Storylines In Review

2018 Blog Posts
‘Tis The Season To Be Binge Watching
-Boxset Binge 2017: 007 And The 'Secret Agent Champion' Storyline

The Xmas break has become the time for binge watching. On-demand ‘catchup’ viewing spikes in December, and BBCiPlayer for the first time is offering entire series of shows for this purpose. Sales of boxsets also spike. This has had an impact on the writing and production of tv series as well – recently Mark Lawson did a 3-part R4 docu series on this phenomenon, and how it is altering perception of story arcs.
The start of all this was the ability to record off-air for ‘time-shift’ viewing that came with VCRs in the early 80s. Initially, studios like Disney tried to block the sale of these machines entirely, on the grounds that it might harm their tv viewing figures, but soon they were issuing their own videos, with boxsets for longer-running tv series. When the slimmer DVD format came in, they were able to cram more into a boxset – a dozen or more discs in keepcases. Now, the boxset is expected to be the ultimate edition – digitally restored and the most complete. This is of course not always the case where there is an additional cost for ancillary rights, such as music reuse. For example, my boxset of BBC’s Hamish Macbeth is missing an episode where the locals are rehearsing an amdram production of West Side Story. This is not announced, and those who discover the omission may feel they have the right to complain if it is an ‘official’ boxset representing the series. This situation hit the headlines recently where someone in the US bought The James Bond Collection 50th anniversary [?] boxset “Celebrating Five Decades of Bond” and sued because it was missing the 1967 Casino Royale and the 1983 Never Say Never Again. A judge ruled the lawsuit could go ahead because of the phrasing and expectation of completeness, though both were rival, non-canonical productions. (One fansite calls them ‘rogue productions.’)
I inherited a larger James Bond box set myself this past year. A neighbour moving out had left a cardboard box full of videos in the hall, labelled Help Yourself. Inside were all the Bond films issued on videocassette, i.e. not the Daniel Craig ones. But all the others were there, including the two ‘non-canonical’ ones, the 1967 Casino Royale and Never Say Never Again. I have a ‘combi’ machine that will play videocassettes and DVDs and thought this would be an ideal opportunity to watch these films in sequence, to get an overview of how the series evolved artistically over the decades. In the event, I didn’t manage to go the distance. The first 4 titles demonstrated the appeal of the original films, but with You Only Live Twice I felt the series began to lose its way. The underlying problem is that all Fleming’s plots have a megalomaniac psycho billionaire with a plan to take over the world via a project or agency he is funding with his untold wealth, and only 007 can stop him, by going alone into his fantastic hidden lair, being taken captive, escaping and blowing up the key installation just before the villain’s master plan goes into effect. The inherent unlikeliness of all this, even in genre fiction terms, creates difficulties for the scriptwriters as it is all to be played out as live action in real locations. Taking a jokey approach does not really solve the problem and creates glitches in tone at every turn.

Left: stills from [1] Thunderball: the 00 agents are told about SPECTRE's nuclear blackmail plot; and [2] Goldfinger: the millionaire supervillain outlines his plan to raid America's bullion supply at Fort Knox.

The series' repeated story setup belongs to the older, romantic school of the ‘secret agent champion’ storyline. (There’s also a realist school, as in the works of LeCarre.) It predates Fleming, with Clubland heroes and evil-genius villains like Fu Manchu going back to pre-WWI. The Bond films are simply the most expensive instances, productions able to mount elaborate chase scenes and other action setpieces in exotic locations, with spectacular interior sets for the villain’s lair etc.

The original series was made by Cubby Broccoli's and Harry Saltzman's Eon productions. Pictured: Albert R. 'Cubby' Broccoli, Connery, Fleming, Harry Saltzman [1962 publicity photo]. In fact, Fleming was snobbishly disdainful of Connery and the first Eon film, Dr No.

Right: From Russia With Love: [1] the chess tournament which sets up the idea the enemy conspiracy is planned as a series of chess gambits, and [2] the moment Bond has the plan revealed to him.

Since ‘Bondmania’ hit circa 1963-4, there have been many rival instances, often presented as spoofs.

Dr No: the moment 007 first reveals how ruthless he is. ("That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six.")

This was the case with the first non-Eon production. The 1967 Casino Royale was a zany, cheerful farce, which seemed to intercut several different films, where the Bond identity was spread across different agents as a cover name. (It's recently come to light that this idea derived from the work of veteran Hollywood scriptwriter Ben Hecht. He was originally hired to do a straight CR adaptation, but the filmmakers just stitched together ideas from his various drafts, and the whole thing was then played for laughs as another 'Sixties spy spoof'.)
Connery quit the role after You Only Live Twice, declining to make On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Ironically, this was a more serious film, closer to the novel, but proved another one-off in the sense the replacement actor, George Lazenby, promptly burnt out and walked away. Connery agreed to return in 1972 for another lame, jokey walk-through in Diamonds Are Forever, in exchange for a 7-figure payment to his favourite charity. The Roger Moore run starting in 1973 tried to have its cake and eat it by having Bond save the world while acting the playboy and making offhand jokes – which trivialised the threat and left the fight scenes unconvincing. (He barely gets his suit wrinkled or hair mussed, never mind a bloody nose.)

Above: Roger Moore's iconic appearance in the ski-jump scene prologue of The Spy Who Loved Me [2] Moore's final appearance, A View To A Kill.

 Above: [1] the villain's lair in Moonraker (1979), and [2] the older Bond getting a health check in Never Say Never Again (1983)

The films were still using the novel titles but had different plots which emphasised chase scenes involving every type of vehicle. (Each is written by a regular stable of writers.) After the first few Roger Moore entries, I couldn’t face any more as they began to blur together. I jumped ahead to the 1983 Never Say Never Again, made after Connery’s producer partner finally cleared the rights after a lengthy lawsuit. (The novel Thunderball had been in fact a novelisation of a story created by Fleming with 2 other uncredited writers.) Connery had played a number of ageing-but-still-game heroes after his 007 stint, in films like The Wind And The Lion, and this was an opportunity for a mordant, reflective re-visiting of the Bond persona in middle age. Or rather it would have been such an opportunity if the makers hadn’t opted to go for a conventional remake, aside from a few jokey remarks. Without any character development, it was little different in approach from Connery’s previous return as Bond in 1972, a mix of the usual chase/action sequences and lame jokes. (Rowan Atkinson plays Bond’s blithering-idiot local contact, Nigel Small-Fawcett.)
The NSNA title, supplanting the working title Warhead, was suggested by Connery’s wife, based on her husband’s saying ‘never again’ to Bond in the 70s, but there isn’t even the usual belted-out dynamic title song to go with it and drive the idea along, just some warbley Michel Legrand pop music. There's no prologue action scene either (it was reportedly filmed then cut, and not restored with other deleted scenes for the DVD - which suggests it was really dire). It ends with Connery winking at the camera - perhaps the whole film was meant as a joke?
The two Timothy Daltons that followed were more serious, the first, The Living Daylights, being quite promising. But the second (the first not to use a Fleming title or story premise), produced as Licence Revoked, had its title changed when US audiences saw this as a reference to driving licenses. Licence To Kill however was exactly what Bond officially lacks in the story, and in the confusion it turns into a revenge quest as pointlessly nasty as it was unconvincing. (It coincided with a WGA strike, so the usual last-minute fixup of the rough spots - violent changes in tone - did not happen). Dalton left, and the series came to a stop for 7 years. (Licence To Kill was the worst-performing film in the entire series, eclipsing the ageing Roger Moore’s final outing, A View To A Kill.)  


The Pierce Brosnans which relaunched the series in 1995 with Goldeneye were a mixed bag. Again, the desire to play action scenes as jokey (cf John Cleese as Q) indicates an inability on the part of the writers to take their own plots seriously. The last, Die Another Day in 2002, was regarded as least credible for its invisible car – though I’d personally nominate as the nadir of credibility the computer-generated scene of Bond surfing off an icewall using a piece of fuselage.)

In From Russia With Love, when Bond has the SPECTRE plot (to create a sex scandal for the Sunday papers) explained to him, he comments “Must be a pretty sick collection of minds to think up a plot like that.” It’s a line that brought down the house when I saw it at a uni film society, as it seems to apply to the overall story rather than just SPECTRE’s conspiracy.
The first films already have Bond deliver those lame scene-capper quips concluding an action scene for the audience to have a chuckle at some gory death. Was this an anti-censorship gambit? The Bond of the novels is almost humourless, and often bored, even when having affairs (his main passion seems to be scrambled eggs for breakfast). However, the jokey approach would not disappear until the 2005 reboot with Daniel Craig, where the quips are just asides, minor throwaway lines.

Below: The last Brosnan Bond, Die Another Day (2002)

After the breakout success of The Bourne Identity, the producers had decided to reboot the franchise with a dark psychological approach, so 007 has to battle some psychological bugbear from his past as well as the villains. Craig is a serious actor as well as having the muscular physicality to carry off the action side (he’s really the British Steve McQueen), and Casino Royale was promising, suggesting a more adult, realist approach.
Unfortunately the followup was prepared during a Writers’ Guild strike and instead of Quantum Of Solace focusing on the human side of a lonely profession (the Fleming short story is a Somerset Maugham homage), the word Quantum gets turned into a secret organisation which is ‘everywhere’ but nobody official has ever heard of it. (I suppose this is because the scriptwriters just invented it to turn the title into a pun – a nonsensical one.) It’s nonstop action from the ‘cold open’ car chase (where you can’t even tell who’s chasing whom) and Bond’s human side is relegated to one token ‘solace’ scene.
Otherwise it’s a straight revenge quest, with Bond after those who led Vesper astray, and a token conspiracy-plot about the Quantum organisation out to control the world’s water. (I had my hopes up from the title that this would be a more adult approach and saw it in our local arts-centre cinema, but after 2 hrs of deafening action scenes and non-sequitur plotting, wound up referring to it as Quantum Of Bollocks.)
The 3rd instalment, Skyfall, has Bond disappear off the radar a la Bourne, officially dead. It then has a bizarre last act with a betrayed ex-agent villain infiltrating MI6 and causing mayhem, such as causing an underground train to crash through a wall to kill Bond (all modern supervillains can hack into and control even the most secure govt networks). Dressed as police, he and his men even invade a Parliamentary hearing in order to kill M as she is being told she’s obsolete while she reads a Tennyson poem to the scrutiny committee! M and Bond flee up to northern Scotland to his isolated childhood home, Skyfall, in the Aston Martin from the 1960s films, to await the villain and his private army and fight them off with just the help of his old gamekeeper, played by Albert Finney. (You’d think they could have asked the police to help as the villain would be wanted for killing a dozen policemen, if nothing else.)

Above: In Skyfall, [1] 007 is officially declared dead before recovering from his wound (Moneypenny shot him accidentally) and returning to HQ. [2] In an image evidently inspired by Batman, he stands symbolically watching out over the city rooftops. It's the film's keynote image, used on the DVD.

The 4th instalment, Spectre, is nonsensical from the start: the late M leaves a posthumous video message in Bond’s email to kill some gangster, with no explanation. Bond goes ‘rogue’ to do so, and won’t even tell his new boss, and so is grounded. We never find out what she knew about the man’s organisation, which proves to be SPECTRE, which at that stage nobody seems to know officially anything about.
During production, studio memos re the script’s deficiencies were leaked online, evidently by hackers working for Kim Jong-un (you couldn’t make this up). A Sony producer described the script as ‘rough, rough, rough … Bond is simply fighting henchmen in many overblown and familiar sequences – helicopter, elevator shaft, netting.’ Another studio executive wrote: ‘Also, there needs to be some kind of a twist rather than a series of watery chases with guns. This is Blofeld after all. What does he have up his sleeve?’ The email leaks drew attention to the classic problem with the studio system – filming begins before the script is ready.
To squeeze in the new past-coming-back-to-haunt-you angle, the script postulated that the organisation’s longtime head, Blofeld, was really Bond’s foster brother all along. What a coincidence! (The scriptwriters also do not explain Bond’s killing Blofeld in earlier films, never mind his not recognising Blofeld as his foster brother.) Blofeld has been seeking revenge for being displaced by this childhood ‘cuckoo in the nest', and forming SPECTRE allowed him to kill off Bond's girlfriends. He is now in league with the new combined secret services head ‘C’ who is taking over the whole intelligence apparatus.
In almost every script, Bond is either having his license revoked over some indiscreet killing, or MI6 / the 00 Section is being closed down – you know, because computers, they've made special-forces type ops and agents obsolete. (Try telling that to the Americans.)
Here, the finale features the unlikely idea that instead of just selling it off, MI6’s Thames-side HQ is set for midnight demolition. This is despite the fact it’s a prominent landmark (which is very much still there on public view despite the finale) - so that MI5/MI6 can move into a fancy glass tower opposite which has been built in almost no time as it is privately financed - by SPECTRE. Bond and the new M, the geeky new Q, and the new Moneypenny all now go ‘rogue’ as they are all being sacked. Luckily, the villainous new ‘C’ loses his balance and falls out a window. With minutes to spare before demolition, Bond saves the girl, who has been abducted by Blofeld and trussed up atop MI6 HQ, and from a speedboat pursues and with his pistol shoots down the villain’s helicopter so it crashes on Westminster Bridge. (I saw it at the cinema, but watched it again over Xmas on tv as I couldn't be sure I'd followed the story - I'm still not clear on certain points, like where 007 gets that plane in the Alps.)
At that stage, Daniel Craig publicly announced he'd rather slit his wrists than do another Bond film. “Who do you think should be the next 007 then?” a friend asked me. “Nobody,” I said, “they should just stop making them unless they can come up with a coherent script.”
Update: Since then, Craig has been persuaded to return for Bond#25. Details are unclear at this stage. The trailer on YouTube titled Risico is a fan-made fake. ('Risico' is a Fleming short story whose plot was used in the 1983 For Your Eyes Only, the least jokey of the Roger Moore entries.) Another rumoured title is Shatterhand, a Blofeld cover alias in You Only Live Twice, which fits the current run of titles beginning with S, though it’s been used elsewhere, so there may be legal problems. The leaked news item that the plot will be taken from a 2001 ‘continuation’ novel, Never Dream Of Dying by Raymond Benson, seems unlikely. The other rumoured plot is that 007 retires and gets married, but then his bride is killed by Spectre, and he goes rogue in retaliation. (Sound familiar at all?)
… In conclusion, I think seeing a series in this way isn’t necessarily just a new form of addiction, as the press characterise it. (Binge-watching /-viewing derives from binge eating or binge drinking.) It can make you more critical – you can see more clearly the sameness of the plots and the improbabilities when the writers desperately try to vary the formula.
It's not just the Bond series, which I used here as an example. A friend lent me a DVD set of the cult US series The Walking Dead so I could 'catch up' on it: I managed to get through several episodes before I felt my intelligence had been insulted enough, and gave up on it. Ditto with the BBC's new apocalyptic police thriller series Hard Sun which just began this week on BBC1. The entire first season of is already available on iPlayer pre-broadcast, so 'catchup' is not the right term here. I'm afraid I lost confidence in it after the first hour, and wonder if the BBC are also hedging their bets, reckoning that audiences will quickly lose interest in its baffling obscurities. It's open to run for 5 years, if enough viewers want to stick with it until world's end in some sort of unexplained solar radiation surge 5 years away. The plot mcguffin is a flash drive with a video presentation showing the doomsday facts and figures; MI5 is willing to kill police officers and kidnap their families to keep this secret; if the producers want to cut the series short, they can just have a character upload the video to YouTube and it won't be a secret anymore, hey presto.
On the other hand, binge viewing can lead to appreciation of a series that evolves intelligently. For my boxset this year, I asked Santa for the 6th and final series of the Elmore Leonard series Justified (2010-16), and having watched all 5 preceding seasons without its ever becoming predictable, am looking forward to watching all 10 hours of this during the January viewing drought.
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Storylines In Review 2018