In a lot of ways, James Bond is Doctor Who for the mainstream. He’s an enduring character that can tell a lot of different types of stories and has survived casting changes and reboots and changing times and still keeps plugging away. Both characters even shared a somewhat fallow period when it seemed the popular culture had passed them by (although Bond’s only lasted six years, an eye blink compared to the sixteen years the Doctor was off the air). But Bond was always cooler than the Doctor, a product of the jet-setting fantasies of the 60s, and so easier to embrace for the non-geek crowd. And let’s face it, he always had a bigger budget; no papier-mâché monsters or cardboard sets to be found.
I always like to say that the first Doctor you see is usually your favorite, but that doesn’t carry over to Bond for me. My first Bond was Roger Moore in Live and Let Die, watched on TV back when networks still aired major Hollywood movies. I remember being drawn in by the slam-bang opening showing the various MI6 agents being killed, and feeling like I was getting away with something when the silhouetted nudity began prancing around over the opening credits. I was watching sophisticated grown-up entertainment and not even into double-digit age yet! It probably helped that Live and Let Die was Moore’s first outing as Bond, before he morphed the role into more of a jokey gentleman. But for a while, he was my Bond, because he was all I knew. We watched For Your Eyes Only to death on HBO, and A View to a Kill was the first Bond film I saw in the theater. I knew Sean Connery had played Bond first, but in those pre-home video days, it wasn’t easy to find his films. So for a good while, he remained this shadowy progenitor, his influence acknowledged but unseen.
When I finally did see Goldfinger, that was that. Moore was good for what he was, but Connery was Bond. Whereas Moore was all polished sophistication, Connery was barely controlled lethality. Sure, he was at home in the tuxedo, but you could sense that for him, it was a necessary fiction, a layer of nicety required to do his job. Moore’s “Shaken, not stirred” always came across more as finicky affectation; from Connery, the line was a declaration that he wanted things his way or else. And really, Connery just looks more dangerous than Moore. I had an easier time believing Connery’s Bond could beat someone to death with his bare hands than I could Moore’s. Even the one-liners came across more biting from Connery than they did from Moore. It might have been a matter of the character feeling more at home in the free-wheeling 60s than the more campy 70s, but Connery became The One True Bond for me. Moore may have had the song on his side, but nobody did it better than Connery.
I tried to muster some excitement when Timothy Dalton took over the role, but something just felt off. It wasn’t that he was a bad Bond; I didn’t really have a problem with the darker, more intense tone he brought to the character. I just felt like his films’ stories seemed so ordinary, the villains so small in scale. Bond should be butting heads with masterminds stealing spaceships and operating from hidden underwater bases, not drug dealers. It made Bond feel like a character in some direct-to-video action films. I didn’t want a Bond grounded in the reality of the time, I wanted the super-hero. Pierce Brosnan’s Bond brought that back for the most part, but with the end of the Cold War, a lot of the romance of the character was gone. There was no longer this wintry menace lurking on the other side of the world, so while Brosnan’s villains raised the stakes over Dalton’s, they lacked that compelling cat-and-mouse the USSR offered. Still, I went and saw all of them in the theater, even as I slowly realized this wasn’t my Bond anymore. The franchise had passed me by, leaving me with nostalgia for Moore, my admiration for Connery.
So when Casino Royale came along, I really wasn’t all that interested. Oh, I didn’t wish it ill, but I wasn’t excited for it. I didn’t even see it in the theater. It was only after the nearly unanimous praise it got from most of the movie sites I frequented that I checked it out on DVD. And I was blown away. It had taken thirty years, but there was the Bond I remembered. For the first time since Connery, Bond felt truly dangerous again. Daniel Craig had all the graceful menace Connery did, the story had real stakes, and it was about honest to goodness spies again. And despite a lot of ill-will towards it, I enjoyed Quantum of Solace almost as much. Now Skyfall is going to be the first Bond film I’ll see in a theater in ten years. I’m excited about the character again, after all this time.
I’ve long held forth that new Bond movies should be period pieces set in the 60s. Back then, trotting from London to Rome to Tokyo held a romantic appeal because it wasn’t something everyone could easily do, and there was no internet around to make the world feel smaller. The Cold War makes for such a much more interesting backdrop, with its paranoia, its pop culture cachet, and its sense of global consequences. Bond just fits that time so much better too, where the character doesn’t have to conform to modern attitudes and conventions. And honestly, that theme song just screams 1960s. Nobody’s managed to modernize it and make it sound any better than the predatory guitar and blaring horns of the original version.
But while my love for Bond is rooted in the decade which saw his cinematic birth, I’m on board for where the modern version takes. The character has survived this long by adapting to the times, becoming a sort of mirror to society. Connery’s pre-PC machismo, Moore’s dapper silliness, Dalton’s brooding, Brosnan’s confident efficiency, and Craig’s intensely focused violence are pretty accurate symbols of their respective eras. It’s that adaptability that’s allowed the character to endure. We all see in Bond what we want to see, and he becomes the hero we need.