ASSESSING STRESS, AUDIO EDITION: The Lives of Captain Jack

Welcome to DoWntime’s not-too-regular column, Assessing Stress. That’s where we assess … stress. Or more accurately, talk and debate about the newest episodes to hit the television screen, the new releases from Big Finish, and all these good things.

And today, Tibère and Scribbles tackle “The Lives of Captain Jack”. A very rich (we wrote more about it than about some TV episodes!), very Marxist, very gay boxset from Big Finish.

 

Spoiler- free verdict

TIBERE: It’s a good set. If you got to take the obvious route and compare it to “Diary of River Song”, it works much, much better. It’s just a solid set with a good handle on Jack’s character, that aims for a collection of very specific, if not very original, storytelling beats and generally nails them pretty well. Really, above all it’s a really lovely homage to the tone of the Davies years, mostly series 1 but not only, with tons of fun little nods and fanservice. It’s nothing spectacular, but it’s strong – and very, very thematically cohesive – work that definitely feels at home with Big Finish “fill the storytelling gaps” approach. It’s a lot like the Ninth Doctor Chronicles, that we tackled a couple months ago, that way – a loving and lovely little slice of Who exegesis. Although, maybe it doesn’t quite reach the same kind of heights – nothing too new under the sun. But still, it’s a really nice throwback, and, with two of BF’s best writers at the helm, it’s an ultra-competent, well-paced, really fun ride. I’d recommend it.

SCRIBBLES: I think the term for all this is “extremely competent fanservice.” Your mind will not be blown. You will not be shaken to your core. You won’t hear much that’s really too novel. But what you will hear is very well tailored to what it wants to be, channeling a series 1 tone and some political storytelling to create a pleasant love letter to the character. The format is a bit like “The Sixth Doctor: The Last Adventure,” really: a tribute to the phases in the life of a character, each showcasing a different aspect of what makes Jack a loveable character and each, while perhaps not saying anything new about him, showcasing the many aspects of his self. If you love Jack and the Russell T Davies era, it’ll be a bit like slipping into something comfortable and familiar from your childhood. It does what Big Finish often does well, a pleasant little nostalgia trip through new stories.

 

Spoilers follow.

 

1) “The Year after I Died,” by Guy Adams

TIBERE: Or, as I call it,  “a Marxist manifesto barely even disguised as a story”. I liked it, obviously. It’s one of those cases where the thing that’s compelling about the story is not the extreme relevance of the satire (let’s be honest: it’s not the most acute, best-written thing under the sun – if you want that, go check Goss’ “Retail Therapy” on the set), but just how ferocious it is. The story doesn’t pull any punches, and that, in itself, gives it a life and an energy it could have easily lacked.

SCRIBBLES: You mentioned before the draw of filling in gaps, and this is really one of those. It makes a character beat out of something that obviously would have happened, but isn’t really a beat the viewer ever considers much or ever realized would be nice to have filled. You know from the beginning where it has to go, but there’s a pleasure in seeing that path explored, particularly given, as you say, the way it uses that space to tell a story about politics, marxism, and the human spirit, particularly digging at a need for seeing people as heroes and painting journalistic narratives of them to inspire revolution, which is a nice angle.

TIBERE: What is really interesting with that story – and really, the whole boxset, is the way it tackles themes of class. I mean, Torchwood is, in many respects, a show about class: about work, about “middle men” (cf. COE and MD), about servants (Tosh, for instance). And at its core, you have the figure of Jack, who is very ambivalent, because he serves a system that’s corrupt and oppressive while being himself a figure of queer anarchy. And really, it’s easy to forget, sometimes, this aspect of Jack’s personality, so doing a few audios that specifically deal with it is not a bad call. Also of note, this constant sort of dichotomy between the “hero” and the ordinary person – Jack constantly insists that he’s not a hero, that he is just an ordinary guy (kind of running away from his past in the time agency, as we’ll see in the final story), but can’t escape his status, since well, he’s now immortal.

SCRIBBLES: And it’s sort of the baton pass, really. Like many Big Finish spinoff ranges, Jack gets his own theme tune here, really signalling it’s outside the Doctor Who narrative as his story. Indeed, my biggest niggle with the recent Bernice Summerfield stuff is that it’s really trying to be Doctor Who with her as opposed to Bernice Summerfield, and thus uses the Doctor Who theme. But the point is, this is Jack’s story as a hero, and it’s him learning to be that outside the shadow of the Doctor. He says at the beginning he’s not a hero, but knew one once, the Doctor. But the thing is, of course he’s a hero. We know that. This is just him coming to know that. And it’s interesting that that’s a beat never examined before. Come the opener of Torchwood, he’s just suddenly the leading man figure. This gives him a narrative arc to how he got there, through engaging with his newfound immortality. It’s kind of an origin story.

TIBERE: And it’s funny to see his coming out as a hero, so to speak, happening in a story over which hangs the shadow of some of Who’s most iconic monsters. Like, of course it takes place on an Earth ravaged by Daleks, but the modus operandi of the evil corporation is also kind of reminiscent of the Cybermen, with the whole “spare parts” lexicon being thrown around. But of course, it’s not the monsters themselves – just sort of phantom versions made of flotsam and jetsam, bits of technology left behind. Even the space station is an amalgamation of other ships – it’s all very Torchwood, recuperating alien tech and all that.

SCRIBBLES: I think it’s a good time to remember the other potential finale villain series 1 nearly had, until Dalek rights were sorted out: humans. The concept of the Toclafane was going to be used for Dalek, cheekily titled “Absence of the Daleks,” and Bad Wolf/The Parting of the Ways,” and the Time War in general, as the only other species that could carry that mythic poignancy. And here, indeed, we see the monstrousness of humanity. Naturally, it’s the lens of capitalist exploitation that we get to see the evils of humanity through in this case. Because that’s one of the most present and constant evils in our lives, really.

TIBERE: Preach, brother. Is it a bad time for a little singing of the Internationale? Yes? Anyway. Hilarious detail – the secretary that starts as a slave to the corporation and finally rebels and rips his boss’ eyes (yum yum!) is played by Aaron Neil, Ram’s dad from Class. He does have a thing for Marxist Who, hasn’t he?

SCRIBBLES: Gorky and Silo were really the cores of the themes in this piece, I think. Gorky was fantastic as a minor character, going from put upon servant to delightfully cackling and triumphant as he gets to exact his revenge and exploit his oppressor. Seriously, I was laughing along with him, evil as he sounded talking about pulling out Trear’s eyes. It was gross, but it was a poetic victory, really. And then, of course, Silo embodies a common ideal to Doctor Who, particularly in the Davies era. Asking questions is always treated as a strength in Doctor Who, and journalists get idealized a lot for doing so. “The Long Game,” for example, or Sarah Jane Smith’s career bringing her to heroism. Silo in this mold serves as a reckless but well-meaning example of humanity’s best. Channeling idealistic values that, even as they endanger her, are unambiguously good in the end. And the touch of journalism as a forgotten calling for humanity is powerful. It was always a prominent concept in series 1’s arc, how moving from investigative journalism to empty tabloids and reality television, and censorship in general, limits humanity’s ability to achieve its revolutionary potential. Silo is a lovely reflection on that theme, and works excellently as a call to action for Jack, with her upbeat and idealistic drive to danger being what really sparks the heroism in the end.

TIBERE:  There’s a potential study case here – Torchwood loves its whistleblowers and reporters, with Lois from COE being probably the best exemple. Nice bit of thematic continuity here. And of course, if we’re talking Big Finish, Jacqui McGee from the UNIT audios fills a sort of similar role – forcing the truth about a person, or an organization, to come in broad daylight, allowing for a thematic exploration of given spaces. Silo allows for a twinge of irony, here, too – I wouldn’t say, until the final beats of the story, that Jack ends up looking especially good here; sure, he saves the day, but the old, immortal angsty white dude (seriously, he has become an hermit and lives in a cabin and there’s a western rendition of his theme tune that plays when he’s around …) is a bit of a liability. The young female reporter gets to be the catalyst of the action – and really, that’s what Jack’s all about. He’s #problematic – and Torchwood is kind of all about the power dynamics between him and the more progressive, reasonable energy someone like Gwen brings.

SCRIBBLES: Interesting that you mention a sort of Western tone. Because that’s very much the archetypal imagery that this set examines, a mythic hero who wanders from town to town, so to speak. This set is all about interrogating Jack’s heroism, in a way. We get challenges and validations of that in all the stories. The opener has him as an archetypal hero to the people, called back from his post-war traumas to save the day. Wednesdays for Beginners examines his relationship to ordinary people as this mythic hero. “One Enchanted Evening” is a bit of a farce examining him as the romantic hero, and then “Month 25” showing us how far he’s come.

TIBERE: It’s interesting, really, because his war heroism is, in part, a lie. He didn’t get to win! He died, and would have preferred to stay a coward, and was resurrected by a literal dea ex machina. He’s a man that accomplished a lot of things, but he’s also a con artist, a phony. And this set, while it doesn’t exactly “does” a lot of things with all those elements, at the very least portrays them well, and shows the layers of his character in compelling way.

SCRIBBLES: Hence why this opener is such a lovely beat to have, really. Because Jack’s sacrifice marks that change for him, the Doctor’s ideals finally driving him to be willing to risk everything. That earns him the right to be called a hero, that sacrifice. But now he’s survived it and needs to learn to live that rather than hide. Again, the tension in this story isn’t what will happen, but how to see this journey occur. That’s the basic pleasure of the story, seeing Jack become the hero we know he is.

 

 

2) “Wednesdays for Beginners”, by James Goss

TIBERE: This one is easy to sum up – Jack & Jackie, take my money. Basically. No, it has a little more to it than that – although, maybe not that much. Really, it’s a story that exists first and foremost for the joy of seeing these two together. It’s a very, very fun romp, above anything else.

SCRIBBLES: I confess to being a little disappointed with this installment of the set. Not because it wasn’t good. It was very good, with Jackie handled well. But I let my expectations get too high, really. Jack and Jackie and Goss, everything I’ve seen and heard before tells me that should be an outright classic. Just look at “Retail Therapy,” the outright highlight of the Ninth Doctor Chronicles. Whereas this is merely a very solid romp. Very enjoyable and well characterized, but a bit slow on plot, taking its sweet time to go anywhere. The character beats, when they came, soared, all the confrontations about who is special, and Jackie’s valuing of the mundane as special. The early phone calls with Jackie were glorious as well, it’s hard to ever go wrong with Jackie rambling. But the bit in between, building up the tension of everyone vanishing and the question of what is going on, sags a bit too long for my liking, and the villains don’t make as strong an impression as they seem to want to, limited as they are in presence and in what they can impact. Very strong stuff, don’t get me wrong. But not Goss’ finest. And I only say that because he’s capable of the very best.

TIBERE: Of course, because I love not agreeing with anyone, it was my favourite of the set. It’s nowhere near “Retail Therapy”, but still, there’s just something utterly delightful about having Jackie in here. It’s a study in contrasts – the most egregious queer guy and the most down-to-Earth woman in the world solving a mystery together. There’s an energy to their interactions that make the plot, even in its slow moments (which are there, not denying that), positively crackle. And putting Jackie front and center in a boxset that centers, above all else, on class tensions is a downright glorious move.

SCRIBBLES: Absolutely. And that was really a nice thematic core to the story. The question of who is deemed as special, really, also comes down to a social class question. Society deems people to be special if they’re wealthy or influential or making massive waves, heroes like Jack has become by this point. But, as any good Jackie story should do, it’s the mundane and ordinary working class world that is revealed as special in the end. Jackie is special because she’s Rose’s mum. Her personal world is the key to everything, and she saves the day through sticking up for her daughter and embracing her mundane world of street parties and gossiping neighbors, even Trisha Delaney. And speaking of, please give us a Jackie vs Trisha Delaney story, Big Finish.

TIBERE: But really, at the end, neither Jackie nor Jack are fundamentally “special” – they are that way only because the Doctor has arrived in their lives and changed them at a deep, profound level. There’s a certain level of darkness at work here – both of them pay a price for the good things they got. Rose got a better life than Jackie could have offered her, but at the same time that means Jackie has to live on her own – and there’s a certain despair to her situation. I mean, it’s to the point where she’s downright excited to get a stalker! Woman is lonely. Which is what I love about the resolution, really – it’s about celebrating community and joy, singing silly songs and getting people together, it’s about the common people grouping up to destroy the system (the Harvesters being a fairly abstract, nondescript threat, it’s pretty easy to paint them as a system, an abstract force of history). A system that has power over them because it can deny their reality, their very existence, make them “not exist”. It’s not the most complex of metaphors, once again, but it works well for what it is.

SCRIBBLES: The narrative, ultimately, endorses Jackie’s mundane world as more powerful than the abstract system of the Harvesters. And it’s hard not to agree. The basic joy of Jackie’s world triumphs even just as a listening experience the empty desolation of the Harvesters, cleaning out the estate and its inhabitants. It’s a pretty poignant image, the empty council estate, bringing to mind for me the notion of eviction, even. But in the end, it’s human spirit and collective strength filling these desolate, evicted spaces that brings them back and saves the day. The joy of Jackie and Jack singing a dumb song, of frozen oven-baked sausage rolls and cheesy pineapple hedgehogs… that’s where Jackie’s strength is, and that’s also where the best aspects of this story are.

TIBERE: And once again, it kind of bounces back to Torchwood-esque themes. The sort of confrontation between the abstract spaces and the weird systems, whether the be metaphysical (the Death trilogy) or socio-political (“Miracle Day,” “Children of Earth,” or even something like “Reset”), and normal, ordinary life. Except it’s filtered through the prism of Davies’ Who, and ends up being much more about positive affirmation rather than damages and trauma – much like the first series of New Who did.

SCRIBBLES: In a way, it fetishizes the simple pleasures of real life, the ecstatic pleasures of a cup of tea or a nice song. It’s not a new notion to Doctor Who. It’s the vision Paul Cornell introduced, really, exemplified by the likes of Bernice Summerfield.

TIBERE: Definitely .The dialogue could come directly from “Shadow of the Scourge”. And you’ve got “Earthshock”, too, I guess, for a much, much lamer version.

SCRIBBLES: Honestly, I think there’s potential in a story of the Cybermen genuinely trying to find the pleasure of well-cooked meals and flower smelling. But the lens of Torchwood, like you’re mentioning, adds a specific angle to this exploration of the power of the mundane. Because unlike Doctor Who, where those sights of the stars are generally uniformly additive to the mundane wonders of the world, in Torchwood, they are corrosive. Here, Jackie proves that, more than any other, she can hold back that darkness. She has a firm hold on her life and a strength that the likes of Suzie or Owen never had, and won’t be taken in by the darkness, no matter what disturbing wonders it holds. A grounding in the working class world and with dreams in social empowerment rather than science fiction escapism. I suppose there’s an odd tension in that. The basic pleasure of science fiction is, of course, in seeing things outside the scope of the normal world. And yet, without it emphasizing how powerful and wonderful the real world is, stronger than any escape or corrosion the sci fi can extend, it’s nothing. Jackie is a powerful anchor for the Doctor Who universe, despite innately belonging to a different genre and worldview. But that sort of sums up the power of Doctor Who, to explore that collision and watch it shine.

TIBERE; In a way, she’s kind of the embodiment of the genre-hopping tendencies of the show. You can make Who out of anything, and anchor it anywhere – and this story gets a lot out of taking two of these “anchors”, coming from diametrically opposing direction, and watch their opposed visions of the show clash. Well, visions. Maybe not – it’s not really an ideological piece, unlike “Retail Therapy”, which is a bit of a shame. More like, aesthetics – the episode kind of reads as a confrontation, and a mix, of both Jackie and Jack’s brands of Who. It’s not necessarily the deepest thing under the sun, but it’s a very pleasing, and conceptually interesting, experience.

 

 

3) “One Enchanted Evening”, by James Goss

SCRIBBLES: After one James Goss romp we move to…another James Goss romp. It’s a good time. Every story of this set sort of explores a different facet of Jack, and here we really get to see the swashbuckling gay romantic lead side of things. It’s a bit of a farce, really, complete with giant tentacle vore monster played deliciously by Katy Manning and deliberately frustrating ending. But I think what’s really admirable about it is what it tries to play straight. I think it’s safe to say nobody regards “Voyage of the Damned” as the most gritty and serious Doctor Who episode, but here, like with “Cyberwoman” in “Broken,” it’s mined as a genuine source of character trauma and played utterly straight even while Katy Manning oozes her camp villain performance all over the place. I was skeptical at first, but I think, despite the oddness of treating “Voyage” as serious backstory, it does find a pleasant bit of characterful weight in it. It certainly helps that Alonso’s grappling with his past comes in the most subtle and underplayed moments of the script, offset against the farce and thus becoming more powerful. It’s a very odd juggling act, on the whole, but while it doesn’t quite hit the mark as well as Moffat doing the same thing with River Song, it’s still plenty enjoyable. I get the sense this isn’t Goss at his most ambitious, far from it, but even Goss just having a laugh with a gay space farce is a good time.

TIBERE: James Goss’ writing modus operandi has always been to go back to swaths of past continuity, going around digging up tensions and contradictions in the past series of the show – but that’s about the weirdest use he has ever made of it. Trying to give “Voyage of the Damned”, the most disjointed, tonally dissonant episode of Who ever, emotional weight. While sort of re-writing it in a camp, gay aesthetic. With the leading, male couple being chased by an embodiment of aggressive female-ness (and female sexuality, one might argue, considering the way Katy Manning – by the way, kudos to her, she’s nearly unrecognizable here – plays Mother Nothing). Why not! Like most of the stuff on that boxset, it’s a very fun, very pleasant romp that feel some interesting gaps in the continuity. In a way, it sort of shows Jack’s regeneration after the trauma that “Children of Earth” and the death of Ianto were to him – he gets back in space, back in that bath of camp aesthetics where he belongs, ready to storm back in the spy thriller antics of “Miracle Day”. It fits pretty well, especially with the neat parallels between Alonso’s explicit trauma and the silent, dark one Jack bears – which becomes explicit at the end, where he insists that he cannot allow another person to die in his name.

SCRIBBLES: Interestingly, there seems to be a bit of controversy over the choice of pairing Jack with Alonso from the Torchwood fanbase. A lot of Torchwood fans are very devoted to Jack and Ianto’s relationship, which is on the one hand understandable as a core feature of the show for some of its most emotional moments, but on the other hand, Jack has always been the man who moves on. I think, though, that the story feels like it’s trying to navigate that sort of outcry a little in its farcical ending. After all that adventure, all that near self-sacrifice, Alonso and Jack get separated again. I’m not sure specifically what it could be responding to – Jack’s constantly getting torn away from the people he starts to care about, played as an ironic final beat? Or just trying to reassure fans that they won’t go that far? I’m not sure.

TIBERE: I am going to keep my thoughts on Ianto very, very quiet because I’m pretty sure I’m going to get slaughtered if I open my mouth too much here. But definitely, that story is a bit of a joke, and definitely aware of its own ridiculousness. Personally, I’m kind of reading that last beat as a running gag on Alonso’s legendary bad luck – I mean, they get separated by a meteor shower, don’t they, the exact same kind that hit the Titanic?

SCRIBBLES: They certainly do. That is a good point I missed. Poor guy. I think ultimately, though, it feels like a slightly misjudged beat, probably the only one in what I otherwise found to be my favorite of the set. It’s jarring, particularly with the lack of end music, at least on my download copy, the abruptness makes paranoid something went wrong with my Big Finish app. I feel like it is a case of less is more. This entry into the set indulges Jack as the romantic hero, and I would have liked to see a romantic hero triumph. I know giving into a Hollywood-esque romantic happily ever after is cliche enough to instinctually avoid, but I feel like I would have been more satisfied with that. I will say, the choice to have Alonso appear to sacrifice himself was the emotional high point of this box set for me. It’s a foolish, impulsive choice, seeming to sacrifice himself for someone who can’t die, but it feels so beautifully in-character, and Alonso is a minor enough character where I did for a moment actually wonder if he really was going to die. It even seems to offer a sort of closure to Alonso, finally getting to save someone, even if they didn’t need saving. Almost wish it went with that, if not a romantic happily ever after. Really, I suppose, that’s the biggest problem in the storytelling of “One Enchanted Evening.” It feels like it just can’t decide where the end should go and wants to split the difference. Still, with attractive gay men fighting evil camp queen Katy Manning and riding diamonds through space, it’s hard to complain.

TIBERE: And of course, because I still love to disagree with everyone, it was probably my least favourite. Still good, mind you! But in the other stories, the over-the-top camp aesthetics feel like they’re anchored by some kind of dramatic beat or thematic point – that story might be just a tiny bit too broad and over-the-top for my liking. I mean, as a pseudo-remake of “Voyage of the Damned”, it’s immensely better, but I’m not sure it solves the fundamental problem that episode had, which is that the disaster movie and the over-the-top romp are two genres that are hard to reconcile – it’s hard to get invested in the action, or even the emotional beats, well-crafted as they are (and indeed, the “death” of Alonso is a great moment – makes a special amount of sense when you know he was supposed to be, and be killed, in “The Stolen Earth”, before Harriet Jones took his place in the final script), when they’re juxtaposed with Katy Manning playing a monstrous diamond-loving kraken. I think the best Who romps exist in a space that let them indulge all their wildest ideas, or, if they don’t, have a core concept that inextricably links together drama and comedy. Here, both aspects feel slightly at odd – and there’s quite a bit of focus on side characters that don’t bring a whole lot to the proceedings, like the mechanic. Still, it’s wonderfully silly and enjoyably Goss-esque, so you really can’t dislike it.

4) “Month 25”, by Guy Adams

SCRIBBLES: Really, the premise of this is the ultimate tantalizing and obvious Jack story. There’s two core premises, both of which it’s amazing have never been done before: filling in Jack’s missing memories from the Time Agency, and having Jack romance himself. Having both happen in the same story is an interesting choice. It at once feels like going all in and like it’s admitting that the great epic mystery of Jack’s memories can’t satisfyingly really be filled in, so let’s have a fun romp. It’s slightly disappointing that most of this set doesn’t aspire to more than romps through Jack’s continuity, but it’s also difficult to be mad at any of it, it’s all executed perfectly competently and with buckets of charm, and even a fair few political moments. But I do kinda wish they attempted to probe a bit deeper into who Jack is. We see his bonkers, delightful lives at their most absurd, but we don’t so much see the weight. James Goss said in Vortex that this is very much a Doctor Who Jack characterization here, not a Torchwood Jack. I’m afraid I do kind of wish this had a touch more of the Torchwood Jack. A hint of darkness or complexity helps round out the storytelling, I think, and this set could have used more of that kind of balance.

TIBERE: It’s an utterly bonkers story. In a messy way, too – the implications of the script are fascinating, but ultimately it’s much more interested in messing about and having fun than dealing with them in a straightforward way. I mean, we get to see the birth of Jack, in a way – it’s an origins story in the purest super-hero style, complete with name change. And what’s the act that marked the birth of the hero Jack Harkness? Screwing himself. That’s what I mean when I say Jack is a bit of a fake – he literally re-wrote history, re-wrote his past, to turn himself into a hero. But, at the same time, his past also rewrites his future, stealing from his future self the memories of his confrontation with the Council (which is played by James Goss & Christel Dee, because meta amirite) – he’s such a force of anarchy, at this point, that he even refuses to be under the authority of his own future. It’s … Kind of fascinating, really. And also kind of irrelevant to the proceedings.

SCRIBBLES: If we’re speaking of meta, I think it’s interesting how much of a role retcon plays in this. This whole story is, of course, a literal retcon, complete with Jack’s name, Javic Piotr Thane, which I do hope I’m spelling right. Interesting choice, that. Giving his name is sort of an obvious thing to do, but also kind of unsatisfying, and you can see how the importance of the name everyone knows him by, Jack, hangs over it. Javic, Jack, it’s really just adding a bit in the middle. Because though this is supposed to be his real, original name, by any measure that matters, he is to the world Jack Harkness. I would have slightly preferred if they just went with the original name Russell T Davies gave the character, “Jax,” which Steven Moffat vetoed. (That said, it means his brother’s name is Gray Thane, which sounds hilarious.) But it’s a perfectly serviceable answer to a question everybody asked but nobody really needed, and makes for a nice contrast angle once the developed Jack we know and love intercedes in proceedings. It’s a very meta approach, having “our” Jack meet this retconned version of his past. And I think that’s what sells what could otherwise just come across as a fanfiction-y step too far, it adds a sense of legitimacy to this absurd rompy retcon. Of course, the story finishes in Jack and Javic both retconning the whole adventure, anyway. That sort of exemplifies the whole approach of the piece. It knows it can only offer one possible explanation for a question that might not ever have a satisfactory answer. And so it has a bit of self-aware fun with that space, while selling a few nice character beats along the way.

TIBERE: I’m not equipped to deal with what are some very complex LGBT issues, but there’s something interesting at work here with the whole reproduction angle? Like, Phil Sandifer has this great piece about “Children of Earth” where he reads the story, in part, as a rejection of the typical notion of the heterosexual family and an embrace of an almost nihilistic, destructive gayness? And Jack, the Jack we know, literally spawns ex nihilo, he is his own father – Guy Adams shows himself to be very in tune with some deep aspects of the show there. It’s a big science-fiction question going back all the way to “Frankenstein” and stuff – and here, it’s used to feed another narrative about the collapse of authority, of pre-established forces and systems. It’s even more explicit in that story than in the previous ones, really, because the antagonists, the Council, are literally humans that became a system, out of time, impossible to change. Hell, if you want to push the “let’s throw everything at the wall and see what sticks” reading, you can even see the Council, especially with James Goss in it, as an embodiment of the Writers – and Jack as their creation that rebels and forges his own destiny. By screwing himself. Yeah … This is a wild story. But still, I do think there are some elements that follow this reading – really, the Time Agency as it’s shown to us is one huge pile of clichés: you have the bossy female leader that gets on the nerve of the rogue, dashing, but annoying best man for the job, and so forth … And to allow the real story to come forth, the real Jack to manifest from the cliché archetypes of heroism, this structure we are shown must be destroyed.

SCRIBBLES: If we go with that, it’s interesting how the closest thing to a nuclear family bond, that of his coworker and his partner, is exploited by the matriarch of the Agency. And he, in turn, interestingly exploits Jack, stealing from his account to pay for the treatment. Like you say, structure tied to archetypes of heroism, all explored through exploitation dynamics and contrasts. There is, of course, the main contrast of Javic versus Jack, the cocky young sexy recruit versus the fully developed Jack who has become the proper hero. On an additional meta note, I think it’s rather fun how the future, fully-developed Jack is credited as “The Stranger,” and played by Big Finish regular Alexander Vlahos, best known in Big Finish for playing Dorian Gray. Not only does the queer immortal man of Dorian Gray carry a fair few parallels to Jack, but in the early pre-Big Finish days of Doctor Who audios, the Stranger was one of the many names BBV used to refer to their Doctor Who ripoff characters, a whole series of videos and spinoffs in Doctor Who’s shadow. That kind of implicitly connects Jack to some interesting things. First, it of course compares him to Dorian Gray in a nice subtle way, which is delicious and I’m sure has loads to unpack, particularly for those who are more familiar with the original work and Big Finish series than I. (I know, I must check it out, I hear it’s all brilliant.)

TIBERE: There’s a Big Finish series you haven’t listened to?! Oh god, the shock.

SCRIBBLES: Yes, yes, hush, you. But more interesting to me is that it puts Jack in the marginal space of a Doctor role in a Doctor-less spinoff series. Which he is. That’s what this set is about, Jack’s arc to becoming a Doctor-like hero in a space with no Doctor. Jackie even tells him off for talking like the Doctor, though she doesn’t quite want to slap him as much. He goes from understanding his immortality to a richer understanding with Jackie to a swashbuckling romantic adventure to a rewriting of his own history, becoming more a hero and more like the Doctor along the way. The title of the Stranger, really, is tremendously apt. He earns the Doctor knockoff title. He’s Jack Harkness, always thriving in the Doctor’s shadow, even as a show in Torchwood, subordinate to Doctor Who but stronger because of it. So like with Big Finish Torchwood, “The Lives of Captain Jack” is in many ways, really, empowered by its marginal space and by embracing its own nature in being off the beaten trail. It’s not always of much consequence, but it’s difficult not to love it for existing.

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