Big Finish has gone to great lengths to continue the success of Torchwood. They’ve created new characters and resurrected old ones like Suzie. And they’ve given some much-needed character development to the likes of Owen and Tosh. With Martha Jones returning in Dissected, there is just about time to have a look at the wider life of Captain John, an old flame of Jack’s, when they aren’t trying to kill each other and the rest of Cardiff.
Following his introduction in Kiss, Kiss, Bang, Bang, Captain John became a firm favourite, despite only then appearing in two episodes at the end of the second series. He then turned up in the audio adventure, The Death of Captain Jack and we were treated to a rip-roaring adventure so it was no surprise that a set surrounding the character was quickly announced.
All four stories in this set are written by David Llewellyn and thanks to there being just one writer, the set feels a lot more cohesive than it might have done otherwise and Llewellyn has a great handle on the character, that much is clear from the opening episode, The Restored. Following Oliver Cromwell’s death after the Civil War and the country saw the monarchy reinstated, Charles II finds himself in a country where the dead are coming back to life and when Captain John befriends him and his mistress, not only do we learn more about John but also the strange Resurrection Gauntlets, that seem to be able to bring people back from the dead.
When a Torchwood story opens with the warning that it contains adult humour and scenes, it isn’t lying and here in particular, Llewellyn mixes the story with a number of funny lines, action scenes and sex. So really its just your average outing for Torchwood. But in the opening minutes, Llewellyn makes sure we know what we are in for, allowing Captain John to break the fourth wall and address the audience directly about the nature of the following hour, as well as throwing in some funny lines about the idea of audio-dramas and some mentions of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, the 1990s series with Sarah Michelle Geller that Captain John actor, James Marsters, was a part of in the role of vampire Spike. It’s a funny thing to mention but it very quickly sets out how the series has decided to use Captain John. It could have been easy for them to retread the same use of the character from Series 2 but here, he feels much more like the Deadpool of the Doctor Who Universe, taking the audience at certain points and explaining what’s going on, in a way that only he could.
For any other character in Torchwood to do this, even Captain Jack, it would feel extremely odd. But when John’s involved, it really works, elevating what was already a cracking set to something completely unique.
As Torchwood fans, we know how dangerous the Resurrection Gloves are on a normal day but as John discovers they are beginning to malfunction, leading to the dead in Westminster Abby and the surrounding area to rise from their graves and it isn’t long before Llewellyn has us on in a zombie epic that George Romero would be proud off. We’ve got the bodies of characters like Anne Boleyn and Lady Jane Grey wandering around trying to kill everyone while Oliver Cromwell’s severed head is issuing a strange warning from his spike. It’s a warning that we’ll hear repeated as the set goes on but amongst all the zombie action, it gets a little lost.
That’s fine though because Llewellyn makes sure to keep everything else fun and interesting, even giving John his own assistant for the duration in the form of servant Mohisha. I would have liked John and Mohisha to have been together for longer in the set, Marsters and Serin Ibrahim had a great chemistry together. But Llewellyn makes them part with a funny line about the nature of Doctor Who it’s a real laugh-out-loud moment.
The Restored is a great way to open the set, quickly establishing that isn’t going to be audio to be played too loudly or be listened to be people of a nervous disposition. While it’s adult nature does sometimes hinder the main bulk of the action, as it does throughout the set, it doesn’t spoil the story, and who doesn’t love a good zombie epic?!
The action continues into the second story, Escape from Nebazz, which sees John trying to find the creator of the Gauntlets, Dr. Magpie. Now, whether this Magpie is related somewhere along the line to Mr. Magpie in The Idiots’ Lantern is never stated, so it might just be a nice little coincidence but it’s a nice surprise that the woman who created these gauntlets, isn’t entirely mad.
There is a story that goes untold here though, what did Dr. Magpie do to warrant being sent to Nebazz? Was the creation of the gauntlets with the power of life and death enough to send her away, or did something happen like it did in Restoration England? The story doesn’t answer that but Llewellyn makes sure we have as the story quickly changes from a prison-escape story to a survival story, as John and Magpie, try to stop the Smart-Mould, a fungus that is mined from the planet Nebazz is on. As the name suggests, once the mould is ingested whether eaten, breathed in or put directly into the bloodstream, it makes whoever the victim is, unusually smart.
It’s fun to hear John pretending to be a prison guard and I expect it was fun for him to be on the other side of the bars for a change. And it doesn’t take long for John to be joined by Captain Jack, who is under orders to bring him in, due to a debt he owes a space-casino owner. Following a humorous few scenes with John and Magpie stuck together in an escape pod, the final act of the story sees the Smart Mould trying to take control of Jack’s ship so that it can travel to another planet. In many ways, this mould reminded me of aliens like the Krynoid or the Hoothi from the Virgin Novel, Love & War. But Llewellyn makes sure that this is still John’s story, so Jack quickly finds himself handcuffed to a railing, while John saves the day, though more out his sense of preservation than the safety of the universe. But the pairing of Marsters and Barrowman is still as excellent now, as it was over ten years ago and it’s surprising that it took so long for Captain John to come back into the Torchwood fold.
As Captain John humorously puts it at the beginning of the third episode, Peach Blossom Heights, this is Jack before he became Captain Jack. He takes aside and tells us to roll with it and these amusing little asides were a stroke of genius from Llewellyn and the director, Scott Handcock.
Following on from the crash-landing of the second episode, Jack and John find themselves on a seemingly abandoned planet before stumbling across an Eden-like-paradise. A society, not unlike how we live but a little more Desperate Houswives than Torchwood. In this apparently perfect society, there are mascots, all similar to giant teddy-bears, dragons and cartoon characters. Jack and John are invited to stay with a couple, Caitlin and Trevor where they discover that the pair don’t have to work for money, and just spend the day lounging around and not really doing anything. But their neighbours are going missing, taken away to the Coast, apparently a new housing estate for the best-of-the-best. While for Jack this is an interesting problem, what really worries the pair is that Caitlin and Trevor have never heard of the word sex.
What follows is a scene which could have been so much more graphic. Luckily though, Llewellyn keeps it light and funny and it was hilarious to hear Jack and John destroy paradise. In this Eden, they are the snake tempting everyone. And I mean everyone as Caitlin and Trevor waste no time in introducing everyone else to the concept of sex. It could have quickly fallen into a territory that I don’t think we need to hear from Big Finish whether it is Torchwood or not, but the whole sequence ends with Jack realising that if these people had no idea what sex was, then they have no concept of children, or where and how children are made. So its equally as hilarious to hear John trying to explain the birds and the bees to them!
But underneath this hilarity is a dark secret and it doesn’t take long before Caitlin and Trevor are invited away to the coast. It turns out that the coast is a bit like the farm you’re told about when a pet dies and Jack and John find Caitlin and Trevor reduced to their proteins. Jack knows this is their fault for corrupting paradise, though John takes a different stance on things. Peach Blossom Heights does though show us that John does a sense of right and wrong and heroism, its just needs a bit of prodding to get into action and it was nice to hear that he was just as disgusted by what happened to Caitlin and Trevor as Jack was. It is perhaps the lightest of Llewellyn’s stories on offer here but is most likely to be the best-remembered because of the humour, setup and the main and interesting mystery at its heart, despite its lighter overall plot.
The set comes to a close with Dark Purposes, which sees John thrown into a web of intrigue following a funeral and the return of the Resurrection Gauntlets which quickly begin to cause some trouble again. What I liked as a long-time fan of Torchwood was that we got some background on the Gauntlets throughout this set, something that the show only really did twice, once with End of Days and again with Dead Man Walking. Dark Purposes does tie in nicely with both of those episodes which returned characters stating that something was waiting for its release in the darkness, foreshadowing the arrival of Abaddon in End of Days.
Llewellyn takes the right path here too in terms of the cast with only three other members joining Marsters, giving the story a much more intimate feel as John tries to corrupt the world and politics as well as the people he has ‘befriended’. What was a bit of a shame was that the main characters here seem to be little more than plot devices and never really get out of the shadows of the story to do their own thing. As a result, Dark Purposes does feel a little bit on the lighter side and without the humour of Peach Blossom Heights, it doesn’t quite work as well as that outing. Dark Purposes also ends of a cliff-hanger, featuring Captain Jack that does seem to hint at a second volume, which I would really like to hear.
What is clear throughout though is how much love and attention went into this set, from the brilliant scripts from David Llewellyn to the performance of James Marsters and John Barrowman and the brilliant direction from Scott Handcock. It has proved that there was a lot of unexplored potential in the character of Captain John and I would dearly love a second volume. This one was so much fun and proves that if they wished it, John would have been the perfect character for a televised spin-off to centre around. With action, humour, surprising emotional beats, and the usual splattering of Torchwood tropes like sex and violence, this felt like Doctor Who’s version of Deadpool. Llewellyn and Handcock have struck gold here and I hope it doesn’t run out soon. The Sins of Captain John is a must-have, whether you’re a Torchwood fan or not!