Q is a fictional character in the James Bond novels and films. Q (standing for Quartermaster), like M, is a job title rather than a name. He is the head of Q Branch (or later Q Division), the fictional research and development division of the British Secret Service.
The character actually appears only fleetingly in Ian Fleming’s novels, but comes into his own in the successful Bond film series; he is also mentioned in the continuation novels of John Gardner and Raymond Benson. Q has appeared in 20 of 23 Eon Bond films; all except ‘Live and Let Die,’ ‘Casino Royale,’ and ‘Quantum of Solace.’ The character was also featured in the non-official Bond films ‘Casino Royale’ (1967) and ‘Never Say Never Again.’
The ancestry of the Q character is rather complicated. In the Fleming novels there are frequent references to Q and ‘Q Branch’ with phrases like ‘see Q for any equipment you need.’ In the sixth novel, ‘Dr. No,’ the service armorer Major Boothroyd appears for the first time. Fleming named the character after Geoffrey Boothroyd, a firearms expert who lived in Scotland. He had written to the novelist suggesting that Bond was not using the best firearms available.
Boothroyd is also referenced occasionally in the Bond novels of John Gardner, but the author preferred instead to focus on a new character, Ann Reilly, who is introduced in the first Gardner novel, ‘Licence Renewed’ and promptly dubbed ‘Q’ute’ by Bond. Charles Fraser-Smith is also widely credited as being the inspiration for Q due to the spy gadgets he’d built for the Special Operations Executive being called ‘Q-devices’ after the Royal Navy’s World War I Q-ships (heavily armed merchant ships with concealed weaponry, designed to lure submarines into making surface attacks).
In the films, Major Boothroyd first appears in ‘Dr. No’ and later in ‘From Russia with Love,’ although played by different actors. Desmond Llewelyn stated that though he was credited as playing ‘Major Boothroyd.’ Beginning in Guy Hamilton’s ‘Goldfinger’ and in each film thereafter Major Boothroyd is most often referred to as Q; however, in ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ (1977) he is referred once again as Major Boothroyd in dialogue. In most films in which Q appears, he is restricted to a ‘behind the scenes’ involvement, either based in London or in secret bases out in the field. Two notable exceptions in which Q becomes directly involved in Bond’s missions occurs in ‘Octopussy,’ in which Q actually participates in field work – including the final battle against the villain’s henchmen – and ‘Licence to Kill’ in which he goes off-book and joins Bond in the field after 007 goes rogue.
In the first film, ‘Dr. No,’ Boothroyd is played by Peter Burton in only one scene in which he replaces Bond’s .25 Beretta 418 pistol with Bond’s signature .32 Walther PPK handgun. The character later appeared in From ‘Russia with Love’ played by Desmond Llewelyn, due to scheduling conflicts that kept Burton from reprising. He is referred to by M as ‘the armorer.’ Beginning with ‘From Russia with Love,’ Desmond Llewelyn portrayed the character in every official film except ‘Live and Let Die’ until his death in 1999. The scenes in the films where Q briefs Bond on the gadgets that he is going to use on his mission would include dialogue of antagonism between the two, with Q often annoyed by Bond’s wandering attention span, often telling him ‘Now pay attention, 007,’ and Bond’s seemingly playful lack of respect for the equipment he and his branch develop and famously telling the agent, ‘I never joke about my work, 007’ (a line referenced by his successor in ‘Die Another Day’). In ‘Thunderball,’ Bond can be heard muttering ‘Oh no’ when Q joins him in the Bahamas.
However, on occasion, Q has shown a warm and fatherly concern for 007’s welfare, such as at Bond’s wedding in ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service,’ when he assures Bond that he is available if Bond ever requires his help despite Bond planning to leave MI6, and when, at the behest of Miss Moneypenny, he secretly sneaks gadgets out of MI6 to help Bond survive his vendetta against the drug tyrant Sanchez in ‘Licence to Kill.’ Arriving unannounced in Isthmus City (posing as Bond’s uncle – similar to how he posed as Bond’s father in ‘You Only Live Twice’), he flatly tells the agent, ‘If it hadn’t been for Q Branch, you’d have been dead long ago’ — to which Bond has no answer. Q has also assisted Bond in a more active role in his missions in ‘Octopussy,’ remaining to aid Bond in person even after another ally is particularly sliced in half by a massive chainsaw. He frequently refers to Bond as ‘007,’ rather than by his name. Despite the great annoyance Bond causes Q on many occasions, there is always a sense that they certainly get on well and have great respect for one another.
The growing respect is also evident in ‘GoldenEye’ when Q shares a joke with Bond for the first time, and when in ‘The World Is Not Enough’ he reveals his plan to retire, Bond is clearly saddened at the prospect, and Q signs off with his famous ‘Now pay attention, 007,’ and then offers some touching last words of advice: Q: ‘I’ve always tried to teach you two things: First, never let them see you bleed’ / Bond: ‘And second?’ /Q: ‘Always have an escape plan’ — before he is lowered out of view. This was the final film appearance of Desmond Llewelyn as Q in the James Bond series. Llewellyn died in a car crash just weeks after the film’s release.
In ‘The World Is Not Enough’ an assistant to Q was introduced, played by John Cleese. His real name has yet to be revealed, but he is initially credited as R, stemming from a joke in which Bond asks the elder Q: ‘If you’re Q, does that make him R?’ Initially portrayed as rather clumsy, R then became more self-assured and more in the style of his predecessor. They both shared the same attitude towards their professional work, requesting that Bond be more careful in the testing laboratories and return his equipment intact. In ‘Die Another Day,’ Bond at first refers to R as ‘Quartermaster’ but, silently impressed by the gadgets he is given, calls him ‘Q’ at the end of their meeting (Bond initially saw R as an ‘interloper,’ only awarding the proper title of ‘Q’ after R has proven himself). When Bond tries to joke with Q, Cleese’s Q was a lot quicker at comebacks than Llewellyn’s, making him more of a match for Bond in terms of wit. Bond: ‘You’re cleverer than you look.’ Q: ‘Still, better than looking cleverer than you are.’ or ‘Ah yes, the legendary 007 wit, or at least half of it.’