Ever since its lead character was first recast in the late 1960s, the James Bond film series has had an odd relationship to the idea of a consistent fictional universe. Taken at face value, every movie from 1962’s Dr No until 2002’s Die Another Day chronicles the life of a British intelligence agent called James Bond. We’re meant to buy the idea that these 20 films are instalments of one long-running story. The canon was then reset to zero with 2006’s Casino Royale, which definitively ignores all the previous adventures and starts the exercise again. (By the way, this article is concerned only with the Eon Productions film series, so we’re ignoring the 1967 comedy Casino Royale and the 1983 movie Never Say Never Again, which were made by other people.)
But of course there are problems with this reading. An obvious one is the age of the central character. If we assume that each Bond film is set in the year of its release – dates are rarely used on screen or in dialogue, but it’s a fair assumption – then the first incarnation of James had a remarkably long career. When we first meet him, he’s an established, experienced secret agent in his early 30s (actor Sean Connery was 32), so he should be in his 70s by the time of Die Another Day… but then-current actor Pierce Brosnan was only 49. (In fact, going by the actors’ ages, Bond in 2002 was eight years *younger* than he had been in the mid-1980s!)
Clearly, we need to do one of two things. We can do what most people do: we can simply ignore the issue. It isn’t important and it doesn’t distract from how entertaining the movies have been for more than half a century. But if we allow ourselves to indulge a trivial theory, we could question whether Casino Royale is the only time the James Bond series has been rebooted…
For 25 years, the ages of the actors playing Bond seemed reasonably plausible. Sean Connery (born 1930), George Lazenby (1939) and Roger Moore (1927) were just about close enough in age that you can believe these three men are all playing the same character. There are also some in-story reasons why we should assume that the first 14 Bond films form one continuous fiction. For a start, there are other regular characters who also age consistently – the spymaster known by the codename M, secretary Miss Moneypenny and gadget-supplier Q. (The only one of these three who was recast before 1987 is M, due to the death of original actor Bernard Lee. But his replacement, Robert Brown, was visibly in the right age group. He might also be playing a different man: Brown had already appeared in the series so perhaps his Royal Navy admiral from 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me has been promoted into the late M’s vacant job.)
Additionally, there’s the spoilerific ending of George Lazenby’s only Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. (Stop reading now if you don’t know that movie’s plot.) The next entry in the series, Diamonds Are Forever (1971), begins with 007 seeking revenge for the death of his wife in On Her Majesty’s, while two later Roger Moore films (1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me and 1981’s For Your Eyes Only) pointedly refer back to that death. One scene even shows her grave, dating her murder to 1969 – the year George Lazenby played 007.
But hang on, there’s a problem with all this, isn’t there? Mention of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – one of the most unfairly maligned Bond films there’s yet been – will automatically bring to mind a gag in its opening sequence. Having saved a woman from drowning and from several henchmen, Bond unusually doesn’t end up with her in his arms. Instead she drives off, leaving him alone on a beach. “This never happened to the other fella,” he quips – clearly refencing the fact that he’s now played by someone who isn’t Sean Connery. But that’s the point: it’s just a joke. It’s a brief fourth-wall-breaking aside. It’s not meant to imply – as some people have argued down the years – that the Lazenby Bond is a *different person* from the Connery Bond, any more than Moonraker‘s jokey use of a musical motif from sci-fi film Close Encounters of the Third Kind is meant to imply that aliens exist in 007’s world.
So, we can safely run with the idea that the James Bond series was presenting us with a single lead character played by three actors. Admittedly, he grew more rakish and flippant as he approached middle-age, but perhaps this was a reaction to the trauma of being a widower. (His accent also drifted from Scottish to English via a kind of light Australian, but let’s not get bogged down by that at the moment…)
However, our rolling-narrative theory hits a real problem with the casting of Timothy Dalton for 1987’s marvellous The Living Daylights. Dalton was born just seven years after Lazenby, which actually means they’re closer in age than Lazenby and Moore were. But Tim was only 40 when cast, and he was replacing a manifestly middle-aged Roger. James Bond was now markedly a younger man, and played by someone who had been just 16 years old when the series began.
So how about the idea that The Living Daylights is a true reboot of the series and that we’re supposed to discount the events of the previous films? Let’s look at the evidence.
* The new Bond’s boss, M, is still played by the actor who appeared in the late Roger Moore movies, while ally Q is still played by Desmond Llewelyn, who’d only missed two films since the series began. A way of reconciling this with the new, younger Bond in The Living Daylights is to argue that M and Q *are* new versions of the characters. They just happen to be played by actors who have played previous incarnations. After all, the same principle applied two decade later when Judi Dench retained her role of M despite her fifth film, Casino Royale, being Bond’s ‘first case’.
* Dalton’s second movie, 1989’s extraordinary Licence to Kill, has an oblique reference to Bond being a widower. But it doesn’t have to literally mean the events of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This new Bond simply has the same backstory as the previous one, in the same way that unconnected tellings of the Robin Hood myth having him returning from the Crusades.
* As well as 007, supporting character Miss Moneypenny has been recast in The Living Daylights with a much younger actor. After 14 appearances, Lois Maxwell (born 1927) gave way to Caroline Bliss, who featured in both of Dalton’s Bond movies. Bliss was born just one year before the fictional events of Dr No – so clearly she’s not supposed to be the same woman as the one Maxwell was playing.
The implication of all this is clear: The Living Daylights is asking us to accept that Timothy Dalton is playing a *different man* from his predecessors. It’s a reboot.
All this then leads us to GoldenEye, the 17th James Bond film, which was released in 1995. (Warning: plot points from the movie are about to be revealed.) By the time it came along, the Bond series has been away for six years due to some legal disputes. So the film had the task of reintroducing concepts and characters to a world that had changed. Since 1989’s Licence to Kill, the Cold War had ended and Bond-style spectacle had become the norm in Hollywood action films such as True Lies.
If similar circumstances occurred now, rebooting the series with a new cast, a fresh approach and an ad campaign that highlighted the film as a starting-on point for new viewers would be shoo-in. However, perhaps surprisingly, GoldenEye is demonstrably a *sequel*. There may be a new actor in the lead role in the form of Pierce Brosnan, but the film is littered with evidence that this is a continuation of an existing story rather than a fresh fictional start.
* Bond has an established flirtation with Moneypenny and a chummy rapport with Q. There’s also mention of M (Judi Dench in her first appearance) being new to the job and having a predecessor, which we’re meant to assume is the character played by Robert Brown in the Dalton films.
* The film actually starts with a prologue set nine years before the bulk of the story. If we stick to our theory that Bond films take place in the present, that means the first 10 minutes of GoldenEye actually happen before the two movies starring Timothy Dalton. (In a nice bit of postmodern fun, 1986 was also the year Brosnan was originally cast as 007 before he had to pull out because he couldn’t get free from a prior booking. Surely the date was chosen deliberately.)
* That prologue introduces a fellow secret agent called Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean), who we – and Bond – initially think is killed off. When Alec shows up alive and well much later in the movie (spoiler: he’s the villain), he taunts Bond and mentions Miss Moneypenny. It’s clear from the context that Alec knows her from his time at MI6, so she must have been there in 1986. (The part of Moneypenny was recast again for GoldenEye, with Samantha Bond taking over.)
* The film also introduces a new semi-regular ally of Bond’s: a CIA agent called Jack Wade (Joe Don Baker). But wait a sec – didn’t the series already have a semi-regular ally of Bond’s who was a CIA agent? Felix Leiter (played by about 700 actors over the years) had been seen on and off since the first film, so why introduce Wade? Because Leiter was brutally attacked in the previous film, Dalton’s Licence to Kill, and has now presumably retired – hence Wade’s introduction.
The implication of all this is clear: GoldenEye is asking us to accept that Pierce Brosnan is playing the *same man* as Timothy Dalton. It’s not a reboot.
So let’s develop a theory. In the 57-year history of Eon Productions’ series of spy movies, there have actually been three lead characters.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, played between 1962 and 1985 by three actors: Sean Connery, George Lazenby and Roger Moore.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, played between 1987 and 2002 by two actors: Timothy Dalton and Pierce Bronan.
* Secret agent James Bond 007, currently being played by Daniel Craig, who debuted with 2006’s Casino Royale.