The Classic Sonic Screwdriver: My Research

Started by purpleblancmange, Aug 08, 2009, 03:00 pm

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Aug 08, 2009, 03:00 pm Last Edit: Sep 17, 2012, 01:56 am by Scarfwearer
I don't know if anyone will be interested in this, but over the years I've been doing a bit of research into the original Pertwee to Davison Sonic Screwdriver prop and I thought I'd share my findings to date with you all.  It's gone a bit quiet here on the TBF of late, so I'll do a long post - bear with me!

The original Sonic as seen in Genesis of the Daleks.

Alongside the interior and exterior of the TARDIS, K9 and a few other WHO related props, the Sonic has been a particular favourite of mine.  I remember using both a tyre pressure gauge and a ratchet spanner as a stand in prop when playing Doctor Who as a little kid.  It wasn't until the late 1980s when I started getting into the idea of prop research and replication that I started to seriously look into where this particular prop started life.

Progress wasn't great until just before the easter of 1992, I was working on a Doctor Who exhibition with Lorne Martin and ex-BBC visual effects man, Ian Scoones.  We'd pretty much finished building the exhibition and actor Colin Baker was booked to do the grand opening... Weirdly, I was asked who I thought would be the best actor to ask out of the names put forward and Colin was my choice as I kind of knew him quite well.

Anyhow, a couple of days before the opening, while we were putting the finishing touches to the shop area, I took out my replica Sonic Screwdriver that I'd brought along and showed it to both Ian and Lorne, suggesting that maybe Colin could use it during the opening.  This was accepted and then Ian chimed in with a story on how this prop came to be in Doctor Who... naturally I was all ears, being fascinated by prop stuff.

He couldn't recall exactly the year, but settled on the late 1960s, he'd got wind that Gerry Anderson's Century 21 Studios were selling off all their props and models and was invited to purchase some of the stuff.  He jumped in a van and tootled over to the studios with his assistant Mat Irvine and loaded the van to capacity with loads of stuff - much of which would end up in Doctor Who in one shape or another.  One particular prop became the sonic, he didn't know what it originally was, but guessed at some piece of medical equipment, possibly from Space 1999.  Interesting.

Anyway, whatever it was, it was first used in The Curse of Peladon as a sort of hypnosis device for the Peladon monster, the prop had been given a spinning mirror, then for the next story, The Sea Devils, the mirror was replaced with the more familiar ringed head - here it became the Sonic Screwdriver until its final appearance in the show in The Visitation.  

On the day of exhibition's grand opening, the day was coming to a close and we were all in the private reception room, Colin handed me back my Screwdriver and producer John Nathan Turner remarked on it, then told me how recently the original prop had been nicked from his office.  No, I had nothing to do with that!  So, John also knew my interest in props and was willing to chat to me about it (and other stuff - he was used to this with me) and I asked him how many screwdriver props there'd been.  "Just the one" was his reply.  Tom Baker kept damaging the prop, usually by bending the emitter head, so it was always bent back into shape, but by the end of season 18, it was looking a bit knackered and so it was given its first proper "tart up" for the following season - this was just replacing the central bent rod that fixes the head to the main prop and then repainting it.

I had assumed that there were two different props, but with later inspection, it's clear that the Sonic Pertwee had is the same that Davison had; on the central grip ring is a large gouge during The Carnival of Monsters - and it's still in evidence during Davison's tenure.  Mind you, the prop is made of metal, so very durable and it's no wonder it survived pretty much intact.

Sometime later, a matter of months maybe, Thunderbirds had returned to our screens and had become all the rage again.  My brother came home with a bunch of episodes and some of the films on VCD and so we watched them.  Thunderbirds are go! was one of the films and to my amazement, there for all to see was the Sonic Screwdriver in its original form - a screwdriver used by one of the Thunderbirds team to repair a doomed space ship.  Okay, so Ian Scoones had got it a little bit wrong, it wasn't in Space 1999 after all, it was in Thunderbirds - both are Gerry Anderson productions anyway.  Maybe he just meant that it was a piece of medical equipment that was used in the show as a prop.

You've no doubt seen images like this one before, but for those of you who haven't, here's a screen grab from the movie:


So, when Pertwee gets it, it's been modified a little.  Yellow heatshrink had been put over the spiral tape, it's given the ringed emitter head, black electrical tape covers a slot in the main outer grip barrel and from this, a white rubber ring washer tops it off with thin black pin striping running up the grip barrel is also stuck on.  All this stick on stuff doesn't last though, by the following season, it's all been removed.

Here's a shot of a replica Classic Sonic, based on the prop with all the tape and guff removed:


Moving on.  Either later that year or early the following year, I'm at a chiropractor as I'd been having back trouble - still am actually.  Anyway, as I was laying there, something on the chap's desk caught my eye - I was told it was an "Activator" - it looked a bit like the Sonic Screwdriver, but not much really.  Could this be the medical equipment that Ian Scoones was talking about?  It did seem like a possibility.  It would later turn out to be just a coincidence that it looked vaguely the same.

Judge for yourself:




The idea that the Activator was possibly what was used as the screwdriver prop back in 1966 for the Thunderbirds are Go! movie has surfaced again in the last few years on a variety of boards, it's been talked about on the old Outpost Gallifrey board and now its replacement board.  For a long time, I was willing to go along with the idea as it does seem plausible, but the more you look into it, the more it doesn't quite stack up, at least to me, anyway.  Here's why:

Chiropractic methods have been around for ages, the Montana Crow Indian medicine men used a stick-like device to manipulate the spine to aid digestive ailments as early as 1901, after that, Thomas H Storey developed the technique further by employing a stick with a rubber end and a mallet to reset the spine and this was continued in practice until the 1960s.  Arlan Fuhr came along and updated the whole procedure.  He used a heavily modified impact hammer after testing a variety of other similar devices - all were too brutal, but the hammer seemed just right.  It remained in this prototype form for many years while he tested it out, then in 1976 it was released commercially as the Activator Adjusting Instrument I, updated again in 1994 as the Activator Adjusting Instrument II.  The second one does look very much like the Sonic we all know and love, more-so than version I, but there I fear the similarities end.

For a start, the years do not match, there's no way that the 1967 prototype could have found its way onto the Thunderbirds set in 1966, unless of course they used a time machine.  Also, this was the only activator in development, no-one else but Furh had the rights to do so, it was his baby and the practice is still registered to him.  Also, the activator is much smaller than the Sonic in many key areas, it has a different method of sprung movement, moving back less than a quarter of an inch - the action is near identical to that of a stapler gun with a click and reload action, the sonic spring action is much smoother, easier to do and has a far greater throw... you also could not activate the Activator the way you would the Sonic with one hand, it's impossible - I've tried it.

Okay then, if it wasn't an Activator that was used, could it have been some other readily available tool then?  Well, again I thought that this could be the case until I made a few very key phone calls.

I got fed up with looking for similar antique instruments (medical, industrial and other), I was getting nowhere and just seemed to be going around in circles, so I thought who better would know than the people who made the original film.  Luckily, all those involved live very close to me.

My first port of call was the director of Thunderbirds are Go! - David Lane.  I asked him the same questions that I asked other crew members.  Firstly, do you remember the screwdriver prop?  Yes.  Secondly, where did it come from?  "We had it made" was his answer.  Could they have bought something off the shelf?  No, they had a guy who's job was to produce all the metal pieces for the show, be they armatures or props, he would do it.  For the design, they would "crib ideas" from all manner of sources; catalogues, medical white papers, things they had around them and mash it all into one new design.  He was absolutely adamant that it was totally created in house from scratch, he then gave me a few names of the props guys to follow up - which I did.

Next up was "John" - he was in charge of the props and models department, I asked him the exact same questions that I asked David, I didn't prompt him in anyway as I wanted a true reply and not one where I'd inadvertently led the answer.  He told me that "Tony" was the bloke who made it, he was given some pictures and some drawings and told to come up with a quick little prop based on these items.  Other people I spoke to either couldn't remember the prop or said that they did, but had nothing to do with it and thus I should "Speak to Tony, he did all that stuff."

Unfortunately, Tony is no-longer with us and his wife seems very coy about talking about what her husband did on Thunderbirds, even though she worked with him on the show.  She seemed quite knowledgeable, but I didn't want to press the issue further and left it at that.

So, there you have it, a rather long post, but it's most of my research as up to date now as I can tell you.  I feel that the original Screwdriver prop was hand made from scratch for the movie, found it's way into Doctor Who with slight modifications and was the exact same prop as seen in The Visitation as it was back in The Sea Devils when it was first properly used as the Sonic.  The people who were there at the time all seemed to agree in one shape or another, nothing conflicted with what anyone else said and their facts and recollections gel well enough to be rather convincing to me as much of the stuff matches my own observations of the prop's history.  I'm sure there will be other researchers out there who will no doubt disagree with this, but for now, I'm convinced by the word of the folk who actually made both Doctor Who and Thunderbirds.

Phew, and breathe!