Torchwood: The Death of Captain Jack – Starring John Barrowman, James Marsters, Eve Myles, Gareth David-Lloyd, Kai Owen, Tom Price, Samuel Barnett, Rowena Cooper, Rick Yale, Aly Cruickshank, Marilyn Le Conte, Luke Williams, Richard Elfyn, Kerry Joy Stewart & Kristy Philipps. Written by David Llewellyn & Directed by Scott Handcock – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Welcome to Torchwood: Turn Left, or for the non-geeks among you, Torchwood: Sliding Doors.
Imagine one moment where the whole Torchwood history you know goes one way, and a whole other Torchwood history is created by a decision made or not-made. A decision through which James Marsters’ legendary Captain John Hart, the devil on Jack Harness’ shoulder who shows us just how mellow and responsible Harkness has become at Torchwood, wins it all – Torchwood, Britain, the woooooooorld!
That’s the premise of this story – Captain Jack is dying, finally. For that to happen, something, we know, must have gone belly-up with the Torchwood history we’ve seen and heard, and of course, something has. Captain John Hart…well, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but…Captain John Hart is King John. He’s done a devious thing, robbed Jack of his resurrective powers and gone on to well and truly beggar about with Torchwood history as we know it. The journey from our world to that world, and maybe – jusssst maybe – back again – is the arc of this story.
We are of course more than delighted to welcome James Marsters back to Torchwood, it’s (as John would probably say) ‘a sheer bloody delight’ to listen to him being baaaaaad for the run-time of the story, but underneath it all, there’s a moral for our age. Just because someone’s in charge, you shouldn’t automatically assume they’re either a) competent to be there, or b) in any way on your side, and you absolutely, positively shouldn’t simply follow orders from a figure of authority without running them past your internal ethical filters first. If only there were real-world examples to illustrate that point…
The Death of Captain Jack is enormous fun a – John Hart is the proto-Missy, a force of joyful deadly chaos, and that’s always going to be fun to listen to, especially with Marsters on top form. David Llewellyn’s on great writing form too, and gives Hart a perfect knife-edge of adorable psychopathy to walk, as we delve into The World According To King John. More than ever before, the original equality of badassery between Harkness and Hart is shown in full flight – in the first handful of heartbeats, they take in Alexander the Great’s court, Catherine the Great’s court, and the about-to-sink-and-not-a-Celine-Dion-song-to-be-had Titanic as the bad boys try to keep up with one another and even outdo each other in mischief and inter-temporal thievery. It’s in their differences, once Jack has met the Doctor and Rose Tyler, that the rift between the bad boys really becomes irreparable and sour. In fact, the world of King John is the temporal equivalent of the motto ‘It’s all fun until somebody loses an eye’ – an opportunity presents itself that even Jack Harkness, especially post-Doctor Jack Harkness, can’t go along with, and Hart, being Hart, does his absolute level best to murder him. And then leaves him on a familiar island to rot, while he goes off to…well, basically, rule the world. Aggressive domestic policy is followed by aggressive foreign policy, and his rule over Torchwood, first at Canary Wharf and later at Cardiff, is absolutely the chaotic whirl of jackanapery you’d expect from his character – we hear what becomes of Yvonne Hartman, of Ianto, of Tosh and of Gwen, as the Torchwood history we know unfolds with a John Hart twist – Hephaestus, the 456, even the Blessing of Miracle Day, it’s all crammed in here leading up to the death of Captain Jack and the consequences it has.
In tone, this is a delicious dark comic romp, a prancing celebration of the non-serious, the anti-worthy and the ‘Frankly who gives a damn about the little people, I’m doing fine,’ all of which is fantastic to listen to and rather less fun to be governed by. Of course, if there’s ever to be Torchwood as we know it again, there has to be a Turn Left moment, a moment where the dystopian world of King John has to be set right from our point of view, and you won’t be disappointed by it when it comes, even though you know it has to, that the fun has to end. There’s an important idea in The Death of Captain Jack – that the people we know, both the ordinary and the heroes – are just a different status quo away from people we don’t like that much, and that so, probably, are we. It all depends on the normalization of initially outrageous behaviour in order to maintain our own stability within a world gone pear-shaped. Would lovely Sergeant Andy Davidson bazooka a nightclub full of hostages, for instance? Maybe he would if the king gave the order.
So if Andy Davidson would kill innocent people if the right authority gave the order…what would we do?
The shudder those thoughts induce is why we look forward to the righting of the world, the resurrection of Captain Jack and the defeat of King John, however much fun it’s been to ride along on the dark side of the history mirror. And when the end comes, it brings more than a touch of Sapphire and Steel with it, which can never be a bad thing. If the end feels a little too final for our liking as fans of Captain John, that’s a testament to the character and the way he’s played, and on the other hand, he’s a very good bad guy, getting out of seemingly impossible traps and fates is what the best of them do, so we can still hope for more from James Marsters in future Torchwood audios until he categorically says we can’t.
The Death of Captain Jack is a romp into anti-history, down the wrong trouser-leg of time, into a world that was never supposed to have existed. Our excursion down that rabbit hole is by turns enormously good fun, and then, as time goes on, increasingly cold and harsh and terrifying in the mundanity of its evil. Its promise that such dreadful divergences can in some way always be put right is a hopeful message for our age, though, and one that makes The Death of Captain Jack a must-listen. Tony Fyler