Exclusive Interview: Victor Pemberton, Inventor of the Sonic Screwdriver!

“There we are. Neat isn’t it? All done by sound waves.”

This past October, I had the opportunity to attend the very first Time Eddy convention in Wichita, Kansas. In short, Time Eddy is a Who convention run by fans for the fans. Its “soul”, if you will, is the idea that fans and celebrities should get to interact a little more than they get to at bigger conventions. Time Eddy saw an enormous guest line-up: Colin Baker (the Sixth Doctor), Nicola Bryant (Peri Brown), Ellis George (Courtney Woods), Victor Pemberton (inventor of the sonic screwdriver), Frazer Hines (Jamie McCrimmon), Deborah Watling (Victoria Waterfield), Daphne Ashbrook (Grace Holloway), Peter Purves (Steven Taylor), Andrew Cartmel (script editor for the Seventh Doctor’s era), and Nev Fountain (writer for Big Finish) all found their way to Wichita.

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While there, I got to meet the lovely Victor Pemberton (far left in photo).

Pemberton’s Doctor Who credits may not be extensive, but they do include some much-loved classics, including The Tomb of the Cybermen (1967). He also wrote Fury from the Deep, the story that introduced the Doctor’s iconic sonic screwdriver, and had a nonspeaking role in The Moonbase (1967). Although his time on the show was relatively short, his influence was substantial. Victor was kind enough to let me chat with him for a bit, and he had a lot to say about the show’s history, its core ideas, and its future.

DWC: So, what can you tell me about your time on Doctor Who?

Victor: I was Script Editor on The Tomb of the Cybermen, I was an Assistant Script Editor (although my name never appeared) in The Ice Warriors. And then, of course, I wrote Fury from the Deep after I left the BBC.

How did you get the job of Script Editor?

I had a friend, Peter Bryant, who was the producer of Doctor Who at the time. I also knew Peter in radio. He commissioned a thing that I wrote for BBC radio called The Slide (1966). It was quite an effective science fiction piece about an earthquake in England, which we don’t get, which made it science fiction obviously. Anyway, it was hugely popular. So Peter said to me: “Why don’t you come over to television and be a Script Editor for me?” Then he had me on board.

How long did you work on the show?

I only stayed at the BBC for about three or four months. Because I didn’t want to be desk-bound. I wanted to do my own thing and write my own stuff. I was writing a lot for television and for radio. My career started in radio.

Were you a fan of the show during the Hartnell era?

Oh yes. I liked it much better in those days. It was clear, it was in black and white, it was amateurish. Of course, we all loved it. It was compulsive listening and viewing in those days — because it was new. Totally new. And, it always went out between 5:15pm and 5:45pm, on a Saturday evening. I think the whole nation used to tune in at that time. Yes, I was definitely a fan, from the first William Hartnell show ever. I think Doctor Who was a groundbreaking show for the United Kingdom.

You see, with the Hartnell era, it took a while for some of us to see how it worked. Of course, you were used to it in America because you had science fiction shows way before we did. It took me a while to get into it, but once I did I was obsessed.

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Doctor Who was conceived as a vehicle for an old man, like a grandfather figure or an uncle. He was never conceived as a young person; that came much later. I think that’s why so many people liked Hartnell. Because he was like their own grandfather or uncle. I kind of faded out from the show after Jon Pertwee and Tom Baker, and the later years I wasn’t quite so fond of. But, look at it now: 50 years later and it brings people together to conventions like this. The Hartnell and Troughton years are very dear to me. Wobbly sets and all.

Peter Capaldi said that the fans should start appreciating the classic series for what it was meant to be. He basically said that fans today should remember that not everything was the same back then in TV, and we can’t really judge the classic series by today’s rules. Do you agree?

Yeah, you watch it for how it was in its day. I mean, don’t forget that television was still in its infancy. Don’t forget those days gave birth to what you see today. They were in black and white, the sound wasn’t very good at times, and the sets were a bit wobbly. But it was endearing. I don’t think saying the classics are amateur by today’s standards is a criticism. I think it’s just an acceptance of a show growing up, and television growing up.

What influenced the invention of the sonic screwdriver?

Nothing, really. Nothing influenced it. I sit down to write something and I have the prerogative to write whatever comes into my head. In Fury from the Deep, he goes up to this pipeline—and he puts on a doctor’s stethoscope and he listens to the pipeline and hears something in there. That’s when he gets out what the script says is: “Some device of mine. Neat isn’t it?” He takes this thing out—it was nothing more than a battery light—and he opens the valve with it. That seemed to be to be better than just getting a screwdriver—and that would’ve taken time anyway.

I’ve never claimed to have designed it. That’s not my job. I spoke to the designer and said, “You know you designed what it looked like and everything.” He said, “But you invented it.”

Do you think it was the right choice for the sonic to be written out in the Peter Davison era?

I think it should’ve gone out even earlier than that. You see, recent years they’ve used it to solve problems — which is absurd. They use it like it’s a magic wand, a fairy’s wand or something, and that’s not what it is. That’s not at all what I had in mind. To provide a solution for a problem the Doctor is trying to solve is nonsense. They can have as many versions of it as they want, but the original concept was just a mere gag of sorts.

After it first appeared in Fury from the Deep, did you ever think the sonic screwdriver would come back in any way?

Well, the BBC actually did one of their old tricks, which I never knew about until recently. They copyrighted it after two or three years. I still have my original contract with the BBC. There is absolutely no mention of merchandise. It was too early; the early days of television. There was no mention of it at all. So they cashed in and copyrighted it. I think it was an unoriginal move to keep the sonic.

Many fans are critical of the sonic and its uses in New Who. Would you say you agree with them?

I’m not a great admirer of today’s Doctor Who. When I’ve ever given lectures across the country, I’ve always said, “You can have your CGI, but the thing that comes first is the story. If you don’t have the idea and the story, you don’t have a show. Why? Because everything springs from that. So what’s the story spring from? The writer.”

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I’ve seen good writers, and I’ve seen bad writers. I think some of the stories these past few years — quite frankly I just can’t understand them. I think some of them are so convoluted and they just can’t wait to get to the screwdriver or the special effects. CGI is fine, but if you overuse it; your mind gets pulverized.

How much of the revived series have you seen?

Not much, because I live in Spain, and it’s not always easy getting British television. I do watch British television, but sometimes you get interfered so I don’t watch it very much. I do think the latest Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi, is a good choice. But the trouble is if he’s not given the right material… There’s a lot of criticism in the UK at the moment about the scripts he’s having to cope with. I’m sorry about that because he’s a very fine actor, he really is. I hope he makes it, but they have to tighten their grip on the scripts. Otherwise, they’ll lose the show. The figures are not too good at the moment, and I hope that doesn’t kill the show.

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Do you know much about Matt Smith’s Doctor? If so, what did you think of him? How would you compare him with Patrick Troughton?

I didn’t think Matt Smith was a bad Doctor at all. What I liked about him is he said he based his performance on Patrick Troughton. Of course, I’m biased, but if I had to choose any of the recent Doctors I’d definitely choose Matt Smith, not David Tennant. I couldn’t bear David Tennant. I’m sorry David if you’re listening!

I did not like his Doctor. To me, he was just not Doctor Who. But Matt had an edge on it, and he had done his homework. There are definitely similarities between him and Patrick. What I liked about Patrick Troughton is that there was always the possibility of evil there. You never really knew everything about him. There was always a Jekyll and Hyde thing. I think Matt got that too to a certain degree. So I admire Matt Smith very much. Indeed.

Would you ever consider writing for the show today?

I wouldn’t, because I’m too old for it. The show needs fresh new young minds. I wrote for my generation, and new writers should write for this generation. Even though I stick to my own stuff, that doesn’t mean I can’t admire some of the stuff that’s written.

What do you think of smaller conventions, like Time Eddy?

I like the smaller conventions. The big ones are so difficult to get around and get used to. By the time you can find your way around and get used to everything, it’s the end of the weekend. I’ve always liked the smaller ones.

I’ll give you a little story. The smallest convention I went to was in Hong Kong. It was virtually just a small room. There were about 50 people there. A man who was about 60 or something suddenly got up and said: “Mr. Pemberton, are you Doctor Who?”, and I said, “No I’m not, but I do know him.” He said, “yes I want to talk to you about that. I want you to tell the Doctor how he can get rid of the Daleks.” I said, “Oh really, that’s very interesting what is it?”, and he said, “chop suey”. I asked him if he meant to feed it to the Daleks, and he said: “No, just put it in front of the television set.” And you don’t really get stories like that from bigger conventions. I think Comic-Con is too big. You get a chance to see everything here, at Time Eddy. I also like the level of interaction with the fans that goes on here. I’m really enjoying being here.

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Colin Baker is here, obviously. What do you think of his era and his Big Finish work?

Oh dear. Don’t tell him this.

I was never a fan of Colin’s Doctor Who. My love affair with Doctor Who really started to dwindle with Peter Davison. He’s an absolutely lovely man and a good actor. I have plenty of respect for Peter, but I didn’t care for him as Doctor Who. It changed the whole idea from a grandfather figure to a young man. Obviously, plenty of people will disagree with me, but I still think the Doctor should be an older man.

So, there’s one more thing I have to ask you. If you ever saw the TARDIS on the side of the road, where would you go?

I suppose I’d go and look at it, just to see what the Dickens it was doing there.

Thanks Victor for the wonderful answers! If you’d like to find out more about the great man, head over to his website. And thanks to the Time Eddy crew for putting on the convention!

  • TimeChaser

    A very nice interview. 🙂

    Despite the sonic being used too much as a “magic wand” in the recent past (particularly during Matt’s era), it was a good idea to bring it back in the new series. With a much shorter, typically single-episode format, the writers no longer have the luxury of locking the Doctor up for 30 minutes to an hour. He needs that get-out-of-jail-free card. I think with Capaldi they’ve dialed back on the magic wand idea somewhat.

    In the end though, the idea of the sonic screwdriver is still awesome. You’ve got a character that prefers to use his wits and knowledge to solve problems and fight the baddies. He never uses weapons, so what should he use? Of course he’d have some nifty alien multi-tool!

    • Josh

      I hadn’t thought of it that way, but you’re right. In a way, the Doctor needs the sonic as a “get-out-of-jail” free card. Very interesting thought.

      Thanks for your comment! 🙂