After all the adolescent shagging and innuendo that litters Torchwood like turds on a beach, 'Captain Jack Harkness' finally gives the series a mature and touching gay relationship, whilst continuing to develop Jack's character and building up tension in preparation for the series finale. The relationship between the two Captain Jacks is handled subtly and touchingly, and in a series that has seen a statistically unlikely number of the regulars demonstrating bisexual tendencies, it is very pleasant to finally have the issue of same-sex relationships addressed by a writer who, as in her previous 'Out of Time', appears to actually be an adult rather than a horny and sexually confused teenager pretending to be one. The mutual attraction between the Captains is underplayed for most of the episodes, and largely conveyed by the body language of actors John Barrowman and Matt Rippy, and is a genuinely touching example of unrequited attraction, with Jack telling his namesake, "I just think you should live every minute like it's your last" and nobly even persuading him to go after his girlfriend and kiss her goodbye. Even more touching is the climax of this subplot, as the pair kiss passionately, but does have one minor problem associated with it: it is virtually impossible to believe that an officer in the military in the nineteen forties would be stupid enough to kiss another man like that in front of a crowd of people, especially when that crowd includes his men, and it is, unfortunately, even more unlikely that they would then follow him into battle, which we know that they do from the minute that Jack reveals the circumstances of the Captain's death. Making a stand for equality is great; doing it in a story set in that era makes the writer look like a romantic fool.
Nevertheless, 'Captain Jack Harkness' is a very strong episode, and in addition to letting the star of the show get something approaching a meaningful emotional connection with somebody, it also asks fresh questions about him. The mystery attributed to Jack in the series has largely concerned the fact that his team-mates know little about him; the audience however knows that he is from a different time zone, that the hand in the jar with which he is so obsessed is the Doctor's from 'The Christmas Invasion', and that he can't die as a result of Rose resurrecting him in 'The Parting of the Ways'. What 'Captain Jack Harkness' does is reinforce how little even the audience knows about him, as we learn, "I went to war when I was a boy. With my best friend" and that the enemy ("the worst possible creatures you could imagine") forced him to watch his best friend tortured to death, and then they let him go. More strikingly, we also learn that we don't even know his real name. Although ironically, it's also at this point that Jack's refusal to tell anything more on the grounds that Tosh wouldn't want to know starts to wear thin, because the audience would clearly like to know.
In the midst of all of this, writer Catherine Treganna gives the rest of the team plenty to do. Whilst the sexual politics of wartime England are ignored, the racial politics are not as Toshiko faces inevitable problems in wartime England ("Why's George dancing with a Jap?"); interesting, the bile all comes from the wives and girlfriends of the soldiers rather than from the soldiers themselves. Tosh also gets to use her brain by trying to find a way to communicate across time, whilst Gwen gets to play detective, Owen determines to save his friends whatever the cost, and Ianto is forced to take desperate measures to stop him, insisting, "Jack would never allow it" when Owen starts trying to find a way to open the Rift. Unfortunately, in an example of just how ridiculously overwrought Torchwood tends to be, Ianto decides to try and stop Owen not by, for example, hitting him over the back of the head with the butt of his gun, but by actually shooting him, which seems a little extreme. Although in retrospect, this pales into insignificance next to the tripe that follows. The script also reminds the audience just how screwed up Ianto must be by this point, as he tearfully sobs, "Jack needs me!" having only previously been reminded about Lisa, which is presumably meant to count as interesting characterisation, but just serves as a reminder that the script-editor is a hack.
'Captain Jack Harkness' also introduces the profoundly sinister Bilis, a man who exists in two separate time zones and who has spun an elaborate trap that inexorable starts to close around the Torchwood team, as he skilfully manipulates them all. Director Ashley Way makes the scene in which Jack and Ianto find a picture of Bilis an impressively sinister moment, by reminding the audience that Gwen is alone with him in the theatre, and coaxes a supremely chilling performance from actor Murray Melvin. Melvin emphasises just devious and cunning Bilis is, and although Ianto realises, "It's a trap! Billis wanted you to find it" when Owen locates the missing piece of the Rift Manipulator hidden in his clock, he fails to prevent its use. All of which builds suspense up for the following episode, although one final annoyance concerns that the fact that we don't get an explanation for who built the Rift Manipulator: the nearest we get is actually in a deleted scene on the DVD release, and that only raises more questions as it raises interesting possibilities about exactly who built the Hub.
Overall, despite some flaws, 'Captain Jack Harkness' is a rather good episode. It benefits from a very polished production, with the nineteen-forties scenes invoking the look and feel of the period perfectly, right down to the music: the BBC is renowned for this sort of thing, but it's still appreciated. The end result is an episode that provides a promising set up for the series finale, as Bilis trap causes the Rift to open. Which makes it a real shame that the finale in question is about as entertaining as being kicked in the testicles.
Filters: Television Torchwood