Sometimes, when you’re creating, you inadvertently open a can of worms. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Sometimes it is the only way to catch fish. But sometimes you wonder why you bothered. Actually, it’s less that, and more a sense of frustration that the joke has been missed, or that people would rather concentrate on the theory than the comedy. I suppose that’s the nature of fandom, but it is a little like banging your head against a brick wall. Truthfully there is not much to be said about the comedy for this little instalment – it sort of speaks for itself – and thus we will concentrate on the theory, at least for this morning. Business as usual next time, folks.
Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way. I was toying with the idea of redubbing the Face of Boe with Jack’s voice for a while last year: it was an easy edit, it makes total sense, and it has reasonable comic potential. The Face of Boe appears (properly; ‘Utopia’ doesn’t count, nor does ‘Journey’s End’) in precisely three episodes but there isn’t enough malleable footage in ‘The End of the World’; I stuck therefore with ‘New Earth’, in which the Face of Boe is dying and then isn’t, and ‘Gridlock’, in which he isn’t but then is. Mashed-in dialogue is partly from Doctor Who, partly from Torchwood, and inevitably there’s a bit of singing. Jack is by turns kinky and unexpectedly remorseful, which wasn’t quite the vibe I’d intended, but it sort of works. I had wanted to include ‘The Doctor And I’, but it just didn’t fit somehow. I don’t think we suffer for its absence.
Anyway: I uploaded the thing and it got a few laughs – but it also caused a reasonable amount of confusion in the community. “But…he – he is the Face of Boe!!” spluttered one user. “He said it in an episode! It was confirmed!” Other people were a little less spluttery but still a little put out. “He knew the Doctor,” said someone else. “Called him old friend when they’d never met. Last time he saw Jack outside of the Christmas special he told the Doctor back home they called him the Face of Boe. River Song’s vortex came from a handsome time traveller the headless monks got. It’s him.”
I won’t tell you what I said in private, because it probably breaks obscenity guidelines, but I did take it upon myself to reply to a few of those comments. The truth is – and thinking about it this, more than anything else, is what may have given me the idea to actually put this together – the Jack / Boe thing is one of the most frequently asked technical questions in any of the Doctor Who groups I visit. (The others, incidentally, are “Why did the Doctor start regenerating at Lake Silencio if he was on his final incarnation?”, and “Is the War Doctor really the Ninth Doctor?”, but seriously, let’s not go there today.)
It was the June 2007 when they first aired ‘The Last of the Time Lords’. I was twenty-nine and had just become a second-time father. Thomas wasn’t the easiest of babies and that summer was a heady mixture of sleepless nights, screaming fits and constant feeding, all accompanied by a red sling in which he had to be carried almost constantly, because it was the only way to stop the wailing. Emily would nap when she could and it was for this reason that I watched the series 3 finale without her: she would catch up later, with me standing in the doorway, hovering behind her whispering “Doctor…Doctor…” at the crucial moment. You have to have some fun.
But I remember watching that finale and then grabbing an old friend for a water cooler moment at the office the next morning. “Oh my gosh,” I said. “CAPTAIN JACK IS THE FACE OF BOE!” From what I’ve read, my reaction mirrored that of Barrowman, who allegedly jumped up and down and squealed a bit. Across the nation – the world, come to that, at least the parts of the world that got access to BBC programmes – the reaction was much the same, in all but one quarter, which would be the BBC herself. Because when the episode was repeated with a producer’s commentary, Russell T Davies was heard to mutter “Well, it’s as good an explanation for the Face of Boe as any”, only to have Julie Gardner tell him to “Stop backpedalling”.
Except…it’s watertight, isn’t it? It’s an established fact that Jack spends billions of years evolving into a giant head, isn’t it? Well, actually it isn’t. Things are never that concrete in Whovania, because if they were then we’d have no leeway for fan fiction. If the Fifth Doctor and Peri had gone straight from Sarn to Androzani, years of Big Finish releases with Peri and Erimem would be rendered obsolete. If we’d seen McGann regenerate into Eccleston at the beginning of ‘Rose’, there would be no place for the War Doctor. And if it were definitively and unambiguously established that the TARDIS had developed a fault on its journey to visit the Tribe of Gum, we’d never have had Hunters of the Burning Stone, and the world would be a much better place.
Here are the facts in the case of Jack vs. Boe:
1. The Face of Boe calls the Doctor ‘old friend’ when they meet in ‘New Earth’, despite only having met him the once (according to the Doctor).
2. An abandoned sequence in ‘A Good Man Goes To War’ would allegedly have seen Jack literally lose his head at the hands of the Headless Monks, surviving – but only as a head. This was shelved because of Barrowman’s involvement in Miracle Day.
3. In ‘The Pandorica Opens’, River states that she got her vortex manipulator “fresh off the wrist of a handsome time agent”, although that’s all the information we get.
4. As Jack bids farewell to the Doctor and Martha at the end of ‘The Last of the Time Lords’, he ruminates on his fear of physical ageing – something that is apparently happening, albeit as slowly as it affects Wolverine – and wonders what he will look like at the age of a million. He then mentions in passing that this sense of vanity was partly instilled by his youth, when his good looks made him a poster boy for the Boeshane Peninsula. “The Face of Boe, they called me,” he says, before trotting off to what turns out to be a memorable entrance in ‘Kiss Kiss Bang Bang’. (If you haven’t seen it, do so. He has a fight with Spike from Buffy. In a bar. With Blur playing in the background. It’s great.)
Let’s take them more or less one at a time. In the first instance, there’s no reason to suspect that Boe and the Doctor didn’t meet again after Platform One. It could be that the Doctor’s forgotten. Or that he’s lying. That’s something I get told a lot: whenever there is an apparent continuity error there is a chorus of comments reading “Rule one: the Doctor lies”. It’s mindlessly irritating, seeing as it’s not the Doctor’s rule, it’s actually River’s, and it’s a cheap way of explaining away an ambiguity that would probably make sense if you actually took the time to think about it, but it beats “Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey”, so I suppose I can live with it. It’s further possible that the Doctor and Boe had an adventure they agreed not to speak about with anyone, including each other. Perhaps it’s a cultural thing: perhaps that’s how the Boekind greet people they know. Or perhaps the Face of Boe has been ruminating on the fact that the Doctor saved his life a few years back, and considers him a friend as a consequence. Perhaps they’ve been messaging each other on Facebook. Pick one.
The scene with the Headless Monks is awkward simply because it was never filmed. It’s an abandoned sequence that is thus as canonical as, say, Lungbarrow – a story that effectively gave us the Doctor’s real name, but which sits rather uncomfortably within the whopping great list of Things You Can Believe If You Want To (a concept to which we’ll return, so remember it). If they didn’t show it, it didn’t happen. Actually, even if they did show it there’s a fair bit of leeway with retconning: 24 aired the death of a prominent character in season 5 but a couple of years later he was back, when it was discovered that we did not see what we thought we saw. River’s vortex manipulator may have come from Jack (with, it is implied, the hand still attached to it), but it does not follow from this that he had a run-in with the Monks – although the Monks aren’t necessary for Jack to become Boe, which I’ll explore in a moment.
The ‘Last of the Time Lords’ scene is a little more concrete, but even then it’s not exactly unambiguous. It’s connection by association – look, this is how tabloid newspapers work. They’ll tell you that there’s a new CBeebies series starring a female engineer, and then mention in passing that they no longer show Bob the Builder, and leave you to fill in the gaps. Before we know it there’s a minor frenzy about the BBC eschewing old favourites in favour of new, politically correct content, and everyone’s conveniently forgotten the fact that the Beeb washed their hands of Bob when HIT Entertainment gave him that disastrous makeover and a stupid Midlands accent.
Similarly, all this scene tells you is that Jack was called the Face of Boe by a bunch of people who might have already known about the real Face and thus applied it as a nickname. Because we’ve been wondering about the Face of Boe all series, it’s natural to assume the two are connected, but there’s no reason why they would be. As it stands, it’s clumsy shoehorning. It may have had the fans jumping out of their seats, but it’s a dreadful way to finish a scene. The dialogue is terrible. You don’t say “The Face of Boe, they called me” and then saunter away to an invisible door. It’s an unnecessary conversation dangle. No one does it. Not unless they’re deliberately baiting the Doctor and Martha, not to mention the people watching at home…oh, wait.
The funny thing about all this is that Jack could quite easily evolve into Boe without any of the kerfuffle with the Monks. We saw it in a Philip K. Dick short story, The Infinites, in which a three-man crew investigate a strange planet and find themselves undergoing rapidly accelerated evolution – millions of years pass in just a few hours. It has highly irradiated sentient hamsters made of pure energy. I swear I’m not making this up. The point is that the changes are marked by degenerating limbs and greatly swollen head size, marking an increased reliance on the cerebral cortex and, one would assume, the decrease of motor functions. From this, it’s quite feasible to imagine that Jack could turn into a giant head the older he gets. Perhaps it’s the way we’re going. It’s certainly the way it was going in WALL-E, where everyone was fat because they’d spent years puttering about in a small land. Sudden cosmic storms aside, you and I will probably never know.
Out on the convention circuit, the vibe among the cast and crew has come down in favour of Jack and Boe being one and the same. Barrowman believes it. So does Gardener. So, up to a point, does Davies, although that’s a bit more complicated. I’m not listing my sources; it’s well-documented. It has to be said that of the above, Davies is the only one who gets a vote, being largely responsible for the genesis and development of the character (yes, I know that Moffat penned those first episodes and half of Torchwood was written by Chibnall; work with me here). But even then it’s dangerous to assume that originating writers have total responsibility for the characters they create for the rest of time. There needs to be a handover point: otherwise it’s a slippery slope to the sort of petty legal wrangling we had after the Brigadier’s grandfather / great-uncle showed up in the Christmas episode. Or you get someone making an obvious joke about Jenny crashing into an asteroid and then the fans are up in arms because Big Finish have brought her back and WHAT ABOUT THE SANCTITY OF CANON? (And yes, I realise I talked earlier about the whole “If it didn’t happen on screen, it’s not canon” thing. It’s my blog; I’m allowed the occasional double standard.)
The bottom line is that this has been kept as ambiguous as possible simply because it’s better that way. It grates against the sensibilities of the modern Doctor Who fan. Unresolved plot strands do not sit comfortably with them: why not explain something if you can? But sometimes it’s better if you don’t know. The Italian Job has one of the best endings to any film ever, simply because it is left hanging, in the most literal sense of the word. We never found out if Fran and Peter survived at the end of Dawn of the Dead, but there is a fleeting sense of hope as they fly off into the sunset; the same sense of hope permeates The Shawshank Redemption (this is the novella we’re talking about – not the film, which ends on a more definitive point and which is arguably less successful as a result). No one gets the end of 2001, but drawing your own conclusions to the Rorschach that is the film’s final ten-minute sequence is, many ways, far more satisfying than anything that’s cleared up in the books.
Davies knows this. The man does have his faults, but he – like most sensible people – realised that giving Jack a designated end point essentially kills the joke. It also deflates any sense of tension in Torchwood, because you know that Jack will at some point be wheeled around in a glass case and get pregnant again, but that’s a by-product. Here’s my point: it’s actually fine if people want to believe that Jack becomes the Face of Boe. I more or less believe it myself. It’s as good an explanation for the character as we’ve come across, and the evidence for it – whilst not exactly overwhelming – is still a clear collection of hints that point towards a likely plot strand. “None of these things is any good on its own,” the boy’s grandmother tells him in The Witches. “It’s only when you put them all together that they begin to make a little sense.”
Still: a little sense may be as far as we get. Because it’s more fun if we don’t know. There is a greater sense of narrative satisfaction – at least there is for me – in having a character whose fate is unresolved than one whose life cannot be changed; Ebenezer Scrooge endeavoured to sponge away the writing on his gravestone and we must believe the same of Jack, however much a definitive ending to his story might please some of the fans. Jack might be the Face of Boe, and then next week it could all be undone in a heartbeat – that is the nature of the programme we love, and while I went through a period of getting annoyed about this, in recent months I’ve kind of got used to it. Certainty is the path to arrogance, and the older I get the less certain I am about things, and I’m learning to embrace, even revel in the ambiguities. So let’s rejoice in the fact that for all the speculation and fan theory and arguments about intended meaning, when all is said and done we really don’t know Jack. Christopher Bullock said that it was “impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes”. In the Whoniverse, we don’t even have the first one, and it’s better that way.