By Tania Carver
Unless you’ve been living in the far reaches of the solar system, you’re no doubt aware that there’s a new James Bond film out. You’re probably also aware it’s called Skyfall, it stars Daniel Craig, it’s directed by Sam Mendes, Adele’s done the theme tune and the final third is a bit Marmite, dividing the audience between lovers and haters. There are other things you may not know (or not particularly want to know, come to that). The bar at the beginning where Bond avoids the scorpion and the beach he’s living on was where we went for our holidays this year. It’s in Turkey. And it’s lovely. There you go, a scoop. You heard it here first. No, you’re welcome.
You’re probably aware of other things about it too. The Aston Martin DB5 is back (and looking gorgeous), Judy Dench is brilliant as M and it’s officially fifty years of James Bond movies. Yes, Doctor No, the first Bond film, was released on 5 October 1962. Before I was born, he said coyly. It’s also fifty years since the Beatles released their first single. Another landmark. Next year it’s fifty years of Doctor Who. Our cultural icons are getting old.
Or perhaps not. The Bond franchise has constantly renewed itself. Daniel Craig is, as we all know, the sixth actor to play Bond. Judy Dench the third M, Ben Wishaw the third Q. One of the themes of the movie is whether Bond’s too old to still be doing what he’s doing. And the answer – well, what do you think? I’m not giving too much away to say Craig’s signed for two more films. But still. It’s a fine fifty year celebration and the ending I thought was exceptionally clever. It not only finished everything off that had gone before and provided a coda, (as one reviewer said) but it sent the franchise full circle to start again. Acknowledging the past, playing to it, and renewing itself for another half century all at the same time. Like I said, very cleverly done.
However, while it is renewing itself – and has done, if you see the end of the new one – what it can’t do is use the same cast. Sean Connery, the first Bond is way too old to do it now. Some would say he was way too old when he did it in the early Eighties in the non-canonical Never Say Never Again. Ditto for Roger Moore and George Lazenby. The rest of the original supporting cast are all dead. So it’s renewal and rebirth for a new age.
Doctor Who does the same thing. Matt Smith turned thirty last week. He’s the youngest actor to play the thousand year old Time Lord (yet, I think, the best at carrying the character’s age), and the eleventh incarnation. The change of a lead actor is less surprising in the case of Doctor Who, it’s a show that thrives on change, in fact actively welcomes it. It could easily run for another fifty years. Another hundred, even, because the premise – time travelling madman in a box – is so brilliantly versatile. It’s probably the one idea in fiction I wish I’d thought of. And yet I’m sure I would have rejected it for being too massively, stupidly unworkable. Which, of course, shows what I know.
But my point is the same for both franchises. Our culture constantly renews itself, retelling the same stories over and over in ways that we can currently recognise or that mean something to our lives now. Yet while they’re doing that, these cultural monoliths also have one eye on the past. They acknowledge their history and build on it. They’re creating next generation nostalgia while providing it for the original audience. They can do that. It’s in their natures.
A writer once told me that Marvel Comics would retell the same stories every five years. It was market economics: their target audience would grow up by then and move on and the comics had to be ready for the next one. He did tell me this before the nostalgia boom hit and middle aged men who should know better still kept reading them (and some of them – mentioning no names – still wear the t-shirts), but the point is a valid one. For instance, how old is Peter Parker? He was a teenager in 1962 when he was bitten by a radioactive spider. Now, given the fact that he didn’t die of leukaemia and went on to develop super powers, he doesn’t look much older now. Likewise characters who repeatedly die to be reborn. Captain America and the Human Torch are two of the latest examples while over at DC they’ve killed and resurrected both Batman and Superman. (In fact they’ve just killed off the whole of the DC universe and rebooted it. That takes some doing.) This is fine. This is in the nature of us. We need constant renewal in our culture.
Why? Because, as I said, we need to retell the same stories to ourselves in ways we’ll understand. But there’s something else, I think. It keeps us young. Well, up to a point.
We don’t notice that we’re aging. Well, yes we do, when our knees give out and we start to forget things, but on a day to day basis we don’t notice. That’s because we live most of our lives inside our own heads and we only get to see the way other people view us when we happen to look in a mirror. And then we usually wonder who that old bloke is grinning back at us. Or I do anyway.
Inside our heads we don’t age. We don’t get older. We’re the same in our forties as we were in our twenties. Or at least we tell ourselves that – the truth is probably different. But we still think we feel the same as we did then. And we want our culture to reflect that.
We don’t want to see an old Sean Connery being Bond. We want the younger, fitter model. Because that’s who we identify with. We want Matt Smith as Doctor Who, a young man in an old man’s body. We don’t want a tired old Batman. We want a fearless hero who knows that criminals are a cowardly lot and is prepared to take them on. Why? Because when we read, when we look at a screen, we want to see ourselves reflected back at us. Not the boring, tired old selves that we really are, but the stylised, idealised versions. The heroes we want to be and believe we are. We want our heroes to not get old. Because if they don’t we might stay young too.
But as I said earlier, it’s also the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles releasing their first single. And that’s when mortality hits us.
For a start, there are only two of them left. Cancer took one, a mental gunman took the other. And the two that are left are old. Admittedly they’re trying not to be and not to look it, but they are. And I’m sure that inside they don’t feel any different to the young men who recorded ‘Love Me Do’. I’m sure they’re just the same as the rest of us. They can’t renew themselves. They can’t cast younger versions to continue on as the Beatles. They can’t reinvent themselves and stay young because we want them to. And that’s sad, really.
I felt something similar when Doctor Who came back on TV in 2005. Here was something I used to watch as a kid, and love. I read the books, bought the merchandise, even went to a couple of conventions. Loved it. And now it was back. But it was still a great show, in many ways much better than the one I’d enjoyed as a kid. But there was one big difference. I was sitting there watching it with my own children. And that was one of the biggest intimations of mortality I’ve ever felt.
So yes. Our culture can renew itself. Up to a point. And we can try to do the same. Up to a point. So what do we do? How do we respond? Enjoy it, I suppose. Even the getting older bit.
Because as my mother (a huge Bond fan herself, incidentally) always says, ‘It’s better than the alternative’.
The Star Trek franchise is doing a bit of the same kind of renewal, I think, and though I can't watch the new Kirk without thinking of Bill Shatner's rather melodramatic performances, I think this a good thing. After all, the things that make these larger-than-life heroes larger than life are timeless: The quest for adventure, the battle of good over evil, the struggle of humankind to rise to the challenge in the face of adversity. Those ideals transcend the generations, and I think that's ultimately a positive thing all around.
Apropos of our heroes getting older, though, I'm reminded of something Sue Grafton once said. She said she deliberately chose not to have Kinsey Millhone age in real time because, at the rate she was writing books, in real-time author and character would both be in their 70s when we found out what "Z" was for, and she thought a 70-year-old PI a little implausible. Much as we might wish otherwise, those of us in the real world DO age in real time, sadly.
This is a great topic and you're right, we want them like we remember them. The Bond franchise did well casting Daniel Craig.
I'm also struck by the three Chris Nolan Batman movies and the retelling of his story in an exciting way. The sadness is the loss of Heath Ledger. His Joker was one of the scariest characters I've ever seen.
Interesting post. I think the Dr. Who franchise works very well because, as you note, the change is built in. I stopped paying attention to the Bond movies after Connery because I associated seeing those movies with a time and place in my life that was very important to me . . . and once that was gone, I wasn't particularly interested.
As to aging ourselves or our own stories, well, I'm not so enthusiastic about that <g>>
So sorry to check in two days late. Things have been kinda nuts. I have little to add, except I loved your post and devoured it.
We've had this chat before — we must re-invent the old stories, not merely retell them. We must succumb to the curious madness of imagination and feel both the unique reality we live in and hear its ancient echoes. And as we get (sob) older, that strange childlike mind we still possess helps us stay in touch with the imagination, rather than succumb to the ossifying, "Same old, same old. Been there, done that."
I sometime think that all stories are about the mystery of wonderment, the spark of madness that makes an individual realize he is separate from the clan — the mystery and thrill and danger of that. Every story seems to touch on that moment of awakening, when the individual has to confront the strange truth: My god, this is really true.
And there are as many ways to tell that stories as there are writers and characters. Ian Fleming has died but Bond lives. It's a magical thing.
Have a lovely. Thanks scads.