As the Doctor channels James Bond in Spyfall, Richard Tarrant looks at the curiously similar history of these cultural icons.
Smersh Pod host John Rain memorably calls the James Bond films “as British as tuppence, yet as international as the Beatles”, and it is a description which would hold equally true of that other great British export, Doctor Who. At first glance there might seem little else to link these two cultural icons. The lead characters could scarcely be more different: one violent, decadent and over-sexed; the other pacifistic, intellectual and for much of the show’s history entirely sexless – essentially representing opposing aspects of the psyche. One embodies continuity and the establishment; the other mercurial change and counterculture. But look a little closer and similarities emerge. Both are urbane, idiosyncratic and frequently at odds with their dry institutional background; both are the last line of defence against monstrous supervillains and existential (often planetary) threats; and, more facetiously, both regenerate and surround themselves with beautiful women a fraction their age. More to the point, there are remarkably frequent parallels throughout the timeline of these venerable franchises.
The James Bond films and Doctor Who were born into the same momentous world, a little over a year apart. Sean Connery’s debut Dr No (October 1962) was released ten days before the Cuban Missile Crisis and the height of the Cold War; the first Doctor Who episode An Unearthly Child (November 1963) famously aired the day after the assassination of JFK.
Colony after colony were securing independence from a Great Britain not long emerged from a period of post-war austerity, and the country’s future place at the world’s top table was far from certain. But reassurance is writ large in Bond and Who. Britain is every bit the equal of the USA and USSR (and the natural mediator in any disputes) in the early Bond pictures, and Doctor Who anticipates the Britain of the 1970s and 1980s as the world leader in the Space Race (and indeed, by Robot, the safe-keeper of all the world’s nuclear codes). Early Who also dealt with decolonisation, albeit exceptionally offensively in the case of The Ark (1966), as the mute, black-skinned, servile savages prove themselves to be stupid, incompetent and completely incapable of self-governance when they overthrow their former masters.
With an elderly lead in William Hartnell, Who relied on younger male companions when ‘action’ was required, so we have the likes of Ian (AKA ‘Bond in a cardigan’), Steven and Ben taking on an increasingly Bond-like role in the series. Surprisingly though, other than faint echoes of Bond in The War Machines (1966), The Underwater Menace and The Faceless Ones (both 1967), it is not until Christmas 1967 that we get the first full-blooded Doctor Who homage to James Bond – The Enemy of the World. With its worldwide locations, cross and double-cross, secret underground bunker and doppelganger villain who can summon earthquakes and volcanic eruptions at will, this recently recovered serial is an unabashed love letter to Ian Fleming’s hero.
Shortly after, in 1969/70, both franchises sought reinvention with a grittier, more emotionally sophisticated interpretation – George Lazenby taking his turn as Bond in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, and Season 7 providing Who debuts for Jon Pertwee and colour television. But in both cases, this would last just one instalment and, between 1971 and 1974, both would move on again, fully embracing the glam aesthetic of the time. Theatrical, trashy and outrageously flamboyant, Diamonds Are Forever (1971) and Live and Let Die (1973) are the riotously colourful stablemates of Terror of the Autons and The Claws of Axos (both 1971).
To identify the influences of Bond on Pertwee’s all-action portrayal of the Doctor is to be spoilt for choice, but standout examples include the trike escape in Diamonds Are Forever recreated a year later in Day of the Daleks and Blofeld’s submarine from the same film strongly resembling Season 11’s ‘Whomobile’. But it wasn’t all one-way traffic – the Doctor’s multi-function vehicle pre-empted Scaramanga’s flying car (The Man with the Golden Gun) by some months and Roger Moore’s submarine Lotus by three years. Another curious link of the time is a prop which appeared in both series: the clothes-brush radio transmitter used by Kellman in Revenge of the Cybermen was the same as that used by Bond in Live and Let Die. Roger Moore handed it over on a visit to the BBC and the Props Master, not recognising him, apparently paid him 30 pence for it.
With Philip Hinchcliffe’s tenure more obviously influenced by Gothic/Hammer horror than action films, the paths of these franchises diverge for a few years, but close up again by the late 1970s. Moonraker (1979), released a couple of months before the Doctor Who season overseen by Graham Williams and Douglas Adams (Season 17), is not hard to imagine as a Douglas Adams script. Drax (coincidentally also the name of a character in The Armageddon Factor, the last Who story to air before the film opened) is given arguably the best dialogue of the series, including the incomparable “James Bond…you appear with the tedious inevitability of an unloved season”. And it’s absolutely, brilliantly bonkers. Properly stark, staring, straitjacket-and-hockey-mask batshit, with hovercraft gondolas, space laser battles and a villainous plan to exterminate the peoples of the world and repopulate with a super-race that bears more than a passing resemblance to Invasion of the Dinosaurs’ Operation Golden Age, a Doctor Who plotline from five years earlier.
Many fans of both franchises consider the late seventies/early eighties a lowlight of the series, characterised by self-indulgence and camp silliness. Whilst there is something in this, no amount of retrospection can erase the fact that both reached the apogee of their popularity at this time. Moonraker grossed $210m worldwide, a record for Bond which would not be exceeded until Goldeneye 16 years later, and City of Death, airing on BBC1 while Moonraker was still showing at cinemas, attracted 14.5m viewers, a record which Doctor Who has never bettered.
The strange symmetry between James Bond and Doctor Who continues in the 1980s. Both would enter a hiatus of 6-7 years in 1989, at the end of a decade in which, by common consent, they had reached their nadir of quality, but then experienced an extremely promising renaissance which was cut short in its prime. Doctor Who finally fell victim to Michael Grade’s axe just as Season 26 was starting to rebuild after three largely abysmal years; and after Octopussy’s plane-out-of-a-horse’s arse and crocodile submarine (1983) and a 57-year-old Roger Moore baking a quiche in A View to a Kill (1985), Timothy Dalton brought a welcome edginess to the role, a clear precursor to Daniel Craig’s ‘Bond-who-bleeds’.
Dalton, who would go on to portray the legendary Time Lord Rassilon in David Tennant’s farewell The End of Time, heads a long list of actors who have appeared in both series – a list which in places reads like a Who’s Who of British character actors, including the likes of Geoffrey Palmer (Tomorrow Never Dies/Voyage of the Damned), Honor Blackman (Goldfinger/Terror of the Vervoids), Julian Glover (For Your Eyes Only/City of Death), George Baker (On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, The Spy Who Loved Me/Full Circle) and Steven Berkoff (Octopussy/The Power of Three). Doctor Who regulars such as Cyril Shaps, Bernard Horsfall and Anthony Ainley were Bond bit-part players. And black actors Sonny Caldinez and Roy Stewart, the appallingly stereotypical ‘mute brutes’ of consecutive 1967 Doctor Who stories Evil of the Daleks and Tomb of the Cybermen, reprise depressingly similar roles in The Man with the Golden Gun and Live and Let Die respectively.
In a similar vein, it was during their enforced hiatus that the Bond/Who timestreams essentially converge. Dalton’s six-year contract expired in 1993 and, whilst Pierce Brosnan was first choice as his replacement, second choice (after an impressive audition) was apparently Paul McGann. Had Brosnan refused the role (as he had in 1987, being contractually tied to Remington Steele), McGann might have pulled on the tux in Goldeneye (1995) instead of the Doctor’s frock-coat in the 1996 TV movie, a one-off appearance (not counting audio or the anniversary short) which essentially made him the George Lazenby of the Doctors.
Doctor Who would return to the wilderness for the remainder of Brosnan’s run as Bond, but the parallels continue with full reboots of both franchises within 20 months of each other – Russell T Davies’ ‘New Who’ vision in March 2005 and Daniel Craig’s Bond debut, Casino Royale, in November 2006. Both formats had clearly been influenced by new additions to the cultural landscape, with Doctor Who adopting the self-contained 45-minute episodes and season-long arcs then prevalent in TV sci-fi and a darker Bond reacting to the ‘hard action’ of the first two Bourne films. And the early storylines ‘reset’ the characters for a new audience – Christopher Eccleston’s Doctor the last of the Time Lords, and Craig’s first scene as Bond making the first two kills that qualify him for 00 status. There may be nods to the past, the producers seem to be saying, but if you start watching now you won’t miss a thing.
And so, to date, even to the extent that both franchises have had recent, heated conversations about misogyny, diversity and gender-swap lead casting, Doctor Who clearly taking the lead in the latter. Whatever your thoughts on the most recent developments in these beloved institutions, Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor evoking James Bond during New Year’s Day’s Spyfall was a moment perfectly in keeping with 56 years of the most extraordinary shared history.
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