Medicus Ex Machina: Is the sonic screwdriver in Doctor Who a deus ex machina?

Let's hope they don't slash the special effects budget too much.

Let’s hope they don’t slash the special effects budget too much.

I like Doctor Who. “I am getting a bit fed up of the sonic screwdriver being used as a deus ex machina.” Is what I said in a brief fit of being wrong after watching a recent episode. I wasn’t wrong about me being fed up. I am capable of identifying my emotional state at least 20% of the time. I was wrong about the use of one of fiction’s most popular Time Lord’s favourite sonic tools. Yet that the sonic screwdriver gets used as a deus ex machina is one of the most common arguments involving the noise-based lock pick. So much so in fact that you might think that the people using the phrase think that the small amount of incorrectly used Latin will act as a deus ex machina in their argument and automatically solve any logical problems their point has. Quod erat demonstrandum.  However it is true that this literary device can be seen as lazy writing, leaving audiences unsatisfied. So what is a deus ex machina, is The Doctor’s sonic screwdriver a good example of one and if it is; why is the use of a deus ex machina problematic?

Doctor Who is a British science fiction programme produced by the BBC about an alien known as The Doctor who can travel through time and space.  It’s been going a little while and a couple of people watch it. The sonic screwdriver, first introduced to the programme in 1968, is a tool commonly used by The Doctor. It is multi-functional, with the most common use being as a lock pick (unless the lock is wooden or a deadlock seal because of rules). To this date the sonic screwdriver has been used to heal injuries, modify phones, scan and identify objects , probe another’s physiology, fix barbed wire, redirect the teleportation of the mayor of Cardiff, cut or burn substances, remotely control a time machine, summon a flying shark and generally put devices made by Apple to shame. This list is by no means exhaustive. Chances are if The Doctor comes across a problem, he’ll reach for his sonic screwdriver. Screwdrivers are cool.

Despite being so obviously useful (or because it was so obviously useful) the sonic screwdriver was briefly written out of the series in 1982. This was done on the instructions of the show producer John Nathan-Turner, arguing that such a device, which could help the main character out of almost any situation, was limiting to the script. It would become boring to the viewers if in response to any obstacle, the solution was always to produce this magic wand. Conversely if the screwdriver wasn’t used in response to a problem, pedantic viewers may be justified in asking why The Doctor didn’t just use one of the many known functions of this handyman’s dream tool. Luckily pedantic science-fiction fans are rare. Rare in the whole of the known universe that is. It is this omni-usefulness that has led to fans of the show to complain that the screwdriver is used as a deus ex machina.

A deus ex machina, literally a “god from the machine”, is a plot device whereby an apparently unsolvable problem is suddenly or abruptly solved, with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object. The potential original use of the phrase is from Horace’s Ars Poetica. Horace argued poets should never resort to a god from the machine to solve their plots. This more literally referred  to a crane or device used by actors playing gods in Greek tragedies being lowered onto or lifted up through the stage through a trap door.

There are a number of requirements for a plot development to be categorised as a deus ex machina:

1.)    Deus ex machina are solutions. They shouldn’t make things worse. They can’t be twists that only change the understanding of a story.

2.)    The plot device must be sudden or unexpected. If the relevant item is featured or referenced earlier in the story, they will not change the course of the story at that point or even appear to be a likely solution to the problem they  eventually are a solution to.

3.)    The problem the deus ex machina solves must be otherwise unsolvable. If the problem could be solved with common sense or another simple intervention, the solution is not a deus ex machina no matter how unexpected it seems. It’s just a bit fancy and unnecessary.

Popular examples of deus ex machina in literature and film include the random rescue of hobbits by giant eagles in The Lord of the Rings and the sudden arrival of King Richard in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves to shuddenly sholve all the heroe’sh problemsh.

A deus ex machina is usually criticised as undesirable in writing and often used to imply lack of imagination in the writer. Reasons given are that it acts as a sudden disregard for a story’s logic and can challenge the suspension of disbelief required for an audience to remain emotionally involved in a narrative. Elephants on unicycles. It is usually argued it is better for characters to have agency within a story. Characters should be responsible for events with identified skill-sets leading to a more likely and perhaps more palatable story conclusion. In turn this leads to possible acceptable uses of the deus ex machina as a device.  The powerlessness of the characters in a large and mysterious universe may want to be highlighted. Or the use of a deus ex machina might be funny or used to make some other point. This point may or may not exist until after the use of a deus ex machina has been pointed out the writer.

Sonicscrewdriver2010Perhaps surprisingly there has been little research investigating why deus ex machina are
experienced as unacceptable. I could not find any apparent examples when searching PubMed, PsycINFO (search engines for a certain type of scientific research paper) or Google Scholar and nothing turned up at the last minute to unexpectedly deliver any to me. Experiments with babies show they pay more attention to unexpected events inconsistent with their rudimentary understanding of the world. For example if they are shown a doll, a screen covers that doll and they see another doll place behind that screen, they look for longer at the rigged experimental outcome of there being only one doll when the screen is lowered than when there are two. Similarly babies are shown to look longer at a ball which appears to roll on its own than a ball that is rolled by a person. Neither of these really tells us anything about the use of deus ex machina in literature and in fact could be twisted out of recognition to support some theory that says people prefer unexpected events or solutions. Sadly these shoehorned studies do not suddenly save us in exploring why deus ex machina are generally unsatisfying in stories.

Deus ex machina are definitely undesirable in science. Scientists devise hypotheses, deduce implications for observations from them, and test those implications. Any explanation that invokes some mysterious, unexpected solution to a problem without reference to the internal logic i.e. established scientific laws of the universe, is not a scientific theory at all. Even Bayesian statistics or “inverse probabilities” which start with a prior distribution and makes assumptions about probability can be used to check scientific models.  Implications of assumptions of the model are compared to the empirical evidence.  If the model makes wild claims from unlikely data that doesn’t fit the existing “good” evidence then it is likely not an accurate model. I’m talking to you Andrew Wakefield. Wakefield being another person in this post that’s not a real doctor.

None of this however answers our original (and likely now nearly forgotten) question as to whether the sonic screwdriver is a deus ex machina. As hinted I would now argue that it isn’t.  It certainly would fit our second criteria in acting as a solution or a quick fix. Also the third criteria in that the problems may be unsolvable without the screwdriver . However it is certainly not unexpected. As Andrew Ellard, script editor on such popular television programmes as The IT Crowd and Red Dwarf has argued, The Doctor as a Time Lord is an alien with extremely advanced technology. Sufficiently advanced in fact to often appear as magic. The sonic screwdriver is an example of this. The fact that it has a lot of functions appearing for the first time in certain episodes is also in keeping with this.  You don’t use all the applications of your smartphone all the time. An episode where The Doctor lists every function of the sonic screwdriver, set in stone for the rest of the series’ lifetime would not be interesting. Unless the idea of a Time Lord-inspired Top Gear-style, “Top Screwdrivers” appeals to you.

The sonic screwdriver is used to solve realistic (locked doors, wounds and flying sharks) but dull problems. We don’t want our hero to spend an episode staring at a locked door, fiddling with his scarf. We want him to use his established technology to move through the story to the more interesting problems. The sonic screwdriver allows this. It is not a deus ex machina and if used responsibly and not too frequently it is not a problem. Also Doctor Who is a thoroughly enjoyable series and even if the sonic screw driver were an occasional deus ex machina I’m not sure it would make it any less fun. Even if you are a surprised baby.

20 thoughts on “Medicus Ex Machina: Is the sonic screwdriver in Doctor Who a deus ex machina?

  1. Addendum: It has been pointed out to me that LOTR & Prince of Thieves are bad examples of DEM as the eagles & Richard both arrive AFTER until the day is won and so represent plot tidy-up rather than resolution. Thanks again to Andrew Ellard (see post).

  2. Surprisingly in-depth post (nerd!). I think the only true use of DEM in Who was in Journey’s End when Catherine Tate saved the universe from destruction by developing Time-Lordiness and typing the Daleks into oblivion (“because she’s a temp … get it?” Yes, Russell. Well done) and then having it taken away in a “shall we have a bit of tragedy?” moment.

    I think the modern approach to mentioning one’s DEM an episode or three beforehand so it’s not technically a DEM is an obvious cheat and the audience know we’re being talked down to.

    So, yeah. I’m equally if not more nerdy. And I could talk about Bad Wolf being the subversion of DEM for days. More Who tonight!

    • Yeah, Dr Who often does a lot of foreshadowing e.g. Bad Wolf, so you could argue that it’s a use of Chechov’s Gun and that they don’t really meet the “out of nowhere” criteria. War of the Worlds may be an example with the sudden death by infection or is that a continuation of the theme? I don’t think any of that is going to stop people noticing the DEM though, especially in sci-fi where you could argue the fan-base is primed to notice that sort of thing. My brain hurts.

  3. Plus for more examples … the whole ending of Blazing Saddles? Most apocalyptic anime (which, if they were books, their prologues and epilogues would just be the word “Boom”).

  4. I was given a fun hypothetical deus ex machina the other day which I think works well.

    Imagine that the whole of the Dark Knight Rises plays out exactly as we’ve seen it, but in the climactic nuclear bomb scene Superman shows up to throw it into the sun.

    • It might defeat the object of the auto-pilot patch, the revelation of being Batman as temporary and serving a wider purpose than just rounding up criminals but it would certainly make me laugh. I can see the audience’s faces now.

  5. A short version of much of this would say:

    Since the Doctor – or one of his companions, at his behest – is wielding the sonic-screwdriver, its use cannot possibly amount to a deus ex machina, since these facts state that he is, directly or indirectly, in control of it, and therefore whatever effect it achieves was foreseen, nay sought.

    By contrast, when the TARDIS (I forget when) materialized when there was no way out from death by oncoming foe, poison gas, flood or tempest, it arrived unbidden. The grateful companions and the Doctor piled into it, and, from that standpoint, wrought defeat on the ultimate foe and / or, , as the case might be, those who perpetrated the poison gas, flood or tempest.

    Some plucky companion, not twigging that the Doctor resorts to bogus expanations – as many a parent does to a child – to seem authoritative and in control, asked why the TARDIS had turned up. I forget what the Doctor claimed, but something to do with a circuit that summoned it in certain situations…

    • Again I’m not sure that I said any of this but if it reads like I did then I can only apologise for a lack of clarity in my expression. Having said that I’m not sure I can explain why it’s not a DEM much clearer so we’ll just have to agree to disagree and I’ll have a think about greater clarity in writing. The situation you describe (and again I’m sorry but I don’t know which events they refer to) most likely would be a DEM and these have certainly occurred throughout the history of the show. It’s been going a long time after all. In conclusion I still don’t think the screwdriver is generally used as a DEM but that DEM have definitely occurred in Doctor Who.

      • Horace lived more than 200 years after Aristotle wrote his Poetics. In turn, Aristotle’s work was already 150 years after Euripides died, let alone the time of Aeschylus.

        Horace may have coined the term (after all, a Latin, not a Greek phrase) deus ex machine, but at a time highly divorced from when the device had first been used in the theatre.

        In my view, if one really wants to understand what Horace was talking about, and how, if at all it might have influenced Seneca (as a writer of tragedies), or Plautus (as a later writer of comedies), one cannot simply dive in view an account of what Horace might have said that does not comprehend why he said it.

  6. Pingback: Deus Ex Screwdriver — Cold War and the Sonic Screwdriver → | Geekdom Nation

  7. When they’re done well and are truly inventive and unexpected they can be good but they are usually, like you say, Chekov’s Gun. Time Bandits and The Holy Grail are kind of knowing, post-modern examples.

  8. I would argue that the Sonic Screwdriver does often fulfill the second requirement, that of unexpectedness, in many scenarios. The argument that it may contain lots of hidden functions doesn’t hold water when you ask one simple question: why didn’t he use that feature before?
    In ‘The Rings of Akhaten’ he uses the screwdriver to emanate a force field to hold back the Vigil, in ‘The Lazarus Experiment’ the screwdriver sends out an energy pulse almost like a ranged weapon, in ‘The Empty Child’ it suddenly develops the ability to be a medical scanner and diagnostic tool, even though it has no display (a function that has been used many times since, and I’m still waiting to see where its display is) and in ‘The Runaway Bride’ it developed the ability to hack computers (how does it know what to hack? Is it telepathic too?).
    In all these in instances, if you ask, ‘why hasn’t he used that function before?’ you’re left with no answer, because surely he would have used them before. So it’s the implausibility of the function that makes it ‘unexpected’. One could argue that those functions are recently developed ones, or that he’d only recently remembered that it can do those things, but even if that’s the case, unless such an explanation is explicitly stated in the story, then the use of the function is unprecedented, therefore it’s a deus ex machina.

    • I can see what you’re saying and of course one of the problems with the sonic screwdriver is that once you establish it has a function then from a storytelling perspective that function becomes available for future use. Indeed as you say in certain instances you can then argue, “why hasn’t that function been used before?” or “well it can be just used next time?”. I don’t think there’s a problem with the screwdriver being slightly telepathic as often it just gets pointed and “knows” what to do. I’m not sure it becomes a deus ex machina as a result of this though unless it gets used to unexpectedly solve the established major problem of the story itself. This is obviously open to change and variation with episode though.

      • Ah, but now you’re bringing in a fourth requirement, that is to “solve the established major problem of the story itself.” I don’t wholly disagree with the need for an additional requirement, because I think the screwdriver fulfills the other three in many scenarios, but they are minor scenarios, plot-wise. Although, I would suggest that the fourth requirement isn’t necessarily the ‘major problem of the story’, but instead a major problem, that is present towards the end of the story and which usually threatens the main protagonists.
        In which case, the use of the Screwdriver at the end of “Cold War” would fit that requirement too.

      • Oh definitely. It’s very variable. Mostly though I’d say it gets used to move the story along where stopping to solve that problem would slow it down.

  9. I can hear Greek poets telling Horace that they merely use DEM to “move the story along where stopping to solve that problem would slow it down”. I think the point is that a decent writer can move the plot along without resorting to DEM. How about changing the problem so it can be solved without inventing some new power of the sonic screwdriver?

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