It seemed like it would never happen. For years, actor John Barrowman has been campaigning for the return of his fan-favourite character Captain Jack Harkness to Doctor Who, keeping the character alive through convention appearances, audio dramas and Torchwood comics.
But bar the odd callback in episodes and a thwarted attempt at a cameo in 2011 (which was cut when Barrowman was too busy filming spin-off Torchwood), Jack stayed out of the onscreen Whoniverse, and as the years went on it increasingly looked like the immortal adventurer would never darken the TARDIS doorstep again – until now.
Because in Doctor Who series 12’s fifth episode, Fugitive of the Judoon, Captain Jack Harkness makes his return in grand style, accidentally abducting the Doctor’s TARDIS team (played by Bradley Walsh, Mandip Gill and Tosin Cole) as he tries to deliver an ominous warning to Jodie Whittaker’s Time Lord.
And ahead of his big comeback, RadioTimes.com caught up with Barrowman for an exclusive chat about Jack’s years in the wilderness, how series boss Chris Chibnall pitched the character’s return and just what we can expect from the 51st-Century Time Agent in the future.
Be warned: this interview contains an almost dangerously happy John Barrowman.
Hello John – look who’s back!
Hello? Huw? Captain Jack Harkness, nice to meet you.
This is amazing – I mean you’ve been talking about this for years, lobbying for it almost, and I feel like we’ve spoken about it a few times.
We have, numerous times.
So how does it feel to finally have this happen?
It feels absolutely amazing! I’ve always been holding the torch to eventually bring Jack back, because I know the love that the fanbase and the Whovians around the world have for him.
As we know, in the polls that have been done on RadioTimes.com and everywhere else, he’s always in the top 3 of companions. So Hallelujah – Jack is back! Ha ha!
Do you feel vindicated after keeping the flame alive for so long?
I wouldn’t say vindication is the word. I’d say that I’m glad. I’m glad that finally we have somebody, a showrunner who appreciates Jack. And that’s what makes me the most chuffed. Chris [Chibnall] is, shall we say, bringing back some of the well-loved characters.
I wouldn’t say vindication is the word because you know me, I’m not negative. But put it this way – there’s a little grin on my face!
Let’s go back to the beginning – what was the start of this process? Did Chris get in touch with you first?
Yes he did – ironically I’d just gone to visit Bill Pullman, who was in Torchwood with us when we did it in the States. I was standing outside the Old Vic Theatre on the corner having just visited Bill, and my manager Gavin called me and said ‘I have a phone call that you need to take, someone needs to talk to you. It’s Chris Chibnall.’ And I went ‘What?’.
So I got on the phone with Chris and I called him back, and I said ‘Hey Chris it’s John, what’s up?’ And he said ‘How would you feel about bringing Captain Jack back?’ And I just started jumping around on the street and I was like ‘Yessss!!! Yes!!!!’.
So not something you had to think about for long?
Well I’ve always said, if I’m ever asked I will do it at the drop of a hat. There was no hesitation in my voice, no nothing. I said yes, absolutely.
So I then listened to what he was saying about what the script was going to be, and the idea that they had, and I loved it. He said ‘You cannot say anything.’ He said however, the character was created by [former showrunner Russell T Davies], so we had to get permission from Russell.
I called Russell after I spoke to Chris, and when Russell picked up the phone I said ‘Jack’s back!’ And he went ‘HOORAH!’ So that was literally what happened.
What’s Jack been up to since we last saw him – is he the same Jack we know?
Without giving too much of the story away, it’s the same Jack you know. He’s flirtatious, he’s sassy, he’s also determined. And I’ll just say this… he’s come back to help.
I can’t give anything else away. The scene where he meets the companions, the new team, is very funny. All I can say is, ask Bradley Walsh about his first day working with John Barrowman! Ha ha!
Is this about the kiss Jack has with Graham when he thinks he’s the Doctor?
Correct! Everybody was watching this because it was the first scene that we really shot. Well, I’d already had a couple of speeches at the console of the ship that I’m flying. And then Graham, Bradley appears and there’s some mistaken identity.
The director said to me ‘Do what you want,’ so I held on. I don’t think Bradley’s ever been kissed that long in his life! You could hear people laughing all around cos he’s going ‘Mmm, mmmm! Mhhhmmm!’.
It was great. You can tell I was very happy and excited to be back…
At the end of the episode, Jack gives the Doctor a bit of an ominous warning about “The Lone Cyberman” – what can you say about that?
Well, that’s why Jack is there. It’s basically to tell the Doctor not to give in, in a way, or not to compromise.
But without quoting a line, he says to…it’s been a while since I filmed it so forgive me for not knowing exactly off the top of my head. He says ‘I’ll be watching – if she needs me, I’ll be there,’ is kind of his last line.
So it’s kind of left on a cliffhanger to see what happens.
Given that line, it does seem like there could be another return for Jack one day…
You can read into it all you want, but I’m not saying a thing. Ha!
Jack doesn’t actually share a scene with Jodie’s Doctor in the episode – were you disappointed, or is that something to possibly visit in the future?
Well, I mean if they ever ask Jack back, like I said I’ll come back at the drop of a hat. Hopefully I’ll get to work with Jodie, that would be incredible. That would be really incredible.
You know I go around and do the conventions, and that’s kind of how I’ve kept the buzz going, and I’ve seen the audiences. They really want to see Jack and Jodie’s Doctor together.
It feels almost cruel to bring you back to the series and then just deny them that one little thing…
Well you know what, it’s always good to keep people wanting more. Ha, I was going to be rude there but I won’t…
Presumably you got a chance to catch up with Jodie on set anyway?
I’ll be honest with you, I only saw Jodie in passing when I was going home. Because she was out filming with another unit while I was doing a studio-based thing, so our paths didn’t really cross as characters.
So I just saw her when I was leaving the building basically, and gave her a big hug.
It’s impressive this secret didn’t leak before the episode was on TV – is that a testament to how much people working on the show want to keep it all fresh and surprising?
They wanted to keep it fresh, but also this is probably one of the biggest returns, if I can say so myself.
I liken it to the moment when we found out Jack was referencing being the Face of Boe [in 2007 episode Last of the Time Lords] The nation’s jaw dropped when that happened. Well this time? The internet is going to blow up.
Because as soon as he appears onscreen, everybody in the UK’s going to tell everybody in the US, and the US is going to tell everybody in South America. Then it’s going to go to China, and then it’s going to go all over the place.
The whole world is going to go mad. I hope – I could be wrong -– but I hope that Jack is trending worldwide when it happens.
I think people will have a strong reaction, for sure.
It’s going to be a surprise. Literally people are going to go ‘S**t!’ right? They’re just going to be like ‘Oh my God!’ – people are going to be jumping up and down because it’s a reveal, that’s all I can say.
It’s been a long road with a few obstacles, but Jack’s finally in Doctor Who again and I was wondering – did Chris Chibnall ever tell you what finally made him decide to bring Jack back after all these years?
No! He just called and then at the end of the call he just said ‘It’s time.’ And I was like ‘right!’ and that’s it. And who knows what the decisions were and why they were made, but I’m glad they were made.
And if I can say so personally – it’s about time.
This interview has been edited and condensed
Doctor Who continues on BBC One on Sundays at 7:10pm