The Lives of Captain Jack Volume 3 (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 21 June 2020 - Reviewed by Tom Buxton
The Lives of Captain Jack: Volume 3 (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: Guy Adams, Tim Foley and James Goss
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Starring: John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Alex Kingston (River Song), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Jacob Dudman (Snorvlast), Paul Clayton (Pilot), Samantha Béart (Passenger), Jonny Green (Passenger)

Released by Big Finish Productions - March 2020
Order from Amazon UK

Try as they might to mine all of Captain Jack Harkness’ infinite timeline across their various Torchwood ranges, Big Finish have in reality barely scratched his impeccably chiselled surface over the past five years since 2015's The Conspiracy. Therein lies the thrill of their three-strong The Lives of Captain Jack range, though – shifting their focus away from his ongoing exploits (and surrounding cast ensemble) in Cardiff / Victorian London affords them ample opportunity to explore Jack’s other unseen life experience, be it during his early stint in the Time Agency, his centuries spent on Earth awaiting the Doctor’s return, or even his donning another Doctor’s rainbow coat instead. The possibilities for fresh stories are quite literally endless, albeit their frequency governed by John Barrowman’s ever-densifying work schedule.

This time around we’re privy to three delightfully eclectic adventures in the good Captain’s eternal lifespan, each of which showcases the fleeting but treasured friendships which he ignites with undervalued mothers, overexaggerated fiends of myth and an unlikely equal alike. True, there’s still plenty of ground for Big Finish to cover beyond what Volume 3 achieves in the space of three hours (and indeed what its two predecessors cumulatively managed in six); as will become apparent below, though, its riveting contents can surely offer copious escapist entertainment to while away some lockdown time – a welcome prospect indeed given how our global predicament has justifiably limited other means of escapism of late…

“Crush”:

“There are other people on the Estate, some of them call themselves friends. But you wanna know how to be really invisible? Be a widow, be single, be alone – people hate that.”

Amongst Big Finish’s greatest strengths as storytellers in the Doctor Who universe has always been their ability to transform lesser-seen characters from the TV shows into well-rounded protagonists (or antagonists) with every ounce as much psychological depth as the Doctor, his companions or most notorious rogues. Take Jackie Tyler: although Russell T. Davies wisely found time in Rose’s Earth-bound storylines to glimpse her mother’s loneliness sans Pete and growing fears over her daughter’s survival amongst the stars, the relatively fleeting nature of her screen-time meant that we as viewers only formed so much of a lasting attachment before zipping back into the TARDIS to other places and times.

Enter Volume 1’s more introspective entry “Wednesday for Beginners”, which simultaneously afforded us far greater insight into Jackie’s social isolation (now all the more topical for us as listeners, of course!) while revealing that she and Jack struck up something of an electric rapport in Rose’s absence from the Powell Estate. That storyline naturally opened the door for future NSFW romps between the pair, so it’s a wholly welcome development to see Guy Adams kicking off Volume 3 with one such reunion, albeit in a rather different setting. Whereas previously Jackie hosted Jack at her Estate, now she’s joined him for an intergalactic luxury cruise…only to instead find herself aboard a tightly-packed replacement bus, rife with murders and passengers who’ll glare down anyone making a single noise.

If this discomforting public transport experience sounds at all familiar, then the aptly-named “Crush” and its scathing (anti-)social satire should lie right up your metaphorical street. Presumably Adams himself must’ve stood in one too many claustrophobic, headphoneless-tablet-laden, kindness-devoid carriages prior to pitching his latest Big Finish script, since this often depressingly realistic outing perfectly captures the constrained huddling, torturous suspense as to who’ll emit the next sound and yearning for oft-absent human connection – all sensations felt by the passengers and drivers alike, in fact. Indeed, his script takes remarkable pains to ensure our empathy with each apathetic party aboard the vessel, forcing listeners to question their own assumptions regarding fellow travellers’ mindsets (e.g. their religious beliefs or mental welfare) in a way that many other less confident playwrights mightn’t dare broach.

Anyone who’s heard Paul Clayton’s work at Big Finish to date will already attest him as an ideal frontman for such a biting social commentary’s supporting cast. Better known to us as Mr. Colchester in the post-Miracle Day Torchwood audios, Clayton gets to put his trademark sardonic wit to altogether different use here as the bus’s altogether indifferent robot driver, pitching him as constantly a deadpan automaton to marvellous (or perhaps Marvin-lous for Hitchhiker’s Guide fans) effect whatever the character’s dialogue. Keep an eye (or ear in this case) out too for cameos from some other Torchwood audio regulars like Samantha Béart and Jonny Green, whose voices you might just hear among the passengers as they start to pipe up later on in the narrative.

But by far the most effective aspect of “Crush” – ironically for a Lives of Captain Jack yarn – is how effectively it validates Jackie’s return to the franchise. As ever, Camille Coduri effortlessly recaptures her character’s ludicrously inappropriate humour, brash ignorance of social etiquette and volatile temper 1.5 decades on from her TV debut. And more impressively still, she’s fully embracing of the more vulnerable direction in which Adams strives to take Jackie as the hour progresses – her charmingly bubby delivery seems in many ways a façade to mask the still-painful trauma wrought by losing Pete to death, her daughter to the Doctor and her friends to their inability to comprehend widowhood. By striking this extremely taut balance between her long-running construct’s brazen exterior and the all-too-familiar self-doubt lying just beneath the surface of his psyche, Coduri crafts a truly engrossing performance, one sure to impact the average socially-distancing commuter just as much as it does a listener struggling with their own personal challenges.

All of this isn’t to say that Adams’ instalment lacks any scope for improvement whatsoever; certain sound effects might’ve benefitted from more focus to ensure our full immersion – for instance, distinguishing a set of near-silent deadly projectiles regularly fired at passengers from the vessel’s general hubbub often proves easier said than done. Yet as is so often the case with Big Finish’s productions, those qualms seem borderline irrelevant when put into the wider context of a thoroughly compelling first instalment like “Crush”, hence it’s still earning our full endorsement.

“Mighty and Despair”:

“Okay Persis – if you’re not about to kill me…”

“Never, your majesty!”

“Then the stories better be true. Let’s find this hidden planet – let’s find this Captain Jack.”

A lot of our experiences with the aforementioned Captain to date have admittedly taken the form of 19th-21st century narratives – primarily since the Torchwood Institute only started life in Victorian times and its eponymous Doctor Who spin-off centred on his team’s present-day missions. But Tim Foley’s ambitious contribution to Volume 3, in stark contrast to its 2000s space bus-based predecessor and timeline-hopping successor, plunges headfirst into uncharted territory, instead jumping forward to confirm that Jack’s fears (as expressed in “Last of the Time Lords”) of someday exhibiting “the odd grey hair” were wholly warranted. There will come a moment when this aesthetic bastion’s age starts to show, his boisterously fun-loving lifestyle gives way to that of a reclusive hermit and his (literally) undying capacity for hope fades into bitter resentment after losing everyone dear to him. It’d take a miraculous series of events involving warring royal siblings, unrequited romance or festive hijinks to restore our hero to his former glory – and even then that mightn’t prove enough.

What better moment could there be, then, for a deposed vampiric queen and her faithful servant to crash-land near Jack’s extraterrestrial temple in the hope of finding salvation, not to mention for us to hit Play amidst our already-demoralising real-world challenges? Thankfully there’s much more in the way of inspiration and solace than moroseness here for lockdown listeners, Foley’s uplifting tale quickly demonstrating how our bonds with friends, family and strangers alike will ultimately give us the strength, compassion and determination to see out any challenge. This rather timely notion manifests with particular poignancy via a brilliantly-paced Christmas montage in Act 2; over the course of decades, we gradually see Jack (whose voice Barrowman imbues with touching self-pity, misplaced venom towards vampires and world-wearied wisdom), said monarch Carla (whose resounded defeat Jessica Hayles subtly transitions into long-forgotten warmth) and her aide-turned-admirer Persis (portrayed with earnest yet defiant aplomb by Joanna Van Kampen) ease their joint exile by rediscovering the joyful spirit, generosity and love inspired by December 25th. “Halfway out of the dark” indeed.

If anything, “Mighty and Despair” would’ve thus easily justified Volume 3 releasing around the festive season last year (rather than a mere two months ago), although its clear message of hope’s triumph over near-endless adversity equally couldn’t have come at a much better instance than the current global circumstances.

“R&J”:

“Dearly beloved, we are gathered together in front of the Holy Modem to witness the union of Captain Jack Harkness and River Song.”

So it’s finally time. Time for the titanic crossover which fans have demanded ever since both iconic characters made their debut in modern Who. Fighting in the left corner: the Boeshane Peninsula’s most renowned Time Agent recruit. In the right corner, newly resurrected: Klom’s most renowned entity-consumer, the Abzorbaloff hims-

What’s that? Only this reviewer craved such an epic confrontation, whilst everyone else yearned for Jack to cross paths with the Doctor’s wife instead? Fair enough, then – fortunately Volume 3’s final chapter centres on precisely that collision course, with James Goss doing justice to the long-awaited event in a manner only possible for a scribe of his immense calibre. Most crossovers are usually content to simply provide a zany caper for their subjects to blaze through, all the while carrying no lasting effects for their respective character arcs; Goss’ stupendous “R&J”, however, takes quite the opposite approach, exploring events from throughout the two near-eternals’ Who timelines where we’d never have previously guessed the pair would clash. From Jack’s earliest encounters with the Ninth Doctor to River’s regular dates with his successors, from the Torchwood Three leader’s darkest hours to Melody Pond’s desperate stabs at happiness and agency in a chaotic pre-determined timeline, virtually no stone is left unturned over the course of the hour.

Of course, as satisfying as these call-backs might be and as vividly as the various worlds (from lively markets to hauntingly silent wastelands) are rendered by the sound design team, a mere greatest hits tour would likely start growing old fast. Yet our assured playwright abundantly recognises that risk from the outset, hence his remarkable endeavour to turn each chance encounter between our (anti)heroes into a key cog in their joint character study. For every madcap prehistoric race atop dinosaurs, there’s a personal discussion of immortality’s shortcomings (as Jack espoused in “Mighty and Despair” too); for every war over the Doctor’s affections (or his survival amidst River’s attempted assassinations), a more grounded debate over whether his reckless lifestyle of “never looking back” is a healthier match for River than the (comparative) normality offered by a romance with someone living day-to-day-to-century like Mr. Harkness. Such is the profound emotional resonance and relatability struck up between these oft-outrageous constructs here that you might genuinely find repeat viewings of the “R&J” coupling’s respective TV outings informed, nay enhanced by the extra context; that’s something which can rarely be said of the more high-octane crossover events in comics or any medium, regardless of whether or not they’re “the most ambitious of all-time”.

As for our esteemed leading performers, from the outset you can tell that John Barrowman and Alex Kingston - effectively gifted a two-hander to do with as they so please a la “Heaven Sent” - must have had an absolute riot with this one in their respective recording studios (though goodness knows how Jacob Dudman kept a straight face on supporting duties, since the behind-the-scenes tracks reveal that he read Alex’s lines whilst working alongside Barrowman!). Bringing their undisputed charisma to hilarious standoffs with scorned lovers and each other alike, the pair equally evoke pathos aplenty in their honest deliveries of grief amidst loss (striking a chord all too poignant in these times), yearning for true requited love and contemplation of roads not taken as millennia pass them by. Doubtless both will continue to appear in their own Big Finish ranges going forward, as well as making cameos elsewhere on occasion, but were this to mark their final collaboration, then these two rightly-adored thespians – not to mention Goss – could still rest assured that it’s among their finest work to date, as indeed is Volume 3 for everyone involved with this spectacular audio trilogy.





The Lives of Captain Jack (Big Finish)Bookmark and Share

Sunday, 14 January 2018 - Reviewed by Peter Nolan
The Lives of Captain Jack (Credit: Big Finish)
Written By: James Goss, Guy Adams
Directed By: Scott Handcock
Cast
John Barrowman (Captain Jack Harkness), Russell Tovey (Midshipman Alonso Frame), Camille Coduri (Jackie Tyler), Sarah Douglas (Vortia Trear), Shvorne Marks (Silo Crook), Scott Haran (Malfi Pryn), Aaron Neil (Gorky Sax), Katy Manning (Mother Nothing), Ellie Heydon (Ginny), Jonny Green (Station Computer), Hannah Barker (Female Passenger), Conor Pelan (Male Passenger), Ellie Welch (Bay Guard), Kristy Philipps (Colby), Joe Wiltshire Smith (Pods), Sakuntala Ramanee (Maglin Shank), Kieran Bew (Krim Pollensa), Alexander Vlahos (The Stranger), Chris Allen, Christel Dee and James Goss (The Council)
Producer James Goss
Script Editor Scott Handcock
Executive Producers Jason Haigh-Ellery and Nicholas Briggs
Originally Released June 2017

Captain Jack Harkness has long had something of a split persona – two distinct characters in one. There’s “Doctor Who Jack,” who is sparky and cheeky and fun and whose notorious omnisexual nature never gets further than a ribald anecdote of a flirtatious ‘Hello.’ And then there’s “Torchwood Jack,” tortured and cynical, weighed down by his sins, and known to be found in the company of his butler, trousers around his ankles among the office’s potted plants. The obvious real world answer to that is as clear as the differing audiences between Saturday tea time and post-watershed midweek audiences, but in-universe it would seem that Jack actually feels more comfortable as a sidekick – happiest when the Doctor is around to shoulder the tough decisions and conscious that, when the Doctor is in the room, the world is such an ever slightly kinder place.So a slight question mark over The Lives of Captain Jack as to which Captain Jack, exactly, we were going to get. Ultimately the decision to label this not as a Torchwood release, despite half of it being set during Jack’s Torchwood days, but as being from “the Worlds of Doctor Who” was our clearest signpost.  Even when this boxset sees Jack at some of the lowest ebbs of his life, in the aftermath of sacrificing his own grandson’s life to save the world, or as he crashes out of the Time Agency, it never loses a sense of lightness or optimism. Wonderfully, though, one element of Torchwood present and correct is Jack’s magnificent theme, affectionately known by fans as “Here He Comes in a Ruddy Great Tractor,” and it’s in particularly fine form with the jaunty treatment it gets here.

 

The Year After I Died

We open in the 200,101ad on an Earth that’s been in a hellish spiral for almost two centuries – first under the blobby heel of the Mighty Jagrafess, then the mad reality of the GameStation and now a desolate wasteland of displaced refugees left by the Daleks’ bombardment. Jack, trapped in this time and place for a year now, isn’t doing much of the rebuilding that the Doctor predicted he would. Instead he’s lost his mojo and has taken to living as a hermit in the wilderness. It takes a visit from plucky young reporter Silo (trying to jump start the journalistic tradition back into life all on her lonesome) to tease out exactly why. It’s a neat idea to give us a Jack that doesn’t yet know that he’s immortal but, having been dead just the once, didn’t like it much and is desperate to avoid repeating the experience. That’s why, initially, he’s prepared to do nothing more than warn Silo away from the Hope Foundation. Promising the starving masses of the Earth new life on her old colonies among the stars Jack can smell when something is too good to be true, but is too risk averse these days to do anything about it. But when Silo ignores his warnings and boards one of the departure ships she finds herself in a living nightmare and before you can say ‘Soylent Green’ realizes that the only asset Earth has left to strip is its people, one organ at a time. But will Jack really not come for her?

The Year After I Died is a pretty light, swift footed story with no real twists or turns, but it’s a nice tale of Jack getting his groove back. It also has the small, sharp slice of satire traditional to these Satellite 5 stories– with the former wealthy elites of the ravaged Earth doing whatever it takes to stay on top, from their ivory tower on the former GameStation. That, as embodied by leader Vortia Trear (former Superman II villain Sarah Douglas on great form), they’re entitled, conceited morons, as inept as they are cruel, rather than dastardly cunning supervillains makes sense. After all these are the people the Daleks allowed to rise to the top in the belief they ran the planet while anyone smart enough to detect the guiding hand of the Emperor would have been done away with. But you are left wondering what the 21st century’s excuse is.

 

Wednesdays for Beginners

Captain Jack. Jackie Tyler. A match made in Heaven or at very least a nice wine bar. If Wednesdays for Beginners disappoints at all, it’s simply because no meeting between these two giants of 00s Who could live up to the epic hilarity that lives in the fan hivemind. There is a great deal of spark and wit in the banter between two of Doctor Who’s most naturally charismatic performers, but it’s hampered a little by the exact choice of setting. Jackie is in her Love & Monsters phase of feeling somewhat abandoned and forgotten by Rose and the Doctor, while Jack is in the period between the murder/suicide of his old Torchwood team and his recruitment of the new one seen in the Torchwood TV series. It leads to them both being atypically glum in many of the scenes. Placing it pre-2005, with Jackie in full Mama Bear mode over a threat to her young child and not quite grasping alien involvement might have allowed for a little more lightness.In fairness, the setting is in service of the dramatic need to leave the characters different from where we found them. This Jack has had about enough of waiting for the Doctor and is actively staking out (or, as she puts it, “stalking,” though she seems mostly flattered) Jackie in order to force a meeting with him. By the end he’s accepted that what will be will be, and that he needs to rebuild his life in Cardiff until the universe bring the Doctor to him. Jackie’s arc is a bit of re-tread of Love & Monsters, with her ultimately affirming that, abandonment issues or not, the Doctor is under her protection and anyone who tries to come after him and Rose is in for a world of Mama Tyler hurt.The nature of the threat is left quite vague and technobabble heavy, mainly so that Jackie can cut through it all with basic instinct and common sense where Jack’s hard science and experience fails. There’s a lot to enjoy here, most especially the sheer joy of Camille Coduri’s brilliant performance, sounding like she’s never been away, while the counter-intuitive idea of the normally hyper-flirtatious Jack trying to keep an appropriately platonic distance from Rose’s mother (he rarely gets past the barrier of insisting on calling her “Mrs. Tyler”) is surprisingly sweet in execution.It may not live up to its full potential, but it’s still a fine investigation of what makes the two tick.

 

Some Enchanted Evening

In contrast, the third episode is surprisingly upbeat and humourous considering its placement in the aftermath of Children of Earth. But once you put that incongruity aside, this is a riotous, over the top celebration of Jack at his most flirtatious, cheeky, and preposterous and therefore massive fun. It turns out that the Doctor didn’t arrange a cute meet for his former companion and Alonzo Frame (Russell Tovey), formerly of the Titanic, just so Jack could shag himself happy again but so that the two would be placed to team up to defend the space station from an imminent attack.That attack comes from a giant, carnivorous space beetle called Mother Nothing and her army of killer robots. Mother Nothing is performed as a spectacular grotesque by an almost unrecognizable Katy Manning, plainly having the time of her life in a role that puts subtlety in a cannon and fires it far, far away from the recording studio. She wants the universe’s largest diamond even though, being artificially grown, it’s worthless, simply because it’s so very shiny. Unfortunately, it’s also a vital component in the station’s power generator and removing it will kill hundreds, if not thousands, of innocent people so it’s up to Jack and Alonzo to stop her. Plus she keeps shovelling down handfuls of crew and passengers like popcorn, so there’s that too.The action conspires to separate our dynamic duo almost immediately, with Jack taking the fight to Mother Nothing while Alonzo tries to get the escape pods back online and evacuate the survivors. Rather than dulling their interaction, it amplifies it – their constant radio chatter being filled with humour, innuendo and a growing genuine affection. Barrowman and Tovey are both such charismatic leads that they make for a perfect pairing that, whisper it now, effortlessly eclipses Jack and Ianto as a couple. With a climax that involves Jack battling a giant insect as they swing from the world’s hugest glitterball, and an ending that leaves the listener laughing like a drain even as our heroes scream their mutual frustration, Some Enchanted Evening is perhaps the most definitively Captain Jack story in the boxset and almost worth the purchase by itself. Hopefully a sequel pops up sooner rather than later.

 

Month 25

One of the great unexplored subplots of Doctor Who is the mystery Jack’s missing two years. When we meet him, it’s what defines him – he’s a Time Agent turned con man, working to acquire leverage by any means necessary to force the Time Agency to restore the two year gap in his memory. Yet, short of a brief mention in the Torchwood episode “Adam”, it pretty much never comes up again – a casualty of a character bouncing from one creator to another and back again. Now, at last, the story can be told. Direct from the mind of Russell T Davies himself, and skillfully scripted by Guy Davies, Jack’s backstory here seems to delight in being not at all what you’d expect. Where most fans might have imagined that Jack had had a solid two year span of his life removed to conceal some posting or off the books undercover operation he’d been part of, instead it turns out to be a matter of a day here, a week there, and for reasons a bit more grandiose and villainous than perhaps we’d expected. It’s probably a smart move to avoid retreading a story people have already played over in their minds in favour of something fresher and wilder, but it doesn’t sit particularly well with Jack’s later actions on screen. I’m not really sure what Jack is trying to accomplish in The Empty Child anymore, though Month 25 does sort of make a stab at explaining why Jack later drops the mystery entirely.John Barrowman has tremendous fun as the younger Jack, or rather to give him his real name… well, you’ll just have to listen for yourself if you want the answer to that particular mystery. Even lustier, reckless and self-obsessed than when we first met him on TV he’s riotous company for this play’s hour long duration but would wear a bit thin if you had to deal with him every day (and indeed a recurring element of the play is how everyone in his office hates him). A light, over the top, sauna full of fun rather than a political thriller, Month 25 still manages to fill in a couple of gaps in Jack’s life in entertaining fashion, while providing John Barrowman with a showcase for his acting ability in an unexpected way.

 

 

As a pick’n’mix of slices of Jack’s life, this boxset successfully hits on all the different aspects of his surprisingly complicated and evolving character though often in unpredictable or surprising ways. And with its unbending Davies era style cheeky optimism it provides a nice counterpoint to the doom laden, if high quality, Torchwood range. Highly recommended.