Torchwood Recap: Season 1, Episode 12, “Captain Jack Harkness”

This episode features the largest chunk of exposition from Jack since the pilot.

Torchwood Recap: Season 1, Episode 12, Captain Jack Harkness
Photo: BBC

“Out of Time”writer Catherine Tregenna returns with the next chapter in the story of broken-hearted Owen (Burn Gorman). But “Captain Jack Harkness” is not just another story of love gone awry across a rift in time; it gives us a long-overdue glimpse into our Captain Jack’s past.

Torchwood continues its obsession with World War II—recall that Doctor Who introduced us to Jack during the Blitz—when Jack (John Barrowman) and dressed-up Tosh (Naoko Mori) stop by an abandoned building to check out reports of old-style music coming from inside. The building, long disused, was once a dance hall; Jack admires the still-intact chandelier in the ballroom. Sharp-eyed fans of Doctor Who will notice the “Vote Saxon” posters plastered on doors and walls, along with “Bad Wolf” graffiti in a stairwell. Considering it was the Bad Wolf that got Jack into his current (immortal) situation, it was a bit odd for him to not even register that graffiti, but this was supposed to be quick. Tosh is on her way to her grandfather’s 88th birthday party and doesn’t want to be late.

Jack is charmed when they hear strains of big band music floating down the stairs; he determines they’re just temporal echoes, audible now because of the Rift. He and Tosh are substantially less charmed when they realize the Rift has somehow opened and they’ve fallen through time, right into the night of a goodbye dance for a squadron of local flyboys who are heading out the next day.

Fortunately, Jack’s long coat and Tosh’s lovely dress provide some protective cover while they figure out what to do, but the two soon trip over a wholly unexpected coincidence when the real Captain Jack Harkness (the gorgeous Matt Rippy) introduces himself. Our Jack, thinking quickly, renames himself Captain James Harper, and no one seems to notice his discomposure. Except Tosh, of course, who simply wants to know why that man has Jack’s name.

This episode features the largest chunk of exposition from Jack since the pilot, when he explained to Gwen that he can’t die. Jack’s story comes in bits and pieces, but he eventually conveys to Tosh that he’s been through World War II before. At first he says he was on assignment, but then he confesses he was a conman (which squares with what he we learned in “The Empty Child”.) And he never was “Jack Harkness,” that’s a name he acquired when its owner was killed in action—the very next day after the goodbye dance. It was a convenient cover for Jack, and one he hadn’t given much thought to, until confronted with the man himself. Jack, feeling too many things at once and trying to be glib, quips, “I took his name. I just didn’t realize he was so hot.”

They’re not just idly hanging around, though; they’re trying to figure out a way to navigate back through the Rift. Tosh quizzes an airman for coordinates, and completes some equations that could help Torchwood c.2007 open the Rift and get them back home. The problem is, how to get the data 60 years into the future, when pencil will fade and paper crumble? The creepy manager, Bilis Manger (Murray Melvin), gives Tosh one way—take an instant photo. Tosh senses the anachronism of the early Polaroid-type camera but doesn’t question it. Manger’s sinister motives are revealed to us, at least, when we see him retrieve a file prominently labeled “Torchwood.”

Back in the present, Ianto (Gareth David-Lloyd) and Owen wonder what’s happened to Jack and Tosh; they dispatch Gwen (Eve Myles) to follow up. She arrives, torch in hand, and runs into the very same Bilis Manger (the cravat’s a dead giveaway). Gwen’s cover story is flawless; she says her two friends were exploring the building because they had heard it was haunted. Manger of course knows exactly what’s going on with both the building and her friends, but doesn’t let on.

Ianto’s the first to realize what’s happened when he finds an archived photo of both Jacks, Tosh, and Manger from the 1941 dance. Owen pounces: they’ve fallen through the Rift, they’re in the middle of the Cardiff Blitz, they should re-open the Rift and get them back. They know Tosh was working on the physics (meta-physics?) involved, but Owen finds only half the information they need to program the Rift Machine, something heretofore unmentioned, rather like an Elephant in the Room. Have you wondered what, exactly, the Core is? Well, it’s that huge machine around which Torchwood makes its offices. It’s sitting on the Rift and apparently it has some capacity to control it, somehow. Don’t look for explanations, you won’t find any, and that’s probably just as well; we’re into the territory of wibbly- wobbly timey-wimey stuff here, as The Doctor would say.

Owen’s fervor to open the Rift is transparently not about Jack and Tosh, but about retrieving Diane (Louise Delamere, appearing in the “previously on” scenes this week). Ianto and Owen face off over the fates of their respective loves, and it seems that Owen scores points against Ianto, but in reality, Ianto wins. For all that Lisa was a psychotic murderer, she never left Ianto, whereas Diane chose to leave Owen. Owen can’t accept that, and the struggles between these two men give us some of the most tension-laden scenes in the episode. Owen’s attempt to open the Rift in spite of Ianto’s objections fails, and both men notice it’s missing a part.

Once the boys at the Core realize they need both a key and more equations to open the Rift safely, they send Gwen, still at the site, on a scavenger hunt. She finds the photo Tosh hid, but they see—and Tosh realizes—that the photo did not capture all the equations. Tosh manages to find a permanent “ink” and copies out the rest of the equations, appending a melancholy “Tell my family I love them,” and hides it in the bomb shelter. Manger finds it later, and scratches out some of the coordinates, then replaces it. Decades later, Gwen uncovers it. She knows it’s the last message they’ll find from Tosh, but notes that some of the information is missing. This should make them pause, but in the mad pace of this episode, there’s no time to think it through: why would someone leave the hidden paper with most of the formulas intact? Why not just take or destroy the entire sheet? The logical conclusion would be that someone is manipulating them, but they don’t see the trap because they’re not bothering to look.

Owen, joining Gwen in the search for more information, finds the key to the Rift Machine in Manger’s office. They’ve realized, of course, it’s the same man in both times, but they don’t pursue it. He seems harmless enough, but why would he have that key? Again, no one’s taking a big picture approach, so no one questions why Manger would have that particular piece of technology lying around, and why he would permit them to find it.

Ianto and Owen continue their power struggle; Owen’s contempt for Ianto is manifest in his scathing remarks. He persists even when Ianto pulls a gun on him to prevent him from opening the Rift. Ianto knows better than to screw around with something so dangerous, especially with incomplete data. Owen, obsessed, is all for letting the machine fill in the gaps. Ianto shoots Owen in the shoulder in a wonderful moment of bravado, but Owen manages to start up the machine anyway.

Back in the past, our Jack is undone; the real Captain is so handsome and brave, the genuine article versus Jack’s cheap imitation. Our Jack knows the Captain will soon be dead, and advises him, carpe diem. The Captain’s no idiot, and he realizes that Jack’s warning is not just general advice. He doesn’t question what Jack’s saying, he just seems relieved to have found someone with whom he can let down his guard and be honest about his fears and dreams.

The two men are bonding in a way that at first seems fraternal—Jack understands the Captain’s guilt over a fallen airman; he recounts an ambiguously-placed story about persuading his best friend to join up for the service with him, for the adventure. They were both captured by “the worst enemy imaginable,” and his friend was tortured and ultimately killed. They let Jack go. How many years, decades ago in Jack’s timeline did that happen? And how many centuries in the future will that event actually take place? We never find out, but shared survivor’s guilt brings the two men even closer.

Jack sends the Captain to spend a last night with his local girl, but the Captain returns with the excuse that he should be with his men. Jack, for once not looking for sex, at last sees just how much he and the Captain are alike. The sexual tension between the two men is unmistakable, but it seems nothing can come of it, even though a temporary re-location to a bomb shelter might seem to provide an opportunity.

When the air raid ends and Manger re-opens the dance, Tregenna lapses into anachronism so absurd you just have to go with it: the Captain leads Jack onto the dance floor, and the dance is intensely intimate. For the two men, the rest of the world momentarily disappears, but then the Rift opens—a wall of fuzzy light appears—and Tosh calls Jack to come back through with her. Jack leaves the dance floor but then returns to share a rather amazing kiss with the Captain. The onlookers can scarcely believe what they’re seeing, and neither can I. There’s just no way an RAF officer would come out like that. Of course, the fact that Jack and Tosh literally disappeared afterwards would help the Captain deny or dismiss any accusations that might follow, not to mention the fact that his hours were numbered.

That kiss is without a doubt among the most tender, sincere, smoking hot gay kisses ever filmed. I’m the type that rolls my eyes at most heterosexual PDA, including such passionate dance floor goodbye kisses. But I’m willing to give this one a pass, in spite of the anachronism. Both men were so tormented, but in the few hours they had, they created a real connection that wasn’t about sex at all. It was the recognition of self in the other that each man felt, and the kiss perfectly expressed that recognition. I know I should be scoffing, but that moment plays as genuine, and so I’m willing to accept it.

Back in the present, Jack and Tosh pop through, apparently unscathed. Owen, tending to his own wounds, castigates Ianto for being a lousy shot; Ianto can’t believe what an ass Owen is; of course he was aiming for his shoulder. Tosh says she knows it was wartime, but it was “beautiful,” and Jack agrees, “There were angels dancing at the Ritz.” Tosh tries to console Jack, telling him that the Captain would be proud that Jack had taken his name; here he is, saving the world. They close out the episode with a toast to the Captain.

But the Rift has been opened; can that be the end of it? We know it can’t be, because Bilis Manger warned, “It’s coming, out of the darkness,” just as Suzie Costello warned Jack. But for this episode, we still don’t have any idea what “it” is. Ianto tells us there’s no sign of Bilis, and it remains unspoken whether or not they’ll pursue that odd character.

The biggest, in fact the only, flaw in this episode is the dance and subsequent kiss between the two Captains. The whole thing looks spot-on; I’m continually impressed by the guest actor casting. Matt Rippy isn’t just a pretty face, he has the look, the body language, of an RAF officer in the 1940s. The women’s clothing, the men’s haircuts, the shape and size of the glasses from which they drink, the music—all the little details are in place. The regulars are mostly up to the task this week, as well. Eve Myles’ Gwen has not much to do, which comes as something of a relief; she’s been put through the wringer lately. This is the most we’ve seen of Naoki Mori’s Tosh since “Greeks Bearing Gifts”, and I found her irritatingly limited, her too-wide eyes often substituting for genuine expressions. But John Barrowman, often the weakest actor in a strong cast, does very well here, allowing vulnerability and guilt to seep through his usual facile expression. Most fun of all, Burn Gorman and Gareth David- Lloyd go toe-to-toe, with Owen descending to his prat-like worst, and Ianto holding fast to his faith in Jack and his internal moral compass.

The note of suspended tension on which the episode ends is fed on several levels. Owen has, at this point, alienated the entire rest of the team; it’s one thing to be an ass, it’s another to cut to the quick, to insult with intent to damage on a regular basis as he has lately. No one knows what else will come out of the newly-opened Rift, and everyone’s worried about that, too. There’s no “to be continued” placard as the episode draws to a close, but it’s certainly implied. Even so, “Captain Jack Harkness” can ably stand alone.

For more recaps of Torchwood, click here.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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