James Bond returns to the big screen today in the new film Skyfall, the third installment in the franchise reboot that began with 2006’s Casino Royale. While the press may be focusing on the high expectations of a Bond movie directed by Oscar-winner Sam Mendes, geeks are quietly celebrating the return of a kindred spirit to 007 continuity: the gadget-maker codenamed Q.
Like most recurring Bond characters, Q was inspired by several real persons that Bond creator Ian Fleming encountered during and after his time as a British intelligence operative during World War II. For example, when the character of Q first appears in Fleming’s sixth Bond novel, Dr. No, he’s identified as Major Boothroyd. He was named after Geoffrey Boothroyd, a British firearms expert who wrote to Fleming to criticize 007’s choice and use of weaponry in Fleming’s early novels.
Boothroyd wasn’t personally identified as Q, however, but simply as a member of Q Branch. Q Branch predates the appearance of Boothroyd, showing up in the first Bond novel, Casino Royale. The two would not become directly synonymous until much later in the series.
Q Branch (and Q himself) is often assumed to be shorthand for Quartermaster, as Q provides Bond with much of his professional materiel. That’s not entirely accurate, as the Q codename is a reference to another of Fleming’s real-life (and historically significant) spycraft experiences.
WHAT’S THE “REAL” REASON JAMES BOND’S GADGET-MAKER IS CODENAMED Q?
The James Bond support character of Q was inspired in part by Charles Fraser-Smith, a real-life gadget-maker who built spy gear for British intelligence operatives during World War II. Fraser-Smith’s work included cameras disguised as cigarette lighters, hairbrushes that contained hidden saws, and steel mesh shoelaces that doubled as garrote wires. Fraser-Smith famously dubbed these items as Q gadgets, which prompted Fleming — who was aware of Fraser-Smith’s work — to name his own fictional spy’s gadget-maker Q.
The Q gadget nickname wasn’t original to Fraser-Smith. He cribbed it from Britain’s Q-Ships, World War I naval battleships mocked up to appear as civilian freighters. This notion of disguising offensive equipment as relatively innocuous counterparts thus became synonymous with the Q prefix, at least in British intelligence circles. Fleming merely carried on the tradition in his own British spy franchise.
While a handful of actors have portrayed Q, the late Desmond Llewelyn is most identified with the gadgeteer after appearing as the character in 17 films over the course of 36 years. No matter what the latest Q, Ben Whishaw, brings to the role, he’ll be compared to Llewelyn’s version. Of course, the apparently callow Whishaw shouldn’t be assumed as inferior. After all, if Q has taught us anything, it’s that seemingly ineffectual items can conceal much more dangerous content.
That’s not just some savvy cinematic symmetry; it’s a cleverly concealed construct of Geek Trivia.