The Third Doctor: Season 8 - 10 (1971-1973)
The history of this prop actually starts a few years prior to its use in Doctor Who since the metal body of the Sonic Screwdriver was originally made for a live action scene of Gerry Anderson’s 1966 science fiction film, “Thunderbirds Are GO”, where it was used a simple twist action screwdriver. The the top section of the prop even had the black spiral strip around the neck, as seen on the Third Doctor’s (Jon Pertwee) first Sonic Screwdriver.
Rubbertoe Replica’s Fourth Doctor Sonic Screwdriver
A History of the “Doctor Who” Classic Series Sonic Screwdriver Prop 1971-1980
by Brian Terranova
The Sonic Screwdriver’s Emitter Assembly - consisting of the red ring/halo, silver bullet, and the black neckpiece - appeared in another Gerry Anderson production in 1967 called “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons”. It was specifically used in the fourteenth episode of Season 1, “Model Spy”, as a communicator by the character Captain Blue. Gerry Anderson’s films often reused props so it is possible that this piece may have been used prior to 1967 as well.
These two props, along with many others, were later acquired by the BBC props department who had then repurposed these devices for use in Doctor Who. The silver handle from “Thunderbirds Are GO” was first used in Doctor Who for the Season 8 story, “Colony in Space”, as two different props in two separate episodes. Its first use had been as a futuristic handcuff key for Episode 3, where it was used almost exactly as it appeared in the Thunderbirds film, with only two additional parts added; a pointed tip and a long clasp on the handle.
Later, in Episode 5 of that same story, it made its first - albeit brief - appearance as the Sonic Screwdriver with the “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” communicator now attached as the Emitter Assembly.
Since the scene in “Colony in Space” was so brief, the first proper look at the new Sonic Screwdriver prop came in Season 9’s “The Sea Devils”. Here all of the alterations made for “Colony in Space” could be seen. Aside from combining the two Gerry Anderson props together into one, the body itself was altered in a few ways; the round end cap had a flat notch cut into it and a grub screw was set into the notch. The handle either had a metallic sleeve removed or was replaced altogether, either way a slot was now present in the handle. The body was then painted with the now classic Jon Pertwee look of yellow neck with a black spiral, and black, red, and white tape detailing on the handle. This paint scheme lasted all the way through “Carnival of Monsters” in Season 10.
While the body wasn’t of their own making, this version of the Sonic Screwdriver became the first truly unique design used in the show and the prop itself lasted eleven years in Doctor Who, with its final use being in Season 19, although it was not always seen with the same paint detailing.
In a behind the scenes B&W photograph, and within the episode as well, from Season 9’s “The Sea Devils”, the Emitter Assembly from “Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons” was used almost exactly as it was in in the Gerry Anderson production; meaning that two of the pins which hold the emitter bullet are on the bottom, with one singular pin on the the top, and while we don’t get a good enough look at the prop in the next story to feature the it - Season 9’s “The Mutants” - we can see that by Season 10 the emitter ring is finally placed in the more common position of two pins on top and one on the bottom, in “Carnival of Monsters”. The only alterations made to the Captain Blue prop was to cut the pins level with the ring/halo, and to shorten the length of the neck pin; although the neck pin was either painted or covered with red tape as well.
Interestingly the Third Doctor also referred to the newly refinished prop as his “Ultrasonic Screwdriver”, so it’s possible that they had intended for this new redress to be an upgrade to the Sonic Screwdriver, and it is just as equally possible that Jon Pertwee just added the word ‘Ultra’ during the scene; either way, we’ll probably never know the answer to that. Whatever the reason for the redress, this new look remained unchanged all the way through Jon Pertwee’s final story in Season 11, “Planet of Spiders”.
The Third Doctor: Season 10 - 11 (1973-1974)
Midway through Season 10 the prop underwent some cosmetic changes for the story “Frontier in Space”. The body was stripped of all of its paint and tape applications, aside from the three black rings in the center, leaving the body its natural silver. The Emitter Ring - aka the Halo -was repainted burgundy on the outside, leaving the inside its natural brass coloring. A button magnet and screw was added to the back of the emitter bullet. The magnet was painted black - with unfinished ends - while the screw was painted burgundy, to match the Emitter Ring.
The Fourth Doctor: Season 12 - 18 (1974-1980)
For “Robot” - The Fourth Doctor’s (Tom Baker) debut story in Season 12 - the Sonic Screwdriver prop had the Emitter Assembly altered since its last use in “Planet of Spiders”. This alteration now had the Emitter Ring resting against the neck piece, which itself was now extending further out of the silver body when the sonic collar was fully extended.
There were two other, less permanent, features of the Sonic Screwdriver prop seen in Season 12 which could also count as new modifications. The first was seen in the story “Robot” where the entire Emitter Assembly - from the neck piece to the Emitter Ring - had fallen off in Tom’s pocket forcing him to use the device without the top while detonating land minds. Later within the same scene, while replacing the Emitter Assembly, Tom supposedly ad-libbed the line “Turns into a miniature sonic lance, you see” to cover up this mistake.
The other alteration was in “Genesis of the Daleks” where the emitter head extended out from the neck piece on a long stem, which can also be seen in “The Hand of Fear” in Season 14.
Aside from those two short lived changes, this version of the prop lasted nearly the whole of Tom Baker’s seven years in the role, however as each new season progressed the prop began to look more worn and distressed. As a result of this natural weathering, most of the burgundy paint wore off the Emitter Ring, which allowed the natural light brass metal to show through. The Activation Ring - the raised silver thumb rest on the center of the body - also began to show signs of wear with the the silver in that area chipping off and leaving behind a white residue. These white chips actually started to show as early as Season 11’s “The Monster of Peladon" and steadily got worse each year though Season 18.
For Season 16’s “The Pirate Planet” what appears to be a small silver washer was added to the prop between the Emitter Ring and the neck piece, however this “washer” isn’t seen on the prop before or after this story, so why it was there and what happened to it is anybodies guess.
The last time the prop was used with this paint scheme was in Season 18’s “The Leisure Hive” where the prop had clearly seen better days; its activation ring had only a few chips of silver left and the nearly bare Emitter Ring was bent backwards at about a 45 degree angle, while the bullet was also askew in the opposite direction to the ring.
The Fourth & Fifth Doctors: Season 18 - 19 (1980-1982)
The prop was redressed one more time during Tom Baker’s final season, first seen in the Season 18 story, “Full Circle” as the Doctor uses the prop to unlock the door to the Starliner. [Picture: “16-112-Full-Circle”] The Emitter Ring and button magnet were repainted bright red - including the ends of the magnet, while the screw in the magnet back was now silver; interestingly this time only the button magnet itself was painted and not a portion of the emitter bullet as well. The Activation Ring was either fully painted white or had just chipped away enough that only one sliver of silver was left, as the same chip of silver can be seen in Season 18’s “Keeper of Traken” (The Fourth Doctor) and “Season 19’s “The Visitation” (the Fifth Doctor).
Either way, this new color scheme lasted up until the Sonic Screwdriver was written out of the show in the Fifth Doctor’s (Peter Davison) era, for Season 19’s, "The Visitation", where it was destroyed by a Terileptil. This was also the last time that a Sonic Screwdriver was used in the Classic Series because the show’s current producer, John Nathan-Turner, felt it had become a “solve all” device.
Despite various rumors, whatever happened to this classic prop after its final use in the show is anyone’s guess. It's said to have gone missing from the BBC offices sometime in the 1980’s and hasn’t been seen since.