Bernard Cribbins was instrumental in reminding the world that Doctor Who should always be about kindness
The beloved British actor has a long career that includes one of Doctor Who's most famous storylines.
Most Americans, including me, will know Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred Mott, the British actor and singer with over 70 years of stage and movie experience who died last week at the age of 93. Cribbins appeared as Wilfred in the fourth season of the freshly revived Doctor Who (which just finished its 13th season in 2021), at a time when the long-running British import was finally finding a genuine footing on our side of the pond.
This was rather surprising in of of itself – even the rebooted Doctor Who was a little strange and corny for mid-’00s American airways, functioning with different sensibilities and rhythms than American science fiction. But characters like Wilfred Mott quickly established why there was nothing else like it, making it evident why the program has lasted over 60 years.
For the uninformed, Doctor Who is a time travel program in which a humanoid extraterrestrial named The Doctor travels across time with the use of a time machine shaped like a 1950s police call box that is considerably larger on the inside. The show’s core idea is that the Doctor does not die, but rather “regenerates” into a new form, allowing a fresh actor to take on the role. (Jodie Whitaker, the 13th and most recent Doctor, is the first woman in the role.) Ncuti Gatwa, the first Black actor in the role, will portray the next.)
The Doctor was played by fan favorite actor David Tennant in season 4, and he will complete his career as the Tenth Doctor shortly after the season in a series of special episodes. This season, The Doctor was joined by Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), a brassy and opinionated Londoner who frequently kept the Doctor on his toes and at a loss for words. Cribbins portrayed her grandfather, Wilfred Mott, a friendly and quirky old guy who gradually became engrossed in his daughter’s experiences with the slightly insane man with the weird time machine.
Eventually, Wilfred would join the Tenth Doctor on his final adventure in the special two-parter “The End of Time,” which fans knew would usher in the Eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith (now renowned for Morbius and House of the Dragon). And, unhappily, Wilfred is the reason for the Tenth Doctor’s demise, stuck in a machine that purges radiation that he can only leave if someone takes his place, an ironic ending to a two-part epic in which the Doctor defeated his greatest nemesis.
Cribbins was a surprisingly pleasant, bumbling presence as Wilfred, capable of plunging into unexpected depths of character at a moment’s notice. Wilfred’s background as a World War II soldier caused him to rise up with a backbone no one imagined he possessed on a few occasions. Cribbins, as one of the show’s elder cast members, stood in stark contrast to a character who was usually depicted as a very old guy in a young man’s body. While The Doctor was constantly in risk of turning sour due to his age, Wilfred had seen a lot and remained steadfast in his benevolence.
This is what makes the Tenth Doctor’s final moments memorable. “Look at you, you’re not remotely significant,” the Doctor sneers, in denial about what he has to do to preserve Wilfred’s life when, as an immortal time traveler, he “can accomplish so much.” Even if Wilfred survives the radiation that would kill him, he will not be the same guy. He’ll be someone else, and he’s not looking forward to it.
It’s a terrific Garden of Gethsemane scene in an otherwise lighthearted show, a painful interaction between two tremendously sensitive performers emoting their hearts out. Cribbins shrinks himself, mindful of his insignificance in the universe and feeling that the extraterrestrial in front of him is more significant. But then the Doctor’s lecture takes an unexpected turn: After ranting about fate’s brutality and his own selfishness, he finds himself and tells Wilfred that “it would be my honor” to take his place.
Doctor Who is well-known for its aversion to violence. It’s a show about individuals coming to the brink of a violent fight and using their humor, knowledge, and love to save everyone. Compassion in a situation like this — and, more significantly, the reality that it is not always simple to do — is something Doctor Who has done far better than many other series with far more budgets. Because it required time and effort to make characters like Wilfred Mott meaningful, thanks to the abilities of performers like Bernard Cribbins. And sometimes all an actor needs to do to be great is remind people that they still count.