By Owen Quinn author of the Time Warriors and Zombie Blues
We’re back, looking at the vast history of characters both major and minor who populate the world of Doctor Who… this week, the great Bernard Cribbins as Wilfred.
Who would have thought that a simple news vendor alone on the streets of a deserted London on Christmas Day would become the most important figure in the tenth Doctor’s life?
Played by the superb Bernard Cribbins, Wilf was brought in as Donna Noble’s grandfather when the actor playing her father passed away from cancer. Bernard had previously played the Doctor’s policeman companion Tom Campbell alongside Peter Cushing in the movie version of the Dalek Invasion of Earth 2150AD in 1966. Surprisingly he never appeared in the television series then but he was born to play Wilf.
The bond between him and Donna brought some of the most heart-warming and heart-breaking scenes ever in the show’s history. Wilf was a dedicated star gazer, always up on his allotment with his telescope. Secretly he wanted to travel among the stars and thought everything was the fault of aliens. But he never spoke of his meeting with the mysterious Doctor. He missed Donna’s wedding due to Spanish flu so neither he nor Donna knew about each other’s meeting the Time Lord. Despite seeing his granddaughter fly off in the blue police box, he never made the connection until the Sontaran Stratagem when the Doctor arrived at his house with Donna to see what exactly the Atmos device was. He always worried about Donna and where she was and what danger she was in. So when he saw her walking up the street while putting out the rubbish it nearly broke both their hearts. Donna’s because she had just witnessed the deaths of thousands in Pompeii and Wilf because he was just delighted to see his granddaughter safe and well. For me though there was always a touch of jealousy that Wilf wasn’t in the Tardis experiencing all these amazing things for himself. Like many grandparents he was living his dreams through his granddaughter.
Wilf almost died from gas poisoning when the Sontarans launched their Atmos weapons, saved only by his daughter Sylvia smashing the windscreen with an axe. He was always the go between between his daughter and granddaughter but always came down on Donna’s side. But the story Turn Left took the entire Noble family centre stage when history changes as Donna never meets the Doctor when he is killed during their first meeting battling the Racnoss under the Thames. As history unravels and the world falls apart beneath all the threats the Doctor saved us from like the Adipose, Wilf is still there with his telescope. He is the first to see the stars going out which we later discover is due to Davros’ reality bomb. He is devastated to see England introduce labour camps for anyone not born in Britain, the one thing he fought against during the war.
Ever the old soldier, Wilf takes to the streets when the Daleks shift Earth across space in the Stolen Earth. Armed with a paint gun, he manages to blind a Dalek but is horrified when it clears its eye stalk. He and Sylvia are saved by Rose who blows the Dalek apart. Rose has come to find him as he is her only link to finding Donna. When Harriet Jones reunites the Doctor’s old companions through their computer terminals via the Copper network, Wilf reveals he isn’t allowed a webcam and Sylvia reveals he didn’t vote for Jones in the election despite Wilf’s claims to the former.
Donna’s secret is revealed at that moment to her horrified mother but Wilf leaps to her defence. When the Doctor returns Donna minus her memories of her travels, Wilf salutes the Time Lord. He trusts the Doctor completely and knows he did what he had to to save his granddaughter.
But in the tenth Doctor’s final hours Wilf is the keystone upon which everything lies. He is drawn to a church where the Tardis is inscribed in a stained glass window and a mysterious woman appears to him to tell him of the Doctor and his fate. Wilf mobilises the local pensioner network and finds the Time Lord via someone peeking from behind net curtains. The human race is suffering bad dreams showing the Master. Somehow Donna is acting on a subconscious level as she gives him a book of one Joshua Naismith who has kidnapped the Master to fix a piece of alien tech. The mysterious woman once again visits him appearing during the Queen’s speech to tell him he must take arms. Pocketing his old revolver, Wilf sees the Doctor and shows him the book. Wilf takes his last chance to travel in the Tardis.
Bernard Cribbins could bring a tear to a stone and in his one to ones with the Doctor, he begs him to take his revolver and kill the Master before the prophecy of his death comes to pass. Wilf sees the universe in ways others can’t and trapped aboard the Vinvochi ship above Earth, he gives a beautiful speech about his wife being buried down there and how even she isn’t safe from the alien threats that come to pass. He breaks down calling the Doctor the most wonderful man and telling him he must be saved. He feels the Doctor must see humans as insects but the Doctor stuns him by saying he sees them as giants and he would be proud to have Wilf as his dad.
In the final battle, Wilf gets his Star Wars moment and fights in an air battle akin to Luke and Han’s TIE fighter escape from the Death Star. But it is in the face off between the Time Lords, Doctor and Master, that Wilf finds the real reason he has been brought to the Doctor’s side.
The Doctor has been told ‘he will knock four times’ before he dies and he thinks it is the Master that will do the knocking but, surprised to find himself still alive, the Doctor’s face falls when he hears Wilf knock the door of the radiation chamber he is trapped in four times.
The system is on overload and will flood the chamber with lethal radiation within minutes, killing Wilf instantly. David Tennant gives a stunning performance as he rants against the injustice of it all. Wilf says to let him die as he has had his life and the Doctor agrees, making us hate him in that moment because we love Wilf so much. But with a final tear, the Doctor looks Wilf in the eye and tells him it would be his honour to take Wilf’s place.
Despite all his love and respect for the Doctor, Wilf has caused his death but it is not over yet. On Donna’s wedding day, Wilf meets the Time Lord one last time. They both know it is this but the Doctor has a gift for Donna. He gives Wilf a lottery ticket bought with a pound he borrowed from her late father, Geoff, in the past. With a final salute, Wilf breaks down as the Tardis dematerialises from his life for the last time.
For me Wilf embodies the beauty of modern day Doctor Who. He is an old man who thinks his life is over but discovers life is still full of possibilities no matter what age you are. His faith, passion and love of his granddaughter make him real and a superb addition to any series of Doctor Who.