Pride Month Character Spotlight: Captain Jack Harkness
Welcome to the second article in our Pride series for the month of June! Each day we will be highlighting a different LGBTQ+ character who we think is a great example of representation, dynamic characterization, and overall badassery. Check out the rest of the series here.
Historically speaking, Doctor Who has maintained a firm stance on sexuality in the show. That is to say – it doesn’t really exist. Sure, there was the occasional fleeting romance in old Who. And the Doctors themselves have had children, so we know at least at some point they were in a relationship. But the show for the most part eschewed any sort of talk of romantic love.
That is, until Captain Jack came around. And changed the game.
He first appeared alongside the ninth Doctor in “The Empty Child” as he quite literally swept Rose off of her feet. “Excellent bottom,” he said, as his binoculars spied Rose dangling perilously from a Zeppelin high above London. The man he was with was flustered as Jack turned to leave, clearly on his way to save her sorry butt. “Sorry old man,” he smiled, broad and playful. “I gotta go meet a girl. But you’ve got an excellent bottom too.” And then he spanked the British officer playfully before leaving.
And just like that, a bisexual television icon was born.
Rose was taken with him instantly of course, much to the frustration of the Doctor. The fandom was, too. Captain Jack Harkness, played by the dashingly handsome John Barrowman, was all smiles and bright blue eyes and cheeks – oh the cheeks! He was a breath of fresh air on the show that hadn’t ever had such a sexualized character before. Jack flirted with practically anything that moved – but was always respectful about it. Couple that with a mysterious past and a penchant for saving the day (and a yet unexplained inability to die) and he was the perfect recipe for a companion for the new revival of Doctor Who.
The fandom liked him so much in fact that the BBC gave him a spinoff. Torchwood premiered in 2006 and ran for four seasons. In it, Jack was given a team (Tosh, Gwen, Owen, and Ianto) which chased down alien threats to earth based out of Cardiff. (Because everyone knows, everything happens in Cardiff.) This Doctor Who spin off was considerably more adult themed, diving into not only the issue of Jack’s sexuality (which we’ll get more into in a moment) but also more violent and existential. Essentially, everything that you couldn’t put on Doctor Who, because thats a family show, but in all likelihood should have been there.
I called Jack a bisexual icon earlier and he certainly is that, but there’s room for argument that the term pansexual and omnisexual are good descriptions as well. It’s made clear throughout the series that Jack has had relationships with all sort of creatures, human and alien alike, and that is by design. Both Russell Davies and Steven Moffat, writers and showrunners on Who, were huge proponents of featuring a bisexual character in the world of Doctor Who. According to Bisexualty Wikia, “On creating Jack, Davies comments ‘I thought: It’s time you introduce bisexuals properly into mainstream television,’ with a focus on making Jack fun and swashbuckling as opposed to negative and angsty. Moffat added, ‘It felt right that the James Bond of the future would bed anyone.’
The bulk of the time spent focused on his romantic love is split between Gwen and Ianto. Gwen of course was unattainable – she spent the entirety of their friendship already in an established relationship with her boyfriend turned husband Rhys. But there was undeniable chemistry between the two, and my heart was in my throat nearly every time they looked at each other.
Which is why it’s really a testament to John’s acting that I felt exactly the same way watching the romance between himself and Ianto play out. Their love was much less about spice and heat and more about friendship and companionship, but just as deep. At one point in the show, Jack even jokes (as Gwen walks in on Ianto and Jack getting busy) that there’s “room for one more” – implying that he’d be interested in having both of them at the same time.
Though I would argue that Jack’s sexuality is at the forefront of many story lines of Torchwood due in large part to the era of television it was produced in, it still manages to run undercurrent to the larger aspect of his character. That is to say, as much as they could, Jack’s sexuality wasn’t a plot point so much as another facet of who he is. We could do well to have more bisexual male characters in mainstream television today. Or heck, it’d be great if we could have Jack team back up with the latest iteration of the (lady) Doctor and see what kind of adventures they could get into!
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