Big Finish Review: The Lives of Captain Jack Vol 3
The moment has come: Captain Jack Harkness meets Professor River Song. But there is a lot more than that long-awaited meeting in volume 3 of The Lives of Captain Jack, which is a strong contender for best Big Finish release of the month.
The Lives of Captain Jack is produced by James Goss and directed by Scott Handcock. It is available from the Big Finish website and goes on general sale on 1 June 2020.
Captain Jack Harkness - time-travelling con-man, saviour of the Earth, and intergalactic adventurer. He has lived many lives. These are three more of them.
Crush by Guy Adams
Captain Jack takes Mrs Tyler on a luxury cruise in space.
Mighty and Despair by Tim Foley
On a distant planet in the far future two travellers have come looking for a mythical hero.
R&J by James Goss
From ancient battles to eternal wars
A pair of time-cross'd lovers take the stars
Be warned that plentiful spoilers follow, in particular for episode three.
Crush is a fantastic opening episode. Camille Coduri sounds exactly the same as she did in 2005-2006, completely inhabiting the character, who is still infinitely funny and unflappable (“I came here for dinner and dancing, not a cavity search!”).
In a sharp twist of circumstance, the promise of a luxury space cruise with music and dancing for Jackie and Captain Jack is quickly squandered as the pair is put, hilariously, on a replacement service and issued a food and beverage voucher. The episode then pivots to become a satirical take on mass transport systems (the driver is a robot, passengers refuse to acknowledge each other’s existence, and so forth) and transforms into a darker and more chilling story than initially promised, putting Jack and Jackie through the ringer.
The rapport between Camille Coduri and John Barrowman is palpable – and a clear reason why Jackie was brought back for a second story alongside Jack – despite the two characters appearing on-screen together only briefly. The episode is primarily a two-parter set inside the shuttle carriage, but also is something of a Torchwood reunion, with Paul Clayton, Samantha Béart, and Jonny Green being heard in smaller capacities.
Jackie, appropriately, is central to the story and its resolution. Her appearance in this set threatens to be overshadowed by the much-anticipated match-up in the third episode, but Crush still proves a veritable feast of wit, satire and surprisingly dark content. Guy Adams has written a pearl of a script and is a very good fit for this kind of witty, lightly cynical tale.
Mighty and Despair
Tim Foley’s middle story is a feature-length episode that runs well over an hour. Although set against a backdrop of planets and empires, it is slow-paced and personal. By exploring Captain Jack’s timeline beyond his life in the 20th and 21st centuries or in connection to the Doctor, Big Finish has tapped into significant storytelling potential for the character.
Mighty and Despair introduces an older, more irritable – and grey-haired – Captain Jack from further along his timestream than we are accustomed, one who lives in a secluded temple on a hidden planet. It’s an intriguing setup for this, the often-overlooked middle story – but Jack soon shows himself still to be the “hero from the stars” with a raunchy sense of humour.
Two travellers – the vampire Queen Carla (Jessica Hayles) and her loyal companion Persis (Joanna Van Kampen) – find Jack on this planet. Large portions of the episode are dedicated to conversations between these three characters, making it very insular and contained. There is some decent and interesting worldbuilding (for the vampire queen, a warring empire, the mythology behind the hidden planet in the clouds), but at the core of the drama are character tensions.
Tim Foley touches on themes of immortality and mythology, including the mythology of Jack himself as an immortal, almost god-like being. His script has a contemplative tone and revolves around a complex ruler-subject relationship between Carla and Persis. Does it deliver on the “Old Man Jack” premise? Somewhat, but it does not go fully into truly desolate or downbeat territory; perhaps future stories will have to more to say about the arc of Captain Jack across these long millennia.
Barrowman and Alex Kingston shine in R&J, an exciting, universe-trotting adventure with lots of alien creatures, out-of-order meetings and visits to multiple periods in the lives of Jack and River. In covering whole swaths of their respective timelines, it could be considered a little jumpy and choppy – but writer James Goss more than makes up for this with the striking Jack-and-River dynamic.
Things kick off with River turning up at the Face of Boe’s funeral – a nice reference to Jack’s alleged final form – and from there the pace is non-stop, with a plethora of close escapes, poisoning attempts and gunfights. River, appropriately, more often than not leaves Jack in the dust – but Jack also wins a few rounds, and at the end of the day depart as equals.
More than anything else, R&J is a true continuity fest. From visiting River in Stormcage or during her time as a brainwashed assassin; to encountering Jack as a Time Agent (who still calls himself Javic Piotr Thane!) or while travelling with the Ninth Doctor (in the middle of Boom Town); to witnessing more of Jack’s imprisonment aboard the Valiant during The Last of the Time Lords; the episode is an exquisite foray into the lives of Captain Jack and River Song.
The most touching moments are the simplest: Jack eating pizza with toddler River on the streets of New York in 1969, for example, or sitting together on a beach after River is stood up by the Doctor. This is in addition to a delightful cameo from Jackie and a sneaky reference to Bernice Summerfield (almost) teaching River archaeology.
Post-episode interviews contain a number of extra treats: kicking off with the revelation that the recording of Crush was the first time John Barrowman and Paul Clayton had ever met in person – the two dozen episodes of Aliens Among Us and God Among Us for the Torchwood range had, it turns out, been recorded experiences for them both.
Jessica Hayles and Joanna Van Kampen discuss the deeper ideas behind Mighty and Despair with producer James Goss and reveal that (in a reversal to episode one) they were not in the same studio as Barrowman for recording. Nor did Barrowman and Kingston record together, unfortunately, but Jacob Dudman and Harley Viveash are given praise for filling in the gaps.
Although no isolated music score is included, Blair Mowat’s allusions to Murray Gold’s Wedding of River Song theme in episode three are a fantastic complement to the story.
Captain Jack is an extremely popular character with a wealth of story potential – and an epic theme tune to boot. The epic story of R&J takes the cake as highlight of this set of stories, with Crush a close second: making this probably the best volume in The Lives of Captain Jack so far.