Captain Jack Harkness might be the ideal gay superhero, but has he been burdened by more baggage than he can bear?
Brave, brash, handsome, sexy and charismatic, the character of Captain Jack Harkness, played by the gorgeous John Barrowman, made his first appearance in Russell T. Davies’ reinvention of Doctor Who and went on to lead the spin-off series Torchwood.
Jack comes from the distant future and Rose and the Doctor first meet him during the London Blitz where he is plying his trade as a time-travelling conman. Jack is openly gay, though not averse to an adventure with any gender or species. He joins forces with Rose and the Doctor but due to a complex series of events dies, is revived and acquires immortality. While he can die and feels all the agony that entails, he repeatedly comes back to life.
Davies’ previous productions for the BBC included Casanova and Queer as Folk, the mini-series which inspired the long running American series of the same name. Issues of male sexuality are obviously important to Davies, but it is an element missing in Doctor Who. An overtly sexual and amoral rogue, Jack was introduced as a counterpoint to the highly moral and decidedly asexual Doctor.
As an adult series Torchwood is freer to explore sexuality, life and death, good and evil than is the family show that engendered it. Obviously influenced by Joss Whedon, the Captain Jack we discover in Torchwood owes much to the character of the dark and brooding Angel. This essay is an exploration of the vision the creator of Captain Jack Harkness has for his creation and how both the character and the series are manipulated to maintain that vision.
Spoiler Alert: this study goes into a great deal of detail.
Torchwood centres on one of the few remaining branches of the organization which protects Earth from alien incursions. It is situated under Cardiff, Wales in The Hub, an underground bunker over a Rift in time and space. The branch is headed by Jack and staffed by cynical, rebellious physician Owen Harper, highly-focussed scientist Toshiko Sato, empathetic police officer Gwen Cooper and self-effacing receptionist and general dog’s-body Ianto Jones.
Jack is the centre of the team in every way. Though often flippant, he is passionate about the work they do and ready to do whatever it takes, and take whatever personal pain is required, to do the job and protect his team. For their part the team all look to Jack for leadership and personal affirmation. He is flirtatious and open about his sexuality, and is obviously drawn to both men and women. Yet deep-down he is a man out of his time and very much alone.
However, the character of Captain Jack Harkness was not created as the lonely, heroic leader of a secret organisation, but as an amoral and amusing side-kick. He was created to be charming and outgoing, not introverted and alone. But more than this, he was created as a political statement — as an out and proud gay man — rather than as a nuanced dramatic character. I feel these two aspects of his role are in conflict to the detriment of Jack’s character development, and the dramatic arc of the series.
Let’s take Season One. It begins with the recruitment of police constable Gwen Cooper into the team. Gwen is empathetic and warm-hearted, and, although she has a boyfriend, Rhys, at home, is immediately drawn to Jack and he to her. By the end of her first day she has discovered Jack’s secret, that he cannot die. As the season continues, Gwen seems to be the team member that is closest to him. She is the only one who can speak honestly to him and influence him. But the initial sexual tension is lost, especially when she falls into an affair with Owen.
Towards the end of the season we see Jack at his most vulnerable. When he and Toshiko investigate a closed down dancehall which has been reported to emit music from the 1940s, the two of them are caught in a time warp and find themselves in 1941 in the middle of a dance during the Cardiff Blitz. There they meet the real Captain Jack Harkness, the man whose identity conman Jack stole during World War II, and this is the night before the Captain is destined to be killed in action.
While Toshiko frantically tries to find a way to re-open the time warp and get them back to their own time, Jack and the Captain get to know each other. Each is inevitably drawn to the other who is everything he would like to be and they find themselves falling in love. Knowing this is the last night of his life, Jack repeatedly urges the Captain to live it to its full, follow his girlfriend home and spend the night with her. The Captain reluctantly leaves, but then comes back, making it clear he would prefer to spend his last night with Jack. Jack’s first reaction is to demur, saying he expects to leave before the night is out. Throwing his own argument back at him, the Captain says they should make the most of the time they have.
As they are talking, hand in hand, they are interrupted by a courting couple who lay claim to the couch they are occupying. The two men quickly stand up. The Captain is embarrassed and says gruffly that they were discussing strategy. Jack is relaxed and says they can continue their discussion elsewhere, but the Captain backs off, leaving Jack on his own.
Later that evening Jack and Toshiko are sitting by the dance floor. Jack is tormented by the fact that a man he admires and loves is about to die and he can’t do anything about it. The man in question is watching him from across the room, also in agony. Astonishing everyone, the Captain crosses the room, takes Jack by the hand and leads him onto the dance floor, where they do something never seen in mixed company in the 1940s, hold each other close. This moving moment is shattered by the sudden re-opening of the time warp, but Jack delays his departure to go back and give the Captain a long and passionate kiss.
The behind-the-scenes feature makes much of the romance of the episode and Jack’s uncharacteristic passivity, but for me the episode missed its mark. It seemed to me that it was going too much against its time. I could imagine a man of the Captain’s generation accepting Jack’s implied invitation to find a quiet place where they could be alone, but not asking Jack to dance with him so openly. And it also seemed inconsistent that the Captain would make the big decision to spend the night with Jack, be so easily put off and then soon after make such a taboo gesture. There was definitely something wrong there.
While all this is going on, Owen and Ianto are back at The Hub arguing about what action they should take. Owen wants to go against Jack’s orders and open the Rift, while Ianto is defending Jack’s authority and trying to stop him. In the course of their argument it comes out that Ianto is Jack’s lover, or ‘part-time shag’ as Owen puts it. Ianto retorts that Jack needs him. When Jack recovers from a nearly permanent death at the end of the next episode, everyone hugs him, but it is Ianto he kisses on the lips.
This is all very nice for the two of them, but where did it come from? It seems a very unlikely partnership, and the last we saw of their relationship Jack was furious with Ianto and Ianto was deeply hurt by Jack. Since then all that had occurred that might have given a clue to this outcome was a moment when Jack put an apologetic hand on Ianto’s shoulder and a brief exchange in which Ianto offered to stay back after work one night and do something with Jack which was so cryptic it had to mean sex. As a viewer I felt cheated. When and how did this momentous change take place?
As a writer, I’m often dissatisfied by something I’ve seen or read, and the only way I can pacify this dissatisfaction is to go back and re-write the script to fix the problems. First, let’s look at the Jack and Ianto relationship.
Early in the season it’s established that Ianto is pretty much taken for granted by everyone. One night the rest of the team go off to the pub, forgetting to invite Ianto. Ianto doesn’t mind because he has a secret of his own. Deep in the bowels of The Hub, he is hiding his girlfriend Lisa. He and Lisa worked at Torchwood London, and as it was being destroyed Ianto rescued Lisa when she was halfway through the process of being made into a Cyberman. Ianto has invited a surgeon to attempt to reverse the process and make Lisa fully human again.
Unfortunately the surgery goes horribly wrong and when the team returns they find their headquarters in the hands of a full-blown murderous Cyberwoman. Jack is furious that Ianto has put his team and the whole world in such danger. After trying but failing to neutralise her Jack sends Ianto in with orders to kill her. Ianto can’t bring himself to kill the woman he loves and the team must do it for him. Ianto feels devastated and betrayed.
In an episode soon after, Toshiko gets her hands on an amulet that enables her to read minds. Among the minds she reads is Ianto’s. While he quietly goes about his work, his mind is full of unbearable pain. At the end of the episode, Toshiko is sitting outside The Hub with Jack, discussing her experience. Watching it, I expected her to tell Jack about Ianto, but she doesn’t. Instead they discuss how Toshiko was unable to read Jack’s mind and then Jack walks away into the distance, a lonely hero.
Here was the moment, I believe, when the relationship between Jack and Ianto should have changed. Toshiko should have told Jack about Ianto. Then we should have seen Jack go down into The Hub, find Ianto alone with his pain, and take him into his arms. This brief scene was all it would have taken to establish their new relationship, but the opportunity was missed. Why?
And then we have Jack and the Captain. Again I could see that only a small change was needed. It seemed to me that, when they were interrupted by the courting couple, it would have been more consistent for Jack to rebuff the Captain, rather than the Captain to rebuff Jack. The Captain had declared his desire for Jack. For a man of his time, that alone was a big step. It was unlikely he would let a slightly embarrassing moment put him off. On the other hand, Jack had every reason to back off. It would have been pretty difficult for him to deal with falling in love with a man who was going to die the next day, a death that, however illogically, he would have felt complicit in. In fact he had already begun to back off from the Captain before the young couple arrived. After all, weren’t his repeated attempts to push the Captain towards his girlfriend a way of backing off?
Wouldn’t it be more likely, then, that when they were interrupted, it would have been Jack who walked away from the Captain? It would have made the Captain’s final gesture much more credible. In those circumstances, the Captain, realising that he couldn’t have Jack any other way, and accepting it was his last night, could have thrown all caution to the wind to be with the person he wanted one last time. Instead of agony on the Captain’s face, we could have seen desperate determination.
Both of these changes would have been very small, and would have been very much in keeping with the scripts as they stood. Could it not be that these scenes as I describe them are so obvious that they were in the original scripts but were changed? How? By whom? Why?
Who would have wanted to and been able to change the script? Actors have a lot invested in their characters, and can sometimes make suggestions as to how they would act or react. Directors come to a script with their own vision and often do re-writes or make changes as they film. Editors can re-arrange and cut scenes to come up with a different final product to the original script. But the one person with the power to impose his vision on the final cut is not the actor, the editor or even the director, but the producer. If any changes are made they can only be made with the authority of the producer, Russell T. Davies.
Rather than let Jack go to Ianto and let the viewer in on how their relationship began, Davies chose to have Jack walk away from Toshiko as the lonely hero whose isolated mind and heart are closed, even to the most powerful technology. We are led to believe that Jack suffers in his loneliness, but he is unable to open his heart to someone else. Yet later the relationship between Jack and Ianto is asserted, and the point made that it is more than merely sexual, that Ianto is meeting Jack’s emotional as well as his physical needs. Here we have a contradiction between the lonely hero, and the sexual man who needs a lover.
These two aspects of Jack’s character are also at war in his relationship with the Captain. One minute he is lamenting to the Captain that he has no lover and is entirely alone, (despite his relationship with Ianto which is being established at the same time!), the next he’s openly flirting with him and suggesting a tryst. Here again we have the conflict between the lonely hero, and the out and proud gay man.
As the dark and lonely hero, it is only natural that Jack needs a confidante, a lover who can ease his loneliness. However, the dramatic tension inherent in such a character is that it is difficult for him to open up to someone else so that this desire is constantly thwarted. At the same time, it goes against the grain to deny this very sexual character a lover. Politically it might smack of ‘punishing’ Jack for being gay. To maintain Jack’s political purpose he must be allowed to have one.
Given the secretive nature of their work, it would have to be a member of the Torchwood team. From the beginning it would seem that Gwen would be his ideal confidante. However, Gwen is a woman and although Jack swings both ways, it would not be politically acceptable for him to ‘turn’ so to speak. Owen is decidedly straight, so the only other option is Ianto. However the passive and self-effacing Ianto seems rather unsuited to the brash and outgoing Jack, which is why it is such a shock when their relationship is revealed. Showing us at least the genesis of their relationship, if not its development, would have made it much more credible and satisfactory.
The contradiction is also evident in Jack’s relationship with the Captain, but acts in reverse. Again as the lonely hero, Jack would have found it difficult to open up to the Captain and allow himself to be hurt by his inevitable death. However, if, as I believe we should have seen, Jack had been disconcerted by the interruption from the courting couple, it would have seemed as though he were ashamed of his sexuality, something that would go against his political purpose. In order, then, to maintain his political stance, Jack must be sexually assertive rather than follow his feelings in this instance and back off. As such the character is compromised, not to mention the historical integrity of the Captain.
In all of these issues we see the contradiction between the attempt to develop Captain Jack Harkness into a dramatic character, and his function as Russell T. Davies’ political statement. Any overt attempt to privilege one aspect of his role frustrates the dramatic necessity of his other aspect, so that neither is quite satisfying.
Davies had made his political stand by creating Captain Jack Harkness and putting him front and centre. He should have let the character follow his own trajectory. I would argue that Davies’ team of excellent writers attempted to do this in Season One but were thwarted. Unfortunately, in Season Two the producers abandoned any attempt to maintain Jack’s dark persona in favour of keeping the action going at a frenetic pace.
Season Two of Torchwood displays all the marks of a production team that fears never getting a third season and so tries to cram into it all the ideas they can muster. However, in doing so they sacrificed much of the relationship line in favour of the action. This is particularly evident in the first episode when we are introduced to Jack’s former lover, Captain John Hart.
Captain John announces his arrival with a trail of death and mayhem. Jack goes to confront him in a bar and their first meeting is a typical western showdown. Guns at the ready, they slowly pace towards each other, come face to face, then… kiss… and then fight. And, as in all such encounters, they end up drinking together. All terribly macho. When the rest of the team arrives, Captain John announces that he was once Jack’s partner ‘in every way’, and that they were together for five years. The domesticity of their relationship is reinforced by an argument over which one of them was the ‘wife.’
Yet despite John’s protestations that he loves him, Jack does not trust him and is entirely resistant to all his efforts to win him over. John reacts by torturing and killing him, all the time maintaining he loves him and is only doing this because Jack refuses to spend time with him. It turns out that John is being forced to do what he is doing to Jack and when he can, he tries to save him.
Unfortunately, I found this supposed love story a lot less than compelling. John’s protestations of love sound either unconvincing or ironic. It is hard to see even the remnants of intimacy between them. At best they come across as former colleagues and rivals who enjoyed the occasional shag. It doesn’t take much to establish intimacy — a look, a smile, a touch. A kiss alone isn’t enough. In fact, a kiss can convey the antithesis of intimacy, as does the kiss between Jack and John. What is really needed, however, is more time — more time to explore their past, more time to show any attraction between them. But there is no time. There is a lot to get through in that episode so we have to take their relationship on trust.
Despite Captain John’s appearance, Jack’s only sexual relationships in Season Two are those established in Season One — with Gwen and Ianto. At the beginning of the season Jack returns unexpectedly after a long and unexplained absence (only we know that he was with the Doctor). He finds the team missing him, but functioning well under Gwen’s leadership. He must strive not only to re-establish his position as the team’s leader, but also in regards to Gwen and Ianto.
By the end of Season One, the sexual tension established between Jack and Gwen from their first meeting seemed to have been well and truly unwound, but as Season Two begins they are right back where they started. Jack looks ready to finally fulfil the desire they have both harboured for so long. They are on the verge of kissing, when Jack takes Gwen’s hand… and finds Rhys’s engagement ring. Gwen tells Jack she is going to marry Rhys because she loves him and he will give her the stability she craves. Besides ‘no one else will marry her.’ Jack backs off and many pained and yearning looks ensue.
Throughout the season, Gwen continues to declare her love for Rhys and her determination to marry him, but one begins to wonder if ‘the lady doth protest too much.’ It doesn’t seem that Gwen is holding Rhys up to come between her and Jack, but rather to show Jack what she really wants from him, and what he is unwilling to give her.
So why doesn’t Jack take her up on her challenge? Given his bravado, is it really out of consideration for Rhys? Could it be that Jack is underneath it all just your typical man, unable or unwilling to commit?
Jack has had relationships with women before. In Season One we meet Estelle with whom Jack was ‘inseparable’ in her youth and whom he still loves even in her old age. Towards the end of Season Two we see Jack fondly regarding a photograph of himself and his bride taken circa 1900. In Season Three we discover Jack has a daughter and grandson.
The problem cannot be that Gwen is a woman, or is it? Could the issue go deeper than it seems? Could it be that Jack is not predominantly homosexual, but heterosexual — that although he might enjoy sex with men, his deepest feelings are reserved for women and that is why he avoids relationships with them? I wonder what the political implications of that revelation might be.
While Jack’s feelings for Gwen must be kept under wraps, his relationship with Ianto is now out in the open. There is one nervous moment when he returns and must start from the scratch by asking Ianto out on a date. Ianto is willing if a little diffident and their relationship is re-established even while Jack pines for Gwen. Ianto becomes what, to a man, would be the perfect lover. He’s always available, and never demanding, needy or jealous. He doesn’t bat an eyelid when the dashing lover from the past turns up, and seems oblivious to Jack’s feelings for Gwen. He doesn’t even claim that what they have is a relationship. When questioned, Ianto will only admit that he and Jack ‘dabble’. But he does get a very dreamy look in his eye when he talks about Jack’s ‘innovative’ sexual technique. That look conveys more passion and intimacy than any of the clinchers we catch them in.
What’s lacking in this relationship is the tension. Ianto is as self-effacing in his relations with Jack as he is in his job. Whenever Jack is otherwise engaged Ianto falls back into his role as employee. The only effect the relationship has on Ianto is that he seems a little more confident than he was in Season One. The only advantage he takes of his position is sometimes to be able to talk to Jack when the others can’t, or to use the extra information he is privy to, but only to good purpose.
In fact, Ianto is taken for granted, not only by Jack but by the producers. Ianto might be quiet, but he is human, yet the writers ignore the possibility of any human drama inherent in his position. How can Ianto ignore how Jack feels about Gwen? How do the contradictions between Jack and Ianto’s relationship as lovers and as co-workers play out? How would Jack feel if he were to put Ianto in danger? None of these possibilities are explored. Again the potential of real emotional engagement is ignored in favour of the action.
I have little time for Season Three, Children of Earth, which, as well as being logically flawed, seems to me the product of a sick mind. However, it does have one saving grace in that, finally, Ianto’s relationship with Jack is taken a little more seriously. Unfortunately, Jack’s sex-life again compromises his character. Jack takes Ianto with him when, with nothing but a pistol and bravado, he attempts to confront the alien who is holding the world to ransom. Already looking plain stupid and laughable, Jack comes across as pathetic when, after vowing to fight to the last man, he pleads pitiably for Ianto’s life to be spared when the alien retaliates.
In Season Four, Miracle Day, we are taken back to the turn of the century when Jack has an affair with an Italian emigrant to America. Years later, now a dying old man, his former lover wants to see Jack, so his grandchildren kidnap and threaten to kill Gwen and her family in order to force him to come. Structurally it makes sense to link a passionate affair in the past with a dramatic event in the present, but again the producers have let through a huge logical flaw. All the angst is unnecessary. Since they did not part on bad terms, all the ex-lover needed to do was extend an invitation to Jack to come and see him. Jack would have had no reason to refuse and every reason to comply. This time Jack’s sex-life has compromised the integrity of the whole season.
© Pauline Montagna 2016