Jennifer Mattson

About That ‘Exploding Pen’ Joke: A Guide to the Bond Homages in ‘Skyfall’


Now newcomers and casual fans can appreciate the inside Bond jokes, too.

Skyfall, which marks the 50th anniversary of the James Bond films, is packed with references to 007’s storied past with nods to both the earlier movies and the original Ian Fleming novels. Here are a few of the movie’s most notable homages, with some additional intelligence on the saga’s literary roots. (Warning: major spoilers ahead).

The New MI6

Following an explosion at MI6, M (Judi Dench) and her staff evacuate to new underground offices, packed with state-of-the-art computers and high-tech displays. In 1999’s The World Is Not Enough, M was also sent packing after close friend Sir Robert King (David Calder) unwittingly opens a booby-trapped suitcase at headquarters. M may have gotten the idea to relocate underground from 1967’s You Only Live Twice, during which Japanese intelligence chief Tiger Tanaka (Tetsurô Tanba) sets up shop in a vacant subway station.

Additional Intelligence: While no similar attack on MI6 occurred in the novel series, a Soviet-brainwashed Bond did attempt to kill M in his office in 1954’s The Man with the Golden Gun. 007’s attempt to assassinate M is stymied when M deploys a “great sheet of armor-plate glass,” shielding him from Bond’s poison-filled gun.

Bond’s Gadgets

Q (Ben Whishaw) equips Bond with two items this time around. “Not exactly Christmas,” responds Bond. The new Walther PPK/S 9mm, encoded to Bond’s palm print so only he can fire it, is “less of a random killing machine and more of a personal statement.” It’s a far cry from the original Walther Sean Connery receives in 1962’s Dr. No, much closer to the “signature gun” Bond obtains in 1989’s Licence to Kill. As in Skyfall, the personalized sidearm proves vital in saving his life at the hands of unfriendly agents. Q also gives Bond an emergency radio transmitter, an homage to the “homer” device that allows Bond to track Goldfinger in the eponymous 1963 film.

Additional Intelligence: In the first few Ian Fleming novels, Bond was armed with a .25 Beretta pistol. After weapons expert Geoffrey Boothroyd penned a letter to Fleming in May 1956 complaining of 007’s “rather deplorable taste in firearms,” Fleming changed it to the Walther.


Ben Whishaw’s Q is a young, smart, tech-savvy cyber strategist. In a word, he’s a nerd and a marked departure from Desmond Llewelyn’s cantankerous gadget master. “Were you expecting an exploding pen?” Q teases Bond. “We don’t really go in for that sort of thing anymore.” The comment reflects the producers’ back-to-basics approach in the Craig films, stripping the secret agent of the outlandish gadgets of films past. But some things never change. As Q sends Bond into the field, he utters his classic plea for 007 to return his equipment “in one piece.”

Additional Intelligence: The exploding ballpoint pen appears in 1995’s Goldeneye. Three clicks of its top will detonate the powerful grenade within. In one of the movie’s more tense scenes, Bond barely escapes death when villainous computer genius Boris Grishenko (Alan Cumming) absent-mindedly clicks away.

The Aston-Martin DB5

Bond’s iconic DB5, license plate BMT 216A, makes a triumphant return in Skyfall, nearly five decades after its debut in Goldfinger. The silver roadster retains its full suite of weaponry—headlamp machine guns, bulletproof chassis, and an ejector seat. The control mechanisms remain the same too, with a switch-filled armrest and the infamous red button in the gearshift. With M a reluctant passenger, Bond toys with pushing it as he asks her, “Are you going to complain the whole way?”

Additional Intelligence: In Fleming’s Goldfinger novel, the Aston-Martin lacks the more memorable features of its film counterpart. The “certain extras” of the book’s DB Mark III include “switches to alter the type and color of Bond’s front and rear lights if he was following or being followed at night, reinforced steel bumpers, fore and aft… and plenty of concealed space that would fox most Customs men.”

Resurrection: Bond’s Death and Rebirth

Skyfall is a film of beginnings and endings. It shows us Bond’s death in the form of an obituary penned by M, a nod to 007’s apparent demise in You Only Live Twice. Shortly before the explosive finale, we see where Bond spent his childhood and learn how he emerged from the crucible of his parents’ death to become the secret agent we know today.

Additional Intelligence: Skyfall reveals the names of Bond’s parents, which appear on their tombstone and in the inscription “AB” on Kincade’s (Albert Finney) hunting rifle. The names originally appeared in the novel You Only Live Twice, where M was tasked with writing a similar obituary for Bond after a disastrous mission to Japan. (Incidentally, we also learn that Bond began his academic career at Eton, but was quickly asked to leave after “some alleged trouble with one of the boys’ maids.”).

The Bond Girl

Sévérine (Bérénice Marlohe) lives an opulent life in China, but is desperately seeking a way to escape the clutches of villain Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). The notion of the unhappy “kept woman” is a common one in the Bond series, exemplified by Domino (Claudine Auger) in 1965’s Thunderball and Lupe Lamora (Talisa Soto) in Licence to Kill, both of whom, like Sévérine, spend a good portion of their screen time onboard their villainous boyfriend’s yacht.

Additional Intelligence: Ursula Andress, the actress who portrayed the original Bond girl, Honey Ryder, makes a cameo in the literary On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Undercover at a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, Bond’s attention is drawn to “that beautiful girl with the long fair hair… Ursula Andress, the film star.” Her “beautiful tan” was no doubt acquired in Jamaica, where Dr. No was produced a year before.


The movie’s last act takes place in Scotland, which literally brings us back to Bond’s roots and reminds us of the first actor to portray 007 on the silver screen, Scotsman Sean Connery. Bond chooses to bring M there, a place “back in time… somewhere where we’ll have the advantage.” In the end, Scotland proves a formidable refuge against a siege from former MI6 agent Raoul Silva. Sadly, M is a casualty of the assault, and a sober Bond returns to headquarters to find Moneypenny in from the field and back in her traditional role. Her outer office, with its iconic hat rack, outside M’s sound proof door, brings us full circle to the first meeting between 007 and M (Bernard Lee) in Dr. No. Dame Judi Dench’s reign, which began 17 years ago in Goldeneye has drawn to a close witha more traditional M (Ralph Fiennes) left to carry on the grand tradition of the Secret Service.

Additional Intelligence: Fleming originally intended Bond to be British (though the secret agent muses in Moonraker that “there was something alien and un-English about himself”). After Sean Connery was cast as Bond, Fleming established Bond’s heritage as half-Scottish.

Leave a Reply

Required fields are marked *.