James Bond and Doctor Who got smaller as they became fantasy

14.02, Thursday 28 Oct 2021

I mentally slice stories into two types – those that can be in our world and that can’t. Sometimes a story world slides from one to the other and loses its magic.

Take: James Bond.

(This is old enough that it doesn’t count as spoilers.)

In Skyfall (2012) there is a bombing at the London spy HQ and the top of the building is blown off. I pass that building on the regular: its in Vauxhall on the south of the river, near where I live, and the real-life headquarters of MI6. If an explosion took out half the building, it would be huge news.

  • Before that moment, the Bond movies could be happening today – in our world but in the shadows (I’m just thinking about the Daniel Craig collection of films).
  • After that moment, Bond exists in a parallel world. Like ours, but clearly not because we have a divergent history.

The magic of Bond pre-Vauxhall is that it’s a secret layer of reality. Spies generally and Bond specifically could be anyone you meet. The movie is access to secret knowledge; it adds a enchantment to everything you see even outside the theatre – what if this were part of a conspiracy? What if they were not commuters but part of an elaborate and clandestine operation? There is magic everywhere.

More: if you see someone wearing the wristwatch that Bond wears, maybe they are a double-0 agent. If you wear that watch, maybe you are! That’s why the product placement advertising is so potent: with this type of “new layer to the universe” narrative (which is particularly powerful with a spy movie where Bond has had, over the franchise, a variable face) you, the viewer, are immersed in the world and in the actual lead character.

This all evaporates when the HQ is blown up. I didn’t see the explosion on the news. Therefore the stories are just… stories.

Something similar happened with Doctor Who.

Post rebooted Doctor Who, the magic was that it could be happening around the corner. It involved regular people with regular lives who become enmeshed suddenly in fantastic - and distant - adventure.

No matter what was happening with you in the day, no matter how dull, there was always the chance that you would glimpse the Tardis, meet the Doctor, and be swept off to an alien planet.

Or it could happening on the next street! Hear a weird sound? Aliens. See a strange cat? Aliens. A person in an unusual hat? The Doctor in a new incarnation. Maybe, just maybe there could be an extraterrestrial time travel adventure happening right this second, around the corner. And that lets the imagination fly.

Secret layers of reality fiction is MSG for the mundane.

But then there was that swarm of daleks that invaded Canary Wharf, and say what you like about the BBC but that would definitely have hit the news. I lost interest after that episode. Doctor Who descended to being just another story. There are no time-travelling benevolent aliens. As a tale it works or it doesn’t, depending on your taste, but what it can never be, any longer, is a way of animating everything you see.

There’s just a touch of this with Apple’s adaptation of Asimov’s Foundation novels (which I am enjoying, by the way).

The original stories (from the 1950s and onward) were shaped by John Campbell’s “competent man” thesis. Campbell was the editor of Astounding, the biggest sci-fi magazine at the time, and Asimov’s mentor. Campbell was deeply weird-by-which-I-mean-racist (I mean Asimov was deeply weird-by-which-I-mean-sexist too, the whole crowd) and he had a fierce grip on the magazine and what was published. His preferences shaped that whole era of sci-fi – and a lot of what we have now is either an evolution or a counter-response to his brand (which is why it is so exciting to see new voices in the genre).

The “competent man” is the idea that there is nothing necessarily special or unique about the protagonist. Instead they are smart, clear-eyed, scientifically-minded, and, well, capable.

Also men and also white. And yes, a bit ubermensch-y too.

Put the weirdness aside and there is something magical there for the (white, male) mid-20th-century reader: you don’t have to be psychic or unique to find your way through a historically important crisis. But if you are smart and recognise what’s happening, you can do it. The reader likes to think of themselves as “competent” in the Campbell sense, so the story places them centrally in the narrative. The hero.

The early Foundation stories were very much about competent men. A vast galactic backdrop, sure, but primarily about smart, rational individuals who in a crisis keep both their head and a sense of humour, and that’s always the key. It could be you.

Whereas I get the sense that in the Foundation TV show, the protagonists are special and unique.

But we know, each of us, that we’re not psychic, we don’t have superhuman powers. So the TV show becomes automatically a story about someone else. Distancing.

What makes me feel loss is that these are all stories where the fictional reality enlarged the reader’s or viewer’s reality – their world or their self. The layers muddled, the realities multiplied. It’s why genre fiction is never just fantasy. I would call this “unreal but realistic” fiction fantastical. It lifts our eyes and weaves story in the air around us.

Then, with these stories, after a transition, the inner fictional reality shrank and became segmented as something other. Not fantastical but fantasy. It’s still transporting! But our world became smaller as a result.

It’s usually a dramatically powerful transition too: a building blows up; the daleks invade. But it pays for a moment of drama with undermining what makes the narrative world special.

I don’t know why I feel so sensitive to layers of reality and the fuzzy boundary of fiction. And yet.

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