A Brief History of Sonic Devices in 'Doctor Who'

Sonic is a great word, isn’t it? It’s the kind of science word, like polarity, field or beam, that borders on credible – something to do with soundwaves – but can be put to use to sell science fiction conceits that are, frankly, beyond belief.

It has been put to great use within the universe of Doctor Who. One Dalek comic story had the Skaronian rotters using a weapon called a Sonic Pulsator, another story has the Ice Warriors using a sonic cannon to devastating effect. Here’s a list of the sonic devices that appear within just the TV canon of Doctor Who, starting with the true icon of the series:

1. Sonic screwdriver

It started out as a device the Second Doctor had to, y’know, drive screws, but the sonic very quickly became part of Doctor Who’s iconography from the Third Doctor’s era onwards. Every incarnation of the Doctor has had their own spin (no pun intended).

The Fourth Doctor had a modification to turn his into a sonic lance to remove a stubborn lock (“Robot”) – an idea that was later repurposed by the Sixth Doctor, first to try and fix the TARDIS, and then to defeat an old enemy (“Attack of the Cybermen”). The reborn series has given the trusty sonic a huge variety of uses, so much so that when Ten and Eleven met the War Doctor (“The Day of the Doctor”) and drew their sonics in warning, he grumpily muttered, “Why are you pointing your screwdrivers like that? They're scientific instruments, not water pistols!”

Four’s companion Romana built her own screwdriver (“The Horns of Nimon”), and of course Twelve gave a modified one to River Song so that his former self could save her life, sort of (“Forest of the Dead”).

2. Sonic booster and other weapons

In the same story (“The Visitation”) that saw the Fifth Doctor’s sonic destroyed by a Tereleptil, his companion Nyssa came across a sonic booster in the TARDIS. This was a device that used sound to rattle machinery to bits. She turned it on the Tereleptil’s android, which feels like justice. In “Empress of Mars,” the Ice Warriors had a similar device, a sonic cannon that fired a bolt of sound that imploded its target. And in “The Doctor Dances,” Jack Harkness mentions that his sonic device can operate as a sonic cannon, a sonic blaster and a sonic disrupter, before mocking the Doctor for his lack of vision: “Who has a sonic SCREWDRIVER???”

3. Sonic knife

The Scaroth used a sonic knife to cut through the glass case around the Mona Lisa in “City of Death.” This feels like a tool that could definitely exist, although the vibration would probably set off an alarm.

4. Sonic discs

The Silurians and Sea Devils both used forms of sonic discs as weapons when they awoke in 1972 and again in 2084. They had a similar larger cutting device for cutting through doors, so it’s clear their use of sonic tech far outstripped that of even the Time Lords.

As if to further prove that point, the Paternoster Gang unveiled three sonic-related devices in “Deep Breath”. Each one was suggested by Doctor Who fans as the result of a competition in the British children’s TV show Blue Peter.

The sonic hat pin, belonging to Madame Vastra, was suggested by a seven-year-old girl from Kent named Amber. Her idea was that it had a dinosaur feather attached, and that it become a sonic sword by twisting the “volume control”. Then there’s Jenny’s sonic gauntlet, a lockpick and radiation gauge, designed by a thirteen-year-old boy from Somerset named Connor. And for Strax, there’s the sonic lorgnette. This was a diagnostic device for Sontaran doctors, featuring an X-ray lens and a thermal lens, as well as sonic capabilities.

In the same adventure, Madame Vastra handed the police force in Victorian London a series of small devices called sonic lanterns that would disorientate dinosaurs, such as the tyrannosaur that had swallowed the TARDIS, thereby making them easier to contain and control.

5. Sonic trowel

The interesting thing about River Song’s sonic trowel – as seen in “The Husbands of River Song” – is that it is trowel shaped. The sonic screwdriver wouldn’t be any use as a manual screwdriver, but the trowel could easily serve to dig up small amounts of soil even with flat batteries. This may be why the Twelfth Doctor found it an “embarrassing” tool. Too practical.

6. Sonic cane

On the other hand, the cane used by the Eleventh Doctor to scan the Teselecta in “Let’s Kill Hitler” is rather swish and beautifully irrelevant. It is an object blessed with lots of style but comparatively little substance as a sonic tool, in that it is a cane that happens to have extra capabilities, rather than being a cane that uses its sonic powers to keep the Doctor steady.

7. Sonic shades

The sonic shades, worn by the Twelfth Doctor from “The Witch’s Familiar” onwards, are a perfect middle ground; they definitely work as sunglasses, but they’ve got so much extra tech they can actually restore a kind of sight to the Doctor when he has been blinded by exposure to the black void of space (“Oxygen”).

8. Sonic umbrella

There’s something delightful about Missy producing a sonic umbrella to use against the Cybermen in “The Doctor Falls,” especially as her former self had been so scathing about sonics when he attacked the Tenth Doctor in “The Sound of Drums”. It’s like her attempts to better herself have only resulted in her becoming a (much more) sarcastic version of the Doctor.

9. Sonic lipstick

Another in our category of devices which have sonic capabilities but don’t use them to achieve their primary function. The Doctor gave Sarah Jane Smith a sonic lipstick to use in her various adventures. It does not, as far as we’re aware, put her makeup on without touching her face, which is probably the safest way to do it.

10. Sonic pen

Madame Foster had a sonic pen – in reality, a sonic device powerful enough to cut cables disguised as a fountain pen – which she put to good use in “Partners in Crime.” Sadly, it was this pen that proved to be her undoing, and even the Doctor didn’t seem to want it after her untimely end. He threw it in the bin.

11. Sonic mines

Nasty pieces of work, sonic mines were the reason the Thirteenth Doctor and her fam were hospitalized at the beginning of “The Tsuranga Conundrum.” Their internal organs had been “scrambled” by a mine the Doctor failed to defuse on Seffilun 27, which could have proven fatal but for the timely medical assistance of the crew of the Tsuranga.

12. Sonic cones

In “Delta and the Bannermen,” Gavrok uses a sonic cone on top of the Seventh Doctor’s TARDIS to seal it within a designated sonic perimeter. It was capable of atomizing anything that breached the cone, as Hawk found out when he tried to cross the threshold and burned his hand. Ultimately, Gavrok became the victim of his own sonic device, which just goes to show that technology isn’t everything.

Other sonic devices

Away from the TV adventures, other Doctor Who media have run riot with the idea of sonic devices, and have come up with a wonderful list of ideas, including: a sonic wrench, sonic suitcase, sonic stake, sonic spoon, sonic wand, sonic corkscrew, sonic scalpel and even a sonic shower, used to clean people without all of that inconvenient water getting everywhere.

Some slightly less credible suggestions have included the sonic toothbrush (note: we already have those), sonic lockpick and sonic keys (um, isn’t that what the Doctor uses the screwdriver for?) and sonic earmuffs (or as we call them, earmuffs).

Do you have an all-time favorite sonic device?!