Reflections on the Water

In recent years, much has been made of the parallels between "Doctor Who" and the James Bond movies. Both series started in the early 60s and managed to survive a number of changes in the lead actor before disappearing in 1989. There was then something a hiatus before they were both re-emerged in the mid-90s. However, it is there that the similarity flounders. Pierce Brosnan's debut as Bond in GoldenEye was a critical and financial success that re-launched an on-going series of movies. Meanwhile, Paul McGann seems destined to be remembered in much the same way as George Lazenby.

From the distance of 2001, with Brosnan successfully established as Bond, it is difficult to remember the challenge that faced GoldenEye. The hiatus in the series had been caused by legal wranglings rather than the series actually being axed, but it left many people's last memories of Bond as Licence To Kill, a somewhat atypical entry. And many commentators observed that the world had moved on in the last 6 years - was there really a role for Bond in the 90s?

The script of GoldenEye cleverly made use of these arguments, putting them into the mouth of Judi Dench's new M, who characterised Bond as a misogynistic relic of the Cold War, while the plot of the movie made use of the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. And the movie pulled off an amazing success, becoming the most lucrative Bond movie for many years and proving that the character could thrive over 40 years after his creation.

The success of GoldenEye should have been surprising - an escape from oblivion as magnificent as any pulled off by Bond himself when facing off against a movie villain. However, if one looks at things logically, it soon becomes apparent that the changes to the world while Bond had been away were not actually that significant.

The big global change was the end of the Cold War. The observers wondered what use MI6 would have for Bond without the Soviet Union to fight. However, if one actually looks at the pre-hiatus Bond movies, very few of them actually made use of a Cold War setting. Indeed, in the 60s the producers made the decision not to portray the Russians as villains in the same way as the original novels, precisely to prevent them from dating. Some movies did make use of an explicit Cold War backdrop, but this was not really until the 80s with For Your Eyes Only, Octopussy and The Living Daylights. The first of these is the only Bond movie in which the villain is actually a representative of the Soviet establishment, rather than some rogue figure. The majority of the movies have little or nothing to do with something as realistic as the East-West conflict, and managing to create villains with extravagant plans that would be as topical today as in the 60s and 70s. And as recent events remind us, the fall of the Soviet Union does not necessarily make the world a safer place. The recent Bond novels by Raymond Benson have also had no problems finding conflicts relevant enough to the UK in order to justify Bond's involvement - the Hong Kong handover, the situation on Cyprus and tensions with Spain over Gibraltar.

"The success of GoldenEye should have been surprising - an escape from oblivion as magnificent as any pulled off by Bond himself when facing off against a movie villain."

So it is clear that political changes should have been no barrier to the return of Bond in the 90s. But what about changes in society? Would it still be acceptable to have a hero who gets through at least 3 women per movie? The answer to this question depends on how much the world had actually changed during the 6 years that Bond was away from the screen. Even before the hiatus, the promotion of virtually every successive Bond girl made clear that she was a strong modern woman who was not merely there for titillation, unlike her predecessors. And as early as The Spy Who Loved Me and Moonraker in the late 70s, Bond was teamed with a female agent who was pretty much his equal. Of course, the Bond movies had featured some moments of staggering sexism over the years (for example, Bond dismissing a female masseuse in Goldfinger by slapping her bottom and telling her he has to indulge in "man-talk"), but these were hardly integral to the format. And amazingly, the revived Bond movies have retained one of the more suspect elements of the format - the title sequence featuring a multitude of scantily clad women - albeit making use of modern computer graphics rather than coloured filters on the camera lens.

Ironically, Bond's bed-hopping seems to be less of a problem now than immediately before the hiatus. The promotion of The Living Daylights made much of the fact that Bond was limited to one woman, showing a deliberately responsible change in the face of the emerging AIDS epidemic. But now, no-one appears to mind Brosnan's Bond returning to the tradition of sleeping with as many women as possible during the course of a movie.

Of course, we can't ignore the fact that the success of GoldenEye is also partly due to the fact that it is a great Bond film that managed to pull off a careful balancing act of retaining enough of what people expected but also updating the formula for a new decade. Now why can't the DOCTOR WHO TV Movie managed that?

Originally published in KKLAK! Issue 007 - October 2001.

This is an article by Matthew Newton. Visit his Homepage.
Copyright © MJ Newton 2001. All rights reserved.