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The Mystery That Has Bothered Doctor Who Fans For Years

After several decades and 13 (ish) time-traveling protagonists, Doctor Who still stands out as one of the kings of hard sci-fi media. It may have taken a long nap, but a 21st-century resurgence has brought the British drama to a peak of global popularity it never previously experienced — constantly reinventing itself while never forgetting the stories that first defined itself: an odd alien, a phone box, and companions all zipping through spacetime. With those adventures come tragedies, wonders, and mysteries for new generations to share with their parents and even grandparents.

Doctor Who's rebirth in 2005 under executive producer Russell T. Davies created one of the most compelling mysteries: the question of the connection between Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), the swashbuckling ex-time agent displaced from his original home in the far future, and the ancient disembodied head the Face of Boe

Jack Harkness and Boe alike came and went during the tenures of both the Ninth (Christopher Eccleston) and Tenth (David Tennant) Doctors — the former delighting audiences with his charm, and the latter creating a compelling new depth to New-Who's nascent narrative. Before Boe died as a result of the events of the season 3 episode "Gridlock," he referred to the Doctor as an old friend, despite only appearing on two previous episodes. Come the end of the third season, with the finale episode "The Last of the Time Lords," Jack revealed in the final minute that during his life in the 52nd century, he was nicknamed "the Face of Boe." 

Ever since that cheeky, knowing smile and walk-off from Barrowman, the debate has never really ended amongst Whovians. The erstwhile executive producer has at last opened up more directly about the long-discussed plot twist; there are still few answers, but a surprise return may yet bring more lore to the forefront for these eternally-popular characters.

Authorial intent

Russell T. Davies may not be the showrunner of Doctor Who anymore — and Torchwood, the spin-off series specifically focused on Jack may have ended — but that doesn't mean his time working on Who canon is necessarily over. Recently, he participated in a lockdown live-tweet session of several of his era's episodes — which included "New Earth" and "Gridlock." As a special treat, the Twitter party also included a short audio drama as a bonus coda for the New Earth storyline from his time running the show, entitled The Secret of Novice Hame. 

During this live tweet session on May 30, 2020, Davies made mention of the continuing Face of Boe/Jack Harkness theory directly. He tweeted, "So... why does Captain Jack looks like that after 5 billion years? The question is, why not? Have you seen how your ears keep growing, your nose? After FIVE BILLION YEARS, extraordinary changes must happen. And here they are!"

This was the first acknowledgement from the Former Word of Whovian God that it was indeed his intent to draw a direct causal line between Jack and Boe. He's tap-danced around the question for years, which is fair enough since Who canon is so wibbly and wobbly about that whole timey-wimey thing. 

Torchwood, for all its effort put into characterizing Jack, never sought to explain it either. Back in 2009, Davies explained that he actually put the kibosh on some spin-off comics and books attempting to firmly canonize the connection between the characters, stating that "the moment it became very true or very false, the joke dies." For Davies' mileage, the twist seems to have been more for a giggle than any intent to add something monumental to Doctor Who's canon, but fandom will do what it will and focus on that which they wish to care about, and the musing over it has never been given up.

But is it canon?

Questions of canon are slippery for a program like Doctor Who, on which plot lines traverse time and space and occasionally even break the series' own rules in dire circumstances. The Meta-crisis Doctor, the time cracks featured on the fifth season, and the convoluted scenario leading to Doomsday are all arguable examples of alternate universe breaks. One Reddit thread even questions whether Torchwood: Miracle Day and Doctor Who can be considered in the same continuity, too. That's Whovians, baby.

Is the idea that Jack and Boe are the same being canon? Well, in the simplest terms, yes. Despite Davies' rhetorical dodging over the years, it was his intent to make that connection — and though it's presented using indirect language, Jack is clearly depicted as understanding the significance of what he's saying, and Martha (Freema Agyeman) and the Doctor's reactions are similarly significant. 

That said, Boe hasn't reappeared on Doctor Who since his death on "Gridlock," and the narrative hasn't bothered to try to explain itself in more concrete details (or even be acknowledged) through the three showrunners that have been attached to the series. One major outstanding question remains: How does Jack, living in the technical past, know that he is in fact Boe as the Doctor knows him over five billion years later? Is it related to his two years of missing memories?

Now — not to get anybody's hopes up — Jack Harkness has returned to the show after many years of fan demand to have Barrowman come back. The season 12 episode "The Fugitive of the Judoon" — which also began the storyline introducing a new, secret Doctor – had Jack return briefly to give the Doctor's current companions a warning. Standing Doctor Who showrunner Chris Chibnall and Barrowman, however, have remained quiet as to whether or not he'll receive a more full-throated return and meet Jodie Whittaker's Doctor.