He’s been called armorer, quartermaster, the equipment officer, and Major Boothroyd. But fans of the James Bond movies will always know him simply as Q — OK, Mr. Q, if you take your cues from “Diamonds Are Forever.” He’s the dapper gent in charge of the British Secret Service’s Q Branch, which supplies Double O agents with all kinds of gadgets and weapons to protect themselves and kill others.
Astute Bond fans know that Q hasn’t been seen, or even mentioned, since the film series was rebooted in 2006, when Daniel Craig took over as the new, improved, leaner, meaner Bond. This guy had no need for Q and his gadgets. All he needed was a gun, a fast car, and brute force. But Q is returning to the Bond fold in the new film, “Skyfall.”
There was no character named Q in Ian Fleming’s Bond novels or short stories, though Fleming’s fictional weapons man, Major Boothroyd, was based on gun expert Geoffrey Boothroyd, with whom Fleming shared a longtime correspondence over what Bond carried in his shoulder holster. But Q became a lovable mainstay of the movies, partly because he was smart, witty, droll, cranky, and a bit randy, partly because he was the only character who refused to take any badgering from Bond. Their relationship was verbally adversarial, but it also gave the films some good laughs.
He was called Boothroyd in “Dr. No” and “From Russia With Love,” but Q from “Goldfinger” on. He was featured in every Bond film except “Live and Let Die,” and was played once each by Peter Burton, Geoffrey Bayldon, Alec McCowan, and John Cleese, and 17 times by Welsh actor Desmond Llewelyn. Llewelyn died in a car crash in 1999, after his character retired in “The World Is Not Enough”; Cleese succeeded him, initially as R.
The new Q is played by fast-rising British actor Ben Whishaw (“Cloud Atlas,” “I’m Not There”), and he’s presented as a Q for today, a computer whiz who’s more concerned with foiling terrorist threats than supplying our hero with glitzy gadgets.
“I think the writers were looking around at the culture, and the ‘Bourne’ films had sort of challenged Bond, in a way, hadn’t they,” said Whishaw, 32. “So I believe what they were thinking was to bring it completely up to date, really plant the story in the contemporary world, so they asked themselves who this character would be now. That’s why he’s a young man and sort of a computer genius.”
The question is, are loyal fans going to accept that kind of break from formula, especially when dealing with such a beloved character?
Truth be told, the Bond series has been all about change since “Dr. No” blazed across screens 50 years ago. MI6 head M was seamlessly switched from a man (Bernard Lee) to a woman (Judi Dench); eight different actors have played CIA agent Felix Leiter; and six have been James Bond (seven if you count David Niven in the 1967 spoof “Casino Royale”).
But the difference in “Skyfall” isn’t just one of a new actor. It concerns a man and his gadgets, or a lack of them.
“There aren’t that many gadgets in the new film,” said Whishaw.
What? Not many gadgets?
In fact, the film has a great joke about that. When Bond first meets this new young whippersnapper of a Q, he’s handed a simple homing device and a gun that’s coded to his palm print. Bond looks at Q and says, “Really? That’s it?” Q looks right back and says, “What were you expecting, an exploding pen?”
Well, yeah. Bond aficionados still revel in the crazy items Bond got from Q’s lab: the attaché case containing a folding rifle, extra ammo, a throwing knife, gold sovereigns, and exploding talcum powder in “From Russia With Love”; the camera-rocket launcher in “The Man With the Golden Gun”; the hydrochloric acid-filled fountain pen (no, it didn’t explode) in “Octopussy.”
There was always extra, usually comic, activity going on around other items in the lab, even if Bond didn’t get to use them: an Egyptian smoking pipe-machine gun from “The Spy Who Loved Me”; a boom box-rocket launcher that Q refers to as a “ghetto blaster” in “The Living Daylights”; the flamethrower bagpipes in “The World Is Not Enough.”
Q’s inventions often led to the enjoyably antagonistic repartee between him and Bond. Next to the scene in “Goldfinger” where Bond, a laser pointed at his crotch, says to Goldfinger, “Do you expect me to talk?” and Goldfinger says, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die,” there’s probably no more famous dialogue than the Bond-Q exchange earlier in that film, when Q tells Bond not to touch the “little red button” in his new Aston Martin DB5.Continued...