'Doctor Who,' James Bond, and the future of pop culture
Entertainment Geekly is a weekly column that examines contemporary pop culture through a geek lens and simultaneously examines contemporary geek culture through a pop lens. So many lenses!
James Bond and the Doctor don’t have very much in common. Bond is a violent British superspy. The Doctor is a pacifist alien traveler. Bond jets around to exotic locations and uses expensive gadgets; the Doctor spends a curious amount of time in Wales and uses semi-abstract technology that makes funny noises. Weirdly, if the two characters ever met, they would probably be enemies. Bond is the kind of guns-blazing loose cannon the Doctor hates; in turn, the Doctor is practically a Bond villain, a stateless entity with a sci-fi lair that houses several weapons of mass destruction.
Bond is a hedonist with rampant sex drive, a figure of pure id. The Doctor is a vaguely ascetic intellectual, a figure of pure superego. Except when he’s not, which brings up a more important difference: Whereas the Platonic Ideal of James Bond was chiseled in granite from the word go, the Doctor is less a character than a series of variables. James Bond has always kind of looked the same; the Doctor can look like a scary philosopher hobo or the internet’s dream of combining every member of a British boy band into one perfect human. Both characters are essentially immortal, although in different ways. The Doctor frequently mentions his age, although he could be lying, or just forgetful. James Bond is always a man just old enough to have the athletic prowess of a peak Olympian and the refined taste of a retiree millionaire.
But the two characters have a few important things in common. They both feature a lead character who has been played by several different actors. (All of those actors have been white dudes with accents; there is a rather lovely alternate reality where Idris Elba played both roles.) They both tend to travel with pretty young women, although The Doctor’s relationship with those women is more complicated. (Actually, most of the Companions are variations on Moneypenny.)
More importantly, they both just celebrated landmark anniversaries. Last year’s Skyfall celebrated fifty years of the James Bond film series. Likewise, last week’s Day of the Doctor special took place fifty years to the day of Doctor Who‘s BBC debut. (2013 also marked the diamond jubilee for James Bond as a character: Ian Fleming published Casino Royale in April 1953.) Fifty years is a long time for anything to exist in pop culture, which makes it even more impressive that — by some metrics — the Bond and Who franchises have never been more popular. Skyfall grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. Who was more modest, but still impressive: Simulcast in 94 countries, it broke records for BBC America and was watched by around one in five British people.
Even more impressive than all that commercial success: Skyfall and Day of the Doctor were both really, really good. Daniel Craig’s third James Bond film earned rave reviews and serious talk of an Oscar nomination for Javier Bardem. The film also achieved the unique high-wire act of honoring the franchise’s past while pushing it in strange new directions. There was fan service (the Aston Martin, the Bond theme, the epilogue revelation that two very new characters were actually echo-remakes of two very old characters) but there was also a visit to Bond’s childhood home, and the first meaningful lead-character death in a Bond movie since On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Day of the Doctor was, if anything, a more impressive high-wire act. Here, in layman’s terms, is what the 50th Anniversary edition of Doctor Who had to accomplish:
1. Tell a story featuring the current Doctor, Matt Smith.
2. Reintroduce the previous Doctor, David Tennant, one of the most popular actors ever in the role. (In Bond terms, imagine if Daniel Craig had to share most of his screen time with Roger Moore circa The Spy Who Loved Me.)
3. Introduce an entirely new Doctor, played by British acting legend John Hurt, who was simultaneously older and younger than the other Doctors. (In Bond Terms, imagine if Daniel Craig and Young Roger Moore had to share most of their screen time with a different James Bond played by Patrick Stewart.)
4. Tell a story that circles back around to a heretofore-unexpored corner of Doctor Who lore.
5. Honor the franchise’s past while also basically dismantling the franchise’s past.
6. Set a new course for the franchise’s future in a manner that suggests this has always been the plan, that Doctor Who is a story with a purpose and not the product of an insane amount of wildly creative minds working separately, sometimes at cross-purposes, over the course of half a century.
You could contrast the current state of the Bond and Doctor Who franchises in all kinds of ways. Bond has spent most of its fifty-year history defining the mainstream of movie culture, while Who is essentially the definition of a cult phenomenon. If you’re feeling especially cynical, you could discuss how the Bond franchise demonstrates that the requirement for mass success leads to creative stagnation, or leads a distinctive franchise to turn into a one-size-fits-all vanilla-flavored version of itself. (There are people who wonder why these new Bonds all feel like Jason Bourne rip-offs.) Or you could argue in the opposite direction that Doctor Who demonstrates the long-term stagnation of the cult phenomenon, descending into endless references to the franchise’s past. From this perspective, Day of the Doctor was less a story than a fan-wiki brought to life. Is Doctor Who about anything besides Doctor Who now?
(Aside: Cards on the table here. Skyfall is the only film I saw twice in theaters since 2010, and Day of the Doctor had me crying tears of joy. But I have made the above arguments about other franchises. Star Trek Into Darkness struck me as the vanilla-Bourne moment for one beloved sci-fi franchise, and Revenge of the Sith was the navel-gazing origin story for another. I can see how those arguments apply to James Bond and Doctor Who in theory. It helps that, in practice, the British franchises are just better right now. Skyfall had that dreamy cinematography. Doctor Who has the screwball dialogue. By comparison, Into Darkness had visual and narrative incoherence while Revenge of the Sith had the word “younglings.” END OF ASIDE.)
Certainly, the two franchises have different histories. In the ’90s, Who was banished to the devoted fringes, to licensed novels and audio plays — the kind of stuff that most people don’t care about but which a very few people really care about. At the same time, Bond was returning from its own time in the wilderness and entering a new decadent phase. The Pierce Brosnan 007 films became blockbuster events, at the forefront of multimedia. You could argue that the best Brosnan movie was a videogame. But could also point out that the Nintendo 64 Goldeneye game — which mixes together a new adventure with in-jokes and meticulously-recreated bits of franchise lore and originally would have featured multiple versions of the lead character — has an awful lot in common with Day of the Doctor. And Day of the Doctor ended with a meeting between Matt Smith and an older actor who played the Doctor many decades ago; an echo of that Albert Finney character in Skyfall, who was so clearly a Connery analogue.
And this is why the two franchises are really two sides of the same coin — and why, when we are struggling to understand how the pop culture of the last ten years invented the pop culture of the next century, we’ll see James Bond and the Doctor as two sides of the same coin. Both franchises had significant reboots in the mid-00s. In 2005, Doctor Who returned to the airwaves, darker and grittier and sexier and with cool new digital effects. In 2006, Casino Royale introduced Craig’s Bond, darker and grittier and man-candier and with an express stated purpose to feature less digital effects/invisible cars. The timing for both was auspicious. Television was entering the era when the internet would cultivate a new brand of hyper-engaged fandom. Cinema was entering the era when Hollywood would become ever-more-focused on megabrand loyalty.
And something was changing in us, the audience, too. For reasons that no one has quite figured out yet, audiences ever-so-slightly pivoted in their taste. Nostalgists like to argue that there used to be more originality and less franchises. But there’s never really been a time and place defined by pure originality, except for HBO from 1998-2004 and Italy in the 1500s. (And most of the Italians were painting scenes from Christianity, one of the oldest franchises on the planet.) It’s more accurate to say that there was a time when audiences wanted new things that felt like old things; now, as a hive mind, we seem to want old things done in a new way. We want Spider-Man rebooted, this time with a blonde girl. We will take a TV show with a lead character named Ichabod Crane totally seriously.
In that sense, James Bond and Doctor Who feel like a vision from the future. Quite accidentally, and in very different ways, the film series and the TV show figured out a way to tell a million stories that all feel like the same story, starring an incredibly well-drawn character who can somehow exist in every time and place. And the latest work feels just as vivid as ever: Impressive, when you consider how quickly franchise drift can turn the fun of Pirates of the Caribbean 1 into the lazy grotesquerie of Pirates of the Caribbean 2. (The Pirates franchise went from Goldfinger to Moonraker almost immediately.)
You have to attribute part of that to some ambient British thing, the weird way that Brits can honor their proud history and happily debase it in the same breath. Contemporary Who steersmen Russell T. Davies and Steven Moffat are Who megafans who feel no qualms about pushing the character into new situations: They value Who‘s history, except when they couldn’t care less. And Skyfall attracted a raft of talented people — Oscar winner Sam Mendes, genius cinematographer Roger Deakins, Hollywood Ur-writer John Logan — who all somehow upheld two radically different simultaneous aesthetic goals: The idea that they wanted to make Bond fun again, and the idea part of the way to achieve that “fun” was to turn a James Bond movie into a retelling of Paradise Lost.
(Further evidence for U.K. franchise-auteurist exceptionalism: Mostly-British Christopher Nolan created The Dark Knight, a movie which stars a version of the Joker that somehow is totally the Joker we all know even though he’s also unlike from every Joker we’ve ever known.)
It helps, too, that the two franchises belong to somewhat unique circumstances. The Bond films are run by a single family, while Doctor Who belongs to the BBC. (Even their economic models are diametrically opposed: Bond is a feudal mom-and-pop organization; Doctor Who is an argument for public funding of the arts.)
And The Doctor and James Bond aren’t the first characters to remain popular for half a century. The DC superheroes are all turning 75; Sherlock Holmes has been the star of a dozen somethings per year since your grandparents were born; pretty much every popular comic strip besides Calvin & Hobbes lasted long enough to see everyone forget about comic strips. You could argue that AMC’s Walking Dead is a hyper-accelerated version of the same thing: A show based on a cult source material that became a phenomenon, and which is in constant conversation with its own source material, in such a way that newcomers can thrill to zombies while hyper-engaged fans thrill to stuff like eyepatches and familiar character names. This season of Walking Dead has been mind-numbingly boring, but it’s still better than Octopussy. (Although I think I’d watch Licensed to Kill a hundred times before watching a modern-day episode of The Simpsons.)
James Bond and The Doctor took very different paths to their golden jubilees, which means that they are both roadmaps for the franchises of the future. And they sit together now, as the prime arguments in favor of franchises that last forever. Skyfall and Day of the Doctor should feel like navel-gazing exercises, hermetically sealed inside the tropes of their respective brands.
They don’t, because the Bond movies and the Who TV series both figured out a way to constantly recreate themselves: New actors, new looks, new villains, new perspectives. When you watch a Bond film or an episode of Doctor Who, you know what kind of story you’re going to get…but the setting, the characters, even the style can be radically different.
Bond and Who survived because they managed to reduce their source material to a few core elements while constantly altering the variables around them. Consider that the James Bond movies have lasted for close to half the history of the cinema, and that the BBC only started regular TV broadcasts thirty years before Doctor Who. At this point, it might be more accurate to say that James Bond is the popular cinema, that The Doctor is television. If the franchises don’t feel hermetically sealed from pop culture, it’s only because all of pop culture is inside their bubble.