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Looking back over nearly 50 years of Doctor Who, and all of the various ways in which companions enter and leave the Doctor’s life, it seems odd, given that successive Doctors have been broadly trending younger in physical age, that it took as long as it did before he sought the company of a (physically) older friend. Or at least it does until you think about his reasons for accepting people aboard the TARDIS in the first place.
Granted, he’s not far off his 1,000th birthday, so as far as he’s concerned, everyone is young (with the exception of The Face of Boe), and he has that impish, child-like spirit, which has seen him poke fun at all manner of authority figures from his first known incarnation right up to the present day. So you have to assume that the reason he seeks out human company – young human company – is to see his experience through their widened eyes, and wonder anew. It’s part reality check, part vanity.
Should he choose to surround himself with companions who would really rather find a comfy armchair than explore a new planet, that would surely serve to remind him of the uncomfortable truths of his existence: that everyone he is fond of will wither and die before he does, that he’s alone, and that you cannot run from mortality, even if you are a Time Lord.
The savage irony for the Tenth Doctor is that Wilfred Mott (played by Bernard Cribbins), grandfather of Donna Noble and starstruck fan of the Doctor and all of his works, is not only the exception to the rule, but the fate-sealing proof of it too.
We first encounter Wilfred as a newspaper seller in an abandoned London in Voyage of the Damned. His role was intended originally to be just a one-off, but when the actor playing Donna’s father became ill, steps were taken to re-introduce Wilf as her grandfather. Necessity being the mother of invention, this excitable, star-gazing allotment-dweller soon became a firm favorite.
Here’s just a brief clue as to why:
Now, as indulgent granddads tend to, Wilfred dotes on Donna, and is intensely proud of her achievements aboard the TARDIS. And he’s such a firm fan of the Doctor’s that when Donna can no longer travel with him, when he brings her home with her memory wiped, it’s on his face we can see the horror of what has happened:
So when the Doctor realizes that all the predictions of his demise are true, it’s no accident that he chooses to confide in a man who is also within spitting distance of his final resting place, a man who understands what it is like to have your glory days behind you, and most of all, a man who refuses to go down without a fight.
But in the end it’s Wilfred himself that brings about the Tenth Doctor’s demise. He accidentally gets himself trapped in a radiation chamber, at the end of The End Of Time, requiring the Doctor to take his place, and absorb fatal amounts of radiation. The prediction which claimed the Doctor’s end will come after “he shall knock four times” proving to be bang on the money.
But that’s not Wilfred’s fault, that’s just how the story played out. That’s what humans are always doing to the Doctor, getting captured and requiring his help. What he gets back is a sense of purpose, a perspective on who he is, and even though he has to sacrifice this iteration of himself in order to save an older man (you know what I mean), it’s a sacrifice he has to make, or risk becoming a monster.
And that’s why his final abuse of time-traveler’s privileges, to give the Noble/Mott family a new life, is important. A last little bending of the rules, to show appreciation for everything they’ve done for him.
*SALUTES WILFRED RIGHT BACK*
FOOTNOTE: Wilfred wasn’t the first character Bernard Cribbins played within the Whoniverse. He appears in Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. the second of the two Doctor Who movies made in the mid-’60s. The story is loosely based on the TV adventure The Dalek Invasion Of Earth, but instead of Ian and Barbara, there’s special constable Tom Campbell (played by Bernard) and the Doctor’s niece Louise, and his young granddaughter Susan.
Here’s the trailer. If you can get through “2150: the year when human beings are turned into living dead men” without giggling, you’re a better person than I:
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic