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…
“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.
“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.