After years of campaigning, fan demands and swirling rumours, it’s official – John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness has finally returned to Doctor Who, a full decade after his last appearance on the BBC sci-fi series.
Last seen waving goodbye to David Tennant’s Doctor in 2010 (and then in a final Torchwood series a year later), it’s been a long time since we last saw the immortal, omnisexual 51st-century Time Agent – and based on the ecstatic fan reaction to his cameo in series 12’s fifth episode, Fugitive of the Judoon, another return for Captain Jack Harkness could be exactly what Doctor Who needs at this moment in time (and space).
Yes, of course, there was plenty else to be excited about in Fugitive of the Judoon – did you see the other Doctor? – but Jack’s cameo was definitely still an episode highlight for many watching. Already, it seems inevitable that the show will bring him back again – next time, probably teaming up with Whittaker’s Doctor – and frankly, they’d be fools not to.
While some sci-fi actors are more than happy to leave old roles behind, Barrowman has spent the last few years campaigning hard for his character’s return, and not alone. Despite him not appearing in the series for years, fans remained desperate to see the character team up with the Doctor again, with brief off-screen mentions (most notably in the 2013 anniversary special and in 2015’s The Woman Who Lived) doing little to dampen their enthusiasm.
Back in 2017, Jack’s return was cited as a key thing fans wanted for Jodie Whittaker’s first Doctor Who series. A year later, when RadioTimes.com asked again about what they fancied for her in series 12, he was top of the list once more (clearly, someone at the BBC was listening).
And only recently, Barrowman’s Jack Harkness easily won a RadioTimes.com poll for the character fans would most like to see rejoin Doctor Who, commanding a massive 38 per cent of the vote well ahead of the second-place candidate (Catherine Tate’s Donna Noble had 14%).
Clearly, Captain Jack’s return is something die-hard fans have wanted for a while without giving up – and while you can’t always just bow to fan pressure, in this case it seems like a canny move for the BBC.
Put simply, Doctor Who could use an injection of popularity. While the arrival of Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor was largely applauded, her first full series got a slightly more mixed response, with later episodes especially finding less enthusiasm from viewers.
Ratings were still good, but not incredible (especially when it came to New Year’s Day special Resolution), and more than a few fans were a little underwhelmed by some parts of the finished series. With this new series overnights ratings have dropped even further, and it’s clear Doctor Who needed something to zap it back to life.
Sure, a simple casting choice can’t instantly make people excited about Doctor Who – the great writing and big twists, like in the latest episode, do that – but Barrowman plays a popular character fans have wanted to see again for years, and bringing him back has immediately generated a bit of goodwill for the series. Surely bringing him back once again is an easy choice?
Barrowman admitted last year that he, former Tenth Doctor David Tennant and ex-companion Billie Piper jokingly call themselves “the golden age,” and there’s some truth to the boast. Doctor Who has rarely been as mainstream or popular than it was when all three were part of the series during Russell T Davies’ era running the show, and bringing back Jack (notably, the only three of that trio who can logically come back, thanks to regeneration rules and parallel universes) is a powerful link to a series highpoint.
After featuring no returning villains or characters for most of her first series (until the Dalek in Resolution), tying Jodie Whittaker’s Doctor more firmly into the series’ past definitely feels like a good move, and doing so with Jack – another immortal time-traveller with a past of adventures to rival the Doctor’s own – feels organic. Who’s to say these two lost souls wouldn’t cross paths again? Frankly, it’s odd they don’t do it more often.
And based on the reaction to Barrowman’s cameo, Jack’s comeback doesn’t just placate the die-hard Whovians. Following his starry turn on ITV’s smash-hit reality series I’m a Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here! in 2018, Barrowman’s profile among the non-Doctor Who-watching British public has risen commensurately, helped by regular appearances on ITV’s This Morning.
Today he’s a judge on ITV’s Dancing on Ice, which can only draw more people’s attention to Doctor Who through him, as can his post-Who acting roles in popular shows like US superhero drama Arrow. In other words, more people than ever currently know who John Barrowman is, and compared to any point in the last 10 years this feels like the moment for Who to bring him back into the fold.
Overall, though, the real reason Barrowman’s return could be such a triumph isn’t about good PR, or kowtowing to fans – fundamentally, it does feel like a fun storytelling choice for the series. Seeing Jack’s reaction to a new Doctor who he hasn’t met already (and her reaction to him) offers all sorts of intriguing storylines, as does the mystery of what he’s been up to since the Doctor last saw him. There’s still so much we don’t know!
Is Torchwood (the organisation) still a thing? Is he still immortal? Is he on his way to finally becoming the Face of Boe? Frankly, there’s so much we still need to find out – and reuniting Barrowman with Who showrunner Chris Chibnall, who wrote so many episodes for the character in his days on Torchwood, seems like the perfect way to get answers.
And above all, wasn’t it just fun to have Jack back? For better or worse, this character has so much more life and verve than the current companion line-up, and even in his short Fugitive of the Judoon cameo he brought endless energy. The Doctor Who production team would be remiss to let that quality slip through their fingers.
For now, we don’t know too much officially about whether John Barrowman and Captain Jack Harkness are returning to Doctor Who. Chris Chibnall has said he won’t return for the rest of this series, but he once used similar wording to deny the presence of the Daleks before they then turned up in the 2019 festive special. Who’s to say he couldn’t be pulling a similar trick here?
And even if Jack’s return is a longer-term project, it’ll give the fans something else to demand for the next series… and the one after that.
Doctor Who returns to BBC One in early 2020