2019 and 2020 have seen the release of two more volumes of The Lives of Captain Jack, jumping back across the life of everyone’s favourite rogue Time Agent. The six stories in these two sets have Jack meeting the Sixth Doctor, a World War I soldier, Jackie Tyler, a vampire queen, River Song, and even Trinity Wells, American newscaster. These stories are at their strongest when they feel like Captain Jack stories, not scripts that would have fit into Big Finish’s Torchwood range, or ones that don’t really delve into Jack as a person.
The weakest in this regard is Volume Two’s Driving Miss Wells by James Goss, the story that brings back Trinity Wells. For us fans of Russell T Davies-era Doctor Who and its spin-offs, the various appearances of Trinity Wells as the world’s foremost American newscaster were a fun Easter egg; you always knew she was going to pop up to deliver some exposition about a preposterous threat. But only in the world of Big Finish Doctor Who spin-offs would a character never even given a name in dialogue become a cover star. Lachele Carl’s Trinity Wells has retired from being an anchor to try to expose an alien conspiracy, and Captain Jack is undercover as her driver, trying to protect her and figure out how much she knows. This story isn’t really about Jack at all, and it feels very much like the kind of thing the Torchwood range does all the time, take a minor character from the RTD era and push them into a starring role. If this had appeared in that range, I don’t think anyone would have blinked, but it feels like an odd fit here, and I enjoyed it less in this context. Though putting it in that range would have made it feel even more like The Conspiracy than it already does!
Working our way up the stories in terms of quality, Crush by Guy Adams from Volume Three is a sequel to Volume One’s Wednesdays for Beginners, showcasing another meeting between Jack and Jackie. Though they make a great pair, I’m not convinced by the idea that Jack and Jackie had an ongoing series of encounters, or that Jack could get into space. Utopia makes it clear Jack was desperately trying to find the Doctor and get off Earth, but he never was able to connect with the Tenth Doctor via Jackie, and he could get into space? Those aren’t just continuity issues, but character issues; they make Jack ring false in this release, because he’s acting in a way that he oughtn’t. This is an okay story outside of that; it does require you to buy that an alien race where talking to others is considered rude would also run a luxury cruise line! Of course it’s a delight to hear Camille Coduri and John Barrowman bounce off each other, but I think it needs a better justification than this.
Volume Two’s What Have I Done? by Guy Adams wouldn’t feel out of place in the Torchwood range, but it works equally well here. Jack is on the battlefields of World War I, desperately trying to save just one man from a monster that feeds on fear (as they do). Like many of these stories, it’s mostly a two-hander between Jack and Attila Akinci’s Ata, an Ottoman soldier at Gallipoli. Akinci gives a powerful performance, and I really enjoyed this story, which connects Akinci’s guilt to Jack’s own at how everyone around him keeps dying but he lives on. It’s an engrossing listen. (I thought when listening to Volume Two that it was set during Jack’s time living in the twentieth century between The Parting of the Ways and Everything Changes, but a story in Volume Three makes it clear Jack travelled back in time to WWI from after Children of Earth, which makes no sense for a variety of character and continuity reasons. I’ll just pretend I was right the first time.)
I would never have guessed that I really wanted an encounter between the Sixth Doctor and Captain Jack, moreover one where Captain Jack must pretend to be the Sixth Doctor… and vice versa! But James Goss’s Piece of Mind on Volume Two is brilliant and farcical all at once, and worth it just for Barrowman doing Baker and Baker doing Barrowman. It’s a totally loopy adventure, and I really enjoyed it, and it’s one of those that really leans into what makes The Lives of Captain Jack a unique and interesting concept — this couldn’t be a Torchwood story, and I don’t think it would work as a Doctor Who one either. There are some neat sound design touches, too, such as using regeneration effects that merge The Caves of Androzani with the new series style, and 1980s-ified version of the Captain Jack theme.
With one exception, Volume Three’s Mighty and Despair by Tim Foley moves Jack’s story further ahead than I think we’ve ever heard before, showing an emotionally disconnected Jack having isolated himself in the far future, so much so he’s become a legend. But despite his attempt to cut himself off, Jack finds himself drawn back into relationships when a deposed queen and her servant seek his help… and he also finds himself celebrating Christmas! It’s a moving and epic adventure, one of the best stories yet from the hand of Tim Foley. It is a bit undermined, though, by an opening so overdramatic I thought it was going to be revealed as a parody within the story (like the opening of The Armageddon Factor). It does sometimes feel like Barrowman is performing in a completely different story than his co-stars, too, as he goes a bit too broad and loud when they are striking a different tone.
The final story of both sets is also my final story: the meeting of River and Jack in James Goss’s R&J. Instead of opting for a single meeting, Goss weaves a tapestry of meetings between the two of them across both their lives — rarely in order. Jack wants River, but River is of course saving herself for another man… but at the same time, Jack is a man who is ultimately more available to her than the Doctor can ever be. It’s a potent, well done story, with lots of good jokes but also real heart. I enjoyed every minute of it, except for the misguided inclusion of Jake Dudman’s Christopher Eccleston impression.
I don’t know how much more mileage there is in the Lives of Captain Jack concept, but so far, Big Finish have delivered three solid sets with ten usually solid stories. If they can continue to deepen and complicate the life of Captain Jack, I will be here to listen to it. I suspect there’s a lot more yet to be explored, especially if they can continue to push his story forward beyond the bounds of either Torchwood or Doctor Who.
The Lives of Captain Jack Volume Two (by James Goss, Guy Adams; starring John Barrowman) and Volume Three (by Guy Adams, Tim Foley, James Goss; starring John Barrowman) were released by Big Finish Productions in June 2019 and March 2020 respectively.