Thursday, 24 September 2009

Stirred, not Shaken

This week The Guardian posed a philosophical question about UK pop group The Sugababes: There are now no original members left in this musical temp agency, so does the band really still exist? The paradox has already been cited as a modern day example of the Ship of Theseus, which led to a very heated dinner table debate amongst my family about James Bond. Every time a new actor plays James Bond, is it still the same James Bond?

My family agreed that we don't have a problem with calling the new Sugababes line-up The Sugababes, in the same way we can accept that when new actors are drafted into play original characters in soap operas, the character is supposed to be the same. They sing the same songs and say the same lines. The overall effect is the same. No big deal.

So how about Dr Who, then? The Timelord has been played by various actors, but we know that while Dr Who is the same character ( kind of) he 'regenerates' every once in a while. While he is technically the same Timelord, he is a different kind of character. And that's allowed, because of the 'regeneration' process. Well done on the exposition, BBC.

Things got a little more contentious when I brought up a slightly different existential problem to the Sugababes/Ship issue, the Calvin and Hobbes question. Is Hobbes a real tiger, or is he a stuffed toy? Does it really matter? Creator Bill Watterson deliberately left that to the imagination of the reader, so there is no true answer. The answer relies on personal preference or an acceptance that sometimes Hobbes is animate and sometimes he isn't, depending on the circumstance.

But James Bond poses a greater problem (on which there is already a philosophy book, it seems). My mum gets in a tizz over James Bond, and not because he's dashing, mysterious and suave. It's because the movies only link up very tenuously, and James Bond's existence is never explained. Are replacement actors different people, or the same? Why, in Daniel Craig's Casino Royale, did M refer to the Cold War being over when this is supposed to be an introduction to James Bond? What is he? Theories abound:

1. He is one guy with a very exciting life in the SIS.
2. He is one guy, but because the franchise is just an allegory for an exciting life in the SIS, all of these things haven't actually happened to him.
3. There are different guys, because 007 and James Bond are just code names. When one dies or retires another is activated (see Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
4. There are different guys, but many exist at one time. Therefore 007/James Bond is just a title or status and the movies are about different guys with the same status/assumed persona.
5. A combination, where James Bond is just a title or status, there is only one, but he regenerates in a fashion similar to Dr Who, or as wikipedia suggests, by having plastic surgery.

I pitch for number 2, and to back up my case I refer to Sex and the City. There are four main characters of Sex and the City, and over the course of six seasons each had a large number of dates, liaisons and relationships. This caused media uproar over the image it portrayed of the modern woman, of its regression from feminism, of debates over lipstick feminism and the like. These naysayers were all missing the point. If TV was realistic, we'd get bored because real life is usually really boring! So (concentrate, philosophy bit) we follow the same characters for multiple seasons because it takes a while to get to know them, and the stories are just examples of funny date stories. Rather than introduce new girls every episode or every season, Tellyworld lets us have the same familiar characters, which saves us from having to think too much and saves Tellyworld from having to work too hard to promote a new product. The long-term storylines keep us hooked from episode to episode and from season to season.

James Bond is the same. It's just a kind of allegorical story using the same character because the first incarnation of James Bond was so successful. Why go to the effort of creating and promoting a different secret agent when the original formula works so well? Viewers/readers get to feel like a part of the story by knowing details about shaken martinis etcetera, and know what kind of storyline they're going to expect when a new movie gets released. Mr Bond, like Hobbes, is a literary device adhering only to rules of poetic license; and a money-saving promotional device, just like the Sugababes. The Sugababes themselves are less important than the franchise itself: It's their singles sales that count, so stop asking questions.

But this leaves one last question after all this philosopop. What is this blog all about anyway? Tune in next time for the exciting conclusion...


  1. I was pondering the Simpsons the other day. The characters are always the same age, always in the same grade at school (except in flashbacks, natch). But they have birthdays, Christmasses, and seasons pass. Springfield is contemporaneous, and has a history.

    Explain that, philosophy.

  2. I would not be surprised if a film and television scholar had done research into that. A professor who taught me was a professor in soap operas, and had written books and articles explaining how viewers understand the grammar of soap, such as how soap opera time can be stretched or condensed for dramatic effect and the acceptance that the characters' lives continue in the background even when not displayed in an episode.