Bernard Cribbins helped remind the world that Doctor Who should always be about kindness

Bernard Cribbins helped remind the world that Doctor Who should always be about kindness

For most Americans, myself included, Bernard Cribbins—a British actor and singer with more than 70 years of experience on stage and screen who died this week at the age of 93—will be best remembered as Wilfred Mott. As Wilfred, Cribbins was a regular supporting character in the then-recently rebooted fourth season Doctor Who (which just wrapped up its 13th season in 2021), just as the longtime British import was finally making its mark on this side of the pond.

That was a pretty remarkable thing in its own right—even a reboot Doctor Who was a little weird and silly for mid-00s American broadcasts, operating with a different sensibility and rhythm than American sci-fi. However, characters like Wilfred Mott were quick to explain why there was nothing quite like it, and it was immediately clear why the show has lasted nearly 60 years.

For the uninitiated, Doctor Who is a time travel show where a humanoid alien named the Doctor travels through time and has adventures with friends called Companions using a time machine shaped like a 1950s police phone box that is much larger on the inside. A central feature of the show is that the Doctor does not die, but instead “regenerates” into a new form so that a new actor can take over the role. (The 13th and newest Doctor is Jodie Whitaker, the first woman in the role. The next will be played by Ncuti Gatwa, the first black actor in the role.)

Photo: Ben Blackall/BBC America/BBC Studios

In Season 4, the Doctor was played by popular actor David Tennant, who ended his tenure as the Tenth Doctor in a series of special episodes shortly after the season. This season, the Doctor was accompanied by Donna Noble (Catherine Tate), a bold and stubborn Londoner who often kept the Doctor on his toes and at a loss for words. Cribbins played her grandfather, Wilfred Mott, a kind and eccentric old man who slowly becomes entangled in his daughter’s adventures with a slightly insane man with a strange time machine.

Eventually, Wilfred would accompany the Tenth Doctor on his final journey in the special two-parter “The End of Timewhich fans knew in advance would end the Tennant era and welcome Matt Smith (now known for Morbius and House of the Dragon) as the Eleventh Doctor. And Wilfred is unfortunately the cause of the Tenth Doctor’s demise – trapped in a radiation-cleaning machine that he can only leave when someone takes his place, an ironic ending after a two-part epic where the Doctor defeated his greatest enemy.

As Wilfred, Cribbins was a deceptively sweet, bumbling creature who was always able to tap into surprising depths of character at a moment’s notice. More than once, Wilfred’s World War II veteran story has caused him to stand up with a backbone no one knew he had. As one of the older members of the series, Cribbins was a contrast to the character, who was often played as a very old man in a young man’s body. While the Doctor was always in danger of becoming bitter due to his age, Wilfred had seen a lot and still remained steadfast in his kindness.

The Tenth Doctor’s final moments memorably depend on it. “Look at you, it’s not even remotely important,” the Doctor seethes in denial about what he must do to save Wilfred’s life when he, an immortal time traveler, “can do so a lot.” Including surviving the radiation that kills Wilfred—he just won’t be the same person anymore. He’ll be someone else and he doesn’t want to go.

It’s a great Garden of Gethsemane moment in a usually pretty light show, a heart-pounding exchange between two terribly empathetic actors. Cribbins becomes small, aware of his insignificance in the universe, and believes that the alien in front of him is more important. But then the Doctor’s speech takes a turn: After raging against the cruelty of fate and his own selfishness, he finds himself once again telling Wilfred that he would happily take his place, that “I would be honored.”

Doctor Who is a famous show that hates violence. It’s a show about people who go to the brink of violent conflict and find some way, any way, to save everyone with wit, intelligence, and love. Compassion in such a moment – and more importantly, the fact that it is not always the case easy to do — is one of the things Doctor Who often did better than many other shows with many times the budget. Because he made characters like Wilfred Mott matter, thanks to the talents of actors like Bernard Cribbins. And that’s sometimes all an actor needs to do to be great: remind people that they still matter.

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