The 9th and 10th Doctor’s Sonic Screwdriver (Updated).
You can pretty much call this a complete reworking of a previous article from my old website as having recently looked back at the original version, I realised just how vague it was. So here we are with a thoroughly updated and hopefully more interesting (and insightful) piece.
It’s fairly common knowledge that through work, I found myself with access to the 9th Doctor version of the new series Sonic Screwdriver back in 2005 and that on the sly, I took a few measurements from it… well, I just had to, didn’t I? You’d have done the same if you were interested in props and were in the same boat as me, come on now, admit it. What you won’t know is that I also had a brush with this particular prop the previous year, before it was even made.
The company that I was working with at the time (I was there designing a range of high-end Classic Doctor Who models) were also bidding to make some of the new show’s props, including the Daleks and the Sonic Screwdriver, while independently I was working towards getting the TARDIS exterior prop commission, but that’s another story. So anyway, because of where I was, I was privy to all the concept drawings, as well as a set of rudimentary schematics for this new fangled Sonic Screwdriver and I got to keep copies of all these drawings for reference – they would later come in rather handy.
After I’d gotten to measure the original, I created a rounded up and sanitised set of numbers from the measurements that I’d taken off of the hero prop and with that, I applied these to the BBC’s rudimentary schematics that had previously come into my possession. The plan was that one day, I’d use these to create my own replica. As it happened, I didn’t get very far with it due to the high cost of this project and so it died completely on its arse… but people knew about it because I’d spoken openly about my little personal project and had even shown some of the work in progress pictures.
Naturally, because all this sort of thing was new and exciting, I was inundated with requests from various quarters of fandom for either copies of my measurements or in some cases, folk tried to commission me to make them a complete replica. The latter I always turned down, but I was fairly free to the idea of handing out copies of the rudimentary schematics that I had and I did so rather a lot, but on the proviso that people kept the copies to themselves and didn’t start churning out replicas for sale on eBay. A few people even approached me (on different occasions) to help out on limited fan “Group Runs” of replicas for members of the old Outpost Gallifrey board and to begin with, I was reluctant, but as time passed, I gave in. Each time I handed out the plans to the different groups that had got in touch with me, it was all fine to start with, then these projects would come to a screaming halt, just as my own personal project had done so previously - probably because of the exorbitant cost to get something like this up and running. It was also coincidentally around this time that I was starting to get fed up with the whole idea of ever obtaining a replica for myself and I was certainly tiring of the continued requests for help, so I began to back away from the whole notion and respectfully declined to provide information when asked. Besides, really I was aware that perhaps I shouldn’t be handing this stuff out as technically it wasn’t my place to do so, especially with the BBC being so aggressively secretive and protective over the programme and its properties.
The requests for help soon died down when Character Options released their plastic role play toy version of the prop, to tie in with their range of figures from the new series. It was great and folk were happy, even more so when the rumour began to circulate that from David Tennant’s first episode as the Doctor, the BBC had started to use the toy as the hero prop in the series. This was, frankly, utter bollocks, but there was an element of truth in there somewhere that had somehow gotten mangled through idle and ill-informed chatter across the web. It didn’t happen to help matters when the BBC’s own Doctor Who website confused the issue further with one of their features on Character Options and the toy range. What actually happened was this, and I did try to explain it at the time, though few listened. Not that they should have listened – that’s up to them – and it certainly didn’t bother me slightest…
Two things happened at pretty much the same time. Firstly, the BBCi website, as it was called then, ran a feature about Character Options and their dedication to accuracy with the range they had created and in this, they touched upon the role play Sonic, comparing the toy next to the “original” in a photograph that you can see below. The thing was, the “original” was actually CO’s resin prototype Sonic Screwdriver that was in deed closer to the actual prop than the final release of their toy. For production reasons, the toy had to be made slightly over sized in some places to allow for the internal electronics, as well as the pen feature that it had. So ultimately, both Sonics in the image were from CO.
The second thing to happen was that with the success of the revamped show, the BBC decided to create a new exhibition dedicated to this era specifically and it was to be housed at Brighton Pier, which can be found on the south coast of the UK. The problem was that by the time it was to open, BBC Wales would be in the midst of making series two, so therefore, certain new props wouldn’t be available for display – the Sonic Screwdriver being one of them. However, this being such a key feature of the programme, it would be rather conspicuous by its absence and something had to be done to circumvent this. The answer was to use one of the Character Options resin prototypes in the original’s place. As misfortune would have it, this resin Sonic didn’t last at the exhibition for long as one day, a visitor to the site decided that it would be for the best to rip it from the wall (complete with the display case) and take it home with them. It’s just as well then that it was effectively only a replica as it would have been terrible for yet another original Screwdriver prop to go walkabouts without leave. Anyway, here’s some pictures for you to compare.
Having said all the above, as time went on, the CO toy Sonic did end up being used in the programme in various guises for various reasons. Each time it appeared though, it was only seen briefly as a stunt prop to stand in for the far more valuable original. Sometimes it was an actual bought off the shelf toy that had been modified and other times, it was a resin casting of the toy. Most, if not all, were broken on set. They were never used in close up or for any sustained period, but when you did see them, it would usually be in a sequence where the Sonic was to be dropped or thrown. The last time this version of the screwdriver was seen on screen, was where (as part of the storyline) it gets destroyed while the newly regenerated 11th Doctor is holding it aloft during an action scene in his first full episode. What you see him holding is in deed a modified, off the shelf, store bought toy – but only when it meets its demise in a shower of sparks and flames – all other shots around this sequence are of the metal hero prop. Being shot in HD, the difference between the two props is painfully obvious, less so in SD, but still quite apparent.
Let’s go back in time now. Towards the end of the summer in 2006, I was approached by a company to work on a fully licensed reproduction of this style of Sonic and going by what I was commissioned to do, it was to be a highly detailed, screen accurate metal replica, aimed squarely at the high-end collector’s market. When I wrote this originally on my old website, I didn’t name the company involved as the license was still active, yet they hadn’t made any announcement about its arrival or made a decision on how they were to take the project forward, but anyway, enough time has passed, so I can tell you. It was for The Stamp Centre of London, otherwise known as Sci-Fi Collector.
As I mentioned, I was commissioned to tackle this project in the September of 2006 and the project was required for delivery quite urgently. The only problem was that at the time, I was just about to leave the country for a couple of weeks which meant that I had to scramble like crazy to complete the work and send it off before I left. My task was to draw up a full set of engineering schematics as well as make a rough mock-up of the final piece to show to BBC Licensing. At the time, I was staggered by the reaction of my client when I told them the fee I’d be charging, they nearly snapped my arm off in eagerness as a result. I should have guessed that something was up – I later found out that they were expecting to pay the standard industry rate which was ten times the amount that I’d agreed to. Darn it! Oh well, you live and learn.
Creating the schematics was to be the (slightly) easier part of the job, but with the short deadline, creating the mock-up from scratch was obviously going to be impossible to achieve and so it was agreed that I’d use the Character Options toy as the basis for speed. To that end, I had to use three of them to make the single piece as required.
Above is the crude mock-up that I ”built” in the space of a day. When making this, it quickly became obvious to me that CO had not had access to the original prop because even if we take into account that it was made slightly longer to accommodate the required internals, it had details that were more in common with the BBC’s rudimentary schematics than the screen used hero prop – again this was a bit of a regular occurrence at the time as initially, CO were having troubles gaining access to things for reference. Thankfully this was only a passing phase on the BBC’s part.
Back to the idiosyncracies of the CO toy. It had certain extra details as illustrated in those schematics that never made it to the final prop, plus it was also lacking other details that were also on the prop, but not the schematics. Anyway, using three of the toys, I managed to adjust it to the point that it was a fairly good reflection of what it was meant to be. All we needed now was the final approval from BBC Worldwide, so I went off to the States and thought nothing more about it.
Several weeks after I’d returned to the UK, I was finally told by Sci-Fi Collector what the deal was; the BBC weren’t happy with what we were going to produce because it was “too accurate.” Eh? Surely that’s exactly what they’d want!
It wasn’t until a very long time after the event that I discovered what they’d actually meant by all this “too accurate” business. They didn’t like the fact that we were going to include the wide open slot with the tactile micro switch that operates the LED light and serves as the function by which you open and close the prop. Apparently, the BBC Art Department said that this was not meant to be a part of the prop that is obvious, despite the fact that you can see it as clear as day in virtually every scene that you see this prop in. It also explains why the hero version was later rebuilt to improve on this function and make it more discreet, but the Art Department were still insistent that the slider was not meant to be seen and that in the context of the Doctor Who universe, there was no slider on his Sonic - it was only there on the prop as a technicality. It also makes it abundantly clear to me now why in a lot of the promotional images where you see the Doctor holding his Sonic, that he’s always holding it in the most awkward of manners – to hide the “ugly” slider control. Ahhh, I see. Anyway, this licensed replica never happened, but I wasn’t too bothered if I’m honest as I’d been paid, even if it was peanuts.
It all went quiet on the Sonic front for maybe a year or two when one day, quite out of the blue, an internet friend of mine approached me with a proposal; that if I provide him with the full schematics that I took from the prop, his mate would make three of them, one for me, one for my mate and one for himself. I was fine with the idea in principle until I found out who my mate’s mate was. I realised that I also knew this chap and not only that, but I also knew who this guy was currently working for.
It then dawned on me, I was about to be wheedled out of a professional fee. Cheeky buggers. I’ve been had in this fashion a few times before and by now had gotten wise to this type of ploy and I certainly wasn’t going to fall for it again. Now I’m not going to name names as it’s pointless, all in the distant past now – and quite frankly, I honestly don’t really give a flying fig enough to care about it all anyway. The way that I see it though, is that if a company wants to make something professionally, don’t use my friends to get to my stuff without having to pay me for the pleasure, come to me directly and we can talk business, it’s only fair and not underhanded! I’m fairly certain that this caused an amount of bad blood, but I can live with it as it’s no loss to me.
Again the Sonic became a distant memory and then around the Christmas of 2009 (I think) I received an email from another friend, apparently some company was trying to get in touch with me about creating a new line of fully licensed Doctor Who replicas. I spoke to the guy in question and what he told me, I wasn’t too keen on as I thought that he was barking up the wrong tree and told him so, which I think annoyed him a little – but I had to be honest and realistic with him. Actually, I sort of half mentioned this conversation in the early days of this very blog. Anyway, we discussed other options and various ideas that I had and he said he’d go away and think about it and discuss it with his employers. I really didn’t ever expect to hear from him again, but I did a few months later.
We were back to the bloody Sonic Screwdriver again, this time it was the 10th Doctor’s version as a 1:1 scale replica for the high-end collector’s market, now where had I heard all this before? I had to tell him that all the information that I had related to the 9th Doctor’s prop which was slightly different to the 10th Doctor’s, not by much, but anything I’d contribute to the project would have to be adapted and researched further to take things forward. The thing was, by this point, I was so sick and tired of the damned thing that I really wasn’t up for, and certainly couldn’t face, creating yet another new set of schematics, so we agreed that I’d be a consultant in a one off meeting to exchange data and make the changes to what I had that were pertinent to the 10th Doctor’s Sonic. We agreed a fee for a four hour consultation. What the hell was I about to let myself in for?!
I should have known better. The consultation meeting went on for about 6 hours and not only that, I was constantly being called up multiple times a day over several months, asked to look at stuff, make changes, do calculations, do further research and it was certainly looking like I was going to be doing all the work that I said I wouldn’t be doing. To make matters worse, I wasn’t going to receive any further payments for all this extra work that I was doing and I certainly wasn’t going to be credited for any of this either – which I was fine about, what I wasn’t fine about was someone else taking the credit for it. My wife was getting quite annoyed by all this fuss too, as was I and so too were the engineering firm that I’d introduced matey to, to actually fabricate the prototypes.
As time went on, access was gained to the actual BBC prop (as well as the current version), moulds were taken for reference by our chum and he was changing the schematics on what seemed like a weekly basis. Things came to a head when the engineering firm called me out of sheer frustration one day because the plans provided just did not make any sense, nothing added up correctly or calculated out right at all. It was a complete and total mess and didn’t even look right when compared to the massively high resolution photographs that we had!
The plans were binned and we started from scratch, using my old notes combined with our own measurements taken from the reference casts. Effectively, what we produced was wholly our own work and nothing to do with matey, even down to re-engineering the internals to make them nicer and more robust than the original’s. Just as the deadline was coming up, I had to go away for a few weeks and from what I understand, the relationship between the engineering firm and chummy had more or less broken down, the job was completed and handed over. It’s just as well then that I’d refused to work on the 11th Doctor’s Sonic then. When I returned from my travels with the family, I officially left the project and what do I have to show for all that work? Effectively nothing, apart from this:
This is an unfinished prototype with an initial paint test on the main handle. Now this may look as rough as old boots to you, but it may surprise you to know that the filming prop is not as nice as you’d think it should be in close up. The crackle glaze is very lumpy and looks like dried, white mud and nothing like the porcelain that it’s meant to be. This particular test has different levels of crud on it and we were going to choose which area was the closest to the original. Because of the relationship breakdown however, it never progressed further than this and chummy went off with his two prototypes and painted them up himself.
While the prototypes were great (and in all honesty they were the most accurate replica ever produced of its kind), there were a couple of small mistakes that we noticed after they’d been taken away, but there was nothing that we could do about it now - and besides, it was no longer our problem anyway.
I hope that from reading all this that you don’t think that I have any ill feelings or am bitter towards our chum or the company that he used to work for, really I’m not. Again I just don’t care enough to give a damn. I haven’t heard anything about the project in nearly a year, so what’s happened to it or where it’s going these days, if anywhere, is a complete mystery to me.
And there you have it, five years worth of Sonic Screwdriver commissions, near misses, almost props and fan requests for help. How do I feel about it all now? Well, it’s been quite a ride, but I hope that I never have to go through all this again. I’m more interested in the 11th Doctor sonic, to me it just looks far more funky and with luck, someone, somewhere will come up with a decent replica to bring to market – good luck to them though, I counted over 45 parts in that one alone. Whoever ends up with that assembly job has my deepest of sympathies!