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It’s not a stretch to say that John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness is one of the most beloved characters in Doctor Who history. It’s no small feat — when a show has been on for over 50 years, there tend to be quite a few characters, many of whom have cemented themselves as iconic pillars in the Whoniverse. Jack Harkness, though, the immortal 51st-century time-traveler, whose swashbuckling attitude, constant flirtation, and winning smile helped him worm his way into the hearts of fans when he debuted in “The Empty Child” all the way back in 2005, is regularly in the top three of any list ranking favorite companions.
Doctor Who made headlines last year when it announced that Jack would be returning for Season 12 after nearly 10 years away from the Whoniverse, but his far too brief cameo was an unfulfilling waste of a beloved character. It was recently announced that this year’s New Year's Special, “Revolution of the Daleks,” will see Jack’s second appearance during Jodie Whittaker’s run as The Doctor — and if Who is smart, they’ll make much better use of one of their most iconic characters.
Since 2005, Jack has proven an irreplaceable and oh-so-cheeky part of the Doctor Who family — so well-revered that he popped up at some point or another in nearly every season of Russell T. Davies’ time as showrunner. But after Davies departed, so too did the beloved Captain — never to be seen again... that is, until his highly publicized and even more highly anticipated return to Who in Season 12’s “Fugitive of the Judoon.” The show made it very clear that Jack's return was no small event — social media went nuts upon the announcement of his return, and trailers and promos for the episode promised that Jack showing back up would rock the series to its core.
So, millions of fans tuned into “Fugitive of the Judoon,” eager to witness the return of an iconic character, and what they were treated with was... not much. His appearance wasn’t bad per se. The episode didn’t desecrate his character, nor did it prove untrue to the person fans have come to know. Jack had some solid one-liners, and John Barrowman was incomparable as ever, playing well off of Bradley Walsh. But there’s one glaring issue with Jack’s return — and that’s how utterly meaningless it felt.
All of the out-of-narrative hype aside, when Jack returned, Doctor Who seemed to be indicating to its viewers that Jack’s appearance would have serious consequences for the show’s narrative, and that it would send ripples throughout the rest of the series. What we got was Jack showing up for a few minutes, joking around, leaving an ominous warning, and then disappearing again. Now, it’s not as if characters can’t just pop in and out. Season 2’s “School Reunion” is an excellent example of a former companion (in this case, Sarah Jane Smith) returning for a one-off story, and then promptly leaving. The episode wasn’t relevant to the season as a whole, but because it was built around Sarah Jane and the Doctor’s relationship, it worked — no world-ending narrative stakes required.
But “Fugitive of the Judoon” wasn’t trying to pull a “School Reunion.” Near the end of Jack’s brief appearance, he gave Graham, Yaz, and Ryan an ominous warning to relay to The Doctor: “Beware the lone Cyberman.” It sounded promising, like the kind of thing that could make for a big payoff later in the series — and if Jack knew about it and came in person to warn the Doctor, it had to be a danger of a sizable magnitude, right? Not so much. We found out a few episodes later that “the lone Cyberman” is exactly what it sounds like: another cyberman running around the universe wreaking havoc that the Doctor needed to stop.
Nothing in particular connected Jack to the lone Cyberman, nor did the Cyberman actually end up being the big threat at the end of Season 12. No, that honor went to The Master — because in the two-part finale, the Cyberman is promptly dealt with so the show can get to the reveal that the Doctor was experimented on by the Time Lords, and that the Doctor is the only true source of regeneration ability.
While the reveal with the Doctor’s past was earth-shattering and raised dozens of questions about their past, the only question that resolution of the lone Cyberman “arc” (if it can be called that) inspired was, "Wait, that’s it?"
It wasn’t a particularly exciting or groundbreaking story — just standard Cyberman fare, and it was a complete and utter waste of one of Doctor Who’s most brilliant characters. Jack shows up for a grand total of 10 minutes in a mid-series episode, gives an ominous warning so that the series can shoehorn in a secondary villain, and then pops off again — he didn’t even interact with the Doctor, a character with whom he has a long and complicated history. Their lack of interaction didn’t come off as a deliberate tease, either — more like an oversight on the part of the writers that sorely exposed how poorly conceived Jack’s long-awaited return to Who was.
For all of the fanfare and excitement about the re-appearance of Jack Harkness, the end result was an utter disappointment — but as badly as the show fumbled Jack’s meager role in Season 12, thanks to the upcoming New Year's Special, Doctor Who has a chance to right that wrong. It was recently announced that the new special, "Revolution of the Daleks,” would see Jack return to the series yet again, and if the trailer is anything to go by, he’ll have a much more substantial role than serving as a glorified plot device in “Fugitive of the Judoon.” Making use of Barrowman’s talent as an actor, referencing Jack’s past/history with the Doctor, and giving the current roster of companions a chance to see how other inhabitants of the TARDIS have fared are all ways that Who could use Jack at his full potential. Doctor Who Holiday Specials can be notoriously hit or miss when it comes to how they handle the comings and goings of major characters, but there’s hope that “Revolution of the Daleks” can succeed where “Fugitive of the Judoon” failed, and do right by Jack Harkness.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBCUniversal.