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Captain Jack Harkness: a complete Doctor Who history

John Barrowman's immortal Time Agent has returned, but what's he been up to since we last saw him on-screen? And how does this new appearance fit into his many, many lifetimes?

Captain Jack Harkness (John Barrowman) - Doctor Who
Published: Monday, 27th January 2020 at 3:15 pm

by Thomas Ling


The courageous head of Torchwood. An immortal hero hell bent on protecting the people of Earth. A great big bloody flirt.

However you want to describe Captain Jack Harkness, just know this: he's back in Doctor Who. Almost a decade after he last appeared on the BBC One series (in 2010’s The End of Time with David Tennant), John Barrowman’s con-man-turned-time-agent-turned-world-defender made his big comeback in series 12 episode Fugitive of the Judoon, dropping some seriously ominous warnings before hinting he'll be back in a future episode.

But here’s the big question: exactly where in Jack's non-linear lifetime does this new cameo fit in? How did he know what was coming in the Doctor's personal future without knowing that she's now a woman? And if we see Jack again in another episode, will it be at a different point in his timestream?

And no, we can’t necessarily answer this question considering how old Jack looks either, because A) John Barrowman is virtually an ageless super-being, and B) this is Doctor Who and any grey hairs can be explained with something suitably timey-wimey (see: Time Crash).

In other words, the only way to properly consider which Jack we’re seeing on-screen is to smooth out his twisted chronology into one simple timeline. So, grab your vortex manipulator and prepare to recap the lives, crimes and many loves of Captain Jack Harkness.

Jack the lad – 51st century to 1941

Jack Montgomery as the young Jack Harkness in Torchwood (BBC)

Thanks to Who spin-off Torchwood we know exactly when Jack’s story begins: 5094. Jack, or Javic Piotr Thane as he was first named, grew up over three millennia after the present day on an unspecified colony planet where he lived happily with his family. Well, happily until a race of killer aliens invaded his homeworld and murdered almost everyone he loved. Less so after that.

Although spending much of his youth searching for his missing brother, Jack eventually joined the Time Agency, a mysterious organisation that’s basically a time-travelling CIA. And, as you’d suspect, it’s here where Jack’s chronology gets very messy.

While the Doctor Who novels have given some idea where when his job as a Time Agent took Jack, we know from Torchwood episodes that one of his first missions saw Jack jumping to 1941. It’s this assignment that saw him adopt the identity of a US soldier named Captain Jack Harkness, who had died months previously.

Eventually, however, Jack discovered the Time Agency had erased an entire two years from his memories. Unsurprisingly he wasn’t particularly thrilled at this forced amnesia and quit the organisation to become a con-man. His main time-travelling money-making scheme? Selling space junk he knew would soon be destroyed, taking 50 per cent of the payment up front (we presume Jack hadn’t heard of the lottery).

Anyway, it’s this con that first led Jack to the Ninth Doctor in 1941 (again) during the London Blitz in classic episode The Empty Child. After fighting off some gas mask zombies and straddling a massive bomb, Jack joined the TARDIS crew, once again making some massive time jumps…

Adventures in the TARDIS – year 200,100 to 21st century Cardiff (and back again)

John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness in 2005 (BBC)

While Jack’s first adventure in the Tardis saw him cross a Slitheen in Cardiff circa 2005, he soon found himself on a reality TV Space Station in the year 200,100. In true Jack style, this adventure saw him stripped by Trinny and Susannah androids, shooting them with a gun hidden "somewhere you don't wanna know", and battling a Dalek army.

Unfortunately, this run-in with the tinpot terrors didn’t go exactly to plan, with Jack killed while defending the station. Fortunately, however, he was not only revived, but made immortal by Rose Tyler with help from some Time Vortex Trickery.

After an unclear amount of time, Jack eventually used his vortex manipulator to travel back to 21st century Cardiff to return to the Doctor. But there was one problem with this: he accidentally travelled to 1869 and was forced to wait over a century for the Tardis to turn up.

However, Jack being Jack didn’t spend this time twiddling his thumbs. Fighting two world wars, he also joined team Torchwood, living (and repeatedly dying) through the biggest events of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.

During one Torchwood adventure he also accidentally travelled back from the early 2000s to 1941 to meet the real Captain Jack before returning to his present time.

It’s not long after that story Jack was finally reunited with the Time Lord, travelling all the way to the year 100,000,000,000,000 for the Doctor Who series three finale. And – after a brush with The Master – he jumped back to 2008, eventually returning to Torchwood for a new batch of post-watershed shenanigans.

Basically, he did a lot of time-hopping in the this period but somehow always made in back to the early Noughties, coincidentally when Torchwood was broadcast on TV.

Adventures with Torchwood – 2008-2011

Captain Jack Harkness

Good news: after his reappearance in 2008, there’s not too much movement in Jack’s timeline, with much of his adventures taking place in Cardiff during the next few years.

However, there is one notable time slide. During one Torchwood adventure he was transported back to 27 AD Cardiff and buried alive, trapped in a circle of death and resurrection until he was dug up by Torchwood in 1901, placed in cryopreservation for 107 years and returning back to life in 2008.

This time jump means there was always at least two Jacks on Earth during the twentieth century ­(and potentially four simultaneous Jacks in 1941). We think Jack had a dream about that once...

Apart from this brief time jump, Jack’s remaining on-screen adventures are fairly linear. He helps take down Davros and another Dalek army with The Tenth Doctor and Rose Tyler, before fighting off kiddy-grabbing aliens “The 456” a few months later. In 2010, he waved farewell to David Tennant's Tenth Doctor in an alien bar, marking his last appearance in Doctor Who - at least, that's what we thought at the time...

Jack’s last on screen adventure, Torchwood: Miracle Day, was set in 2011, following planet Earth as its entire population became unable to die. However, it’s unclear exactly how ‘canon’ this story is as – you would have thought somebody on Doctor Who would have mentioned the weeks where the entire human race turned immortal. Not exactly something you’d forget in a hurry.

But, whether the events of Miracle Day actually took place or not, what happened to Jack after 2011? Although neither Doctor Who or the now-cancelled Torchwood revealed his fate, we do have other sources that may give us a glimpse into the later life of Captain Jack Harkness, set between Miracle Day and this new reappearance.

Yes, ring the cloister bell: we’re about to materialise into the comics, novels and audio plays of the expanded Doctor Who world.

Jack post 2011 (as told by the expanded Whoniverse)

Captain Harkness’ adventures post-Miracle Day, are, quite frankly, an odd mix. In one book (co-penned by Barrowman), Jack travels to Peru to contend with tremors that are pushing the women of Earth to be “driven insane by their scrambled senses”.

In another story Jack is imprisoned alongside every one of The Doctor’s previous companions (comic series Prisoners of Time). One audio adventure even follows a young pre-Time-Agency Jack who crosses path with an older version of himself – and yes, of course the two end up sleeping together.

However, most stories see Jack returning to Cardiff and rebuilding Torchwood with its only remaining member, Gwen Cooper. Although the stories vary, most centre on the pair battling a mysterious group of aliens known as The Committee (essentially the Spectre to Torchwood’s MI6).

And just like Doctor Who, these later adventures sweep the events of Miracle Day under the rug, with Captain Jack simply continuing his never-ending Torchwood work like nothing ever happened. In fact, it's possible that Jack at the time of his new cameo is still a Torchwood agent.

However, we’ve got good reason to think he won’t be one forever...

Jack aged five billion – is Captain Harkness the Face of Boe?

Although we can’t be exactly sure what Jack has been up to since his last time on screen, we’ve still got a good idea how he dies. Yes for good.

After slipping to The Doctor that his nickname was once the Face of Boe (see video below), viewers were gifted a pretty strong hint Jack will eventually become the huge-headed pickled alien of the same name seen in previous episodes.

A character appearing in the adventures of both the Ninth and Tenth Doctors, this giant jarred face is regarded as one of the wisest beings in the universe, somebody so smart he can communicate his philosophical pep talks telepathically. In fact, the only time we see Boe using his voice is immediately before dying in David Tennant episode Gridlock.

Now, although that doesn’t sound like Captain Jack on paper, he could have developed such looks and psychic powers over billions of years (the Face of Boe is at least five billion years old in the show).

And you never know, perhaps one day there's a chance Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor could meet Jack in the midst of this transition. Because what Doctor Who fan wouldn’t want to watch a half-formed Face of Boe flirting with Bradley Walsh a few million years in the future?


Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays


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