In a midseason Doctor Who episode chock-full of surprise, one of the biggest was the previously unannounced return of John Barrowman’s Captain Jack Harkness. The swaggering, pansexual, immortal time traveler was a staple of the series under showrunner Russell T. Davies (not to mention the star of his own spinoff series Torchwood), but hasn’t appeared on Doctor Who since a brief cameo in the 2010 New Year’s Day special. Barrowman has long led the charge to bring back his fan-favorite character, and last night Captain Jack finally made his exhilarating return to the series, zooming through a space battle on a stolen ship and attempting to pass along a crucial message to the Doctor.
Though a malfunctioning Quanticum Scoop meant Jack wasn’t able to come face-to-face with Jodie Whittaker’s 13th Doctor, he did get a chance to meet her current companions Graham (Bradley Walsh), Ryan (Tosin Cole), and Yaz (Mandip Gill). After planting a kiss of Graham (whom he mistook for the Doctor), dropping some signature innuendos, and delighting in the news that his old friend is now a woman, Jack zapped out of the story with a promise that he’ll always be there for the Doctor when she needs him. The A.V. Club spoke to Barrowman about how he pulled off the massive surprise, what it was like to return to the series, and the social media lie that accidentally got him a newly renovated apartment.
The A.V. Club: Jack’s return is something you’ve been pushing for a long time. Now that it’s finally happened, are you happy with the fan reaction?
John Barrowman: Oh, I’m completely overwhelmed with the fan reaction. I’ve always tried to keep Captain Jack alive, whether it was in comic books that my sister [Carole Barrowman] and I were writing, or whether it was just talking about him or doing the convention circuit. But never did I realize—I was actually filming a live TV show on another network when the episode aired on the BBC, but I was following the reaction on Twitter and Instagram. And I welled up because I couldn’t believe the response. There was nothing negative at all. Everybody was thrilled. Everybody was celebrating. And reading what people were saying, I was truly overwhelmed. I just could not have asked for anything better.
AVC: Did you do anything special to celebrate?
JB: Last night when I came home, I had a couple of glasses of champagne. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did you first learn that showrunner Chris Chibnall wanted to bring Captain Jack back?
JB: I was in central London and I went to the Old Vic theater to see Bill Pullman in a play—Bill was also in Torchwood, he played Oswald Danes in Miracle Day, the last series we did. So I went to say hello to him because he was in town, and then I got a phone call on the corner outside the theater. And my manger said, “Chris Chibnall wants to speak to you.” So he put the call through and the first thing out of Chris’ mouth was, “John, how do you feel about Captain Jack coming back to the TARDIS?” And I just jumped around screaming and went, “I’ve said it all time: At the drop of a hat. Absolutely. I will move whatever to make this happen.” And we finished that phone call, and I immediately called Russell T, and I said, “Russell, guess what’s happening?” And he said, [Adopts a British accent.] “Darling, I know! Isn’t it bloody marvelous?”
AVC: Logistically, how were you able to keep your appearance a secret?
JB: I would go to work covered in black sheets in the back of a car. I was told to wear a hoodie, and when I got to the Cathedral in Bristol where we filmed all of my scenes, I would be surrounded by people with black umbrellas and taken into the Cathedral. So it was very, very hush-hush. The only people that I told were my mom and dad, my sister, and also my husband.
But I had to make an excuse to social media because people were wondering why I was in Cardiff [where Doctor Who shoots]. I was getting recognized left, right, and center. So I started doing posts on Instagram about renovating one of our properties. According to the fib I was telling, I was there renovating a flat. And then eventually, over the course of a couple of days, I really did renovate my flat because I thought, well, if I’m gonna say it, I may as well do it. And I was able to post stuff, so the decoy worked brilliantly. That was about five or six months ago, so we really kept the secret.
AVC: Are you happy with how the renovations came out?
JB: I can now post the pictures because it’s finally done! [Laughs.] So, yes, I’m very happy with the way it turned out.
AVC: How long did it take to shoot your portion of the episode?
JB: It’s a bit of a blur to me right now, but if I’m correct, I think I did it in 48 hours.
AVC: How did it feel to put the costume back on for the first time?
JB: I had the fitting for my costume about three months earlier, when I was doing my UK Fabulous Tour over the summer, which was celebrating 30 years of me in the industry. And I stayed in the St. David’s hotel while I was playing a venue in Cardiff. And [Doctor Who costumer designer] Ray Holman came over and brought everything out and fitted me. I actually have the pictures—which I can now post—of me in the hotel room trying everything on for the first time. We were just super excited. Scott, my husband, was excited. We were all just beaming. Ray and I just couldn’t stop hugging each other.
AVC: Did Chibnall or episode director Nida Manzoor give you any specific direction on how to bring Jack back to life in this new era of the show?
JB: No. I gotta be honest with you, they trusted me. I know this character. This character is such a part of me that there is no difficulty in finding him again. I can find him at the drop of a hat. It’s like putting on an old coat. But what was interesting is that some of the writers hadn’t written for me or Jack before. So sometimes the flow of the line wasn’t what I call a “Jack-ism.” So they also allowed me to change some things.
AVC: Do you remember any specific moments or lines that you really put your own spin on?
JB: Well, the kiss was in there, but it was my idea to hold the kiss longer than normal. And Bradley Walsh, who plays Graham, who I know outside of Doctor Who, he was like, [Affects Walsh’s accent.] “Barrowman, did you have to bloody kiss me that long?” And I said, “Well, it’s probably the only chance I’ll get Brad, so I’m just gonna do it.”
And other little things, like when I say to Tosin, “Ooh, I like him.” Just little things like that, that Jack would rattle off. I knew the rhythm of the speeches, the speeches came very easy to me. Jack has what I call a juxtaposed thought process, very similar to how The Doctor thinks. Things are firing all over the place: “Oh I like that.” “What’s that over there?” “Don’t touch that!” So it wasn’t hard, and I was able to put my own sassy spin on it that just was Jack. Chris rang me on the first day after he saw the dailies, saying, “It’s just glorious! It’s him. He’s back.”
One thing I’m glad that fans have picked up on: The first bit when Jack says, “Did you miss me?” I wanted the fandom to feel the joy, not only that I felt coming back to Doctor Who, but also the joy that Jack felt when he was bringing who he thought was the Doctor back to him. So I’m thrilled by the response and I’m really chuffed by the whole thing. It’s really humbled me. I know I sound silly saying it all the time, but it was just brilliantly amazing to play him again.
AVC: Is there anything you can tease about Jack’s future on the show?
JB: All I can say is, he’ll always be there for the Doctor when she needs him. That’s it. [Laughs.]
AVC: Beyond Jack’s return, there are a lot of other big surprises in this episode. Were you able to read the full script before you filmed or did you only know about Jack’s portion of it?
JB: No, no, no. Well, at first I just had Jack’s pages, but then when I got there I got the rest of the script. And it’s one of those episode where it’s like—if somebody had a pancake and was smacking someone in the face with it, that’s what this episode was like. There was a smack every 15 minutes, something new was happening. It was an epic episode, and, I think, a huge turning point in this season. So I’m sure there’s a lot more to look forward to.
AVC: You didn’t get to film any scenes with Jodie Whittaker, but did you run into her at all when you were on set?
JB: Of course, I did! Jodie and I had a good chat. I played a prank on her in her trailer. She was told by production, “You’re gonna love John.” And I was told by production, “You’re gonna love Jodie.” And I trust the Whovian family. When they tell me something like that, I know it’s gonna be true. So we hit it off and, in fact, Jodie just texted me to say she’s in L.A., sorry she missed me in L.A., but she heard the episode went down smashingly well. And I can’t wait to see her when she’s back in the UK. So we’re still in touch, still in correspondence, and we have a great rapport.
AVC: What was the prank?
JB: [Laughs.] Well, I don’t want to reveal that! That’s kind of personal! But I think it has something to do with filling her room with toilet paper.