Okay, say you're the head of British Intelligence. Some nefarious criminal mastermind or other's got hold of an atomic bomb, or an "omega virus" or whatever and the fate of the free world hangs in the balance. Who do you call? Your top agent, right? So how come "M" never does?

That's right, despite the fact that M repeatedly promises the Prime Minister to "put our best man on it at once," the man who's always summoned is James Bond 007. And yet, various clues in the books and films suggest there's a better agent on the MI6 payroll. We never learn his name, but his number is 008.

Early Clues

We first hear of this paragon of British heroism in Ian Fleming's novel "Goldfinger." As Bond finds himself tied down to await a grisly fate via buzz saw, he muses that M will most likely send another agent to avenge his death. "Probably 008, the second killer in the small section of three. He was a good man, more careful than Bond." So reads our introduction to 008. A couple of sentences aren't much to go on, but already we know he's a man with enough restraint and good sense not to rush into danger as Bond does, and it's implied that Bond respects him for that.
In the film version of Goldfinger, M is the first to bring up Bond's rival. "This isn't a personal vendetta," M tells Bond, who's seething over the murder of Jill Masterson. "It's an assignment like any other. And if you can't treat it as such -- coldly and objectively - then 008 can replace you." The implication, of course, is that 008 is cold and objective, and not subject to the impetuous, testosterone-driven mistakes of 007. It's also our second indication that 008 could make a career out of cleaning up Bond's messes.

Later in the film, we find poor old James tied down again, only this time it's not a buzz saw that threatens to have him singing soprano, but a (more cinematically pleasing) laser beam. Again the other superspy gets a mention. "You're forgetting one thing, Goldfinger," says Bond. "If I fail to report, 008 replaces me!" Nice try, but as Goldfinger didn't read the book or hear M's earlier remarks, he doesn't realize the enormity of the threat. "I trust he will be more successful than you," he answers, looking decidedly unimpressed.


The Ideal Employee

We have to wait 23 years for another mention of 008. It comes in The Living Daylights when Bond questions the theory that General Pushkin is the mastermind behind Smiert Spionom. "I'll recall 008 from Hong Kong," M interrupts. "He can do it; he doesn't know Pushkin. He follows orders, not instincts!" This is enough to snap Bond to attention and bring him back in line.

So what's the deal with this 008 guy? Apparently he's got all of Bond's skills and then some. He knows how to follow orders, exercises caution, is not a sucker for the females and never allows personal feelings to interfere with the performance of his duties. By any objective standard, he's far more valuable to M than Bond, who let's face it is impulsive, insubordinate and easily swayed by a pretty face; who runs up hefty expense vouchers with his Dom Perignon and fancy dinners and who trashes vehicles as fast as Q can build them. Yes, compared to Bond this 008 fellow is a model employee, a real MVP, the kind of subordinate a boss dreams about.

Or to put it another way, too good to be true. You see, I have discovered Agent 008's dirty little secret; he doesn't exist! Come on, how could anyone drive an Aston Martin and not get into a road race on an impulse? How could any red-blooded male interact with those sexy female superspies and not get in the sack with them? It can't be done! Then there's the cold, hard facts: the stakes are global in Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, The Spy Who Loved Me, Moonraker and Tomorrow Never Dies. If there really was the threat of global destruction, why would M send anyone but his best agent, 008, to take care of things? He wouldn't, if the guy really existed.

But the real tip-off is the fact that 008 gets mentioned in 1987, 23 years after Goldfinger. As we all know, it is impossible for any double-0 but Bond to live that long. Most of 'em get 15 minutes tops, before they're shot in the arms of a belly dancer, knocked off a cliff, frozen in ice and snow, and/or knifed by evil twins while wearing a clown suit.


M's Little Secret

No, the mysterious 008 is a fabrication, an imaginary rival for James Bond, created by M to keep 007 in his place. Bond is a nice guy and all, but how can any mere mortal save the world once a year (in the 60s. Once every two years in the 70's and early 80's then a break due to legal issues) without getting a swelled head? James Bond makes mistakes, beds both good girls and bad and destroys millions in government property, but always comes out on top anyway. This kind of constant success would make him insufferably smug - and sloppy -- if not for M's one trump card; the threat of replacing him with the imaginary 008. If Bond ever realizes that in fact he is the best spy in the world, he'll get lazy and someone will pop him off. But if he thinks there's always someone out there just a little bit better, he'll keep giving 100% just to raise his average.

Watch the scene in TLD closely. As Robert Brown (M) delivers his lines, you get the distinct impression he's thinking, "Here's where I use the 008 Ploy. Checkmate!" Then when Bond has a change of heart, M sits back with a smug expression like, "What a sucker. That one gets him every time!"

Gotta hand it to M - this little scheme is brilliant in its simplicity. Inventing a fictitious co-worker wouldn't be too hard. In the hustle and bustle of the globe-trotting double-0 section, you could go a long time without seeing your office mates. "Oh, 008? Wouldn't you know it, you just missed him, Bond. He was sent to Instanbul this morning." Brilliant. But I'm on to you, M! I know your secret. This oh-so perfect 008 of yours doesn't exist. And even if he did, we wouldn't like him. He'd be too careful, too efficient and not horny enough. Plus within 24 hours we'd all be split over whether he should be played by Adrian Paul or Ralph Fiennes.

No offense to the estimable head of MI6, but ultimately the final authority on the merits of James Bond is Carly Simon (who's cuter, anyway). As she assured us years ago, "Nobody does it better!"

- David Morefield