I was twelve when I saw “Dr. No” and at that time, I thought that SPECTRE was a pretty cool idea. Of course William Everson had already pointed out in his wonderful book The Bad Guys that a world-wide criminal organization, headed up by a malevolent genius wasn’t exactly a hot new idea. Sax Rohmer had already created Dr. Fu-Manchu in fiction, and Fritz Lang had brought Dr. Mabuse and Haghi to silent movie screens. But “Dr. No” was a new thing–and it was in color. If any further proof of the concept’s virtue were needed, the popular T.V. series “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” would soon be introducing us excitable adolescents to THRUSH–a downscale version of SPECTRE whose ranks would include such notables as Fritz Weaver, Slim Pickens and Boris Karloff. Looking back on it, I realize what an acting feat it was for Joseph Wiseman to pull off such lines as “East… West… points on a compass, one as stupid a the other. I work for SPECTRE–the Special Executive for Counter-Terrorism, Terrorism, Revenge and Extortion.” Whew… quite a mouthful. Anyway, Sean Connery’s James Bond went on to battle SPECTRE in four more Bond films before the notion of a super-crime syndicate seemed to run its course. A few years after the release of “Dr. No” I began reading Ian Fleming’s novels and it came as quite a shock to discover that SPECTRE was a very small presence, appearing only in Thunderball. All those notable Bond villains–Dr. No, Auric Goldfinger, Mr. B.I.G.–were all Commie agents out to overthrow Western democracies! I must admit though that it did make more sense in From Russia with Love having Bond battle SMERSH, a real Soviet counter-espionage agency, rather than a bunch of international criminals out to dupe Bond into stealing a Soviet gizmo so that they could then sell the gizmo back to the Soviets.
Anyway we fast-forward to 2006, a new world, a new millennium–and Bond is still in business. But the scriptwriters have sharpened up considerably. Now the enemy is us–or to be more precise, the best and brightest of us, the wheeler-dealers who have used guile and political influence to amass great wealth at everyone else’s expense. This new class of malevolent geniuses have also banded together in an organized manner. They call themselves QUANTUM–a nice, mysterious-sounding name. These guys and gals do things like bankrolling international terrorism and taking over the water supplies of entire impoverished Third World nations. Just like good old Dr. No they see East and West as mere points on a compass. Their only loyalty is to their wallets. This was an interesting new concept with which to challenge a New Age James Bond. Everyone agreed that Dr. Julius No and Ernst Stavro Blofeld were criminals. Their hands were publically raised against humanity. But the QUANTUM crowd frequently hold positions of influence and trust within their respective governments. Far from being anti-Establishment, they ARE The Establishment. That’s quite a row for one secret agent to hoe, even if he is James Bond. Daniel Craig’s Bond battled QUANTUM in two films. In the first he was able to reveal their banker Le Chiffre as speculating with QUANTUM funds, at the close of that film we meet up with Mr. White, who seems to be Le Chiffre’s superior and who oversees his execution. At the start of the second film, Bond now has White in custody, only to have him escape with the help of a QUANTUM mole on M’s own staff. For the rest of that film, Bond prevents another QUANTUM member, Dominic Greene, from engineering a coup in South America–but White remains at large. In Craig’s third outing as Bond, QUANTUM was nowhere to be seen.
Now apparently the Bond Brain Trust has decided that it’s time to resurrect SPECTRE. I won’t call this move a mistake yet. They have been pretty shrewd about nursing their cash-cow through a half-century of casting changes, political upheavals and sexual revolutions. Maybe bringing back an international organization of criminals, presided over by uber-criminal Blofeld will prove to be an apt move for the times. But I still wish that they hadn’t given up so quickly on QUANTUM–no matter how uncomfortably close to the truth the idea behind it may have been.