Does a timelord need a sonic screwdriver?

A bit of context first of all. Doctor Who has been many things over the years, from experimental and educational children’s drama in the 1960s to much-loved BBC warhorse in the 1970s to public embarrassment in the 1980s and now – resplendent and resurgent – a massive cashcow for its broadcaster and a national institution. The new series, which began under executive producer and head writer Russell T Davies in 2005, has had the hell marketed out of it, from indepth and grown-up behind-the-scenes tomes covering every inch of its production in obsessive detail, to toys and games for kids, some too young to remember 2005, let alone the so-called “Classic Series”.

Most people who worked on the show for its initial 26 year run are extremely complimentary of the new series, and possibly envious of its bigger budget and wider appeal. Some are more critical, and one such person is Christopher H Bidmead. Bidmead became script-editor in 1980 and oversaw Tom Baker’s last year in the role. He wrote Baker’s last story, Peter Davison’s first and one subsequent script on a freelance basis. He had a significant hand in shaping the scripts that were broadcast during that period and has a reputation among Doctor Who fans for wanting science over humour, for wanting logic over entertainment and for a particular style of take-no-prisoners, thump-the-arm-of-the-chair rhetoric when it comes to anyone who takes issue with his particular way of doing things. And he’s been getting cheerfully cross at what he sees as some of the shortcomings of the writing of twenty-first century Who.

The other player in today’s narrative in the sonic screwdriver. This handy gadget was first seen in a Patrick Troughton story called Fury From The Deep, back in 1968, when the world was in black-and-white. It became a fixture with subsequent Doctors Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, where it was used for anything from detonating mines, to cutting rock to discombobulating robots, but its most famous use was to unlock doors. Incoming producer John Nathan-Turner, who joined the series at the same time as Bidmead, shared his script-editor’s feelings when it came to reducing the larking about which had characterised the previous season of stories, and wanted more hard science and fewer narrative short-cuts. Once he’d axed robot dog K9 and brilliant Time Lady Romana, the universe was looking a bit less cosy for the Doctor. One more thing to go – the sonic screwdriver was written out in an early Peter Davison story called The Visitation – by incoming script editor Eric Saward.

Russell T Davies has simply ignored this – assuming no doubt that the Doctor built the first one and so can knock together a new one whenever he wishes. As far as he’s concerned, he remembers the Doctor having one when he watched the programme as kid, he wants kids to play with sonic screwdrivers in the playground, and of course, the commercial bits of the Beeb are overjoyed because they can license toy manufacturers to produce plastic replicas by the thousands. And that’s why the poor arm of Bidmead’s long-suffering chair is taking such a pounding.

Bidmead’s point is that it’s lazy scriptwriting. Any problem which needs solving – point the sonic at it and it goes away. No need for Doctor or writer to come up with anything new. If you want the Doctor to get from A to B unimpeeded by a door, then – as writer – don’t put a bloody door there. Put a locked door there only for the Doctor to unlock it and you’re just wasting everybody’s time.

Makes sense?

Makes no sense at all.

On a perfectly practical, story construction level, Bidmead apparently can’t think of a single situation where it might be useful – dramatic, interesting, exciting – to have a door which only the Doctor can open but which other people can’t. Or a door which the villain believes is secure but which the Doctor can in fact open. This is basic, basic stuff. And should the writer want a door to be immune to the sonic’s charms, that too is possible. The currently popular formulation is to assert that the door in question contains a “deadlock seal” which defeats even the sonicest of screwdrivers.

But worse, Bidmead fails to understand who the Doctor is with this comment. He isn’t us, he isn’t the ordinary joe stuck in an extraordinary situation and having to make do with things that we understand. He’s a wizard. He’s a magician and that’s his magic wand. He’s a non-human character with powers we can’t even understand, and if it’s a convenient shorthand, if it gets us on to the adventure quicker to have him swiftly brandish a prop at a stubborn door instead of laboriously constructing some elaborate (and equally fictitious) bespoke door-opening device then that’s all to the good. This is Doctor Who, not McGyver. So why put the door there at all? Quite apart from the fundamental plot reasons mentioned above, it’s fun to see a magician work his magic. We like seeing the Doctor accomplish the impossible, it’s part of his charm.

And this is also good cause-and-effect storytelling. Once we’ve seen him make short work of a door, it’s more credible that he might be able to save the universe from the Daleks / Cybermen / Master / Jaggaroth / Hggliubdiums etc.

And if that means more kids using their felt-tip pens as sonics in the playground, you’ll hear no argument from me about that. Bidmead wrote some good scripts (especially Frontios, after he’d left the show) but his view of how and why David Tennant is forever waving this particular prop around is amazingly limited and almost entirely wrong.

If you want me or one of the other Script Surgeons to read your script and send you a detailed report on what works and what doesn’t then we are currently offering this service from just £50 with a guaranteed seven-day turnaround. Send your script in today.

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