EARLY in the new James Bond thriller, Skyfall, Bond has a rendezvous with Q, the MI6 quartermaster, in front of Turner's The Fighting Temeraire in London's National Gallery. Through 17 Bond films, Q was played by Welsh actor Desmond Llewellyn, who was 85 when he presented his last round of inventions in The World Is Not Enough (1999). Q is now played by Ben Whishaw, a willowy English actor who looks very much younger than his 32 years.
"I'm the new Q," he tells Daniel Craig's tangibly virile Bond, his reedy, strangulated voice making him sound like a school sneak at Hogwarts. "You're joking," growls Bond/Craig.
But if he is disappointed with Q, he is even more disappointed with the gizmos he has on offer. "A gun and a radio! Not exactly Christmas, is it?" he says; the radio is only the size of a matchbox, admittedly, but its little antenna makes it look positively retro. Q sneers right back at him. "What were you expecting, 007? An exploding pen? We don't really do that sort of thing any more." With which he stands up and drifts away, back to his working life of algorithms and pallid Earl Grey, leaving Bond to stew in his own ruggedness. "Brave new world," Bond grunts.
"I can't pretend I wasn't very happy when [writer] John Logan came up with that line," Sam Mendes says, "because that was the feeling I was trying to get over. That 'Look, we can't actually do that sort of thing any more; it's a different world and a different Bond'."
Mendes, better known for making films such as American Beauty and Revolution-ary Road, directed Skyfall at Daniel Craig's suggestion.
It wasn't his decision to move the gadgets from centre stage, he points out; the sea change came with Casino Royale, when director Martin Campbell went back to the first book in the series, when Bond is first given his licence to kill.
Campbell took the opportunity to wipe the slate clean, cut out the stock characters of Q and Moneypenny, and most of the well-worn tropes of a series that had become a parody of its own parody, remaking Bond as an action hero. Mendes was actually bringing Q back, in line with Craig's wish to be a little less serious as Bond this time around.
"But when you do bring him back and you start thinking about gadgets," says Mendes — who gleefully confesses to having had a model of Bond's Aston Martin, complete with a working ejector seat, when he was a boy — "almost every gadget you can imagine is available in the Apple Store. So, really, what could you ask for that you can't get now?
"Basically, all you come down to is weapons. They're the only things that are illegal: guns and bombs."
The changes to the Bond arsenal are about way more than the real-life competition, however, just as a gadget in Bond was never just a gadget.
It should never be forgotten, at least in the context of Bond studies, that Ian Fleming's first Bond novel was published in 1953: the same year Playboy was launched. For aspirational Playboy readers, Bond's fast living and conspicuous consumption epitomised modern sophistication. And what job could be more sophisticated than that of a secret agent?
In the early days of Bond movies — the days of Dr No, Goldfinger, From Russia with Love and Thunderball, all popped out yearly between 1962 and 1965, when the Cold War was at its frostiest — 007's gadgets were often modelled on actual espionage accessories. They were exciting precisely because they were real, or rumoured to be; no exaggerated invention could be as thrilling as a glimpse of that secret world.
In their entertaining book The Science of James Bond, Lois Gresh and Robert Weinberg list some of the real items collected in the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, that positively reek of 007, even if they were not directly copied.
There is a camera in a cigarette lighter used by US Intelligence, a lipstick gun invented by the KGB, a rectal tool kit designed by the CIA and a shoe with a heel transmitter issued in 1958 by the KGB to its agents. (This last was memorably mocked in the '60s television spy spoof Get Smart, where Max would regularly get on to the "shoe phone".)
The spy genre seems to lend itself to parody, possibly because it is so obviously about male wish-fulfilment: witness Mike Myers' Bond spoof Aus-tin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me (1999), which summons up every absurd excess of Swinging London to hilarious effect.
Other gadgets were not in use, but were at least feasible. Fans' lists of favourite Bond gadgets are regularly topped by the jetpack from the opening scene in Thunderball, with which Sean Connery as Bond zooms out of the clutches of the evil Colonel Bouvar's henchmen. The jetpack was real, invented by the US Army, although it was never any use: it could carry only enough fuel for a 20-second flight, during which the pilot was likely to be badly burnt by the streams of steam.
Other devices, such as the watch that becomes a mobile phone (For Your Eyes Only, 1981) the voice box synthesiser (Dia-monds Are Forever, 1971) or the wetbike (The Spy Who Loved Me, 1977), were not possible when Q invented them, but have become so since.
And in 1978, when the case of the Bulgarian defector stabbed with the poisoned tip of an umbrella made the headlines, even the murderous points in monstrous Rosa Klebb's shoes in From Russia with Love ceased to seem far-fetched.
Of course, some of the gadgets, including my favourite - the crocodile motorboat in which Roger Moore as Bond approaches a fortified island with saurian stealth (Octopussy, 1983) - are really no more than fun.
And obviously, an Aston Martin sports car fitted with the aforementioned ejector seat, tyre-slashing hubcaps, guns to the front and an oil slick sprayer to the rear (Goldfinger onwards) is pretty damn cool.
So was that exploding pen, come to that.
However, these boys' toys speak of something much larger, being of a piece with spaceships that swallow other craft (You Only Live Twice, 1967) and solar generators that can split the earth (The Man with the Golden Gun, 1974), and of whole colonies of a super-race living on a space station and protected by radar blockers (Moonraker, 1979).
The point here is that James Bond, up to and including the Pierce Brosnan years in the '90s, has always been a creature of what we used to call the Space Age, right in his element at the bleeping controls in the cockpit of something supersonic. Both Connery and Moore, in particular, were given to cutting through argument with a gobbledegook chemical formula or some surprisingly exact knowledge of tropical fish; Bond is a man of action but, to quote a cliche of his heyday, knowledge is power.
The gadgets are the fun end of that sort of sky's-the-limit futurism, the sort of toolbox that allows you to move through a technological world without spilling your martini.
Gradually, however, this mastery of the universe has lost its force.
By the '90s, every Sunday newspaper would yield a catalogue packed with gizmos including amateur spy gear - hidden cameras, phone-tapping equipment, the lot.
The Space Age had receded into the glazed past; by the time Pierce Brosnan was trying to stay debonair in The World Is Not Enough (1999), wrote Martin Willis in an essay on technology in The James Bond Phenomenon: A Critical Reader, ''the film directly confronted Bond with out-of-control millennium technologies'' and Bond faced a villain with artificially enhanced powers, an example of ''the cyberisation of the human body''.
He wasn't just fighting for the free world any more; he was representing humanity.
As if to rise to this disquieting challenge, Bond's own agility and the gadgets he used to extend that prowess escalated to the point in Die Another Day (2002), where Brosnan, playing Bond for the last time, was provided with an invisible car and was able to surf an Arctic tsunami on the discarded bonnet of a car. No, I don't think so, either.
Back in the Moore years (Live and Let Die, 1973, to A View to a Kill, 1985), many fans had become disenchanted by the number of gadgets cluttering the franchise. Now, anyone could see that the gadgetry element of the franchise had jumped the shark; the decision to clear the decks with Casino Royale was clearly overdue.
But in Skyfall, Bond's retreat from the high-tech accessory is only one aspect of the film's heavy nostalgia for a lost era when an agent was a lone wolf, reliant on his wits and answering for his decisions only when the job was done.
In the opening scene, we see Bond's colleague, Eve, somewhere in Turkey, the gun on her shoulder aimed at Bond fighting an opponent on a moving train. She is alert, looking for the shot, as Bond and his kind have always done. The difference is that M is talking to her through the wire in her ear, telling her what to do.
Back at base, meanwhile, the MI6 workshop is no longer full of wild experiments such as the marvellous gun disguised as a boom-box - ''we call it a ghetto-blaster'' - that the old Q pursued in his dotty way; it's just a bank of screens filled with instant tracking maps. In almost every scene, there is another reminder that Bond's ability to pull a trigger and escape is old-school, even irrelevant, in a world ruled by the transfer of information that can be manipulated only by cerebral wraiths like the new Q. What is the point of giving him tubes of exploding toothpaste?
You realise, at this point, the extent to which Bond's tricksy paraphernalia - the tracking devices, the watch that shoots darts, the watch that includes a garrotte, a hell of a lot of watches, the cars - have conferred on Bond a symbolic potency.
In a climactic showdown in Skyfall, stripped of everything, Craig as Bond is besieged by a whole battery of baddies. All he has at his disposal are weapons that wouldn't have cut the mustard a century ago: a hunting rifle, whatever knives he can find and some sticks of gelignite that may have been left over from The Dam Busters. And his ingenuity, of course.
You could see that as a triumph: it's Bond himself, rather than an explosive cigarette lighter, that will have to get him out of trouble this time. But there is something melancholy about it. You wonder if this is the end - not of Bond himself, of course, but of all the cool stuff that made him cool, too. Even if it makes for a better Bond - and it undoubtedly has - is that really what anyone wants?
■Skyfall opens on November 22.