**Content warning for discussion of sexual assault because James Bond is Like That.**
**Also, spoilers ahead for Bond films and for new Doctor Who, including a big twist.**
Doctor Who returned to our screens on New Year’s Day with a two-part Bond pastiche. In “Spyfall” (barely a joke, 0/10), the Doctor and her fam are asked by MI6 to stop an evil plot by tech mogul Daniel Barton (Lenny Henry), who is in league with mysterious aliens.
Showrunner Chris Chibnall is savvy at writing season premieres that play off of blockbusters slated for release around the same time. 2018’s “The Woman Who Fell to Earth” had a Predator-style villain, so Chibnall was clearly expecting Predators to be more of a hit. “Spyfall,” of course, falls in the pre-release hype for No Time to Die, a film that will feature Lashana Lynch as Nomi—Bond’s replacement in MI6, making Lynch both the first woman and the first Black actor to play 007.
There’s a clear connection here. Jodie Whittaker is, of course, the first female face of the Doctor in Doctor Who. Whittaker’s hit first season may have even been a factor in convincing producers to go for a Black woman as 007.
The Doctor is an intuitive fit for cross-gender casting. Apart from their regenerative powers, the main characteristics of the Doctor are usually things like “likes traveling,” “dislikes violence,” and “acts like a hyperactive Tinder date,” all of which are gender- and race-neutral. It’s more complicated to cast a Black woman as 007, because some of Bond’s main characteristics over the decades have been “misogyny” and “avatar of imperialism.” The upcoming movie has, at least, positioned her as the successor to Bond’s job, rather than his character, but whether that setup is actually fully utilized for the franchise to confront its own politics remains to be seen.
My intention here is not to rain on anyone’s parade. Rather, I want to ask: Who is the new 007? How will this work? How does the famously non-violent Doctor become the hero of a James Bond narrative?
It’s easy to see how this would be a step in the right direction in terms of writing women. Historically, James Bond films have been bad at this. Even if you hand-wave the casual sexism as a product of the times, there’s an alarming number of instances of Bond outright assaulting women and coercing them into sex; Renegade Cut lists a bunch of these.
In Goldfinger, Bond sacrifices a woman, then rapes a lesbian until she magically enjoys it. In Thunderball, he coerces a woman into sex by threatening her job. He attacks a woman in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, strips and strangles a woman in Diamonds Are Forever, and uses a woman’s religious beliefs to con her into sex in Live or Let Die—and so forth.
No Time to Die writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge (Fleabag) has emphasized the importance of “[treating] the women properly. [Bond] doesn’t have to. He needs to be true to his character.” The implication here, of course, is that Bond will continue to be a misogynist, but he will be in a film that disagrees with that misogyny—first time for everything.
It’s also possible that Lynch’s addition is a testing ground for actually going for a “Jane Bond” as Craig’s successor for the title character themselves. In that case, Lynch’s character would serve as a prototype for this Jane Bond (unless, of course, No Time to Die ends with Lynch being given the codename Bond or something like that, in which case she would become that successor). This recalls Doctor Who’s Clara Oswald, a companion who foreshadowed Whittaker taking on the role by becoming a Doctor-like figure in her own right. She even stole a TARDIS from Gallifrey and ran away.
Whatever the future holds, this movie has work to do right now in order to live up to its own choices. Although Lynch is a big step forward for women and people of color in Bond films, we have yet to see whether her inclusion will result in a substantive approach to the franchise’s racism problem. Casting a Black actor on its own doesn’t change the underlying meat-guts of how these films portray 007 as an icon of imperialism.
Bond is a movie hero who has spent most of his career fighting communists, terrorists, and racist caricatures of nations that England colonized. In You Only Live Twice, Bond disguises himself in yellowface. This is obviously dreadful right from the off, but as Renegade Cut points out, it’s even worse when you put it in the context of English operations in China. The Opium Wars ravaged China; apart from the thousands of deaths, the huge spike in opium created a generation of addicts. All of this was in the service of British economic interests and control of Hong Kong. So, a film about a British agent donning yellowface has especially bad associations.
Similarly, Live and Let Die shows Bond going to the Caribbean when two MI6 agents are killed. The film frames these as despicable murders. Real-world British operations in the Caribbean saw the exploitation of slave plantations for sugar, which was met with slave resistance. The film is essentially portraying protesting slaves as uppity villains.
In all of this, we can see that the Bond films portray England’s aggressive foreign policy operations as a fun romp, often veering into outright propaganda (a phenomenon hardly limited to Bond or England). None of this is Lynch’s fault or takes away from the impact of her casting, but the franchise has to truly see her character as an opportunity to look at itself from a different perspective to prove that it’s interested in really changing with the times.
How does Doctor Who deal with the same challenge? The Doctor, after all, is famously gun-shy. While the character is rarely a literal pacifist, an attitude of “brains over brawn” has been crucial to the show’s heart(s) for decades. That’s the reason the idea of a Bond pastiche didn’t initially sit right with me. My fears were, at least, somewhat misplaced.
When the Doctor meets the head of MI6, C (Stephen Fry), she’s far from deferential and regards him with a dry skepticism. C admits that MI6 is powerless in the face of an alien invasion—and then he gets shot by an alien. As the alien Kasaavins walk through the walls to attack, the surfaces mould around their shape. One Kasaavin takes the face of a Queen Victoria painting. Another has a Union Flag warped around its frame. The message is clear: MI6 is a clueless organization made up of buffoons and empty symbols. For the rest of the story, the Doctor and her friends use MI6 gadgets to work toward their own goals on their own terms, rather than answering to Stephen Fry.
MI6 is also portrayed as generally untrustworthy. C points the Doctor in the direction of Agent O (Sacha Dhawan). The Doctor seems at ease with O, who is more a Q-type than a Bond-type, and therefore more on her wavelength. In a stunning cliff-hanger, O reveals himself to be the latest incarnation of the Doctor’s old foe, the Master. Surprise! That’s what you get for trusting MI6.
This isn’t the first time Doctor Who has been critical of British authorities. Russel T. Davies’ “Aliens of London”/”World War Three” two-parter saw Tony Blair skinned and stuffed in a closet. Steven Moffat (everyone’s favorite) set his second episode as showrunner, “The Beast Below,” on the 51st-century Starship UK, where voting is a binary choice: “Protest” or “Forget.” Faced with the terrible consequences of protest, everyone chooses to forget. “Once every five years, everyone chooses to forget what they’ve learned. Democracy in action,” says the Doctor.
However, it would be very wrong to say that “Spyfall” has progressive politics overall. Following in the footsteps of Whittaker and Lynch, Sacha Dhawan is the first POC actor to play the Master. “Spyfall” is, of course, his first story. In a bizarre and horribly judged move, the story makes him go undercover as a Third Reich officer, complete with uniform. He uses a “perception filter” to make the other Nazis see him as a white man. Worse yet, the Doctor cleverly outsmarts him by jamming the filter and leaving him at the hands of the Nazis. It is strongly implied that he was sent to a concentration camp and had to escape.
For a show that openly prides itself on representation, this is gobsmacking. Doctor Who may have found a better answer to the MI6 question than James Bond, but both still have a long way to go.
(featured image: BBC/United Artists Releasing)
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