Torchwood: The Death of Captain JackBookmark and Share

Wednesday, 4 April 2018 - Reviewed by Thomas Buxton
The Death of Captain Jack (Credit: Big Finish)
Writer: David Llewellyn
Director: Scott Handcock
Featuring: John BarrowmanJames MarstersEve MylesGareth David-LloydKai OwenTom PriceSamuel BarnettRowena Cooper
Big Finish Release (United Kingdom)
Running Time: 1 hour

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2018
Order from Amazon UK

After two full seasons of monthly releases set in the lives of Cardiff's least covert secret agents, each entry packed with as much nostalgia as world-building, not to mention a wealth of box-sets taking place in the eponymous organisation's past, present and future, some might reasonably wonder just where Big Finish can take Torchwood next - at least without fulfilling the rule of diminishing returns. To date, we've spent hours in the company of not only every member of the Season One-Two team but also Yvonne Hartman, Suzie Costello, Torchwood America's Charlie's Angels-esque terrific trio, Rhys Williams, Sergeant Andy Davidson and undercover recruits in World War Two. Who else could the studio possibly hope to focus on, then, sans perhaps the elderly woman bemoaning "bloody Torchwood" in the Season Two premiere, "Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang"?

The answer, coincidentally enough, lies in that exact same episode, albeit not in the form of Menna Trussler's brilliantly non-plussed Elspeth Morgan, but instead in the form of another oft-forgotten veteran of the show's televised tenure: Captain John Hart. Yes, everyone's other favourite Time Agent has returned for another round on the blood-soaked carousel in The Death of Captain Jack, a disorientating rollercoaster of a season premiere which delivers all of the raunchy setpieces, deliciously macabre humour, Steven Moffat-level time-travel paradoxes and further raunchy setpieces fans could possibly hope for. Every work of fiction has its flaws, of course, and we'll get to Death's blemishes later, but if nothing else, there's never been a Torchwood audio production quite like this one.

To quote Amy Pond, okay kids - this is where it gets complicated. Unlike most of these monthly vignettes, Death's place in its source material's continuity starts out sketchy and doesn't become much clearer the further we move through its running time. Suffice to say that any long-running franchise devotees will have their work cut out trying to ascertain quite when the narrative - or at least its framing device, which essentially serves as the crux of proceedings - occurs in relation to John and Jack's fractured romantic / anarchistic relationship across time and space, since there aren't many direct references to on-screen encounters between the pair such as "Kiss Kiss" or Season Two finale "Exit Wounds". What we do know, however, is that the former unashamed megalomaniac decides to finally bring their competition to best one another to an explosive end, causing a wealth of paradoxes destabilising enough to leave Jack on the brink of a permanent demise and John as the King of England.

If that sounds like a recipe for a glorious hour of unhinged science-fiction hysteria, then take comfort in the knowledge that your ears are working perfectly. If anything, the play's wright David Llewellyn takes those expectations and extrapolates them tenfold, his script gleefully embracing the explosive carnage that its two Time Agent protagonists bring to anyone caught - figuratively or often literally - between them, with the pair's at times lust-driven, at times hopelessly self-destructive relationship an empowering wildcard that keeps the hour refreshingly unpredictable. Whether he's having John compare Torchwood Three to Scooby Doo "without the cartoon dog or the lesbian" or depicting fan favourite characters like Ianto Jones or Rowena Cooper's Queen Victoria in hilariously risque new lights, Llewellyn takes evident delight in the audio range's producer, James Goss, giving him free reign to steer many of the show's core tenets totally off the rails with a chaotic, constantly expectation-subverting romp that can't fail to keep even the most emotionally apathetic listener entertained. Sure, we're left in almost no doubt that the events depicted here can't come to affect future Torchwood storylines, but who cares when the results are such visceral fun to consume through our earlobes?

That wouldn't necessarily have been the case, though, without two such accomplished lead performers at Death's helm. Enter John Barrowman and long overdue returnee James Marsters, both of whom wholeheartedly embrace the opportunity to deliver a psychologically warped comedy-drama where the only rule is that there are no rules. In many ways Barrowman's gifted with the chance to play two roles - the good Captain whom we know and love as well as the aged soul who lies before John on seemingly the final day in their centuries-spanning conflict - and, naturally, does a stellar job on both fronts, as intoxicatingly charismatic and complacent ever in the former guise while the most vulnerable and morally crushed that we've seen him since Miracle Day in the latter. As for Mr. Masters, whereas some of Doctor Who and Torchwood's past cast members needed time to adjust to portraying their characters in audio form, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Marvel's Runaways star takes to Big Finish like a devilishly handsome duck to the Time Vortex's waters, his constant barrage of witty retorts, pop culture references, beguiling pick-up lines and pre-murder zingers voiced with the kind of unsettling enthusiasm that only an actor of his calibre can truly muster. Much as Big Finish are rightly striving to entice series regulars like Eve Myles and Burn Gorman to find time amidst their hectic schedules to record further Torchwood plays, this reviewer would suggest that the studio makes Masters another major priority in this regard whenever the right script and the necessary gap in his own calendar arise.

So, with all of these glowing remarks, how could we possibly smell a fault in the framework of this undoubtedly successful new chapter for the only team ready for that key moment when "everything changes"? Well, kindly juxtapose that iconic quote from the show's opening sequence with our comments above and you'll ideally start to notice that despite subverting many of the show's tropes, The Death of Captain Jack does incorporate a heck of a lot of previously explored character dynamics, cameos from familiar faces, What If paradoxes and the like which we've seen done to death - many times over in Jack's eternal case - countless times before on Torchwood and elsewhere in the so-called Whoniverse (though feel free to substitute this term with any other epithets for the wider franchise that you see fit). Indeed, Llewellyn, Goss, and company could easily have gotten away with rebranding this release as Torchwood: Greatest Hits, since rather than taking us into any particularly new territory that no-one could have seen coming, the intention seems to have been to simply spend more time with the admittedly electric Jack-John pairing which only got 2 full episodes in which to shine during 2008's Season Two. That's a noble gesture to fans clamoring for further such antics to be sure but does inevitably result in a storyline which - for all its rib-tickling one-liners - will rarely catch veteran fans off-guard.

That, in turn, plays into the matter of continuity which we discussed briefly earlier when summarizing Death's basic premise. On a superficial level, to call out the script for refusing to explicitly confirm whereabouts in Jack and John's timelines these events take place - a tricky business to discuss fully in this review without spoiling the exact nature of certain happenings we see play out here - may seem a prime example of nitpicking, but given that we last witnessed Masters' character wanting to understand Jack's passionate zest for Earthbound life by exploring the planet himself, having his return to his tricksome ways this time around explained by the outcome of those travels might've afforded an additional layer of depth to his character arc as well as fuel for future storylines at Big Finish. Does John's manipulative, self-serving outlook on life inevitably mean that he'll never remain content with a universe out for anyone's gain but his? Is his psyche comparable to Missy's in "Death in Heaven", whereby the pair both "wanted their friends back" no matter how devastating the circumstances? Factoring questions like these into Death just might have made the key difference between the latest Torchwood range outing coming off as a satisfying or game-changing listen.

Anyway, enough grimacing for the time being - to do so for longer than necessary would be to stray far from the central fact of the matter. Even if The Death of Captain Jack doesn't necessarily start 'Season Three' of Big Finish's monthly Torchwood releases with quite the same intriguing arc threads as The Conspiracy did in 2015 or never-before-seen crossover hijinks between Jack and Queen Victoria (a total newcomer to the show) as The Victorian Age did the following year, its raw appeal as a tour de force in time-bending, romantically charged and at times unexpectedly violent storytelling can't possibly be denied. Anyone who's long craved a reunion between the only two surviving Time Agents depicted in Doctor Who and its spin-offs will almost certainly have a whale of a time with Death between its jet-black comedy, its protagonists' never-ending duel of wits and sexual prowess and its scribe's dedication to uprooting Torchwood tropes by the dozen at every turn with hilarious results. Everything mightn't change here, then, but everything's at least looking up in terms of the studio's ability to keep producing memorable monthly outings for Harkness and company.