Tony Fyler salutes a man with Christmas in his heart.
Wilfred Mott is an example of what can happen in Doctor Who when the personality of an actor and an unfortunate circumstance collide to create something unique and heartwarming.
Bernard Cribbins, who played Wilf from the beginning, is of course, a national treasure for more reasons than an article on Wilf allows – comic actor, companion to Peter Cushing’s movie Doctor, lest we forget, immortal voice of the original and best TV Wombles, the list goes on. He took a Christmas cameo in the story that was generally overshadowed by a much bigger role from a much tinier actor (KylieMinogue) – the far-from-perfect Voyage of the Damned. A newspaper vendor in a mostly-abandoned London, he had a couple of scenes, no more, but he warmed up an episode that was otherwise heavy on death and symbolism, commercial greed and career sabotage, valiant suicide and unsaveable starlight. Right there, in the middle of it all, was cuddly, twinkly Bernard Cribbins, the gold coin in the overheavy pudding of that Christmas Special.
When Donna Noble was announced to be returning as a full-time companion, her mum and dad were scheduled to make a proper return too. But sadly, despite filming a number of sequences, Howard Attfield, the actor who played Donna’s father Geoffrey, was too ill to continue in the role, and passed away shortly afterwards. The need for a supportive older male in Donna’s life was still crucial to painting the character the way she’d been planned though, and so the avuncular newspaper-seller from Christmas was tied in as Donna’s grandfather and Wilfred Mott became a semi-regular.
Right from the start of his life as a regular, Wilf Mott was the embodiment of the spirit of adventure. For Donna, perpetually torn between the insecurities fed by her mother and the potential of the universe embodied by the Doctor, Wilf is the Jiminy Cricket to whom Donna can explain at least some of her dilemma. He’s the one person in her life who sees the good, the wonderful wanderer in her heart, and the real, brilliant potential of her as a person, underneath all the shouting and the attitude. Wilf is the person who gives Donna the confidence to do all the best things in her life, and he’s the one with the mind wide open to the cosmos, the one who infuses her with an appreciation of the wonder of the universe and the wonder of herself.
Understandably then, it’s Wilf, rather than Sylvia, who is her touchstone when Donna finds the Doctor again and goes travelling – it’s to see him, when offered all of time and space, that Donna chooses as her first trip as a full-time companion. And there, at the very end of Partners In Crime, is the essence of Wilf – when he sees his girl, his little sweetheart who’s been so lost, up in space and heading to adventures the like of which he can only dream of, there’s no sadness, no concern. Wilf whoops. He yells encouragement, he waves, he does a funny little old man dance of glee to think his granddaughter has found what she’s been waiting for.
Throughout Donna’s travels, it is Wilf she comes back to see, to tell him her stories of the universe, to share the reality of her adventures with the man who inspired her to go on them, and who, she knows, would go himself at the drop of a woolly hat. When the Sontarans poison the sky, Wilf does as he’s supposed to do – blocking up the windows and doors to keep his family safe. In the alternate timeline of Turn Left, Wilf is the best of the British spirit, sharing space, sharing stories, sharing fun to help the hard times along – and roaring with rage and indignation when he realises what’s going on, when other people are being rounded up and put into camps just because of who they are. He’s the embodiment of everything we love in our Doctors – compassion, fun, and towering indignation for wrongs done to helpless people.
When the Daleks steal the Earth, it’s Wilf who grounds Sylvia in the absurdist reality of transportation through space – ‘You can’t start denying it now, sweetheart!’ It’s also Wilf who takes proactive measures, however misguided, against the Daleks, shooting one in the eye with a paintball gun. The choice of weapon may be inadequate, but this is Private Wilfred Mott, defending the Earth with the heart of a lion, and the brain of an ordinary man. And when Donna is returned to him, unconscious and robbed of so much, Wilf is heartbroken. The adventures, but more importantly the expanded understanding of how good she can be, will be gone from his Donna when she wakes up, to leave her ordinary once again. Every viewer who had loved Donna’s time in the Tardis felt the removal of her memories like a kick in the heart. She had been so good, and now she would be only what her detractors had always said she was – shallow, and self-revolving and shouty. ‘Who d’you think you are?’ Sylvia has always snapped, stamping on Donna’s dreams. ‘Blah, blah, X-Factor,’ said Lance the turncoat fiancée, characterising Donna without a gram of greatness or depth in her personality. Wilf always knew better, and Donna’s travels with the Doctor have proved him right – she’s been the most important person in the universe, and she’s saved it. All her detractors will take another breath, will wake up in the morning, because of Donna Noble – and now she’ll never know it. It’s a heartbreaking going back into the dark, but the key is that Wilf, despite his heart breaking even more than ours, doesn’t rail against the Doctor, or blame him, or demand he leave them alone. No, Wilf is there for him, compassionate, the only friend the Doctor has in that moment who understands the magnitude of what he’s lost, and who cares what the Doctor will do next.
The next time we meet Wilf, time has passed. But far from moping about Donna, Wilf has picked himself up and gotten on with his life. He can’t sleep, his dreams haunted by a horrible face. He needs his Doctor, and – with the ingenuity it would be a cliché to say is a hallmark of his generation – he sets about finding him, initiating The Silver Cloak to find a man of the Doctor’s description. It’s typical Wilf, this operation – well-meaning, but on a tiny scale that should never, ever, work. But this time, in redemption for the paintball gun, it does. It’s no longer a rash act, but a thought-out plan, to get the Doctor to help with the bad dreams and maybe, just maybe, to give Donna back her better self. This time, the Doctor takes Wilf with him as he faces his greatest battle – the Master returned, Gallifrey standing, and the end of time itself. It’s a trip that sees Wilf dismissed with contempt by the Master as ‘your dad,’ and given validation when the Doctor admits he would be proud if Wilf really were his father. It’s a journey that sees Wilf defend the Doctor against missile strikes, and refuse absolutely to abandon him, even at the cost of his own life. It sees Wilf and the Doctor talk about life and death, bravery and cowardice and everything important. And ultimately, it sees Wilf perform an act of compassion so simple and thoughtless it’s utterly him. Trapped in a booth, about to be killed by a massive dose of radiation we see Wilf in his ultimate incarnation. When it becomes clear that the Doctor has the choice of whether to leave Wilf to die, or take his place, Wilf humbles himself, he cries, he begs – but not for his own life. ‘Please!’ he yells, the desperation cracking his voice. ‘Please, leave me. I’m an old man, I’ve had my time. You’re the most wonderful man, and I don’t want you to die!’
‘Wilfred,’ says the Doctor, making his choice, ‘it would be my honour.’
To be a companion to the Doctor, you have to be special. You have to be brave, and loyal, and willing to make a stand against the evils of the universe. It’s often not the power of your intellect that impresses the Doctor, but your emotional warmth, your intuition for what’s right, and your courage in the face of tyranny. Show him those things, and the Doctor will die for you if you need him to. He will think it’s an honour, because often, it’s those emotional notes that he most needs to keep him sane, and safe, and stop him becoming the Time Lord Victorious. On those criteria, Wilfred Mott, the man who loved Christmas, who came into our lives on a Christmas Day and left it on a New Year’s Day, was one of the best and truest companions the Doctor has ever had.
Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly
nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who,
Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the
70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By
runs an editing house, largely as an
excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book.
With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at FylerWrites.co.uk