Torchwood: The Sins Of Captain John – Starring James Marsters, Ayesha Antoine, Christopher Allan, Rosie Baker & John Barrowman Written by David Llewellyn & Directed by Scott Handcock – CD / Download (Big Finish)
Imagine you had a sports car. Top of the line, tricked out and pimped out exactly to your liking.
Would you let Captain John Hart borrow the keys?
Ah well. It was a nice cosmos while it lasted. Buckle up, pilgrims, we’re about to go for a spin.
Bottom line, from the moment he first gun-danced his way into Torchwood and kicked the ever-living crap (a phrase which has more meaning here than in most places) out of Captain Jack Harkness, Captain John Hart, late of the time agency, late to most places where there isn’t a bar, has been the bad boy of the Torchwood world. Technically responsible for the deaths of about a third of the team, he added that frisson of real danger that Jack, bless him, had lost a little in his quest to be more like the Doctor with the bleeding hearts.
John Hart is exactly the drunk-ass, punk-ass, wildly sexy, madly irresponsible, shoot-it-and-see kind of maniac you think he is, and that, whether secretly or blatantly, is what you always want him to be.
Setting that maniac loose in time and space sounds like a very bad idea, but nevertheless, here we are in The Restored, with John initially back in Restoration England, technically looking for the Resurrection Gauntlets. You’ll remember those if you saw Season 1 of TV Torchwood. They’re…really not where they should be, and they’re quickly getting John involved in some trouble with Oliver Cromwell’s spiked but nevertheless altogether rather chatty head. In between his ordinary adventures, which sound like the slightly more X-rated version of every historical Carry On film ever made (Carry On Charlie II?), he has to hunt down the person or persons responsible for bringing a shedload of bodies to life, retrieve the gauntlets and get out of there with both his life and his unmentionables intact. Otherwise…y’know…Restoration Zombie Apocalypse.
So…no pressure there then.
The big difference you notice immediately about this set as opposed to any other Torchwood you care to name is that it’s utterly irreverent to not only the historical period, but also to the conventions of narrative storytelling and even to some extent to the listener. It’s the John Hart school of doing things, baby, and that’s got its own fourth wall-breaking, pop culture-referencing spacepunk vibe to it. Early on, you’ll know if it’s for you or not, because early on it’s spread quite thickly (Oh, make up your own jokes, who’s to stop you?), and you’ll know whether you love it or whether it’s like nails down an eyeball to you.
The Restored starts making more sense the further in you go (seriously, go nuts (ahem), there’s really no-one to stop you), and the more the story of the gauntlets is revealed. The joy about it is that everything’s only revealed in between sex romps, panting aristocratic hussies, closeted lesbians with telescope fetishes and oh yeah, did I mention? The endless armies of the undead who seriously won’t shut up.
When you find out what’s really going on, it’ll still take you aback, and even as people die horribly, John Hart has difficulty locating his empathy. But then you almost don’t want him to discover his softer side. That’s more or less what Jack’s for.
If The Restored is a historical sex romp with zombies, his next stop in Escape From Nebazz is solid space adventure with a loony twist and quite a lot of drinking and farting. Imagine, if you will, a wooden space prison. Imagine one of the prisoners, the gloriously named Dr Magpie (more glorious still if you’ve followed New Who with a magnifying glass). She made the Resurrection Gauntlets. Annnd she’s conducting experiments on mental enhancements.
Because what could ever go wrong with that?
Imagine Jack Hart posing as a prison guard, fairly desperately trying to get Dr Magpie to fix the wretched gauntlets of zombification, and subsequently getting involved in your significantly-above-average (it’s David Llewellyn, after all) zombie fungus life cycle prison break drama, with added giant wooden space shark. Sound fun? Is fun. Is surprisingly fun, actually, because when the episode starts, it doesn’t promise anything like the kind of mayhem you’ve just escaped from in The Restored. Leave it to David Llewellyn is clearly the lesson to take from this. Something bizarre and what-the-flying-fin-is-that will be along shortly.
Escape From Nebazz has an almost Red Dwarf feel about it, crossed with 80s episodes of Prisoner Cell Block H and with maybe just a dash of Shark-freakin’-nado – lots of people trapped in a human garbage pod, nothing but the crushing monotony of institutionalized life to look forward to. Then along comes Magpie and her brain-altering experiments, and along comes John and his gloves of seriously-these-freaking-things, and before you know it, you’re hurtling to oblivion, being eaten alive by wooden space-sharks, or absorbed into entirely other life forms on what feels like it must be a Tuesday.
As if all that’s not bad enough, John bumps into Captain Perfect-Teeth Harkness towards the end of this story, and the two of them ride the absolute bejesus out of the next episode together.
In Peach Blossom Heights, they find themselves trapped in a kind of Peyton Place for child-humans. People who’ve never heard of sex (wow, that’s a busy afternoon on audio). People who have no concept of childbirth. People who, quite frankly, live in blissful ignorance of everything but their own existence minute to minute.
You know there’s gonna be something hideous going on there, right?
Sinister mascots roaming the suburban streets by night hideous enough for you? No? How about people who just ‘move away’ or ‘win competitions to go somewhere else’ and are never seen again, and actually are disturbingly quickly forgotten? Getting a vibe of the what-the-hellness yet?
This is a story that starts weird, gets weirder, turns more than a little bit creepy, and yet, for all its ghastly potential, ends up being at least a little sweet. In among the horror. It’s not at any point quite what you think it is, which given the premise is really rather saying something. Smiley suburban neighbours from hell has already been done in Torchwood audio, with Jack and Ianto foiling an alien invasion by attending weekly barbecues and being terribly nice to people. This is something different to that, and while you might get close to what’s really going on, it will still surprise you when you finally understand it.
Plus, there really is lots and lots of grandly experimental sex before the end.
To be fair though, you need something nice before you head into Darker Purposes. Darker Purposes is what happens if you smash Kind Hearts And Coronets with the Space-Borgias, repeatedly, till something bleeds, and gurgles, and dies.
The Resurrection Gauntlets (Yep, still them, still here, still dragging John through time and space) are needed to sort out the last will and testament of one of the galaxy’s richest, nastiest, deadest men. But of course, one of the richest, nastiest men in the galaxy will have children. Children who’ve inherited at least his nastiness, and who intend to inherit his riches too. Game on for Last Sibling Standing, with John in the middle like a sacrificial chew toy thrown to the wolves. When you play the Game of Gauntlets, you win or you die. Annnnd if you die, you probably get brought back to life until you say what your killer wants to hear in any case.
It would be spoiling the final episode, and to some extent the arc of the set, to explain how – and indeed, if – John gets out of Darker Purposes, but it certainly adds a grimmer note than anything we’ve dealt with so far in the set. Which given that we dealt with a Restoration Zombie Apocalypse in Episode 1 is really going somewhat.
We’re not as yet sure whether the Sins of Captain John is intended to become an occasional series, like the Lives of Captain Jack, or whether it will forever be just what it is, a mad handful of hours with James Marsters giving of his dandy time pirate. What’s certainly true after this first set though is that David Llewellyn’s given it a tone and a pace unlike anything else even at Big Finish, and that there’s certainly plenty of scope for further sets. Unless you have the energy of Captain John though…you’re probably gonna need a nice lie down before you run with him again. Tony Fyler