Review by Michael Goleniewski
Captain John Hart is easily one of Torchwood’s most entertainingly intriguing creations ever created in the history of the Whoniverse. Played by the masterful James Marsters, his presence in the series is a nice touch of chaotic hedonism and selfish insanity while still serving as an interesting parallel to the more heroically motivated Captain Jack Harkness. John is essentially the ‘Maste’r to Jack’s Doctor in almost every way and so it’s no wonder that he’s become one of the most popular characters related to the organisation. It’s also no wonder then that the character is making a return in audio form and recently gained his own set in ‘The Sins of Captain John‘. Comprised of four stories all written by David Llewellyn, ‘Sins’ promises a wonderfully evil audio listening experience in a way not seen since the ‘War Master‘ spinoff series that concluded last month.
The set begins with ‘The Restored‘ which immediately sets the tone and energy it’s going for with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue from our protagonist himself. Captain John is in London, February 1661 in a time of mysterious intrigue and drama. The skull of Oliver Cromwell has begun to talk of dark times and warnings and so all of the royal party, including the yet to be crowned King Charles II, are being shepherded into the Tower of London for protection. But as John makes his way amongst the heads (and loins) of some of Britain’s most influential rulers on a mission for a mysterious clientele, a nasty secret hidden among their ranks is prompting something worse to come. For the dead have begun to rise from the grave and it’s only a matter of time before everyone is ripped apart in an apocalyptic onslaught…..
The title of this first story actually has a two-fold meaning behind it referring to both the setting and the general plot, both of which coincide and work together immensely well. The soundscape is strong, dialogue and script over the top, and the plot surprisingly engaging more than it has any right to be. Combining what’s essentially a zombie base-under-siege story with the antics of a rogue time agent in Restoration-era England is certainly one of the more novel ideas to start things off with and while both elements on their own are a bit basic and bland, together they work like peanut butter and jelly to create a new and immensely entertaining entity with plenty of odd humour to mix things up amongst the more darker elements.
The cast is also enjoyably great too. James Marsters as John Hart rapidly establishes himself as a force to be reckoned with in both performance and energy. His character is an absolute riot from minute one being an obnoxious bell-end in the vein of other anti-heroes with a penchant for rule-breaking but also being the only one who has any idea of what’s going on to resolve the situation. It’s hard to call it a ‘save the day’ scenario per se and his heroism is more out of circumstance rather than ideals but it fits the character to a T especially when combined Serin Ibrahim’s Mohisha Varma who ends up being a nice pseudo-sidekick to him pushing things forward in a badass way when he isn’t able to. Wilf Scolding as King Charles II and Laura Doddington as Lady Frances are also both memorable as nice juxtapositions of elegance mixed with idiocy in opposing ways and the creepy talking head who quote ‘sounds like Ian McKellan’ is a nice spooky touch even when the zombies (while interesting historically) aren’t used as effectively as they could’ve been.
With a nice character twist regarding the true cause of what’s going on and a great final moment/cameo that sets up the other three stories nicely, ‘Restored’ is a fantastic adventure on all fronts. It’s great to see Hart given more time on his own to shine, the writing and premise are a hell of a lot of fun, and it ties nicely into the Torchwood lineup in an odd and zany way that will have you tense and laughing all at the same time. A very worthy start to what promises to be a surprisingly worthwhile set. – 9 / 10
ESCAPE FROM NEBAZZ
The second story places Captain John in the middle of a prison break narrative following up on the events of ‘Restored’ in an intriguing way while continuing the encompassing narrative structure that was set up in the opening minutes of the set. With the gauntlets John was sent after in desperate need of repair, the only thing he can do is inquire after their creator who’s currently stuck in a wooden intergalactic prison for necromancy. As our dear Captain sneaks his way onboard, it’s not long before things get complicated as the station’s unique circumstances make leaving somewhat difficult. This will prove especially true when an inmate being used for experiments makes his way out and changes everything around the prison. With time running out and the warden going increasingly insane, the window for escape is looking very unlikely…..
‘Escape from Nebazz’ is a fairly standard adventure and a bit less interesting than its predecessor. The general plot and premise jump from arrival to secret-keeping to plot twist, escape, and pickup in fairly predictable fashion and the soundscape isn’t quite strong enough to garner attention beyond its initial direction. There is, of course, a surprise agenda behind the station itself and why it’s wooden compared to the usual look and feel of a sci-fi space station and there is a minor plot point that makes itself relevant as time goes by. But it’s all in service of getting John onboard, finding his goal, and getting him out which only really affects things in the final ten or so minutes as things come back to bite him in the ass.
Where the audio manages to stay somewhat engaging is in performance and minor details. James Masters gives another daring performance as Hart while still playing with the self-referential nature of his character even more hilariously with multiple lines hinting that he’s more than aware that he’s is an audio box set. This time, however, Masters is matched by Kathryn Drysdale as Dr. Magpie who is almost more the protagonist of the audio than Hart is. She not only has a great rapport with the captain in a sort of exasperated partner and babysitter sort of way but she stands wonderfully on her own breaking the mad scientist stereotype by being more than the sum of her parts. She’s intelligent, witty, and more than capable of handling herself and it’s a shame that we aren’t going to see more of her because of the way she ends up being dealt with in the course of events. Dona Croll as Miss Slaughter is also fine in the time she gets and Connor Calland doesn’t get enough time to make his threat really work. But the climax features a return that you’ll expect if you read the synopsis for the next story but is still very welcome.
In reality, there isn’t much more to say about this one; ‘Escape from Nebazz‘ is the textbook definition of a good story. It’s not great or memorable or even spectacularly engaging especially when ‘Restored’ worked so well in doing all of those things. But what it does have is more than enough in acting and subtle touches to make it a fun enough listen to pass the time with. With the Ying to John’s Yang now entangled in the situation though, things seem primed and ready to get far more interesting….. – 7 / 10
PEACH BLOSSOM HEIGHTS
Captain John Hart and Captain Jack Harkness have been reunited in less than favourable circumstances stranded on a remote world after a disastrous crash landing. After a trek through a harsh and hot desert, the pair stumble upon a strange utopia full of futuristic buildings, a cheery populace with no jobs to speak of, and animal mascots abducting people in the middle of the night. John is perfectly fine to stay where they are enjoying the free drinks and the inadvertent sexual revolution they’ve brought with them. But Jack just can’t let his suspicions go and it ultimately brings them to a food production plant with ominous repercussions for the present and the future…..
‘Peach Blossom Heights’ is bonkers, simply and utterly bonkers. The narrative starts off predictably slow as the duo deal with the unfortunate circumstances of the previous story ‘Escape from Nebazz’. But as things get going and they arrive in the utopian city, the plot delves into a weirdly hilarious alternative society romp. The writing continues to enjoy experimenting with the nature of the audio medium especially when John and Jack discover that the residents housing them have never heard of sex before. It leads to some of the funniest mature scenes ever written into a Torchwood story; which is saying a lot given the history of this particular series and the way it handles sex scenes sometimes. Yes it’s utterly over the top and somewhat gratuitous but it makes sense within the premise and it does lead to some brilliant consequences of the pair explaining what happens when you aren’t careful with your intimate relations.
Once things jump into the actual dark secrets teased behind what’s going on, the tone shifts appropriately while still keeping the absurd humour and unexpected twists. It helps that no matter the situation, John Barrowman and James Marsters are fantastic together playing off their past and future history together as quote ‘frenemies with benefits’ in spectacular fashion. Their dialogue is witty, charming and very enjoyable and the way things are revealed about their past are great touches that only add to both characters as a whole. It all comes together in an anti-climax of sorts that may disappoint some but fits perfectly in tone and energy with what the adventure is going for. It’s simultaneously everything you’d expect it to be but also not at the same time playing with expectations in a way that most stories can only dream of doing.
While ‘Restored’ applies more to this reviewer’s personal tastes, ‘Peach Blossom Heights’ is just as good in terms of quality and extremely entertaining. It’s a little bit predictable on the surface but David Llewellyn successfully uses that mask to deliver a subversive, naughty, and hilarious tale that is perhaps the best story that John and Jack have ever been together for, TV or audio. It’s one of the best things to come out of this series by far and leaves the finale with high expectations and a lot of ground to cover in delivering on what’s come before. – 9 / 10
‘Darker Purposes’ is another one of those stories that’s hard to talk about without giving massive spoilers away. It ties together the threads of the previous three stories (‘Restored’, ‘Nebazz’, and ‘Heights’), gives us answers involving its overarching narrative purpose, and concludes the set in a somewhat standard fashion. Captain John has achieved what he set out to do and is more than ready to deliver. Having been taken to his clients who have their own goals in mind, a funeral is held whilst our protagonist mingles and makes himself comfortable in the lap of luxury. But a final otherworldly threat is about ready to strike and for Jack, it seems oddly familiar. A portal to Hell has been opened and not everyone is going to get out alive…..
So far, this set has presented Captain John in a variety of situations and so after a story in the past, the future, and in work with his rival and friend, it’s now time to see how he handles success and what could happen when he lets his guard down. James Marsters is once again at his best playing the bastard who has his own ends in mind above all else, the soundscape of the alien palace is nicely done, and Rosie Baker and Rick Yale as the Vargosh siblings Ilsa and Darius are an appropriate challenge for our protagonist as far as interesting high-end villains go.
It’s a small shame then considering how successfully this set has been at subverting your expectations up to this point that ‘Darker Purposes’ is fairly predictable as big finales go. That’s not to say that it’s bad per se; compared to a lot of other big endings, this one is very good. The writing is fine enough and there are plenty of twists and turns to make it a very engaging thrill ride. But compared to ‘Restored’ and especially ‘Peach Blossom Heights’ which had the nerve to surprise you in conjunction with how well its plot was handled, this one feels like it’s going through the motions while stealing elements from the previous stories. Partner/love interest turns out to be a baddie? Check times two. Exploiting a clever circumstance to save the day? Check. Ultimately saved by a fan cameo? Check. Most of the elements here feel like a repeat of what’s come before rather than a natural extension in trying something new and it leaves this ending good but not exactly great.
This review probably sounds a bit more negative than it’s meant to be but ‘Darker Purposes’ really is worth the listen for fans of this character and this series. It feels like the ending it’s meant to be, still boasts some strong performances, drama, and humour, and is more than worthy of being a part of the set even more than ‘Escape from Nebazz’ in some respects. But compared to some of its predecessors which blow you out of the water while still giving you a rollicking ride, this one just sort of guides you along and keeps you afloat through the motions and the turns. It’s still a lot of fun and it does its job but it’s not quite as interesting or engaging as what’s come before and what a little bit of tweaking could’ve easily brought out. – 8 / 10
FINAL RATING: — 8 / 10