The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Three

Posted in Audio by - March 28, 2020
The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Three

Released March 2020

SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW

After headlining self-titled box sets and continuing to shine in Torchwood adventures spanning all of the organization’s existence, Captain Jack Harkness has proven to be a bona fide success for Big Finish, the infectious energy of John Barrowman always resulting in a captivating performance that easily carries listeners through any time and setting. With The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Three, this intergalactic hero and con-man continues to traverse the fringes of Doctor Who continuity in the most unexpected ways with three more adventures that once more show just how momentous this man’s many lives have always been.

In ‘Crush,’ Guy Adams begins this third volume with Jackie Tyler looking to find a reprieve from the stresses that being the mother of the Doctor’s assistant entails. Joining the charming but enigmatic Captain Jack Harkness, she expects to live the life of luxury upon a gleaming space cruiser but is instead treated to an overcrowded replacement shuttle lacking in even the most basic accommodations. With a robotic pilot who emotionlessly espouses the nuances of bureaucracy and a group of passengers that continues to find its numbers quite literally dropping dead, a bad situation continues to worsen, and these two humans who dare to think and let emotion shine through are the only remaining hope that the ship will arrive at its destination with any of its manifest alive.

While there is little explanation given for how and why Jackie and Jack have embarked on this excursion designed to be so pleasureful, Adams successfully reunites and captures the unique personalities of these two dynamic characters following their incredible joint outing in ‘Wednesdays for Beginners.’ Jack is a man who has already experienced the many wonders of the universe, and accordingly he almost serves as a Doctor figure for Jackie here, especially once the danger befalling them becomes apparent and the two must quickly bridge their different experiences and outlooks to discover both the truth behind and a solution to the situation at hand. Camille Coduri and John Barrowman are two of the most engaging and expressive characters that modern Doctor Who has produced, and both give their all to make these crowded confines which evoke the worst expectations of modern mass transit options seem anything but. So strong is their chemistry that for vast portions of the production it’s easy to forget just how many other beings surround the two aboard the ship, and each brings the swerving narrative to life effortlessly with the emotion needed to overtake the fairly minimal soundscape that such a setting necessitates. And although it is a bit strange to cast Paul Clayton as the robotic driver in the primary guest part given his prominent role in the ongoing Torchwood series along Barrowman, he nonetheless gives a superb performance that veers from cruel to tragic without ever truly changing the tone of his voice. The ultimate truth may have some predictable elements to it given how the supporting cast is brought to life, but this unexpected character piece is filled with an undeniable charm and energy that combine to start this set off on a strong note.

Befitting of the character given his countless heroic and roguish actions across time and space, ‘Mighty and Despair’ by Tim Foley looks into the mythology that the legacy of Captain Jack Harkness has created. Enduring a long and grueling journey to a shrouded planet, Queen Carla and her handmaiden Persis find a grey-haired man within the fabled temple atop the mountains, a man whose meditative search for solitude and an answer to his endless cycles of life and death seems so far removed from the bravery and awe his very name conjures. Captain Jack has already been through so much in his various adventures that it’s easy to imagine this man as a source of boundless energy and enthusiasm, but Barrowman expertly taps into the sheer exhaustion that a man who seemingly cannot die would undoubtedly be forced to encounter at some point. Questioning his very existence and if it can ever really be put into context, the Jack here is a far more nuanced character than what his bravado typically allows, and this more subdued mindset and performance give Jack a surprising layer of development that adds further definition to everything he has accomplished to this point since leaving the TARDIS given the growing sense of despair and uncertainty that must always have been present.

Unfortunately, the story itself doesn’t quite live up to the superb portrayal of Jack at this time in his lifespan. Often meandering and focusing on elements that don’t necessarily tie into the bigger picture, this vampiric tale of love, revenge, and desire never really capitalizes on its premise to deliver a cohesive and emotionally satisfying whole. The performances of Jessica Hayles and Joanna Van Kampen are each suitably strong even if their voices are sometimes a bit difficult to distinguish, but neither character really offers anything that hasn’t already been seen countless times before. Indeed, ‘Mighty and Despair’ follows a very traditional path from beginning to end, and it’s only the immense chemistry among the leads as well as Jack’s own thoughts about vampires and the drama that can be mined from those feelings that keep the actual plot from becoming totally forgettable. Any story that attempts to stand apart from its peers by doing something different must be commended, but the result here is a story that simply feels too padded and predictable while not fully utilizing the novel angle of exploring Jack within this backdrop and frame of mind.

Given the importance of both Captain Jack and River Song to multiple incarnations of the Doctor as well as the Doctor Who universe as a whole, likely no character team-up has been so wildly anticipated and even expected as the one that ‘R&J’ by James Goss finally delivers. However, opening with Jack just barely missing River at the funeral of the Face of Boe, ‘R&J’ follows anything but the expected path as a series of vignettes traversing the entire history of the franchise and beyond details just how intertwined these two have always been. From the Time Agency to the Face of Boe for Jack and from the streets of New York to a fated restaurant for River, these two time travelers continue to cross paths with no set order or chronology, and the surprising bond they form despite all odds as both Jack and River struggle to find a normal life with the long shadow of the Doctor and his unpredictability always looming over them is a highlight that is sure to delight fans of each.

As might be expected given this setup, ‘R&J’ is something of a fever dream as settings come and go at an incredible pace in possibly the ultimate feat of fan service yet produced. Nearly no stone is left unturned as audio and televised continuities all come to focus, and the brilliant combined energy and charisma of Alex Kingston and Barrowman ensure that listeners are always kept apprised of just where these two characters are in relation to each other even as River refuses to fully reveal her story until the bitter end. That these two did not record their scenes together is all the more impressive and speaks to just how dynamic and relatable these characters can be as their similarities and differences are boldly brought to the fore, and Goss perfectly manages to balance solid revelations with leaving just enough to the imagination. Much like this set as a whole, ‘R&J’ will be a difficult sell to casual fans given its blistering pace and sheer volume of continuity references; with the dedicated fans more likely to listen to this first, however, what results is a highly enjoyable character piece that captures the very best of these two beloved characters, managing to deliver a surprisingly deep and sprawling epic despite its purposefully disjointed format.

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