into the mountains, but does work on the door to the Time Dams chamber.
The Stones of Blood
The Doctor unlocks the doors of the cell holding Romana, and to remove the wall-locks holding her.
The Armageddon Factor
Used to open panels of the Mentalis computer.
Destiny of the Daleks
The Doctor uses it to fix the Dalek explosive canisters, and also as a detonator.
City of Death
Although it worked in the Dalek city, the screwdriver appears to have malfunctioned when the Doctor tries to open the door to the dungeon. Duggan gives the screwdriver a hard whack on a table - and the device then works! Later, the Doctor uses it to open the door to Denise René's art gallery, where the TARDIS is located. Romana uses her screwdriver to open the door of the café.
Nightmare of Eden
It is used to open Secker's locker, seal the door to the lounge, on the EMPRESS's engines, and the CET machine.
The Horns of Nimon
Used to open the spaceship's doors, and to trigger the gravitic anomalyser. Romana shows the Doctor the sonic screwdriver she has made herself. He 'accidentally' puts it in his pocket, and gives her his one!
The Doctor uses the screwdriver to open the jammed Think Tank airlock, and in the construction of the mind-control helmet.
The Leisure Hive
The Doctor uses it to open the panels inside the regenerator booth.
Full Circle
Used to open the main door of the Starliner.
The Keeper of Traken
The Doctor is unable to reach the locks on their cell door, so the screwdriver will not work properly.
The Doctor takes the screwdriver from the inside pocket of his new coat (did he put it there when he changed or was it always there?). Nyssa uses it to remove the doors from the Zero Room.
Four to Doomsday
The Doctor uses it to 'spin' the Monopticons. Nyssa uses it in conjunction with a pencil to deactivate some of the androids.
Certain that he wouldn't need it, the Doctor uses the screwdriver as a power source for the Delta Wave Augmentor he builds to help Nyssa sleep.
The Visitation
It is used to open the sonic barrier under the Squire's house. Later, the Terileptil Leader destroys it.
Nyssa wishes they still had the screwdriver so that she and the Doctor could escape from their cell.

Although the sonic screwdriver had been destroyed there were plans to bring it back during the sixth Doctor's era. In a 1984 interview, JNT said the sonic screwdriver might return but it would be a lot more sophisticated. Indeed, in Graham Williams' novelisation of his aborted season 23 story The Nightmare Fair the Doctor produces the sonic screwdriver while locked up in a dungeon (although this could simply be ignorance on Williams' part, and he wasn't aware that the tool had been destroyed). The most recent mention of the device is in Terrance Dicks' 1991 book Timewyrm: Exodus; the Doctor searches his pockets wondering what he has done with it (p.180). From this it would appear that the Doctor has built himself a new one after all!

In the mid-1980s the American company Spirit of Light produced a battery operated plastic version of the screwdriver, which cost about 14 pounds in Britain. The toy was capable of 'buzzing' just like the real thing, and that was about all it could do!

Finally, the 1983 Doctor Who Technical Manual contains diagrams of the screwdriver. Unfortunately the measurements given are in centimetres instead of millimetres giving the impression that the sonic screwdriver is two metres long! Try fitting that into your pocket, Doctor!

Jon's note: The archival nature of having old TSVs online means that this semi-chronological listing (written in 1992) ends somewhat abruptly with the reference to Timewyrm: Exodus. Since then the sonic screwdriver has made a return appearance in the 1996 TV Movie, as well as popping up in a number of Doctor Who novels. But more significantly, a brand new (and very high-tech!) screwdriver featured prominently in the new 2005 television series starring Christopher Eccleston. While the temptation existed to include the more recent appearances of the screwdriver, I felt it best to preserve historical context and present the original article as it was written all those years ago. And besides, with two further series to come on television, and no doubt with the screwdriver being a regular feature, I fear I'll be forever updating this list!

This item appeared in TSV 31 (November 1992).