NOTE: The following post contains minor SPOILERS for the Doctor Who season 9 premiere.
Following part two of the Doctor Who season 9 premiere, “The Magician’s Apprentice” and “The Witch’s Familiar,” fans were left puzzled by a new addition to the Doctor’s sonic arsenal: sonic shades. After the Doctor lost his iconic sonic screwdriver to a young Davros, the Time Lord never recovered the device from the Dalek creator in future Skaro; instead, debuting new wearable sonic tech. The change became a sticking point for fans in an otherwise well-received episode – leaving many to wonder if the Doctor had entirely abandoned his trusty screwdriver for shades.
Debate became even more pronounced when the second season 9 story, depicted in “Under the Lake” and “Before the Flood,” brought the shades (not the screwdriver) back – placing the sonic sunglasses at the center of Part 1’s plot. However, just because sonic shades made sense in the episode, as a means of relaying visual information, doesn’t mean that some fans aren’t reluctant toward the Doctor’s new toy.
As it turns out, fans weren’t the only ones skeptical of the idea. During a recent interview with Screen Rant at New York Comic-Con, longtime Doctor Who storyteller (and “Under the Lake”/”Before the Flood” writer) Toby Whithouse revealed that he too was unsure whether or not sonic sunglasses were a good idea or not:
My initial reaction was skepticism. When Steven first said “He’s not going to have the screwdriver, he’s going to have sunglasses.” I was like [laughing], then “Oh, really? No, that’s probably a good idea.” Actually, hopefully, we’ve pulled it off but it was an interesting departure – and the thing is that Steven knows what he’s doing and I think it’s worked. But certainly at the time, myself and a few other people were like, “Really?” I think we really thought: “He’ll change is mind, he’ll come around.” And we’re like “No, no, we’ll use the sunglasses! (That’ll go).” But, sure enough, they stayed.”
Still, even though Whithouse and the rest of Doctor Who‘s production team went along with the idea, and feel as though viewers will warm up to sonic shades, the writer made a point of stressing that even Moffat knew they’d need to actually show the benefit of sonic sunglasses – rather than just have them be a quirky joke. For that reason, the shades play a key role in episode three of the series – as a visual recorder, streaming data and images to a remote location, allowing companions to see what the Doctor is seeing (from a safe distance):
I think Steven was keen to have us find a use for them as opposed to it just being some kind of random prop. I’m pleased they’ve worked out and earned their place.
After the second season 9 episode had aired, showrunner Steven Moffat and star Peter Capaldi began teasing that the shades were not necessarily a permanent replacement for the screwdriver; though, neither Doctor Who alum was willing to share exactly when we might see the Twelfth Doctor’s sonic screwdriver back in action.
Whithouse’s comments seem to suggest the sunglasses could be around for awhile; yet, just because the Doctor (and Moffat) aren’t ready to ditch the shades doesn’t mean the two devices are mutually exclusive. Maybe the Doctor will use one or the other – depending on the situation. After all, had Moffat simply added sonic shades to the Doctor’s expansive collection of silly gadgets, there would certainly be less controversy. Instead, blowback appears to stem from sentiment that the showrunner took something away from the mythology when he replaced screwdrivers with shades – even though, interestingly, the sunglasses can do everything a screwdriver can (and more).
It’s an entertaining double-standard – that people are becoming increasingly dependent on streamlined (and outright wearable) tech while simultaneously expecting a genius alien with a time machine to rely on hand-held instruments. Despite his initial skepticism, Whithouse seems to be ahead of some fans, embracing the fun in “departures” on Doctor Who. Ultimately, the show is about change, shaking things up, and playful experimentation. If the Doctor can get a new face, personality, companion, and/or interior decoration for the TARDIS, can’t he also test out new sonic tech solutions?
Of course, it’s never that simple – especially since so many things do change on the show. Some aspects need to stay the same to retain the series’ identity and the screwdriver (like the exterior of the TARDIS) has become an iconic piece of Doctor Who lore – not to mention fun collectible and all-around slick looking sci-fi device.
That all said, stepping outside of our passion for the series, is the idea of sonic shades really that much sillier than a sonic screwdriver? Or did we already forget the Eleventh Doctor’s sonic cane?
Doctor Who returns this week on BBC1 and BBC America with “The Girl Who Died.”