The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Two – Starring John Barrowman, Colin Baker, Lachelle Carl, Hannah Arterton, Vikash Bhai & Timothy Blore. Written by Guy Adams and James Goss. Directed by Scott Handcock – CD / Download (Big Finish)
The Lives of Captain Jack is something of a curiosity as off-shoot box sets go. Whereas he had a brief life in Doctor Who, and had (and on audio, continues to have) a life in Torchwood, Jack’s life is almost entirely made up of gaps into which stories can be crammed. We know he’s lived a ridiculous length of time – and that he will continue to do so, barring accidents, until he’s either just a big face in a jar or that’s proved to be nonsense and he outlives most of the universe. Y’know, except for that strange Viking girl…
Anyhow, that means there’s an awful lot of canvas which can be covered by the Lives of Captain Jack, and in the first box set, Big Finish tantalised us with at least a glimpse into his pre-Doctor, pre-immortal life, a young Jack-before-he-was-Jack showing his youthful recklessness and eminent punchability.
For the second box set, we’re on, if anything, safer ground, and at least two of the three stories in the set have some level of gimmick to power them forward.
In Piece of Mind, by James Goss, Jack runs into a seemingly-dying Sixth Doctor, and has to pretend to be him to try and avoid a catastrophic conflict between two species, one relatively peaceful, the other…less so. In some respects, Piece of Mind is high slapstick, Jack pretending to be the morally righteous Sixth Doctor, but in his own, shortcutting, wisecracking style – and finding out just how catastrophically wrong it is possible to get these things when you’re just a fan of the Doctor’s, rather than the actual Doctor. The moral dilemmas, the character judgments, the species knowledge, all along the way, Jack gets it sort of right, which in the situation he’s dealing with is close enough to catastrophically wrong as to make no odds. Hearing Captain Jack and the Sixth Doctor together is an almost Vaudevillian thrill, and – as he’s proved in other sets like the Diaries of River Song, Colin Baker’s chemistry with his fellow actors really helps to slide the character comedy, the action and the resolution along, with Sixie both staking out the ground that is unique to the Doctor in their travels throughout space and time and coming to a somewhat grudging appreciation of Captain Jack’s unique, gung-ho style of problem-solving. Towards the end, the two work in harmony in a scene which absolutely pushes the boundaries of comedy and slapstick till they positively squeak, and there are two main responses to that – you can either take everything too seriously, and let the scene ruin Doctor Who and/or Captain Jack for you while you stomp off in a fandom-sulk, or you can accept the sublime, the ridiculous, the screamingly camp and the roaring nature of Sixie at his most pantomime, and realise it as one of the most Who-ish scenes you’ve ever heard, in which case, you’ll beam and possibly dance about the place for a while.
Do that second thing – it’ll make you a happier Who-fan, and that’s absolutely the spirit in which it was written and played.
From Jack in the Sixth Doctor’s paint-explosion coat, Guy Adams takes us into territory that feels more inherently Jack Harness for What Have I Done? Warzones, soldiers, mud and blood and lots of fear is the order of the day as seemingly deserting-Jack meets another would-be runaway, a wounded man on a desolate battlefield where something is stalking the strays of war. Something that hunts for fear.
Guy Adams is no mean plot-driver on any day of the week, but here, the plot itself is intertwined about the characters of the two men, their histories, their motivations and families and fears. And if you’re a fan of the grand Doctor Who speeches of recent years, you absolutely need to listen to What Did I Do?, because in it, Adams gives Jack Harkness possibly the finest speech of his career to date, and John Barrowman buries it deep in the mud-brown registers of seriousness, of drama and shock and hurt and pain and all the fear his character has ever felt, and turns it into something you’ll want to skip back and listen to time and time again. Beneath the bluster and the outrageous confidence, What Did I Do? is a more resolutely human Jack Harkness than you’ll have been used to in a while – and it’s a triumph because of it.
James Goss retakes writing duties for the final adventure in the set, Driving Miss Wells, and like What Did I Do? it takes a more sensitive approach to its subject than you might be used to with Jack Harkness. Trinity Wells, former newsreader, didn’t survive the alien invasion years with everything intact – forced to obey cover-up notices, speak spurious falsehoods to millions, and be the voice that kept the public passive and unafraid, she quit. Now, only vaguely remembered by most people, and then not often fondly, she has a book coming out – a book and a deal with a new TV channel. But…is everything what it seems to be? And when Trinity sees creepy, alien bee-swarms walking around as humans, is she finally cracking up?
Her new driver, Harkness, will be there at her side, whatever happens – even if that includes poisoning, kidnap, mysterious threats to her ailing mother and the very real possibility that Trinity Wells is losing her mind.
It’s a story not unlike The Girl On The Train, and we’re not entirely sure for most of the journey whether what Trinity sees and hears is actually what’s happening, or whether the years of knowing there are alien threats out there and having to lie about them have finally taken a cruel toll on her. The ending, when it comes, is dramatic and perhaps a little sudden after such exquisite spinning-out of possibilities, but it certainly makes for a classic Jack solution. He’s not, ultimately, a one-man US Cavalry at the end of this story, but he does finally come down on a side of the question of Trinity Wells’ mind, and act as he sees fit for her future.
What does that entail?
You’ll have to listen to the box set to find out.
Overall, The Lives Of Captain Jack Volume Two is a very different proposition to its predecessor – but with Jack’s life offering such a breadth of storytelling scope, that’s by no means a bad thing. He’s much more recognisably ‘our’ Jack Harkness here, heroic, human, watchful, truthful when necessary, brash whenever possible. The set feels like a celebration of John Barrowman’s performance as Captain Jack as much as anything – while pushing him into deep and heart-breaking waters too. Celebratory, revelatory, triumphant and unexpectedly kind, The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Two is everything you never knew you needed from the man in the fabulous coat. Tony Fyler