Why “M” & “Q” Are Only Known By One Letter

M and Q are two of James Bond’s most reliable colleagues from MI6, but what is the significance and meaning of their single-letter codenames?

M and Q are mainstays of the James Bond franchise, but the significance of their codenames is never fully explored. James Bond was created by British author Ian Fleming, who wrote a dozen novels detailing Bond’s exploits, drawing from his own career in naval intelligence. These served as the basis for the James Bond film series, which has become one of the highest-grossing film series of all time. With Daniel Craig as the title character, the newest iteration of Bond is a gritty reimagining of the stories, with few of the over-the-top elements of previous decades’ installments.

Owing to his elite status as a 00 agent, James Bond often interacts with the top brass of MI6, most notably M, the stern head of the organization as a whole, and Q, the humorless head of research and development. Although neither character makes a point of engaging in the kind of active fieldwork that Bond is known for, both appear in nearly all of the films. Bond’s relationship with MI6 in the new Daniel Craig films is more distant, with him resigning in one way or another in Casino RoyaleSkyfall, and Spectre. The organization remains important, however, and M and Q eventually both reappear in the new continuity.

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Related: James Bond: Why Moneypenny & Q Aren’t In Casino Royale & Quantum Of Solace

Much like how James Bond is given the code number of 007, the initials M and Q are titles, bestowed upon different individuals over the course of the series. There are a few historical precedents for this, most notably the first director of MI6, Sir Mansfield Smith-Cumming, who used a lone “C” as his signature, creating the tradition of certain high-ranking MI6 personnel being referred to by an initial. In the case of Q, his title specifically stands for “Quartermaster,” a role in some military hierarchies which distributes supplies, although they are usually not as eccentric or stylish as the gadgets seen in James Bond films. Q was not present in Fleming’s novels and is referred to as either Major Boothroyd or the equipment officer in his first film appearances. It was not until Goldfinger that his codename was used, recalling the novels’ Q Branch.



The nature of M’s codename is a bit more difficult to define. Earlier Bond films presented M as a title as well, but the M’s of the new Daniel Craig series, named Olivia Mansfield and Gareth Mallory, seem to have redefined it as an abbreviation of their surnames, much like Smith-Cumming’s signature. There is a precedent for this in the novels, as Fleming eventually revealed his M to be named Sir Miles Messervy. However, it has been proposed that Robert Brown’s M is named Hargreaves, as the actor played an admiral with that name in an earlier appearance, which would undermine the retroactive applicability of the theory.

As characters primarily significant for holding a certain job, when someone like Q or M is recast necessarily, a major benefit is that the story can simply explain it as another person literally assuming the role. This transition has sometimes even been shown, as M actors Ralph Fiennes and Robert Brown both played other characters prior to becoming Head of MI6, and John Cleese of Monty Python fame played an assistant jokingly referred to as R before being called Q. Reintroducing the idea of M being a personal initial imposes a minor but notable restriction on the naming of recast M’s in the future.

Maintaining consistent characters in on-going stories as actors move on to different projects is a dilemma that will be faced by an increasingly large number of extended cinematic universes in the near future. And while Marvel and DC have both introduced multiverses that may ameliorate some of the difficulty, the James Bond series may have found the most elegant solution: much like the passing of Captain America’s shield in Avengers: Endgame, Bond’s fictionalized MI6 has for decades been using titles to hand down iconic cinematic roles in a way that doesn’t strain the audience’s suspension of disbelief (perhaps knowing they’ll need it for all of the different Bonds, which aren’t given a similar explanation).

Next: How James Bond Became 007 (& How Its Meaning Has Changed)

Key Release Dates

  • No Time to Die/James Bond 25 (2020)Release date: Nov 20, 2020


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