Friday, May 05, 2006

Meet Captain Jack


Tonight Sci Fi hits the final stretch of the first season of Doctor Who. Of thirteen episodes, we’ve got five more to go, but these final five fly by with such effortless grace that before you know it, it’ll all be over.

Since tonight’s installment, “The Empty Child”, is part one of two, I’m not going to write much about it. Part Two, “The Doctor Dances”, is as perfect a sci-fi resolution to what’s set up tonight as anything I’ve ever seen. I wrote last week that “Father’s Day” was my favorite of the season with the possible exception of these episodes. After giving it thought, these, taken as a whole, must surely be superior. I had some minor niggles with “Father’s Day”, but I have no complaints whatsoever with “The Empty Child” & “The Doctor Dances”.

After next week's episode, I'll write more about the pair, but right now I’d like to focus on Captain Jack Harkness, who is certainly one of the most coolly scripted characters ever written for a family sci-fi fantasy series.

Jack (John Barrowman), a con artist & ex-“Time Agent” from the 51st century, crosses paths with the Doctor and Rose amidst the madness of the London Blitz in 1941. Jack has frequently been written about as being bisexual. While that’s an easy label to apply to him, it’s also somewhat incorrect.

In a speech the Doctor gives Rose in “The Doctor Dances”, he explains that by the 51st century, human beings have surpassed thinking of their sexuality in such limited terms and have in fact “danced” with all manner of lifeforms across the universe; in other words, in the 51st century, sexual identity has gone beyond the archaic terms in which it’s thought of today. Two human men gettin' jiggy isn't out of place in a time when humans are doing it with other species, whose sexual organs are likely far different than mere penises and vaginas. If you go back to the second episode of the season, "The End of the World", you'll notice that some groundwork had already been laid for this idea.

Lest it be perceived that you’re in for some sort of sexual romp tonight or even next week, that’s simply not the case. I’ve expanded here upon ideas that are nonchalantly worked into and presented on the show. We never even see Jack romancing anyone except for Rose. Numerous sci-fi series have approached these ideas (Farscape, even Star Trek to a degree), but I don’t think any have succeeded in putting them across in a way as effectively and subtly as what’s done with Jack Harkness.

Another accomplishment here is that it’s done on a family TV series. When it played in Britain, there were no protests and people didn’t start tuning out. Part of the achievement is the ease with which the ideas are presented. Sure, a small but vocal minority of hardcore Doctor Who fans have accused Russell T. Davies of having some sort of liberal “gay” agenda. For all I know he does - but if that agenda works in tandem with presenting the concepts under a sci-fi banner, in such a way that it’s a logical extension of the story, I call it “doing his job”. Science fiction is supposed to give us radical thoughts about what our future may hold.

It’s also a minor triumph that Jack is played by an openly homosexual actor. Had Jack been written as “straight”, would audiences be as accepting of Barrowman in the part? Is it because of the character’s fluid sexuality that people accepted a gay actor trying to seduce Billie Piper? Or is it just that the Brits in general are more accepting of these sorts of things? How will uptight Americans react to Jack Harkness?

Regardless, he’s with us until the end of the season and Barrowman rocks in the role. He’s charismatic, good-looking, wittily charming, and brings an “American” sensibility to the program. Jack was such a huge success with British viewers that he’s even being spun off into his own series, Torchwood, this fall. (Rearrange the letters in "Torchwood" and what do you get?) He brings an immense amount to the table as the season heads toward the finish line and perhaps becomes the greatest male traveling companion ever to grace the series.

UPDATE: The first season of Doctor Who took several honors at the BAFTA Television Awards, including Best Drama series. For a full list of the winners click here.