Revisiting Torchwood: Captain Jack Harkness

Andrew's weekly look-back at Torchwood continues with some musings on the role of John Barrowman's Captain Jack...

People underestimate the many nuances of cheese. 

According to’s ‘A History of Cheese’, fromage “is one of the most varied and subtle foods in the world. In taste cheese can be bland, buttery, innocuous, rich, creamy, pungent, sharp, salty or lightly delicate.” 

All these adjectives can be used to describe John Barrowman. 

Make no mistake, Barrowman has carved himself a cheese niche. His sheer force-of-TV-personality fits right into the programme schedules like a combine harvester fits into a bison, and now bits of Barrowman are all over the place. 

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Cheese-wise, there’s something about the raw coagulation of tit-juice from a cow that is mysteriously off-putting for some, be it foodstuff or broadcast. Such things are vulgar, lowest-common-denominator. They’re Old Gobbo in The Merchant of Venice. What is this crowd pleasing filth of which you partake, the BBC? It’s almost as if you want lots of people to watch you. 

Light Entertainment is often an insult on websites such as this, as if popular light entertainment shows are intrinsically worth less than rubbish Science Fiction. There’s a reason more people watch The One Show than watched Outcasts, and it isn’t because people are stupid. Even so, there’s a tendency to criticise John Barrowman for his tendency to surprise grannies while covered in latex. True, there are many people in prison for broadly similar activities, but most of these people didn’t sing I Want to Break Free with their victims afterwards. 

This is but one cheese string on the Barrowbow. Subtlest and most deadly of all is when he, John Barrowman (of all people), underplays. ‘When?’ I see you cry, for I am watching you through a camera, ‘When does he underplay anything?’ 

Well, about as often as Captain Jack does. Steve ‘Moff with his head’ Moffat’s script for The Empty Child describes him as having “the smile of a bastard” – he is not one of nature’s underplayers. 

What ensues is the universe’s second most popular version of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. The effect of Captain Jack is much like having your brain smashed out with a slice of lemon wrapped around a large gold brick. Ask anyone who drinks ridiculously strong beer though and they’ll tell you (at length) about the many nuances of such pummelling beverages (Never drink cheese flavoured beer though. It does exist, and it is wrong). 

Jack may have the impact of a sledgehammer, but that’s not to say he isn’t allowed moments of depth and subtlety: Small Worlds, Utopia, Adrift, and Children of Earth all feature key scenes (or, in Children of Earth‘s case, pretty much its entirety) which wouldn’t work if Barrowman hadn’t nailed his performance in them. 

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Having said that, John Barrowman’s ‘Coming Back to Life Acting’ is a joy to behold for the ensuing facial contortions and what I assume are his attempts to inhale reality itself. If there isn’t a YouTube montage of these, someone should make one. Now. Maybe interspersed with those shots of him standing on tall Cardiff buildings in a big coat for no readily apparent reason. 

While his resurrections are reassuringly similar, Captain Jack differs depending on which series and which role he plays. In Doctor Who he is, in some respects, a new Brigadier – someone to handle the fight scenes and engage in friendly yet confrontational banter. It wouldn’t do for the Doctor to lacerate a Paradox Machine with slow-motion gun (although I can see the Sixth Doctor looking incredibly pleased with himself firing a machine gun). You’ve got to hand it to someone who can make shooting things look like a fun activity all the family can enjoy. 

As the leader of Torchwood 3 he’s more like the amoral conman we initially met, willing and ready to do horrible things but for a greater good rather than personal gain. Jack is a consequentialist, compared to Gwen’s more absolute morality. Jack would, and has, killed one person to save the world, whereas Gwen would be more inclined to save everyone. 

The main practical use for Ethical Philosophy is being able to label fictional characters as representing one of two conflicting moral standpoints. Watchmen is particularly good at using these to create ambiguity. Torchwood isn’t as good, but that’s only a criticism in relative terms. At its best Torchwood stretches moral relativism into some pretty unusual shapes, and Jack is often integral to this. 

Gwen and Jack’s relationship consists of two things: something vaguely resembling love (as described by someone who had only ever witnessed it with binoculars from a variety of gothic rooftops); and fighting each other over the best way to do things. 

As Torchwood has lasted for more than one series, its characters shift in terms of supporting one side or the other, whereas Rorshach ends Watchmen being the only superhero who doesn’t compromise. In Torchwood people compromise themselves all the time, and then emote about it while Murray Gold or Ben Foster come up with a different arrangement to accompany ‘Owen’s Sad Face #4’. 

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Captain Jack rarely compromises, except when the Doctor is around. He often acts to save the day in a morally dubious manner. This results in a number of resolutions where we never get to see if Gwen’s method would have ultimately worked, because things tend to escalate and require immediate action. 

Jack’s approach gets the job done, but takes people down with it. Indeed, when Gwen does actually get her own way (in Adrift) it completely backfires. The end result means that Torchwood‘s moral compass is set towards ‘Oh sure, that’s the moral way to do things, but how about we go for something that actually works?’ 

This is one of the key differences between Torchwood and Doctor Who’s timeslots and approaches. The former is more likely to indulge in ‘Actually, humanity’s kinda shit isn’t it?’ denouements, whereas the latter forces Jack to kowtow to the Doctor’s methods, so eventually Jack ends up making speeches about how great humanity is as well. This is the sort of thing that determines what people mean by ‘gritty’ and ‘family-friendly’. Doctor Who usually scares you with monsters, not an uncomfortable observation on that nature of ethic behaviour. Usually. 

Then of course, an adult drama allows the programme makers to explore Jack’s sexuality in more graphic detail. Whatever else you think of Captain Jack, it’s good to have a lead character whose sexuality is just accepted by everyone, irrespective of the show he finds himself in. 

Some people might argue that there is no place for an overtly omnisexual being in children’s television, but it’s the best place to normalise such attitudes at an early age. It’s not like the Chuckle Brothers are going at it on CBeebies, groaning ‘To me’ ‘To you’. 

No-one wants to see that sort of cheese.

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