What Doctor Who Can Learn from James Bond

Originally, I was going to write some ridiculous, convoluted explanation for why I think James Bond is actually a Time Lord, captured by the British government and kept under tight control so they can use him as a weapon, but then I decided to go in a different direction as I had just seen the new Doctor Who series premiere and wanted to write a review of that. Also, since I missed last week’s entry (I was working on lesson plan stuff in preparation for the new school year), I figured this can be two entries for the price of one.
*group hug*
I’m very much a latecomer to the Doctor Who scene. I started with Russell T. Davies’ reboot on Netflix about 5 or so years ago. My initial reaction was one of extreme skepticism. The effects were cartoonish and the humor was, at times, quite banal (I’m looking at you Entire-Episode-Devoted-To-Slimy-Green-Aliens-Who-Pass-Gas-Constantly), but friends insisted that I keep going. It took me about two months to languidly get through series 1, and another two months to obsessively binge watch the rest of the show up to the then-current series 6.
Then, I dove into the classic episodes and the awful-but-wonderful 90’s era TV movie starring Paul McGann (and then the plethora of fantastic audio dramas where his Doctor really shines). I love the whole protean nature of a show that can change out leads and supporting characters and remain fresh and new constantly. It’s delightful.
Recently, Doctor Whoenjoyed its 50th anniversary and with it came the announcement that current Doctor, Matt Smith, would be leaving the show.  Doctor Who is delightful and addicting, but the reboot series has had one issue: if left alone for too long, it tends to become more and more melodramatic and ridiculous. My favorite Doctor, David Tennant, walked a beautiful line between goofy and terrifying, and it worked. But when he neared the end of his tenure (and the end of Davies’ tenure as showrunner), the each episode and special got bigger and bigger and more self-congratulatory and began to sag under its own weight.
The series 4 finale is a good example. You’ve got the fantastic apotheosis of companion Donna Noble who forever leaves behind her past as frumpy, aimless corporate temp, and you’ve got the culmination of one of the best series arcs (the hauntingly simple: why are the bees disappearing?), but you’ve also got a reunion of every companion from the show’s then 4 year run. It’s a fun moment when they’re all in the TARDIS working together, but it seemed more of a gimmick. It’s a wink to the fans, thanking them for their devotion to the show, and it works, but it toes the line of schmaltzy self-love just a bit much. It works, but just barely.
After that, there are the four specials that, aside from the bombastic-but-weak “End of Time,” do a great job of looking at the Doctor as a lone wolf. The beautiful “Waters of Mars” is one of Tennant’s best episodes, answering the question, “What happens when the Doctor is left alone too long?” The chilling answer is that he becomes a monster. Yes, it still gets a bit melodramatic, but it reins itself in enough to still be poignant.
Steven Moffat’s tenure as showrunner has seen a similar trend toward back-patting melodrama, but he seems to be reaching that point quicker than Davies did. His take on the Doctor during Matt Smith’s era was that of an old soul in a young body that careens from playful exuberance to black fury. His Doctor is very much a fairy-tale character akin to Peter Pan (whereas  Nine and Ten felt more like sci-fi heroes, alien, but still grounded in a tangible reality). As I’ve watched and rewatched Matt Smith’s episodes, I’ve also got the feeling that this Doctor was aware of his fandom, especially his rabid Tumblr fans, and so too often would say things that served no purpose except to one day appear on a fan-created image on the internet in which the Doctor’s face, softened with Photoshop effects, would be overlayed with the text in some curly cursive handwriting. I guess the point I’m trying to make here is that the Doctor became a plaything for a primarily female audience on the internet as opposed to a hero for everyone to cheer for. It’s not sexist, it’s marketing. Since Davies took over, the Doctor has been portrayed by a handsome, rougish with fabulous hair that you just want to ruffle adorably…ok I’m getting off topic, but the point here is that the show became too self-aware for its own good.
Matt Smith’s sendoff was so over the top that it didn’t even try to address fan questions and glaring plot holes. It just did its best to make fans sob uncontrollably over and over again. As we’ve seen in the most recent episode, Moffat (SPOILERS) has to keep bringing back Eleven to say goodbye to his fans, after he did the same thing with Amy Pond in “The Time of the Doctor.” It’s gotten a bit old. It’s like how, at the end of the DVD recording of Lord of the Dance, Michael Flatley insists on about 12,000 curtain calls, until even the audience is fatigued and just wants to stop clapping. Yes Matt Smith is a terrific actor. Lovely. Let’s move on, shall we?
So, how does this connect with James Bond?
*group hug…with guns!*
James Bond is another franchise that is near and dear to me. It also suffers similar ups and downs to Doctor Who. Sean Connery’s Bond, who if he was a Time Lord, would no doubt be called The Spy with Connery playing the First incarnation, is brutal, charming, cold, and so cool, we feel a little bad for liking him, even though he’s kind of a misogynist. But over time, as the Bond movies became more and more popular, things got more and more goofy (which was fine, because it was supposed to be a little goofy).
After the iconic You Only Live Twice, which featured a scarred Blofeld holding his white cat, dropping enemies into a pit of piranhas, it was clear they needed to ground things a bit, and so they introduced The Second Spy, George Lazenby, who went for a more human Bond. Less gadgets and spaceships and more driving down country roads looking wistfully at Dame Diana Rigg. The movie is considered not great, but I think it’s because they tried to make Bond too human. The movie isn’t bad and Lazenby is actually quite an able Bond, but the tragic romance angle doesn’t quite work.
Then we got another Connery outing, which reintroduced silly gadgets and spaceships and Blofeld in drag, which led right into The Third Spy Roger Moore’s time as Bond, which was marked by not only a goofier tone, but a more self-aware franchise that began making tongue-in-cheek pop-culture references as well as a complete lack of any sort of depth. Upon introducing Jaws (played with gusto by Richard Kiel), they decided against any sort of tragic backstory and instead had him meet a geeky-but-adorable girlfriend in Moonraker whom he marries in space (I’m not kidding). After that, we get Margaret Thatcher having a phone conversation with a parrot, Octopussy (need I say more?), and Christopher Walken laughing maniacally in a fright wig while gunning down former business associates. Also, I should mention James St. John Smith (last name pronounced “sinjin-smythe”), Bond’s absolute worst alias of all time. Even Sir Roger Moore himself has said that he wasn’t really a fan of how his Bond ended up towards the end of his tenure.
But after Moore, we got FourTimothy Dalton, who is one of my absolute favorite Bonds. It’s sad the writing and directing of his two outings were less than stellar, because Dalton is absolutely perfect in the role. He’s charming, gritty, dangerous, kind to his friends, vicious with his enemies, and wears an 80’s-style suit so well you’d never realize it was from the 80’s. After the manic chaos of Moore’s era, the studios decided to make Bond more human (without going too far) and to give him much deeper stories. The Living Daylights digs deep into Cold War politics, and License to Kill has Bond leaving MI6 to go on a revenge-rampage. It’s sad they weren’t better, overall. We might have gotten to hang on to Dalton longer.
The gritty, realistic tone was softened slightly for Goldeneye, the first outing for the Fifth incarnation of The Spy Pierce Brosnan, and, in my humble opinion, the single greatest James Bond movie ever made. I may also be biased because of its Nintendo 64 tie-in shooter, which is one of the few video games I’ve ever truly loved (Sorry Pokemon…). But after a while, things started to get goofy again, and by the time we got to Die Another Day, which feels more like a VH1 special entitled “I Love James Bond,” and less like a coherent action movie. It’s fun, I guess, but it’s so silly. So. Silly.
Six Daniel Craig then came in to makes things all angry and serious and brutal, before calming down and giving us the phenomenal Skyfall, which is a delight.
(This is a very long post and I’m sorry. I swear I’m coming to a point. Remember this is two posts in one!)
The thing is, Doctor Who needs a Timothy Dalton, a Goldeneye-era Pierce Brosnan, or a Daniel Craig to ground things a bit more. And, based on what I’ve seen, I think Peter Capaldi, the Twelfth Doctor, can do that. He hearkens back to the grumpy antics of the First Doctor as well as the biting wit of the Fourth Doctor, with a bit of Fifth Doctor gentleness thrown in. I’m very excited.
But I desperately hope Moffat doesn’t go for another mega-convoluted, twisty-turny series arc that loops back in on itself so as to give itself a pat on the back for being oh-so-clever. Series Five was complicated, but just enough so as to avoid being goofy. I’ve seen Series Six three times and still have trouble figuring out exactly what happened. Seven went well, until the “Blank of the Doctor” trilogy, which still has me scratching my head. I feel like a dullard for not knowing how Clara got out of the Doctor’s time stream. Am I missing something? Feel free to fill me in.
Series 8 should be about grounding the Doctor in reality (and it seems to be doing just that) and having him stop flailing about and giving him time to really be the Doctor. He has an opportunity to really grow and develop from a scared young man with an old face into someone we can really root for.
Are you listening, Moffat? I trust you to make the right decision. We know you’re clever. Give us a good story and stop showing off for the sake of showing off.
Until next time!
(Also, James Bond is totally a Time Lord. Remember that.)
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