Doctor Who: Companion Pieces - CAPTAIN JACK HARKNESS

Who wants to live forever, asks Tony Fyler.

It’s been a theme since Doctor Who came back in 2005 that the people the Doctor chooses as companions are special, more than the run-of-the-mill people on a million worlds, whether they know it or not. The corollary to that is that once their time with the Doctor is done, they go on making a difference to the world in which they find themselves, a difference that is their synthesis of their own personality and the Doctor’s example. Rose Tyler, Mickey Smith, and even when it comes to it Jackie Tyler become defenders of their Earth. Sarah-Jane is revealed never to have stopped being an ambassador to the Earth’s friends, and an opponent to its enemies. We hear tell of Tegan Jovanka’s work in securing Aboriginal rights, Jo Grant’s continuing fight against The Man, even Dorothy Something – Ace as we knew her – and her work raising millions for A United Earth. Martha Jones even joins UNIT and Torchwood to fight the alien threat to her home planet. The benevolent alien with a magic box changes their lives forever.

Nowhere is the effect of the Doctor’s influence more prominently displayed though than in the changing character of Captain Jack Harness.

When we meet him in war-torn London, he is the most terrific, moderately amoral fun – a temporal con man running a scam to sell a bill of goods, and as it happens a Chula ambulance ship pre-destined to be bombed out of existence, to the highest bidder. When he meets the Ninth Doctor and Rose Tyler, he is at first bemused by their amateur approach to time travel and the naivety of their honesty. It’s only when he realizes that his scam has caused chaos and suffering and something not quite as bad as death that his slick sales patter breaks down, and the truth about Jack Harkness emerges – he’s a man with a chunk of his memory missing, excised by people who don’t want him to remember the things he’s done. He gets by however he can. But encountering the Doctor and Rose changes him, makes him take responsibility for his actions and prepare himself to die as a result of them, rather than letting anyone else be killed through the recklessness of his schemes. It’s this act of surprise nobility that prompts Rose to get the Doctor to rescue him at the last moment, and Jack becomes a time traveler of an entirely different class.

Travelling with Rose and the Doctor, Jack falls more and more under the spell of the Time Lord – he loves him, just as much as Rose does, and maybe even more. But Rose saved the Doctor from the Time War introspection that could have condemned his Ninth incarnation to a life entirely consumed by survivor-guilt and the memories of his War Doctor actions, so it’s Rose for whom the Doctor himself has eyes. Jack, he sees, perhaps perversely, in the asexual way in which he used to see most of his companions, there for the ride and the shared times, but that’s all. When Jack is exterminated by Daleks, he faces his death with a stoicism that is learned or remembered as a result of his time spent with the Doctor.

Annnnnd thereby begins a whole other class of complication, because Rose Tyler’s not having it. She absorbs the time vortex, becomes the Bad Wolf, and with a certain cack-handed naivety restores Jack to life. Except she gets it a bit wrong, with the result that Jack Harkness becomes a fixed point in time, an impossible thing, and something even the Tardis runs away from. He becomes, as far as is known, the universe’s only living immortal. 

The Tardis runs off and leaves him ‘ankle-deep in Dalek dust,’ with no alternative but to try to find the Doctor via his own vortex manipulator – and with no idea of his new status as a watcher of the universe’s passing. Jumping back to Victorian times, he waits, and works for the prototype Torchwood Institute, getting killed several times along the way and becoming shockingly aware that he is the man who cannot die. For over a hundred years he lives a semi-normal human life on Earth, dealing secretly with the threats that emerge.

After Torchwood is disgraced and decimated by the events of the Battle of Canary Wharf, Jack knows what he has to do. After Canary Wharf, and knowing that his own sacrifice has become an impossibility, Jack does the only thing he can to make amends for what he thinks is the death of Rose. He remakes the Torchwood Institute in the image of the Doctor as he sees him – fair but firm, doing the difficult things because they’re also the right things, walking a line of welcoming the positive aliens and meeting the hostile with warnings and force when necessary. Without being aware of their conversation, he turns Torchwood into the thing that Harriet Jones thought it needed to be – a force to do the Doctor’s job while the Doctor wasn’t there. A force to set the Doctor free, and Jack makes it very much a totem of love as well as a plea for forgiveness.

When he finds the Doctor again, they go to the end of the universe together, and Jack and Martha share not only the realisation that they are both in unrequited love with the Doctor, but also the Year of Hell under the rule of the Master. It’s a year that lets the Doctor to make peace with the ‘impossible thing’ that is Jack Harkness, but it also allows Jack to think – while he may have reforged Torchwood in the Doctor’s image, it has become a thing greater than its cause to him, and he knows he belongs now with the humans he has befriended and commanded.

It’s only really once he’s acknowledged this to himself that Jack begins to feel able – certainly within the Torchwood setting - to move on from his obsession with the Doctor and find a new love, though this shouldn’t be overplayed in any assessment of Jack’s psyche. It’s clear that he’s had proper, meaningful love affairs in the hundred years or so he’s been stranded on Earth, waiting for a version of the Doctor that would ‘correspond’ with his timeline. But the acknowledgement that something is greater than his wait to see the Doctor again, and that when given the chance, when given the universe as his oyster, he chooses to stay with ‘that team of mine,’ is enormous in Jack’s personal growth. It’s his evolution from dependency to individuality.

From there we know he has both triumphs and tragedies. He becomes part of a couple again, this time with Ianto. His past comes back to kick him, and he loses friends. When the Doctor sees him next, the Earth has been shifted across the universe and the whole of reality is threatened by Davros’s insane plan to make the Daleks masters of an empty cosmos. Defeating them alongside several of the Doctor’s other ‘Children of Time’ reminds Jack of how good an influence the Doctor can be, how positive a role model he generally is. But the hubris of trying to be the Doctor costs Jack dear when the 456 come calling and he determines to stand against them. Like the Doctor’s equal, he stands in the way of the evil – but he learns the Doctor’s darkest lesson when they kill the man he loves, right there at his side. People standing next to the Doctor become something special – if they survive. The murder of Ianto brings the loneliness of eternity screaming back to the forefront of Jack’s mind, and having to sacrifice his grandson to stop that death from being in vain pushes him into a place beyond simple solutions. At the end of Children of Earth, Jack would probably kill himself if he thought that would do any good. But it won’t, and he has to find a way to exist. He runs away into space, to lose himself in the immensity of his life and responsibility, his inescapable failure. And once more, in a gesture of equality and payback for all he’s done, it’s the Doctor who sets him on the right path, introducing him to Alonso Frame. With a superhuman long life, the only way to survive is to mourn, to grieve, and to move on to new connections.

If Miracle Day teaches Jack anything, it’s that he has to be strong to carry the burden of his immortality – when the rest of the world gets a taste of it, things quickly go to Hell in a handcart. But while his time with the Doctor is over, the Doctor’s final lesson makes real sense only when Rex Matheson becomes immortal, because only then does Jack have a friend on Earth who can understand like the Doctor - an uncomplicated companion to share eternity with.

Tony Fyler lives in a cave of wall-to-wall DVDs and Blu-Rays somewhere fairly nondescript in Wales, and never goes out to meet the "Real People". Who, Torchwood, Sherlock, Blake, Treks, Star Wars, obscure stuff from the 70s and 80s and comedy from the dawn of time mean he never has to. By day, he runs an editing house, largely as an excuse not to have to work for a living. He's currently writing a Book. With Pages and everything. Follow his progress at
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