Where next for James Bond? It’s a question which has been asked periodically for years, and it matters not just to fans of the franchise but because, after 25 films featuring the dapper and defiantly unkillable secret agent, there is nothing else in the British film industry quite like it. Or the world for that matter. If the Bond franchise and the various cultural elements attached to it could be turned into a physical thing, you could see it from space.

Sure, with a meagre £10.4 billion in total revenue it sits well behind Star Wars and Harry Potter in the list of the world’s biggest-grossing media franchises (for added perspective, even those two trail Pokémon and Hello Kitty). But its longevity and open-endedness, and the relish with which every new instalment is met by global audiences, means it transcends those others in terms of cultural importance. “The name’s Bond. James Bond”: in the whole of cinema history there is no catch-phrase more recognisable.

But every now again the franchise owners, Eon Productions, hit reset. It happened in 1995 with GoldenEye, Pierce Brosnan’s first outing as Bond and the first to have to grapple with the post-Soviet era. It happened again in 2006 when a new 007, Daniel Craig, featured in an adaptation of a very old novel: Casino Royale, published in 1953 and the first of Ian Fleming’s Bond stories. This Bond was conflicted, vulnerable and troubled (three things Roger Moore could never be accused of) and the script stayed relatively faithful to the original novel. Since then Craig has starred in 2008’s Quantum Of Solace (the title borrowed from a 1959 short story featuring Bond, though the plot is entirely new), 2012’s Skyfall (which has elements of an origin story and was directed by Sam Mendes), and 2015’s Spectre (also directed by Mendes, though less of a critical hit). No Time To Die, the much-delayed 25th film in the series and Craig’s fifth and final outing as Bond, is another one of those moments when everyone involved with the franchise stops to take stock. So where next for James Bond becomes a critical question.

Decisions, decisions. For a start there’s the issue of who will take over the role, a question which has been occupying Bond watchers since before the release of Spectre. There are other issues too. What sort of Bond will the new Bond be and what sort of a world will he (or she?) have to navigate? Post-Trump, post-pandemic, post-Black Lives Matter, post-#OscarsSoWhite, this looks like a franchise which isn’t so much going to have to pivot as execute a 180 degree turn.

And who will be the bad guys (or gals) in the new Bond universe? The Russians? Predictable and, by now, a little boring. The Chinese, then? Ask any switched-on foreign policy wonk where the West’s next Cold War opponents are currently sitting and they’ll point to Beijing. But if Eon have an eye on the Chinese market (they do) they’ll avoid anything that risks upsetting it.

In one sense the work on future-proofing the role for the next incumbent has already begun. Danny Boyle, the Oscar-winning director of Slumdog Millionaire and Trainspotting and the creative brains behind the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, was meant to have directed No Time To Die. In the end he departed the project over creative differences, but at least he was asked and who knows what touch of subversive genius he would have brought to the franchise? In his place comes Cary Fukunaga, award-winning director of HBO crime series True Detective and of gritty, issue-driven films such as Sin Nombre and Beasts Of No Nation. Reviews for No Time To Die aren’t yet in, but if they’re kind he may well continue at the helm for the 26th film. Or perhaps the job will go to New Zealander Martin Campbell, who has already rebooted the series twice having directed both GoldenEye and Casino Royale.

And of course there’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. She wrong-footed everyone after the success of Fleabag by making her next project an adaptation of Luke Jennings’s Villanelle spy novels. If she intended Killing Eve as an audition for a writing job on No Time To Die, it worked. Even so, it was a bold decision on the part of the film’s producers, Michael Wilson and Barbara Broccoli, to bring her on board.

To Daniel Craig’s mind, it was one which has paid off. Interviewed in the current Radio Times he has nothing but praise for Waller-Bridge’s work on the script. “She’s got devilish humour,” he said. “Her influence permeates a lot of this film. She walked that fantastic line of keeping it as a thriller and being very funny. But Phoebe didn’t come in to change Bond. She came in to spice it up for sure, but she’s a Bond fan – she wasn’t about to take him in a different direction.”

Not yet anyway. But what happens if the next Bond is a woman? That certainly is a different direction, and having a returning writer of the calibre of Waller-Bridge would be a boon to the franchise. The bookmakers’ odds don’t make it anything like a racing certainty, but there are two women on the list of favourites: Suranne Jones, currently starring in Vigil on BBC One, and Lashana Lynch, who just happens to be in No Time To Die playing Nomi, the British secret agent who has inherited Bond’s double-o number. So, technically, Lynch already is the new 007. She’s also the first black actor to play the role and and the first female incumbent.

Interviewed by black English actor and poet Yrsa Daley-Ward for Harper’s Bazaar, Lynch revealed that she and Waller-Bridge had worked together on the character of Nomi to make her believable and real. For Lynch, it was about challenging narratives.

HeraldScotland:

Lashana Lynch as Nomi in No Time To Die

“We’re moving away from toxic masculinity, and that’s happening because women are being open, demanding and vocal, and calling out misbehaviour as soon as we see it,” Lynch said. “I didn’t want to waste an opportunity when it came to what Nomi might represent. I searched for at least one moment in the script where black audience members would nod their heads, tutting at the reality but glad to see their real life represented.”

Representing real life isn’t something the films are known for, but in a fast-changing world you have to adapt or die. Bond has dodged too many bullets to meet his end through audience fatigue and dismal box office takings. As he re-generates for the 2020s, expect some surprises.

No Time To Die is released on September 30