The sonic screwdriver has often been considered the magic wand of Doctor Who, the hero’s multi-purpose tool that helps in his adventures. It’s so useful it seems limiting to call it a “screwdriver,” but then again we still call smartphones “phones” when they’re basically tiny computers. But this item has not always been at the Doctor’s side. Last week, many Whovians were surprised when the Doctor recently decided to ditch his wand and adopt a pair of “sonic sunglasses.” With that in mind, let’s take a look at the evolution of the many screwdrivers that the Doctor has used.
Mark I Screwdriver
The original model sonic screwdriver made its first appearance during the Second Doctor’s adventure “Fury from the Deep.” With it, we saw the Second Doctor open doors and panels, as well as literally turn screws. In one adventure, he turned up the power and used it as a cutting tool. It really was just what he called it, a screwdriver that used focused sonic output.
Mark II Screwdriver
The Third Doctor was exiled to Earth without time travel for a few years. During his time there, he worked as “Dr. John Smith,” scientific advisor to Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart of UNIT. Since he couldn’t use the TARDIS and its machinery often, he regularly tinkered in his lab and created complex gadgets to help him in his adventures, so it makes sense that he made some improvements on the sonic screwdriver.
This version was better at manipulating electronic locks, had scanning technology, and was subtle enough to ignite gas agents in the air and set off land mines from a distance. It also had a wacky yellow section with black stripes that brought to mind safety barriers. Other than now making it a probe as well, the production team and writers were careful not to give this screwdriver any features that seemed totally out of place with something that was largely supposed to be use sonic technology.
Similar to the previous model, but with a sleeker design and further upgrades. This sonic screwdriver was now able to not only cut and break apart things, but was precise enough to break hypnotic trances in a person without injury and fuse delicate wires without damaging them. It could also redirect and manipulate other energy fields it scanned.
This version is considered the classic style by many fans. It was used by the Third Doctor, as well as the Fourth after it received a new paint job. The Fourth Doctor’s companion, Romana, another Time Lord, built her own version of this sonic screwdriver which was more advanced still. The Doctor even asked if she wanted to trade. She did not.
The Fifth Doctor also used this version for his first several adventures, but it was destroyed during the 1982 TV story “The Visitation.” Showrunner John Nathan-Turner considered the sonic screwdriver to be a “magic wand” and “plot-killer,” so once he got rid of it during the Fifth Doctor’s first season, he prohibited its return. When the original Doctor Who program ended in 1989, the screwdriver was still gone. We never saw the Sixth or Seventh Doctors use them in their on-air episodes. The Sixth Doctor did have one when he appeared in the stage play Doctor Who: The Ultimate Adventure, but this was originally written with the Third Doctor in mind.
Mark IV Screwdriver
In the 1996 Doctor Who TV-movie, the Seventh Doctor had a new sonic screwdriver similar to his previous model. Some fans assumed he’d rebuilt it, a tie-in novel later said it was given to him by Romana. That TV-movie featured the Doctor regenerating into his eighth form, so this screwdriver became the property of the Eighth Doctor. He was using it again many years later when he regenerated during the Third and Last Great Time War.
The Eighth Doctor has had only two on-screen appearances, but his life in-between has been explored over the past fourteen years through official audio dramas starring Paul McGann. After some traumatic experiences and the loss of two people very close to him, the Eighth Doctor adopted a darker outlook on life and a new ensemble. He also created a new screwdriver that had a wooden outer casing and utilized a blue gem, perhaps an unpolished version of the same blue gem used in later screwdrivers.
The Eighth Doctor remarked that starting with this model, he was now trying to make the screwdriver as much of a multi-purpose tool as possible so it would be useful in a variety of situations. This screwdriver could hack into computers and read their programming, fix portions of large pieces of metal such as train tracks, detect temporal disturbances, and track down the TARDIS.
This version, which the BBC confirmed was canon, fit in very nicely with the Jules Verne style TARDIS interior that the Eighth Doctor used. It’s unknown why he didn’t have this screwdriver on him when he regenerated into the War Doctor.
The War Doctor had a simplistic looking version of the sonic screwdriver with a red light. The program used in this model would remain the same throughout his next several screwdrivers (it’s not known if previous screwdrivers contained the same programming). We didn’t see much of it on-screen, but it’s also been featured in the War Doctor novel Engines of War.
Behind the scenes, this screwdriver was actually made by taking a Fourth Doctor sonic screwdriver toy and tweaking it.
During the hours in-between the end of the Time War and when he first met Rose Tyler, the Ninth Doctor ditched the War Doctor’s screwdriver and created a new one with a polished blue gemstone and a telescopic feature. This screwdriver was an updated version of the Eighth Doctor’s wooden handled one. Not only could it manipulate energy fields it scanned and hack into outside programs and tech, it could actually upgrade certain forms of technology. It also now had medical scanning features (fitting for a person who calls himself “the Doctor”).
MARK VIII Screwdriver
In “Smith and Jones,” the Tenth Doctor burned out the screwdriver he’d been using since his previous incarnation. He then built a new version that was slightly larger, though mainly had the same features as before. This screwdriver was later damaged and finally destroyed in the episode “The Eleventh Hour.” A version of this screwdriver with added features and a “red setting” was given to the time traveler River Song.
MARK IX Screwdriver
The Eleventh Doctor had a brand new screwdriver made that better complemented the new TARDIS interior. Unlike the previous two models and the Eighth Doctor’s model, this had a green gem that lit up during activation. This model used telepathic circuits similar to the TARDIS itself, allowing the TARDIS to sometimes just think about what he wanted rather than physically alter any settings. The Twelfth Doctor also admitted it has a voice control feature but that he forgets about it.
Considering how long the Eleventh Doctor lived in that incarnation, this is the longest lasting of all the screwdrivers. The Twelfth Doctor finally gave it up on the planet Skaro, when he decided apparently to start using “wearable technology.”
Which is your favorite sonic screwdriver? Do you think it’s become too much of a magic wand and should be set aside again for years? Let us know in the comments!
Images courtesy of BBC.com and BBCA.com. Eighth Doctor images courtesy of BigFinish.com and DaphneAshbrooke.com.
Alan Sizzler Kistler (@SizzlerKistler) is a pop culture and comic book historian, as well as the author of the New York Times Best Seller Doctor Who: A History. You can find him next weekend at Geek Girl Con in Seattle.