Outside the Government: Captain Jack Harkness

(27 comments)

Hello Sailor.

It’s January 1st, 2007. Leona Lewis is at number one with “A Moment Like This,” while Iron Maiden, Take That, Girls Aloud, Gwen Stefani, and Chris Cornell also chart. Since Christmas, Gerald Ford died. The UK paid off its last World War II debts to the United States and Canada, although it still has a few bits from the Napoleonic Wars and a rather large amount from World War I. And, of course, Saddam Hussein was executed. Also, it’s International Heliophysical Year. Aw yeah!

On television we have a triple-header - two episodes of Torchwood and the hour long premiere of The Sarah Jane Adventures all on the same day. Since we’ve been on a Torchwood kick, I’ll sort those two out first, and then we’ll do Sarah Jane on Friday. First, then, is Captain Jack Harkness, notably the only episode of Torchwood to earn a Hugo nomination, although, inevitably, it lost to Blink. This is, in many ways, not surprising. Captain Jack Harkness is an “issues” story that was well-timed. The beginning of 2007 was more or less peak time for a high profile television show to do a gay romance. And Torchwood did it well by not making a big deal of that aspect except inasmuch as Original Jack’s public embrace of Our Jack amounted to a public coming out and acceptance of his sexuality. Even still, there’s no reaction to it except a puzzled “what’s he doing” from one of Original Jack’s men. The episode is in no way about the fact that it’s the “gay men” episode, a quiet confidence that such an episode doesn’t need to be a Very Special Episode that’s about the glories of its own existence.

There is, of course, a reasoned objection to be had here, which is that it is maybe just a little too optimistic to think that 1941 was a time in which a captain in the US Air Force could publicly snog another man and get away with it, even to the extent of flying a fatal mission the next day. But this is an odd sort of objection that requires that we treat Torchwood as the sort of show in which real history is displayed. We’ll discuss this more next week when we get to The Shakespeare Code, but suffice it to say that there is little in Doctor Who that suggests that this sort of romantic view of history would be avoided. It’s obvious wish fulfillment, sure, but it’s not an unreasonable wish, and the little details elsewhere like remembering to depict Tosh’s difficulties as an Asian woman in 1941 give needed reassurance that the production team knows what rules they’re bending.

And without the bending of rules you don’t have an episode like this. Because this isn’t just “Captain Jack falls in love with a man in the past,” but rather “Captain Jack falls in love with his own erased history,” a concept that is, in many ways, actively set up and worked towards over the course of the first season of Torchwood. This is the only episode of the season that can outright be called a focus episode on Jack in the way that Day One was for Gwen or Greeks Bearing Gifts was for Tosh. Instead, as we’ve noted, much of the first season plays Jack at an odd remove, treating him as a mysterious figure of unknown origins. This has always been a bit strange, given that the audience knows an awful lot about Jack’s origins, but here it pays off.

The trick, of course, is that Captain Jack Harkness finally puts Jack back in his original element - World War II, not long before The Empty Child. The soundtrack and visuals have a similar lushness to that setting, and doing a shot every time someone says “romance” or “romantic” (which was the word picked at the tone meeting for The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances) in the Torchwood: Declassified for this episode is the least advised Doctor Who drinking game since “take a shot every time Adric is annoying.” The Blitz setting remains firmly in place. This is very much about returning Jack to where we first found him eighteen months prior. So his romantic coupling with the man whose name he stole is a payoff in more ways than one. The information that he stole a dead man’s identity is new, and when Tosh asks him who he was before he was Jack Harkness it’s finally a question the audience has too.

The point, though, is that for all the questions about his past, Jack has by now proven himself as a hero. He’s revisiting the scene of his crime, but doing it as a hero that his namesake not only would be proud of, but is proud of and, in fact, falls in love with. Add to that the story of a good but doomed man accepting who he is and you have something that is genuinely powerful. Not as good as Blink by any measure, but you can certainly see why it got the Hugo nomination.

Sloppier are many of the elements around it. There are far too many MacGuffins in the plot of rescuing Jack and Tosh. This isn’t a problem as such - Torchwood isn’t actually a procedural, and the fact that the plot makes sense to the characters in it is, as ever, more important than actually making sense. But there are too many stray bits of it. At the end of the day, its problem is simple: the plot depends on Torchwood having a nearly completed rift opening machine that they are never, ever going to use under any circumstances. Combine this with the fact that this and the next episode hinge on Owen making the worst possible decision at every single turn and you have a plot that is more than a bit unsatisfying whether or not it makes a lick of sense. It’s fitting that Blink beat this episode to the Hugo, because quite frankly, this episode does a rubbish job of the “people in two time periods trying to communicate with one another” game that Blink handles with such calm panache. (Any sense of why a paint can sat around for sixty-five years in an actively used building without getting thrown out is wholly obscure. Though I suppose this is the sort of thinking that gets people to believe that Power of the Daleks might still exist.)

Notably absent from this criticism, however, was any mention of Bilis Manger, the great plot device of the last two episodes. He does, after all, not make a lick of sense; his plan seems to be to get Torchwood to open the rift, but he randomly sabotages Tosh’s attempt to help them do that. He has no discernible origin, and his sole motivation seems to be to unleash the ludicrous plot twist of the next episode. But equally, this seems to be the point of him - he’s not an accidental incoherent plot twist, so to speak. In fact, he makes complete sense within the storytelling context of Torchwood.

Let’s look at Bilis from a few steps back. A mysterious old man of questionable allegiances who lives amongst junk and rubble, and can secretly travel in time. He has possession of a seemingly magical space that causes a man and a woman who go to investigate it to fall out of the world and land somewhere else, seemingly stranded and unable to return home. Framed like this, Bilis is self-evidently an analogue of the First Doctor, albeit one that has been twisted and made sinister.

Framed this way everything makes considerably more sense. What’s important is not the plot explanation of where Bilis comes from (plot logic having long since given up the ghost), but the sort of wondrous space he represents. He is the show that Torchwood spawned from, twisted, distorted, and reflected back within it. This explains why he’s the cause of Jack’s confrontation with his own past, but it also opens a much larger door by destabilizing the underlying world of Torchwood. Torchwood is about the strange spaces existing alongside mundane ones, but Bilis represents a space defined by its strangeness.

In many ways this gets back to the old question of what Doctor Who is for, and particularly the old “yeti-in-the-loo” business that was so central to the Pertwee era. There is a school of thought that says that Doctor Who is about making the mundane strange and terrifying. This is certainly something Doctor Who has on occasion done very well, but to say that a show that did stories like The Claws of Axos was primarily about the strangeness of the everyday world seems like a stretch. Even within the Pertwee era, Doctor Who was fairly clearly about crashing the world of the strange into the mundane world, which was itself part of its larger capacity to crash narrative spaces together. But what’s key is that Doctor Who is defined by the TARDIS, an eccentric space that serves to suture other spaces together.

That is manifestly not how Torchwood works. Torchwood is about the mundane world, and takes as a given that worlds of strangeness exist alongside it. This is close to Doctor Who, certainly, especially as the TARDIS is an eccentric space that is initially positioned within the same Britain that the show originated from. But it’s distinct. Doctor Who is about the idea that you can fall out of the world. Torchwood is about the things that can fall into yours. So for Torchwood to encounter a character who is fundamentally not of the world, and who exists only as an external strangeness destabilizing the world is a big deal. Bilis is a genuine threat to Torchwood and, for that matter, to Torchwood inasmuch as he threatens a narrative collapse in which the mundane world that anchors the show disintegrates.

Except that Captain Jack is a character who belongs in Bilis’s world. Not to draw too much from other episodes, but it’s telling that Bilis simply cannot affect Jack in the next episode. The fact that Jack would only be tempted by the Doctor is telling. Jack is not particularly endangered by Bilis’s antics. Being trapped in 1941 is not an issue to him - there are apparently three of him running around then anyway. Even if they never recover him, he can walk calmly into the Hub at the end of the episode having not aged a day. Bilis’s world holds no threat to Jack because Jack belongs in this world of strangeness. And this story functions by separating him from the action enough that we don’t see this. Jack is so caught up in the Jack Harkness plot that the question of pitting him against Bilis is snuck around. Instead we see Bilis playing the rest of the team for fools, because he works along the one narrative logic that Torchwood simply cannot get the drop on (as evidenced by Cyberwoman).

It’s tricky to treat this as a setup, as End of Days, in practice, followed immediately from this episode such that there’s not a gap between them. Nevertheless, this is a setup episode that creates a particular problem within Torchwood’s narrative logic so that it can play with it later. On the one hand we have a threat that seriously destabilizes all of Torchwood, and on the other we have Jack, who can stand up to the threat, but who is fundamentally removed from the rest of Torchwood by virtue of secretly being a character from another show. Captain Jack Harkness is a necessary step in that - the show has to set up Bilis in a way that’s removed from Jack, and thus Jack needs an episode where he’s caught up in another plot. But the nature of that tension is one we didn’t get to spend any time with. The episodes blend right into each other such that there’s no point where we get to wonder what the implications of Bilis’s presence in the narrative are. Instead we plunge straight into the consequences. Or, at least, we will on Wednesday.

Comments

peeeeeeet 3 years, 7 months ago

Here's what I thought about yon Bilis Manger at the time of broadcast (I spelt his name wrong, but I think that probably helped):


Torchwood: Billis Manger's Missing Motivation


Billis Manger is obviously an anagram of something, though sadly not ANOTHER ILL-FITTING TONY AINLEY MASK. Here are some thoughts as to why Mr B Manger resurrected Abbadon, Bart to Satan's Homer:

Because he was fragrant - I BRING A SMELL
To coax Lethbridge-Stewart out of retirement and cure Yates and Benton - MEN ILL AS BRIG
To install 80s horror comedies on Linux - A GREMLINS LIB
[Mildly offensive one redacted]
Because otherwise his arms will last too long - LIMBS A LINGER
Something to do with hat sales - SELLING A BRIM
Because he wanted to barbecue his pen - ME GRILLS A NIB
Because he needed his bottom price-tagging - LABELING RIMS
Because he had incorrectly price-tagged his bottom - MISLABEL RING
Because he had thrown glass spheres at the script-writer of The Mind Robber - I MARBLES LING
To avenge his arm, which, you'll recall, lasted too long, when it was referred to as a "dairy farm" by a cockney - SLANG LIMB IRE
To detract attention away from his bottom's melodious slander concerning the afore-mentioned mis-labelling - RIM SANG LIBEL
In the hope that running away from Abbadon would cause him to lose weight and discard his torn clothing - BE SLIM RAG NIL
Because he has brie gills - MAN BRIE GILLS
To add a comment to his BASIC code to indicate that something is similar to billing - REM AS BILLING

So, which of these make most sense? Remember, we are talking about Torchwood.

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Unknown 3 years, 7 months ago

Bilis Manger was an effective enough villain (even with confused motivations) that it seems a shame that they never reused him in a later series of Torchwood.

Doesn't he get an "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry" in there somewhere for another Doctor parallel?

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

I, too, wish Bilis had returned. So much potential, and a brilliant character.

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Ross 3 years, 7 months ago

There is, of course, a reasoned objection to be had here, which is that it is maybe just a little too optimistic to think that 1941 was a time in which a captain in the US Air Force could publicly snog another man and get away with it, even to the extent of flying a fatal mission the next day

I know quite a few people who consider it canonical that Captain Jack Harkness (The real one) was shot in the back by his own men the next day, and the official reports were a fabrication.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

Yes, they really dropped the ball by not bringing him back. What a shame!

One night I watched the 1961 kitchen-sink drama A Taste of Honey, and was bothered for a few scenes by how familiar the gay character looked, before the light bulb went off and I said "My God, it's Bilis Manger!" Murray Melvin has turned in several other excellent performances I'd seen but not realized it was him - he is in "Alfie," "The Boy Friend," (dancing up a storm!) "The Devils," "The Krays," and was even in the (rotten) film musical of "The Phantom of the Opera."

Are they still making those Torchwood audio dramas? I wish they would do one with him in, filling in some of Manger's backstory, before it's too late.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

I am not going to go that far, but I did think it was pushing the romanticism / suspension of disbelief just a bit too far, especially after they'd taken care to depict how touchy Tosh's situation in 1941 was.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

And of course "Bilis" is a slight scrambling of "Iblis" (presumably the Arabic original, not the Galactican knockoff).

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

Doctor Who is defined by the TARDIS, an eccentric space that serves to suture other spaces together.

That is manifestly not how Torchwood works.


Except that Torchwood HQ is itself a variant of the TARDIS -- a large space hidden inside (or in this case, beneath) a mundane object, into which people can vanish. Gwen's tracking the team to Dahl Plass and trying to figure out where they've vanished mirrors Ian and Barbara's tracking Susan to Foreman's junkyard and trying to figure out where she's vanished.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

As noted below, "Bilis" is surely "Iblis." "Manger" is French for "to eat" (so Devil-eater?), but could also be a reference to Jesus' birthplace (herald of the Antichrist?). Of course he's also a Manager.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 7 months ago

Except in the TARDIS you might never come out of where you enter. Look at Vicky for example. The strange space never leads back home. The Hub on the other hand is crashed into the real world and left there. You come back out into Wales. One Week, Doctor Who is on a Space Ship, the Next in Churchill's Bunker, then on to a Maze of the Dead and then back to Venice. Torchwood...is Wales all the way down. You never fall out of the world. You wander into a place where the strange has encroached.

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Chris Andersen 3 years, 7 months ago

Thinking about this some I posit that Doctor Who is essentially about just how utterly huge and strange the Universe is compared to ordinary human life and how difficult it would be for us to manage direct contact with it with out a sympathetic intermediary.

Put another way, Doctor Who is the optimistic version of H.P. Lovecraft. Yeah, the universe is a scary place that is generally indifferent to humanity *except* for this one lone character who seems to live comfortably in both worlds and wouldn't hesitate to dismiss Cthulhu as just another would-be-god.

The Doctor makes the scary fun and something to look forward to.

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Lewis Christian 3 years, 7 months ago

Some interesting points from you both.

It's also worth noting, though, that Torchwood has the Rift which allows different times and worlds to collide. It's kind of like a psuedo-TARDIS.

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Theonlyspiral 3 years, 7 months ago

But the Rift fundamentally brings the weird to Wales. We don't get Gwen and Ianto charging off to fight Daleks, detouring to Dinosaurs only to end up in a spaghetti western. It just doesn't happen. The weird is grounded to the everyday life of our protagonists.

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Matthew Celestis 3 years, 7 months ago

Which is why most fans hate Neil Penswick's The Pit, in which Dr. Who meets a Lovecraftian horror and turns out to be absolutely useless in the face of it.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

On a related issue: what should we make of the fact that at the end of "End of Days," the clear implication is that the TARDIS has materialised inside the Hub, despite what the beginning of "Utopia" shows?

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Aaron 3 years, 7 months ago

Most fans hate the Pit because it's incredibly poorly written, has plot threads that go nowhere, lacks likeable characters, and has an obvious padding episode in the middle where the Doctor not only solves the Ripper murders but meets a William Blake who serves as a more generic companion than even Mel did.

The Lovecraftian Horror part is actually the best bit, hence why Lawrence Miles cites Neil Penswick in The Book of the War.

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Seeing_I 3 years, 7 months ago

I always thought it was that Jack heard it materializing (a la Jackie & Mickey hearing it in The Christmas Invasion) and vamoosed double-quick.

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Jesse 3 years, 7 months ago

The episode is in no way about the fact that it’s the “gay men” episode, a quiet confidence that such an episode doesn’t need to be a Very Special Episode that’s about the glories of its own existence.

This approach is so rare, and it has a lot to do why this episode is a favorite of mine.

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jane 3 years, 7 months ago

Did you hear about our Jack? He's a gay man now.

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BerserkRL 3 years, 7 months ago

Right, that's what one thinks if one views it through the lens of "Utopia" (though even so, Jack has to run an awful long way to reach a sound that seemed so close). But watch it while trying to forget "Utopia," and the implication is clear that the papers blowing in the Hub are from the TARDIS having just dematerialised, and that Jack has vanished from the Hub in some non-mundane way.

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ferret 3 years, 7 months ago

Agreed that appeared to be the intention at the time, but if I had to explain it away I'd say the TARDIS materialization sound was transmitted straight down the invisible-lift shaft, and the papers blowing around in the hub are thanks to Jack running at top speed with his big flappy coat on.

However I seem to recall the Torchwood characters saying something along the lines of "there was no way he could have got past us" to the exit door, although I wouldn't put it past Jack to have a secret exit he's not trusted with anyone but himself.

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Ross 3 years, 7 months ago

I can't believe I'm making this comparison.

They're like the Deep Space Nine to Doctor Who's TNG. To Boldly stay where no man has stayed before.

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Bryce Thomason 3 years, 6 months ago

Also the spoke of Hollywood, where Hollywood writers seemed to put a gay person on every single sit-com and at least one scene or character in every single movie - stating that wasn't right because there just are not that many gay citizens in our country by proportion. Then they spoke of the ""gay agenda" in our politics in Washington DC, in our entertainment manufacturing, at our college campuses, and claiming that the GLBT crowd was preying on adolescents who are going through their own hormonal awakenings, thus, in a way brainwashing them as they are confused about the changes in their own bodies.

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occono 3 years, 6 months ago

All of these Anagrams and you didn't even mention "Grim Lesbian"?

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occono 3 years, 6 months ago

Oh I see "mildly offensive one redacted". Well, you didn't give him the name....

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William Silvia 3 years, 5 months ago

Your suggestion doesn't fit in with the inherent misspelling.

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William Silvia 3 years, 5 months ago

They stared in disbelief, and then when they tried to say something...
"Captain Harkness was dancing with a man! And snogged him!"
"I did? Well then where did he go?"
"There was this flash of light and then he and his Japanese friend..."
"I think you've had a bit too much to drink there."

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