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Stargate 1.3 - Shell Game



Blurb: Vala Mal Doran finds herself in a particularly sticky situation when an old foe catches up with her. With only Daniel Jackson able to fight her corner, Vala may have to do something that's really not her style – tell the truth.

Format: Limited cast audio drama recounting a story in the life of Vala Mal Doran. Published by Big Finish Productions and released June of 2008.

Setting: The planet Holdus.

Continuity: This story takes place between the television stories The Pegasus Project and Insiders.

Discussion: Unlike most people that watched Stargate SG-1, I wasn't aware of Claudia Black when she joined the series. I didn't see Farscape until many years later. When she came into SG-1 I found her to be incredibly annoying, and I never bought the romance with Daniel. Now that I've seen Farscape I'm starting to understand that a lot of love for the character was transferred from the devotion of the fanbase to Aeryn Sun. I'm somewhat interested to go back to SG-1 someday now that I'm informed by Black's performance as Aeryn to see if that changes my opinion of Vala. In any event, I found the final two seasons of Stargate tedious in the extreme, so I approached this audio with a little bit of trepidation.

The plot is a little thin although that might be a necessary evil of the format. Only having two characters performing means that the story has to be somewhat limited. This one is mostly told by an imprisoned Vala to Daniel as her lawyer. There's a lot of repetition in the things that she says, because Vala tells the story somewhat differently each time as Daniel tries to get down to the truth of what happened. Daniel believes that once he gets Vala to reveal the truth of what happened that he'll understand the situation. Yet, we discover at the end that the whole story hinges on a translation error. Both Vala and the warlord that she was stealing from believed that the Ancient artifact did something different than what it in fact does. The solution feels a little too easy and deflates the tension that had been building up to this point. That may have been intentional, since Vala's character lends itself to more whimsical stories. A sparse plot with a pat ending can work if the characters are thoroughly engaging, but that's not exactly the case here.

Claudia Black feels like she's struggling through this one. Certainly, the narration in the beginning is given with a bored, almost deadpan delivery that feels so out of character for the Vala that we've seen onscreen, especially since she's in a life-or-death situation. I'm not sure if that's Black giving a very meta performance and showing that Vala would take the narration as seriously as she takes anything, or if it just shows Black's lack of comfort with the audio medium. She certainly gets more animated whenever she gets to spark some lines off of Daniel, but the fact that her interview was given over the phone makes me wonder if she and Michael Shanks were even in the studio together to record their lines. That may explain why she feels muted throughout the story even as she transitions into her more over-the-top lines and gets to interact with Daniel more.

Shanks continues to impress. He's clearly enjoying getting to be Daniel again and he definitely differentiates his performance here from that in Gift of the Gods. As the secondary character he doesn't get to do a whole lot, but I do appreciate that he gives it his all.

The sounds and music have the same level of quality that I've come to expect from Big Finish, since they know their craft. Of course they recreate sounds like zats initiating and the Stargate activating, because those are required to sound authentic for a Stargate story. What really impresses, though, is that when they need to create a new sound or a new piece of musical accompaniment that it sounds like something that would have been on the show. I'm especially thinking of the music that they use once Daniel discovers the device's true purpose and Vala reverses the effect. That sort of comedic backdrop music sounds just like the kind of thing that they'd do on SG-1 for that kind of scene. The sound of the Ancient artifact also sounds authentic in the same way. There are also the typical sounds of dungeon doors, echoes, a piece of pottery breaking and such to allow the listener to engage with the story. Those elements really help when the story isn't full cast, because you have less characters to create the world. That's why it's so important that Big Finish does such a good job with them as they have here.

Final Rating: 6/10

Recommendation: It's an unreliable narrator story that ends up being resolved by a competent translation. Claudia Black gives an oddly muted performance despite her obvious enthusiasm for getting to play off of Michael Shanks again. It's certainly a more character-based story, and there are definitely things to enjoy for fans of the Daniel/Vala interaction. Still, the humor doesn't hit as much as it should and Black's low engagement works against the character interaction. I enjoyed it a bit more than that I didn't, but I definitely feel like it isn't worth going out of your way to listen to this one.
Tags: claudia black, sg-1, shell game, stargate, vala mal doran
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