As an avid Sci Fi watcher, I knew well in advance of last night’s N. Am broadcast of Capt. Jack Harkness that it was coming & I have been quietly waiting. Despite the fact that ads on BBCAmerica taut Torchwood as one of the highest rated Sci Fi shows out there in the U.S., most of the people I know don’t watch because they find the stories run from boring to pompous to “just plain uninteresting.” However, I knew three things they did not: 1) Jack is one of the first series leads in a sci fi serial who is queer, 2) certain episodes had great depth and emotional range – all written by the same person, & 3) Freema is coming to Torchwood. Admittedly, I learned the latter halfway through the season and she won’t be arriving until next season.
So, I waited.
For someone who is so hyper-alive I found it disheartening that Jack seemed oblivious to Capt. Jack’s obvious overtures throughout the episode. If subtlety was too hard for Jack to grasp there was the obvious moment when he sent his beard girlfriend home alone. Yet, Jack does not clue in until it is too late.
His tragic love affair in the past is juxtaposed against both loyal Ianto in the present & the heart ache of Owen. These juxtapositions are not new. In fact, in a previous episodes “Cyberwoman,” Jack’s sexuality is subtly revealed against a backdrop of Ianto’s heart ache and Gwen and Owen’s lust.
Putting Cyberwoman against Capt. Jack Harkness as episodes shows an interesting arch in the storytelling of the show. Cyberwoman, complete with problematic race and gender constructions, centers heterosexuality so completely as to play on the heterosexism that can easily erase the kiss between Ianto and Jack that revives Ianto. Thus the kissing scene begins as mouth-to-mouth and is skillfully interwoven with the sexual tension between Gwen and Owen that erupts into a full scale snogfest in tight quarters. It also plays on that same heterosexism in juxtaposing Ianto’s relationship with cyberdized Lisa against Jack’s own sexuality. Lisa’s character typifies what those who study colonialist art will recognize as the black female signifier of sexual deviance to Ianto’s naiveté. As she slowly degenerates into a murdering machine, Ianto comes undone. In a semi-twist on the narrative however, Lisa is killed only after she takes the form of a white woman. And it should also be noted that from a racially-recuperative read, Lisa’s degeneration was beyond her control and she too is tragic, this however does not subvert a heterosexist read. The message, repeated throughout by all of the characters except Gwen and the storyline itself, is that Ianto’s love is somehow perverted. Thus when he is revived by Jack with a kiss, the heterosexist read is to either mistake the kiss for resuscitation or to recognize it as more of Ianto’s sexual confusions not to see it as a rewrite of a tried and true fairytale: the doomed lover awoken by a kiss.
Capt. Jack Harkness on the other hand, flips this narrative so as to center same sex desire. Like Cyberwoman, we still have the presence of racialized women this time in the form of Toshiko and her racist spouting rival for affection. Their story anchors the discussion of otherness and oppression by not only drawing parallels between racism and homophobia but also ensuring that the signifier is readily available to retain viewers who might turn away from this episode. The real dance, no pun intended, however is between Jack and the real Capt. Jack. The care with which they have to avoid homophobia and somehow express to one another what they feel is seemingly juxtaposed against Owen’s own painstaking guard over his own heart that when let down led to the tragic loss of “his lover and his captain.” (A line, I think bears paying close attention to.) As Owen self-destructs, Jack becomes increasingly drawn to Capt. Jack directly reversing the narrative of the previous episode. In fact, just like Cyberwoman, Owen and Gwen’s relationship splices through Jack’s own. In keeping with reversals, it is the heterosexual couple that is coming undone. Ianto’s relationship with Jack also plays prominently, as this is the episode where it is finally revealed that the rest of the team knows exactly what they’ve been up to all those late nights and early mornings at base. Owen’s heterosexist slight, calling Ianto an occassional toss, is completely undermined by his own crazed and world threatening behavior to Ianto’s steady loyalty. Again, the reversal of heterosexism in this episode stands in direct contrast to the heterosexist overlay of Cyberwoman.
Like Cyberwoman, however, Capt. Jack is not a coming out parade. At the end, it appears Jack and Toshiko are saved by Owen (tho commercials tell differently). Jack gets his kiss but it is bittersweet in the knowledge that Capt. Jack will be dead in a day and that they had the entire episode to hook up and did not. My own suspicious mind also kept going back to the story of his death, how exactly did his plane end up completely on fire unable to eject? If we remember back to another groundbreaking dance scene on QAF it isn’t much of a stretch to think maybe Capt. Jack is just another version of Justin on Prom Night. Worse, the pathos the character conveys in those final scenes is completely undermined by a gleeful writer/director saying “Who else would Captain Jack fall in love with but himself?!” Ha. Ha.
I am not ready to call Torchwood a triumph for queer representation in sci fi but I do think the complexity of episodes like these are worth a second or third look. Campy is all good and fine, but it is the dramatic work of the show that makes it compelling, if only momentarily. In a sea of hyper-sexual Captains and “Number One’s,” from Star Trek to Farscape to Battlestar to Stargate, Capt. Jack reminds us that the world is not so monochrome nor should our visions of past and future be.
(I wanted to post the actual kiss scene, but someone on Youtube was so disturbed by a queer captain that they flagged it, so I give you this montage instead – since then I got the kiss but it is still flagged, hopefullyu BBC posting it means you’ll actually see it below)