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.