It seems funny that five years after the show’s sweet return in 2005 that the sonic screwdriver, a once proud iconic bastion of Doctor Who’s nostalgic gadgets, would have become such an unpopular and contentious article among the older fan groups.
After 25 years of semi-retirement, the sonic’s return has been criticised by older fans for the sheer weight of its use in the New Series. They object to the Doctor just being able to flick a sonic switch to resolve a technical issue rather than have him resolve a problem through ingenuity (resorting to the kettle, fishing rod and the ever popular ball of string in most cases). It’s seen as a “lazy” device operated by “lazy writer”; a cheap trick used to avoid difficult science issues that clearly the writer has no understanding of.
Its even been suggested in some fan circles as an indicator of how far Doctor Who has lost its way by avoiding technical resolutions in favour of a sonic “magic wand”.
Classic Doctor Who ran one story weekly at around 25 minutes per episode. With such large gaps between episodes – and few ways to repeat a viewing between parts – the show couldn’t be too complex. Budget also meant it had to be careful how many scenes and events too place. So how do you reconcile these issues? You pad the story. Funnily, padding has a stigma of lazy about it, yet padding out stories with scenes or dialogue that aren’t necessarily plot vital can be bot cost-effective and useful for exposition and recaps.
It’s Not a Magic Wand
So old Who wasn’t about getting the Doctor out of the trap quickly, it’s about keeping him in the trap for a while, saving money and filling time. His sonic screwdriver made it too hard to keep him in one trap for long. It had to go.
Now look at New Who. Stories are condensed into one episode, reruns available the same week. So padding becomes less of an issue, in fact, these days TV demands the contrary – shows must brim with pace and drama. If a show doesn’t meet those demands, a costly show like Who won’t last long.
So in comes the sonic screwdriver again, a multi-purpose tool that opens the “magic doors” (those points in a narrative that are really no more than a gateway between two scenes, an obstacle of some sort, say, a door) and allows the story to progress quickly – meaning more time for plot and dramatic content.
Many fans sneer at the new audiences and the casual watchers, but its their investment that keeps Doctor Who profit-worthy and viable. Just as Doctor Who of 1963 wouldn’t have worked in 1979, Doctor Who of 1979 doesn’t work in 2020. And to balance the demands of today’s audience, the sonic screwdriver is the Doctor’s best tool in keeping the BBC’s axe, firmly locked away.