Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 2012 End Of The Month Update!

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We're at the end of another month here on the blog and it was a very exciting one for us!

For the first time in a long time, there was real movement within the Top 10 reviews of all time!  Two new reviews broke into that exclusive category!  As well, February ended up being the second best month - in terms of hits (which we presume is reviews read) - since the Blog was started!  February might be shorter, but we saw some great results!

In February, we were able to keep the Index Pages up and updated the entire month, making for a very dynamic website. The primary Index Page, which is now updated daily, lets you know what the featured review is and has an up-to-the-day tally of how many reviews have been reviewed in each category!

If you enjoy the reviews, please consider clicking on the links in the reviews and purchasing items.  Most of the links are directly through and your purchases keep me reviewing!  Thanks!

At the end of February, I have reviewed the following:
329 - Book Reviews
448 - Music (Album and Singles) Reviews
Music Reviews By Rating (Best To Worst)
Music Reviews In Alphabetical Order
1389 - Movie and Television Reviews
with specialized index pages for:
Movies By Rating (Best Movie to Worst)
Movies In Alphabetical Order
Best Picture Film Reviews
Television Reviews
The Star Trek Review Index Page (All Star Trek Reviews In Order)!
136 - Trading and Gaming Card Reviews
414 - Toy and Christmas Ornament Reviews
410 - Food, Drink, And Restaurant Reviews
95 - Pet Product Reviews
78 - Travel Reviews
85 - Health And Beauty Product Reviews
107 - Home, Garden, Appliance and Tool Reviews
68 - Electronics, Computers, Computer Games and Software Reviews
14 - Other Product Reviews

My featured review for February is my review of Celtic Knot Claddagh Urn For Ashes Sterling Silver Pendant! Check it out!

For February, the Top Ten Reviews were my reviews of:
10. Horrible Bosses
9. Just Go With It
8. Batman
7. Discover The Force Mawhonic action figure
6. 21 Jump Street
5. Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace
4. The Vow
3. Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance
2. Ghost Rider
1. Project X

I pride myself on being an exceptionally fair reviewer, but one who is very discriminating. I believe that most reviewers are far too biased toward both what is current and toward unduly praising things. I tend to believe most things actually are average and they ought to follows something around a Bell Curve. Mine is a little lopsided, but not as lopsided as most reviewers I know (who would probably have peak numbers between ten and seven!

For my reviews, the current count is:
10s - 215 reviews
9s - 266 reviews
8s - 456 reviews
7s - 487 reviews
6s - 416 reviews
5s - 589 reviews
4s - 412 reviews
3s - 344 reviews
2s - 144 reviews
1s - 101 reviews
0s - 57 reviews
No rating - 9 articles/postings

And, if you haven't checked out the top reviews of all time, at the end of February, the most popular reviews/articles I have written are:
10. Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows, Part 1
9. Ghost Rider
8. Project X
7. He's Just Not That Into You
6. 2011 Harry Potter "Fleeing The Fiendfyre" Hallmark Ornament
5. The Star Wars Saga on Blu-Ray
4. Anne Hathaway For Wonder Woman!
3. Friends With Benefits
2. Breaking Dawn, Part 1
1. Star Trek: Machinations Of Doomsday

© 2012 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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The Outbreak Of The Dominion War Is “A Call To Arms!”

The Good: Great use of characters, Engaging plot, Decent acting, Pacing
The Bad: Obvious cliffhanger
The Basics: When Sisko decides to stop the Dominion from sending more supplies into Cardassian space, war becomes inevitable. And then it breaks out.

In the fifth season of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the essential plot thread was that the Dominion had resurfaced with a vengeance. If season three could have been titled "Dominion Menacing," season five would have been called "The Escalation of the Dominion Threat." The season climaxes with the loss of peace in the Alpha Quadrant in an episode entitled "A Call To Arms." While many believe that the Star Trek franchise could not do a better season finale than "The Best of Both Worlds, Part I" (reviewed here!), real fans of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine will argue that "A Call To Arms" gives it a strong run for its money, if not succeeding it.

While Rom and Leeta plan for their wedding, Sisko decides that the Dominion ships that keep arriving in the Alpha Quadrant to reinforce Cardassia must be stopped. Rom and O'Brien come up with a solution; mining the mouth of the wormhole with cloaked, self-replicating mines. Their deployment immediately gets the attention of the Dominion, which sends Weyoun to pressure Sisko into stopping. Seeing that Weyoun is ready to back up his threats, Sisko uses his influence with the Bajorans to get Bajor to sign the non-aggression pact proposed by the Dominion to keep them out of the impending combat. The Dominion launches an assault on Deep Space Nine, forcing Sisko to abandon his post and flee with his Federation crew for his life.

"A Call To Arms" has one minor flaw and that is that it is ambitious. There is a LOT going on in this episode. It is reviving the idea that Garak and Ziyal have become close friends, Rom and Leeta finally marry and the whole Dominion War story arc begins. It's an episode that has a lot to it, so as a result, it requires the full attention of the viewer. On the plus side, there is so much to enjoy about this episode that it becomes very easy to remain engaged, despite the number of threads that need to be paid attention to.

The storylines here are pretty incredible and the main plot is only enhanced by the phenomenal special effects. For those who enjoyed the intense space battle from "The Way Of The Warrior," they will be blown away and thrilled by the siege of Deep Space Nine in "A Call to Arms." The Dominion fleet is relentless in its attack and the weaponry of Deep Space Nine makes quite the lightshow in its retaliation.

But Star Trek: Deep Space Nine has always been more about character than special effects tricks and "A Call To Arms" is no exception. Garak and Ziyal share moments of genuine affection in this episode and it is refreshing to see Garak actually open up to another character on the show. Similarly, the wedding of Rom and Leeta is fun; after five seasons of growth, Rom reaches a real high point here and this is undoubtedly the high-water mark of Leeta's character. The tension between Odo and Kira - now that she knows of Odo's love for her - is established and becomes a seed for the next season.

All of the actors are working at the top of their game here to create an episode that is quite fast paced. Rene Auberjonois does an excellent job at playing Odo as awkward and Nana Visitor completely opens up Kira's sense of discomfort. Max Grodenchik and Chase Masterson make Rom and Leeta's improbable love seem common, which is no small feat. And the chemistry between Andrew Robinson (Garak) and Melanie Smith (Ziyal) comes across as quite organic, which is no small accomplishment for Robinson considering Smith is a recast Ziyal. That the two work so hard to make their character's chemistry seem effortless (and succeed) is a testament to their professionalism.

Much of the episode comes down to the acting talents of Avery Brooks and Jeffery Combs. While Marc Alaimo does his usual great job playing Dukat, most of the villainy in "A Call To Arms" is personified by Weyoun, who is played by Combs. Combs manages to be both menacing and strangely diplomatic, a creepy combination to be sure. That Combs makes Weyoun seem believable behind such drastic changes of mood is an illustration of his quality.

It is Avery Brooks who humanizes the climactic events of this episode, though. Brooks plays Sisko as a man resolved to action and who is calmly plotting the best possible course for the survival of his people. The success of Brooks is that he underplays Sisko, never making him seem larger than life. As a result, Sisko comes across as a better character and more cunning tactician because Brooks plays him more like a common man than a military genius. Brooks' judgment on how to keep Sisko more connected to the audience works far beyond the sometimes pretentious lines about war that come out of his mouth.

In the end, "A Call To Arms" is an intense episode that is accessible to anyone who enjoys a good war story or political thriller. This is the onset of a war and if "A Call to Arms" is any indication, it's going to be an intense one! Fortunately, it was more than just the stylings of a season finale trying to go out with a bang. Part of the essential Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.

[Knowing that VHS is essentially a dead medium, it's worth looking into Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - The Complete Fifth Season on DVD, which is also a better economical choice than buying the VHS. Read my review of the perfect season by clicking here!


For other Star Trek reviews, please visit the Star Trek Review Index Page for an organized list of every episode, boxed set and Star Trek movie review I have written!

© 2012, 2008, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Simple Repack Theatre Vol. 4: "Reflections" Star Trek CCG!

The Good: Some very nice foils, With price depressed the boxes are a great deal for collectors
The Bad: Rarities, Everything in the set was done before, A ton of filler!
The Basics: With foil reprints of choice cards from only the first six sets mixed in with a ton of singles from those sets,"Reflections" ultimately cheats players, collectors and investors in the Star TrekCCG.

Star Trek "Reflections" was Decipher's most blatant and shameless effort to dump old Star Trek CCG stock to date. After five years of producing the Star Trek CCG, Decipher warehouses were apparently still plugged with old inventory from the first six sets, so they came up with an interesting solution; repackage the cards and reprint some as foils. Yes, it's Malibu Stacey, but she has a new hat.

Basics/Set Composition

The Star Trek Customizable Card Game "Reflections" set was the tenth full expansion set of cards sold in boxes created by Decipher to continue the Customizable Card Game. Players saw the game as a strategy game that is like a Role-playing game with cards. The players got to use characters, vessels, and scenarios are all already conceived by others. The original concept was to find a way to make play socially acceptable for an older audience and it generally worked. Collectors saw this as another thing to collect to show their love of Star Trek and while the cards have very different images from the trading card releases, many collectors were turned off by how small the images were and how much space on each card was given to game-related text.

"Reflections" is a 105 card set that is entirely comprised of foil reprint cards from the first six sets of Star Trek CCG cards (see links at bottom of page). There are no new cards at all in this set and the foils are straightforward reprints of previously released cards with a mirrored finish to them. The set consists of 46 very rare foils, 50 super rare foils, 4 ultra rare foils, 4 boxtopper foils and 1 casetopper foil reprint cards, with the most popular characters and scenarios being given the more rare status and the lesser cards filling out the more common foils.

The 105 card foil reprint set features 7 Artifacts (cards featuring unique devices, like Data's Head), 10 Dilemmas (cards featuring challenges the crews faced), 1 Doorway (cards that depict passages that allow the playing of side decks, like the Devidian Door), 9 Events (cards featuring long-standing challenges or concepts in the overall Star Trek universe, like enhancements to the weapons systems made by the Bynars), 6 Facilities (cards that represent a "home base" for an affiliation), 2 Interrupts (cards featuring phenomenon that quickly turn events, like Klingons letting out a death yell), 6 Missions (cards featuring basic plots from the series', these are used to create the "board" for the game), 2 Objectives (long-standing goals for players which establish alternate goals of the game, like the Borg assimilating an enemy's homeworld), 44 Personnel (3 Bajoran, 3 Borg, 4 Cardassian, 4 Dominion, 13 Federation, 7 Klingon, 5 Non-Aligned, and 5 Romulan characters, only the most recognizable ones from each affiliation), 16 Ship cards (1 Borg, 2 Cardassian, 4 Federation, 4 Klingon, 1 Non-Aligned and 4 Romulan), 1 Time Location (cards representing a temporal location, in this case the Montana Missile Silo where the Phoenix was launched), and 1 Tribbles card.

To add insult to injury for feeling the compulsion to purchase these cards just to assemble a 105 card foil card set, the packs of 18 cards only have one foil card per pack. The other 17 cards are all regular, repackaged cards from the prior sets. There are commons, uncommons and rares from the first six sets of Star Trek CCGs.


At its most basic level, this is a board game where one constructs the board and pieces out of a selection of cards. The starting purpose of the game is to get 100 points, points most often are derived from completing missions by thwarting dilemmas using the unique attributes of your ship and crew. The "Reflections" set incorporates the thirteen types of cards introduced and revised with the "Deep Space Nine" expansion set and adds one of the cards from the "Trouble With Tribbles" set as a box topper.

"Reflections" does not add any new affiliations, because it does not add any new cards. These truly are the leftovers repackaged all pretty like with the addition of foil versions of the top one hundred cards from the first few sets.

This is a very complex customizable card game, but it represents a level of gaming sophistication designed to appeal to younger adults and actually challenge them, which is a decent idea given the thematic complexity of the Star Trek universe. The problem, of course, is that most people who would be most stimulated by this game do not have the time or effort/interest to learn to play it. As a result, the mid-teens that basically run the CCG players world seem to have had mixed impressions about this game.

This is very much a collector's set as players who seriously play the game will already have everything that is in these boxes of cards and would be unlikely to play with the more valuable foil cards anyway.

Rule Changes

The basic rules for the Star Trek CCG were revised in the "Deep Space Nine" expansion and are covered in my review (see link below).

There are no rule changes in this expansion, again, because there are no new cards.


The "Reflections" set sets out to wow fans and it manages to do some of that with its impressive list of foil reprint cards. The entire command crews of the U.S.S. Enterprise-D and space station Deep Space Nine are reprinted, along with many of the favored recurring guest characters like Martok, Weyoun, and Sela. The foils look good and the four box toppers - Gowron of Borg, Admiral Riker, Dr. Telek R'Mor, and the 100,000 Tribbles (Clone) cards - represent some of the most visually interesting selections from the Star Trek CCG up until this point. And being able to pull regular characters like Deanna Troi, Beverly Crusher, Benjamin Sisko and Jadzia Dax makes this a pretty wonderful collection. It's the "Greatest Hits" of the Star Trek CCG's first few sets.

The obvious choice for the highlights would seem to be either the Ultra Rares - Borg Queen, Jean-Luc Picard, Future Enterprise and U.S.S. Defiant - or the casetopper of Seven Of Nine simply because of their rarity. Each of those cards represents a powerful card that has effectively held its value in the market from $25 - $50 each, making them the most valuable.

But of the foil reprint cards, the best in this case is actually one of the most common. The Very Rare Foil "Investigate Rumors" card is the one that best utilizes the foil nature of the cards. A simple Mission, reprinted from the "Deep Space Nine" set, "Investigate Rumors" is a card that has a nebula on it and the foil aspect makes it shimmer and shine in a way that looks great. the card looks good and that's the best one can ask from a foil reprint. It shimmers, it shines, yes, it's pretty. And that's exactly what it is supposed to be and this card takes the image presented and actually enhances it with the foil aspect. The others simply make the cards shiny.


"Reflections" is all about the collectors and it's all about pleasing the collectors who need everything. The Ultra Rare foils average one in every other box, so even a six-box case is not likely to net an entire master set of these cards. That means one usually has to but eight boxes just to pull all four Ultra Rare foils and that leaves the collector with a ton of leftover singles from the prior sets.

The result is that the "Reflections" set actually had the inverse effect of what collectors and especially investors want out of a set. The "Reflections" set itself remains quite valuable. Most collectors did not have the patience or money to sift through all the garbage to pull the card per pack they needed to try to assemble the 105 card set of foils depicting cards they already had, so many simply let dealers do all the work and purchased their sets from dealers.

The problem is, the dealers who opened them ended up flooded with commons, uncommons and rares from the first six sets, which depressed the value of the sets of cards that had already been out. All six sets plummeted in value upon the release of "Reflections" and only the last three recovered some footing in the marketplace. Decipher managed to mortgage their prior material for the new set with the release of "Reflections."

The only positive aspect of the "Reflections" set from a collectibility perspective is that the set wisely focused on reprinting the most popular ships and personnel cards. These two card types tend to have more universal appeal and as a result, they do increase the overall sense of value to the set, even if it does not add new characters or even new images of them.

In other words, it's a long way to go for little pay off.


The foil reprint set that was "Reflections" represents the best cards already in the marketplace when the set was released and while the shiny cards look neat, the appeal is lessened when one looks at the prior sets and realizes they are worth less as a result. The difficulty in assembling a full set and the lack of collectors looking for single foils and willing to pay what is needed to justify the purchase of a box of "Reflections" cards makes this, ultimately, a lemon.

At least it's a good looking lemon.

This set culls material from the following Star Trek CCG series:
Star Trek: The Next Generation Premiere
"Alternate Universe"
"First Contact"
"Deep Space Nine"
"The Dominion"

As well as one foil card reprinted from each of:
First Anthology
Enhanced First Contact
"The Trouble With Tribbles"

This set was preceded by "The Trouble With Tribbles" (link above) and followed by the Star Trek CCG expansion "Mirror, Mirror," reviewed here.

This is a set of gaming cards I sell in my online store, be sure to check out my current inventory by clicking here!


For other card reviews, please visit my Card Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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A Poet From The Title Down: Fiona Apple’s When The Pawn . . .

The Good: Excellent lyrics, Great somber mood, Good instrumentals
The Bad: Apple's voice is seldom an instrument on this album.
The Basics: Sad and powerful, strong and moving, Fiona Apple's second album holds up, especially through rough times.

Fiona Apple is a fairly extraordinary musical artist and poet, the latter fact she emphasizes with an obscenely long album title that most people reduce down to When The Pawn . . . The truth is, I could not relate the entire title because the cover of the album is predominantly red and the title is in almost the same shade, making many of the words difficult to read in normal lighting.

Beyond an impressive album title that is a poem, Fiona Apple's second album is a poetic work that flows from piece to piece wonderfully. When The Pawn . . . is an angsty album that seems to focus most on the yearning of the narrator/singer for love plagued by indecision. From the opening chords of "On The Bound" to the last notes of "I Know," this is an album that expresses the essential desires to be heard and loved with the complicated insecurities of self-doubt and doubt in one's partner.

Apple has created a work that is easy to see why it never hit the mainstream; it's a complicated album. This music is not simply "I love you, baby," or "My heart aches because you're going" garbage and it's not simply pop music with a guitar and/or a piano. This is "I love you, but I am pushing myself away from you because I have other issues" music with piano, woodwinds and voice. It's not pop, it's not jazz, it's something . . . well, alternative.

Take one of Apple's sentiments from "To Your Love:" "Please forgive me for my distance / The shame is manifest in my resistance / To your love." Here is a voice saying "love does not solve everything" as she has other issues that interfere with her desire and ability to love. Take that Top 40! But that is the brilliance of Fiona Apple; she is not bound by the conventions of what is "supposed" to be sung about. In some ways, it's a refreshing listen; she expresses the complexities of human relationships without judging them. It's not "I'm horrible for feeling this way," it's "this is how I feel."

The songs on When The Pawn . . . are a decent mix of longing ("To Your Love" "Paper Bag"), empowered - or vengeful, depending on the perspective ("Limp"), and loss ("Love Ridden"). And Fiona Apple has an amazing voice to sing these songs. She is a professional who has some very evident training. Her voice is incredible and the album is not overproduced, though fans of her debut album Tidal (reviewed here!) are likely to note that it is a bit more produced than her earlier work.

In fact, despite the growth in the background music between her debut and this album, the real difference between Tidal and When The Pawn . . . is that Fiona Apple's voice is seldom used like a musical instrument on this album. On Tidal, the dominant sound is Apple's voice, resonating lyrics through the listener. Here her voice is big and her range is impressive, but the album as a whole lacks the essential dependence on her voice the way a song like, "Never Is A Promise" on Tidal did. On that song, Apple's voice is the musical instrument above all others. When The Pawn . . . has no such songs.

The pacing of this album is also somewhat more upbeat than her debut, even if the lyrics are not. For example, the drums on "A Mistake" move the song along with more speed than most of the songs on Apple's first album. Appropriately, "Fast As You Can" goes at a speed that sounds unlike anything else Apple has presented before now. And it works. It's a pleasure to hear this album because of the complexity and diversity of it. The truth is, there are no artists on the radio right now that sound like Fiona Apple and that is a loss to music fans.

When The Pawn . . . is likely to be enjoyed by anyone who likes female artists, great lyrics and an impressive range of musical styles and vocal range. It's the perfect album for one who is experiencing the complex emotions around a weird breakup. It is not likely to be enjoyed by someone who likes the simplicity of Top 40 music and lyrics that state obvious, simplified emotions. This is a work with lyrics that delve into the contradictions within us when we are in relationships or not.

The best track is the complex and sad "Love Ridden," the least strong track (this is a pretty strong album) is probably the confused and convoluted "Fast As You Can."

For other powerful female vocalists, be sure to check out my reviews of:
300 Days At Sea - Heather Nova
Flying Home - Ella Fitzgerald
50 Greatest Hits - Reba McEntire


For other music reviews, please be sure to check out my Music Review Index Page for a complete listing!

© 2012, 2008, 2005 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Caribou Coffee Protects The Rainforests While Caffeinating Me!

Caribou Coffee Gift Card - $1,000.00
The Good: Some delicious coffees, Tasty limited time flavors, Brownies
The Bad: A little pricey, Dining-In experience
The Basics: Providing amazing drinks in the summertime, Caribou Coffee becomes another great place to stop when traveling!

Because my basic rule for writing restaurant reviews is that I must dine there three times, I decided after hitting a Caribou Coffee in Hunt Valley, Maryland, that I was going to keep trying food there on my cross country adventure. Lucky for me, there were a few Caribou Coffee shops at the Mall Of America (reviewed here!)! As one of the few places I succeeded in eating at multiple times before I went to Las Vegas, I am actually surprised it has taken me quite this long to review this wonderful little chain.


Caribou Coffee is a chain of coffee shops that seems to have its largest concentration of restaurants in the Midwest of the United States. It also has a smattering of coffee shops on the East Coast in Maryland, for example. There are approximately five hundred Caribou Coffee locations in the United States spread across sixteen states and the District Of Columbia. It is somewhat surprising, then, that the Mall Of America would have three all on its own!

For those - like me - keeping track of such things, Caribou Coffee seems to be a remarkably apolitical company as far as political contributions go; its CEO is not a major donor to any political party. However, the company is political in its world view. Money from Caribou Coffee sales goes to communities where the coffee is harvested and produced; the company build a clinic in Guatemala where the beans are harvested, for example. As well, the company has a stated mission of protecting the rain forests and that's a pretty decent goal for a coffee company to have.

Caribou Coffee is a franchise-operated coffee shop that specializes in coffees and a limited section of baked goods like muffins, cakes, breads (like a lemon poppy seed bread), and scones. Caribou Coffee has a mint green and black logo featuring a leaping caribou, which is what one gets - I suppose - when they give a caribou coffee.

The average Caribou Coffee shop that I've experienced opens into a discrete standing area where patrons are filed up to a counter where they place their order, pay and are ushered toward a nearby area to pick up drinks (especially if it is busy). Most locations have a sitting area with two or three tables and/or booths that customers may sit at to eat. Cleanliness of these facilities seems universally great. The Caribou Coffee shops I have visited have each been spotless.

I only ate in one of the Caribou Coffee shops I visited mostly because at the Mall Of America, I was very much on the run. In Maryland, though, I sat outside at a little table and it was nice.


Like most fast food restaurants, Caribou Coffee does not so much have waitstaff as it has cashier/cooks who take orders, money and assemble orders. The workers at each branch I went to seemed to know what they were doing. They were usually perky twentysomethings and they knew their drinks well, even if they were not familiar with much about the company's corporate philosophy.

So, service has largely been great at Caribou Coffee.


Caribou Coffee has a mix of stable elements and a rapidly changing menu, especially in their drink department. As I write this, two of the three drinks I sampled are no longer in circulation. Bummer, but they were too good to not write about. On my first visit, all I had was a large coffee, black. Having never had a Caribou Coffee coffee drink before, I opted to start with the basics. Because plain black coffee is - as I described it in my last novel - the missionary position of the beverage world, there's not much to say about it. It was good, hot, slightly bitter, everything one expects black coffee to be. It was also very fresh, which I appreciated. I had a friend attempt to convince me that the peak of local coffee quality where I live is McDonald's coffee (no, she wasn't punking me, she actually believes this!) and it was burnt and old. The Caribou Coffee black coffee was vastly superior; fresh, hot, real.

Then, at the Mall Of America, I had one of the most amazing drinks of my life! Having been sober for over seventeen years, I tend to delight in caffeinated beverages probably more than I ought to. Caribou Coffee had an Andes Creme de Menthe Cooler. For pennies over five dollars, I snagged a large and this amazing drink was a mix of coffee, chunks of Andes mints and cold milk with mint flavoring in it. This might well have been the most perfect melding of coffee and a milkshake of all time. In every sip there were icy flecks of chocolate mint and the flavor of coffee. That Caribou Coffee had this as a limited edition flavor is something of a crime against tastebuds.

I accompanied my Andes Cooler with a cinnamon chip scone. Like most scones, it was dry, but this was very soft and it complimented the flavor of the coffee drink perfectly. The cinnamon chips were reminiscent of coffee cake in their flavor and the scone was a pretty delightful pick-me-up in the afternoon. I wished I could have tried another one warm, but I was already half a floor away in the mall.

Having had such good luck with the Andes Cooler, I decided to try the Milky Way Cooler. This, too, was a mix of coffee, milk and crushed up Milky Way bars with caramel drizzled in. I'm much more partial to chocolate mint flavoring, but what ought to impress anyone considering this drink is that it tasted precisely like a Milky Way bar. It was chocolatey and caramel-flavored with a hint of nuts (I did not find any in the cup) balanced with the flavor of coffee. This was a great blend for those who wanted something more rich than a simple coffee flavor! However, where the ice flecks of minty goodness served the flavor of the Andes Cooler well, the broken up bits and pieces in the Milky Way Cooler were a bit more intrusive.

I accompanied the Milky Way Cooler with a M&M Cookie. It was soft and delicious and exactly what one might expect from a cookie (save that it was a little more expensive than I was happy with).

For those who have not yet figured it out, Caribou Coffee is a great place to get a hot or cold coffee for breakfast or throughout the day drinking or snacks. It is not, however, a place for those who are obsessed with nutrition or not eating at all between meals. It's not that kind of restaurant. As I experience more of their drinks and snacks, I will update this listing. Regular drinks include flavored hot coffees and cold coffee drinks like the coolers that are flavored more like chocolate, vanilla and (for autumn) pumpkin. Their baked goods seem to rotate on a daily basis but most Caribou Coffee locations I've seen seem to have multigrain bagels available.


Caribou Coffee is a mid-price range coffee shop (slightly more expensive than Dunkin' Donuts, not quite as pricey as Starbuck's) with a wonderful creative sense of drinkmaking. In fact, if there is a serious drawback it is that Caribou Coffee's emphasis on innovation undermines the stability of the chain. There's no good reason I can think of that drinks like the Andes Cooler which is such a successful concept shouldn't be on the menu all the time. Then again, because it isn't when I go next, I'll be forced to try something new . . .

For other restaurants, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Panera Bread
Chipotle Grill
Dunkin' Donuts


For other restaurant reviews, please visit my Food And Drink Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my restaurant reviews!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
Caribou Coffee Gift Card - $50

Rising Action In A Darkening Galaxy Envelops Babylon 5 Season Two!

The Good: Excellent story, Intriguing character development, Decent acting
The Bad: Addition of Keffer, No "dish" in the extras!
The Basics: As Babylon 5 tries to remain a neutral port of call, major powers in the galaxy take up arms against one another.

I never expected to enjoy Babylon 5 as much as I have. Honestly. My favorite television show of all time is Star Trek: Deep Space Nine which I loved for its deep characters, serialized story and great acting. Babylon 5 is a completely different puppy from "Deep Space Nine" and in the "credit where credit is due" department, the advantage Babylon 5 has in its story is that the series creator, J. Michael Straczinski, knew the entire five year story from day one and had what he calls "trapdoors" for each character, so if an actor/actress wanted to leave, he always had a plan of where to go with the story. Thus, Babylon 5 has an overall more consistent portrayal of the characters and universe it has created (unlike the Bashir Revelation in season 5 or the Sisko lineage discovery at the outset of season 7 of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine).

But these are two different puppies and there is little point in further comparison; they are both impressive. In the second season of Babylon 5, entitled "The Coming of the Shadows," the series continues its build-up in tension toward what appears to be an inevitable war. Opening with the usage of one of the character trapdoors (Commander Sinclaire is gone), Captain John Sheridan arrives to take control of Babylon 5.

"The Coming of the Shadows," the second season of Babylon 5 and not the episode within the season by the same name, explores the regrettable position Babylon 5 is put in as events begin to slide out of control. Following the assassination of the President of Earth, Captain Sheridan arrives to find the station in chaos. Ivanova, who worked with him previously, tries to help him get accustomed to life on the station while Garibaldi remains near-death in the MedLab and Minbari Ambassador Delenn remains in a cocoon in her quarters. G'Kar returns to the station soon thereafter with the firm knowledge that something evil has awakened on the rim of the galaxy that threatens everyone.

As Delenn adjusts to her knew physiology after coming out of her chrysalis, G'Kar does everything possible to raise the alarm about the creatures lurking in the darkness. G'Kar's attempts to garner support for his cause are complicated - despite one of the members of the crew seeing the ship of the enemy - when Londo's dark deal with Morden leads to an all-out war between the Centauri and the Narn. As Sheridan struggles to keep Babylon 5 neutral in the war between the Narn and Centauri, the greater threat gains ground and soon Sheridan finds himself learning the truths that could spell disaster for everyone.

The beautiful thing about Babylon 5 is how cohesive the show is. More and more in "The Coming of Shadows," the episodes gel together into a single story. There are a few "bottle" episodes, but even they have a thread that connects them to the main plots. As a result, the DVD boxed set is a great investment as when you sit down to watch episodes, their serialized nature makes it easy to sit and watch them one after another and become more and more engrossed in the rising threat posed to the heroes and villains in this universe.

Like all great serialized shows, the real focus is on the characters. Babylon 5 is no exception and here is how the second season finds the primary characters:

Captain John Sheridan - a former starship captain, Sheridan is the only human hero of the Earth/Minbari was as he led the only successful attack on a Minbari ship. Sheridan quickly adapts to life on the station, but finds himself drawn into a series of conflicts that put him at odds with the Earth Government and open him up to the probabilities of a galaxy erupting into the most horrific war ever known. He searches for his dead wife and discovers a growing relationship with Delenn,

Londo - The Centauri Ambassador finds that his allying with the mysterious forces marshaled by Morden may have come with a price he cannot pay. As the Narn reel from the destruction of their outposts, Londo finds himself gaining in prominence and becoming the backing to a political coup on his homeworld,

Ivanova - As first officer, she works to integrate Sheridan with the station and discovers herself building a friendship with the most unlikely person; Talia Winters. As tensions grow, Ivanova finds herself taking on more of the day to day responsibilities of Babylon 5,

Delenn - The Minbari Ambassador emerges from her cocoon with a startling revelation; she is no longer simply a Minbari, but a hybrid created as a symbol for the upcoming alliance between her people and the humans. She finds herself as an outcast and gaining strength from Sheridan,

G'Kar - The Narn Ambassador returns to Babylon 5 with the knowledge that the most ancient known evil may have returned to the galaxy. His quest to reconcile his animosity toward the Centauri is cut short when the Centauri invade Narn space and start an all-out war. His role as leader grows immensely as he fights for his people,

Garibaldi - The Security Chief recovers from his near death with little memory of who tried to kill him or why. After working with Talia, he learns the truth and finds that station security is more and more a tool for the corrupt Earth Alliance government,

Dr. Franklin - Saves many lives, but at the same time starts to use the stimulants to keep productive. While his devotion to his work is challenged, he manages to make peace with his estranged father and work to the benefit of humanity by fighting covertly the actions of the Psi Corps,

Talia Winters - The resident telepath on Babylon 5 begins to explore the powers bestowed upon her in the first season when she must resolve conflicts between Garibaldi and his memory, herself and her ex-husband and herself and the Psi Corps, conflicts that resolve themselves in such a way that they threaten all aboard the station,

Vir Cotto - Begins his rise to being an assertive, actualized character as he begins to openly question Londo and his associates,

Warren Keffer - A new character, Keffer is a starfury pilot who has nothing to do on the show save show up for a few episodes, see a Shadow ship, and become obsessed with it,

Zack Allen - A new security deputy under Garibaldi, Zack attempts to woo Talia and falls prey to the seductive advances of the Nightwatch, an Earth group that is hunting traitors,

and Morden - The recurring villain is fleshed out as we learn that he is tied not only to the ancient enemy, but to Sheridan's dead wife, Anna.

Lennier and Na'Toth are also in this season, though the latter disappears near the middle and Lennier is not given much to do but relay messages this season.

The reason the plots remain engaging is that the characters are interesting and the more we learn about them and their desires and efforts, the more compelling the story becomes. The show uses computer-generated special effects that often look disturbingly like they came off a PC, but the show works and excels because the focus is on how the characters are rising to the challenges that are sweeping them along.

The acting in this season is absent the flaws and occasional poor deliveries of the first season. In fact, the actors are able to contribute even more in this season, like Claudia Christian, who broke her leg early in the season and had the injury written into the script. Christian does a great job of adding humor to Ivanova and using her voice to expertly convey urgency with Sheridan when necessary.

Andrea Thompson and Richard Biggs both shine, when they are given the opportunity. Thompson makes Winters softer and, at times, even more lethal. She exhibits impressive range that makes her character a pleasure to watch. Biggs has an amazing ability to alternate between easy affability and uncompromising intensity. Watching Babylon 5 now, it is sad to watch Biggs because his recent death makes us think about what a fine talent was lost that day.

The three acting heavyweights, though, are Bruce Boxleitner, Peter Jurasik and Andreas Katsulas. Boxleitner appears to flawlessly enter the mix, an impressive task for a new lead actor in the sophomore year of a show. Boxleitner adds an energy to the cast instantly that energizes the show from the first frames of the season. His ability to use that energy to create an instantly memorable character is what keeps the most far-fetched moments of the season watchable.

Peter Jurasik continues to do an excellent job with Londo as the character evolves from something of a buffoon to a credible leader of the Centauri. Jurasik does this by incrementally improving Londo's posture, vocal bearing and emotive depth with facial expressions. Jurasik is impressive in the role.

The big winner on the acting front in the second season is Andreas Katsulas as G'Kar. Katsulas overcomes the detriments of being stuck in the extensive make-up that he's in to create a character that is emotive, sympathetic and incredibly expressive. Katsulas has a vocal force to him that resonates when he roars and a softness to him when his character is broken. G'Kar has an intriguing character run this season, but Katsulas owns the character and he dominates every single frame he is in.

The only real drawback to "The Coming of Shadows" is in the character of Warren Keffer. The character seems added (which, according to the commentary on the last disc, he was) and does not add anything significant to the mix. In fact, he has a single arc in the season and he disappears for most of the season. Na'Toth, recast for this season, disappears after only a few episodes, but her absence is more conspicuous.

In order to appreciate "The Coming of Shadows," one must first see the first season of Babylon 5, "Signs and Portents." While a little more fragmented and not as polished, the first season establishes essential character and plot points that are not entirely covered here in the second season.

In the current age with political uncertainty and incredible decisions being made by very few individuals, Babylon 5 becomes more relevant and inspiring. And the last moments of this set will have you hankering for the next boxed set. Honestly.

For other ambitious science fiction television shows, be sure to visit my reviews of:
Invasion - The Complete Series
V - The Complete First Season
The Clone Wars - Season Three


For other television reviews, please visit my Television Review Index Page for an organized listing of all my reviews of television shows, series, and episodes!

© 2012, 2008, 2004 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Gambling In The Middle Of Nowhere (Minnesota): Mystic Lake Casino Is Fun.

The Good: Easy to get to with shuttle service, Decent buffet, Enjoyable games
The Bad: Smoky
The Basics: A very fun casino in Minnesota, this is one I look forward to going back to, despite being smoky (there's enough nearby for when I'm done gambling!).

The story of the first major stop on my trip cross country this summer goes like this: I left New York (State) in the evening, drove through the night and found myself in Wisconsin in the middle of the next day sampling far too few cheese shops that were along the way. The first day, in addition to a hellishly long drive, involved hitting the Spam Museum (reviewed here!) and arriving at my hotel near the Mall Of America. That night, I took a nap, woke up and discovered that the Mall Of America (reviewed here!) is harder to get into at night than most places I have been. The second day involved going to the Mall Of America . . . or that was the plan.

When visiting the Mall Of America, my mother - who had wanted to go to the Mall Of America her whole life - quickly became bored and I was aware of how the trip to the Mall might have been a lot more fun on the way home, after I had made money at my yearly Star Trek convention. While I was content to go to the movies (the Mall Of America has insanely inexpensive matinees!), my mother became obsessed with the Mystic Lake Casino which had an information shop at the Mall Of America. When she discovered there was a regular shuttle service, we decided to split up. So, between my viewing of Swing Vote (reviewed here!) and our return to the Mall Of America Barnes And Noble where we witnessed the teen girls eagerly awaiting the Breaking Dawn release, my mother and then I went to the Mystic Lake Casino.

Mystic Lake Casino: came in with $0.00, left with $5.00.


Mystic Lake is a decent-sized casino located at 2400 Mystic Lake Boulevard in Prior Lake, Minnesota. This is about twenty-five minutes south of the Mall Of America and I recall seeing signs for it on our way north from the Spam Museum. Outside that, it is virtually impossible for me to provide a location: the shuttle did the driving. After the hellish drive to get out to the Midwest it was so nice to have someone else driving! The shuttle service is a real great selling point for those who want to go shopping and gambling for a couple days but might not want to stay in the smoky atmosphere of the Casino.

Mystic Lake has a large parking area near the casino and it is hard to imagine what it would look like all filled up!


The Mystic Lake Casino is a fairly large Indian-run casino in the midwest and it feels like it is capitalizing on the space it has. All of the ceilings are high, all of the carpets are clean and the place feels like one massive hotel lobby. Even the lighting is the soft, mellow lighting that invites one in out of the dark (if it were always night). The casino is spaced and dressed up like a hotel lobby. The main gaming floor is huge and situated with massive numbers of video slot machines headed in different directions to make traveling through them difficult; no matter how fast you want to get through this casino, you'll be obstructed by a bank of video slot machines if you keep moving forward.

I arrived at the Mystic Lake Casino to my usually dour mother waiting for the shuttle bus. When she saw me, she began jumping up and down cheering "I am having so much fun!" It was probably the happiest she was on the whole trip (she was up a hundred dollars). It was pretty wonderful to see her happy.

The high ceilings should help dissipate the cigarette and cigar smoke that is prevalent in the casino, but for some reason the place still has a fairly potent tobacco scent. For those sensitive to such things, this remains a drawback to the Mystic Lake.

As for the "atmosphere" of the Mystic Lake, I don't recall seeing anyone on the floor but the dealers and security people. Most of my time, to be fair, was spent in the dining room and getting my Club Mystic card. As far as other aspects of "atmosphere," this is a relatively nondescript casino, especially on the casino floor.

Gaming Options/Player's Club

I have a very simple gambling philosophy: I sit down at a slot machine with $5.00. I work it up to $10 or down to zero. I know my limits: I can afford to lose $5.00. So, when I am above that, I'll usually work it up or whittle it down to the next even $5.00. Have a strategy, know your limits: the Mystic Lake Casino worked quite well for me. I arrived, signed up for the player's club card and was given ten dollars to gamble with. I went down, worked my way back up to the free five dollars and left ahead. At that point in the trip, I had not been bitten by the video slot machine bug.

I have since become a slot machine player and I have no shame in admitting, I tend to like the ones that are more girly themed or video game-like. Mystic Lake had a very standard selection of video slot machines, including Enchanted Unicorn, the new Goldfish Gold, "Alien," Wheel of Fortune, Deal Or No Deal, and hundreds of others. The Mystic Lake Casino had a pretty decent selection and I recall when looking around upon first entering that there were several banks of virtually every game they had. The Mystic Lake is especially proud of having the new eBay-themed slot machine and my mother was particularly enamored with the Village People Party, which is how she worked her way up so fast. Given that there are four thousand video slot machines at Mystic Lake it is difficult to express the full size and majesty of this place.

For those who might be into games of chance and card games instead of the fun and controlled reinforcement of video slot machines, there are one hundred tables with blackjack. This is definitely a place not only trading on slot/video poker play as they devote a fair amount of space to the blackjack tables, though the only real differentiation in that section of the casino is now much it costs to bet at the table and how many decks of cards they are playing with. There is also a bingo hall and it was pretty well packed when we visited!

There is a player's club at the Mystic Lake, which is the Club Mystic. Signing up is easy and for signing up players are given a ten dollar bill. Yes, unlike many casinos, Mystic Lake hands you cash when you sign up! It's pretty incredible. In fact, since arriving home, they have already sent us offers in the mail (note to Mystic Lake: for players who traveled across country to visit your casino, it might be nice if the offers you mail out don't expire two weeks after you get back!). Points here are accrued based upon how much money one bets in combination with time spent at a machine. The points accrue through some mystery formula and by the time I left, I did not have many at all.

Entertainment Options

The Mystic Lake Casino boasts entertainment and there are shows that come periodically to the casino. They seem to have a very Country and Western theme, which makes some sense considering this casino is in the Midwest. Currently advertised shows include Amy Grant, Kenny Rogers and Loretta Lynn. Tickets were actually fairly reasonable as most were under fifty dollar!

Dining Options

Mystic Lake was where I did the training for my impending arrival in Las Vegas, which meant that we went for the buffet. We arrived on one of their special days and the buffet was only $12.95. $12.95 for all you can eat of at least five different styles of cuisine, a massive dessert bar, and drinks. There was a Chinese food section, Italian, Mediterranean, the pretty essential American food (it's like Thanksgiving at these casinos every day), soups, salads, and pretty much everything in between. This was an exceptional value and both of us left stuffed.

In addition, there was a coffee bar, a sit-down restaurant, and a steakhouse. In other words, for those less gluttonous than the masses, there are other options both casual and fancy, bound to satisfy anyone!

Shopping Options

Unlike Las Vegas casinos, Mystic Lake Casino is not trading so much on shopping. There is a gold course at the casino and a campground, but I did not visit them. Similarly, there is a health club and spa attached to the hotel.


Mystic Lake is fun in the Midwest and it offers a palatable alternative to those stuck in Minnesota without money for shopping. Those who like casinos will like the variety of options, though those drawn to table games might be disappointed. My mother (standing over me as I review this) is arguing that I ought to be rating it higher; to be clear, this is a fun casino. However, there is not so much to do at this one other than gamble and eat (which are both noble endeavors, to be sure!) and in retrospect, it is slightly above average, but not by much. Objectively, this is a good (not great) casino experience.

For other casino reviews, please check out my takes on:
Mount Airy Casino
Palace Station Casino
Soaring Eagle Casino


For other travel reviews, please visit my Travel Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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P.T. Anderson Creates a Dramatic Opus Using . . . Adam Sandler?! He Does With Punch-Drunk Love!

The Good: Excellent acting, Intriguing characters, Decent plot, Directoral style
The Bad: Difficult to watch for its disturbing characterization and awkwardness
The Basics: In P.T. Anderson's disturbed character study, Punch-Drunk Love, Barry Egan's constant betrayal by those around him is finally tempered by the love of a beautiful woman.

P.T. Anderson, the writer/director genius behind such films as Boogie Nights and the vastly superior Magnolia took a little bit of time off after the ordeal of making his perfect film. When he returned, it shocked many of his fans when he announced that he would be directing a movie with Adam Sandler as the lead. Some of us groaned, but the rest decided to trust Anderson; he had earned the trust with his library before this movie. Punch-Drunk Love defies every expectation one might have for an Adam Sandler movie.

Barry Egan is a small business owner of a gag prop company in California who lives a secluded life, pressured by his eight sisters. One morning, he is waiting at work when a bizarre accident occurs, depositing a harmonium in his life. That same morning, he meets Lena, a shy woman who seems strangely attracted to him. Following a torturous night for Barry where he is forced to deal with his overbearing sisters who malign him, Barry calls a telephone sex line. When the woman he talked to the night before extorts him for money and he resists, Barry is mugged and decides to follow Lena to Hawaii. As they fall in love, Barry works to trust Lena and overcome the obstacles put in his way by the villainous Dean.

The reason Punch-Drunk Love is so successful as a film is that it is not an Adam Sandler film. Let's dispense with that rumor right off the bat. This is a P.T. Anderson film, not an Adam Sandler flick. As a result, one has to dispense with certain preconceptions going into it. The first is that the movie is going to be stupid. This film is just as highbrow and thought-provoking as any of P.T. Anderson's other works. The other thing that a lot of people have trouble with is accepting that Adam Sandler is the star of this film, yet it is not funny.

The problem I ran into with seeing Punch-Drunk Love with an audience was that the mentality of the audience was "this is an Adam Sandler movie, therefore, it must be funny" view. This is especially disturbing when Barry is being tormented and chased by hoodlums; to be in a crowd of people laughing. Anderson has adeptly created a piece that utilizes Sandler in a highly dramatic role and the unfortunate thing is that too many of Sandler's supposed "fans" do not take him seriously in this endeavor. It's disappointing because here he is proving he has what it takes to actually ACT!

That is not to say the film is without humor. It is very funny in points, most notably Egan's attempts to explain how he is scamming Healthy Choice for free airline miles. It's a brilliant scheme and between Hard Eight and Punch-Drunk Love, one gets the feeling that P.T. Anderson must be quite the swindler for all the scams he illustrates in his films. The movie has moments of lightheartedness and uses Luiz Guzman as a great straightman to Sandler's heavy. There is humor.

But it's not a funny movie. It's not a comedy. Essentially, Punch-Drunk Love revolves around a character who is deeply scarred by the constant betrayals in his life. He confides in various people, all of whom betray his confidence in one form or another leading him to lie almost compulsively. Because he never receives the trust he needs from another person, Egan naturally makes it so he cannot be trusted, flat out lying about his past and his temper. Egan lashes out at a world that is constantly betraying him. From sisters who taunt him, to a brother-in-law who he tries to get help from to the phone sex woman who tries to take his money, Barry Egan is a man constantly betrayed. He becomes very empathetic and his emotional outbursts become understandable and sad. But not funny. Perhaps the laughter of the audience was from discomfort. It is uncomfortable to see such an awkward character attempting to make it through all of his obstacles.

Lena, then, becomes Egan's moral compass, someone who allows him to begin to normalize. Through his unbetrayed ability to trust Lena, Barry begins to love and, as he says, that makes him powerful. Ultimately, it's a triumphant film; it just takes a LOT of uncomfortable, heartwrenching incidents to get him there.

Adam Sandler does an amazing job at playing Barry Egan. He creates a character distinctly different from all other Sandler characters he has heretofore played. Egan is likable, somewhat intelligent, but ultimately deeply scarred emotionally. Sandler is sure to keep him multifaceted, never allowing himself to degenerate into a parody of the anger Egan expresses. It's quite an accomplishment for Sandler.

Emily Watson plays off Sandler brilliantly. Her muted smile and quiet voice create the perfect, shy counterpart for Egan. Moreover, Watson is utterly disarming to the point of being shocking when she is finally able to reveal how similar Lena is to Barry. Watson creates an unlikely screen chemistry with Sandler as well, making Punch-Drunk Love a very visually easy movie to watch.

Ultimately, much of the credit for Punch-Drunk Love must go to writer-director P.T. Anderson. Anderson once again illustrates a strong - if depressing - understanding of human nature. He manages to create a strange blend of visual images, soft music and quirky characters resulting in a movie like no other. His command of dialog is superb and his execution of this weird love story illustrates that he has the ability to do something that is emotionally epic, without being exceptionally long in presenting it. Here, Anderson packs a maximum of emotional resonance into a discrete package.

Punch-Drunk Love is not an easy movie to watch. The protagonist is tormented and teetering on the very edge of insane rage. The nice thing about the film is this is the story of what pulls him back to the socially-acceptable norm. And the answer is love. That's pretty refreshing, even if you're stuck in an audience that can only think to laugh at it.

For other movies with Philip Seymour Hoffman, please visit my reviews of:
The Ides Of March
The Invention Of Lying
Charlie Wilson’s War
Mission: Impossible III
Strangers With Candy
The 25th Hour
State And Main


For other movie reviews, please visit my Film Review Index Page for a list of movies I have reviewed organized by title!

© 2012, 2003 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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Continuing With The I.K.S. Gorkon: Enemy Territory Is A Triumph Of Creativity Over Quality.

The Good: Interesting alien design, The end picks up nicely.
The Bad: Pacing issues, Unlikable characters, Simplistic writing style, Allusions and self-referential nature, Repeated plot.
The Basics: Poorly written, with an uprooting of anything familiar in the Klingon military structure, Enemy Territory spends a lot of time focused on aliens readers won't care about.

In the realm of the Star Trek novels, there are very few concepts that are as ambitious as the idea behind the I.K.S. Gorkon series. Even Peter David's Excalibur novels are essentially recasting the traditional Federation starship, despite the way they go off into an area of the galaxy that has become David's own within the Star Trek universe. The I.K.S. Gorkon series, however, has the difficulty of presenting an alien crew and culture while having them explore the unknown and still be interesting to human readers. This is a problematic concept and while it is ambitious and novelist Keith R.A. DeCandido is creative, he falls a little shy of being able to make it work, at least in this, the third novel in the I.K.S. Gorkon series.

Truth be told, I read Enemy Territory, the third book in the I.K.S. Gorkon stories of Klingon exploration and expansion on its own because the first novel with the Gorkon crew I read, Diplomatic Implausibility (reviewed here!) underwhelmed me. Keith R.A. DeCandido redeemed himself some in my eyes with his novel and novella in the Twist Of Faith omnibus, but having little interest in Klingon culture I was not inclined to read the two books in the series before this one. Judging by how often they refer to the events in those adventures in Enemy Territory, I do not feel like I am missing much at all. Indeed, Enemy Territory holds up well-enough on its own without reading the other books that one could pick this one up and get into it . . . if it were worth picking up at all.

A tight-knit religiously dogmatic empire on the corner of explored Klingon territory, the Elabrej Hegemony consists of a central planet and a few outer worlds where the citizens are working toward independence. The Elabrej are headless sexpeds who are beginning to explore the galaxy in ships made of interconnecting spheres, despite their religious doctrine which dictates that they are the only intelligent life in the galaxy. They get something of a wake-up call when their exploratory vessel encounters the I.K.S. Kravokh, captained by Wirrk. Wirrk dispatches one vessel, but is soon met by an Elabrej fleet which destroys his ship.

Meanwhile nearby the I.K.S. Gorkon is dealing with the aftermath of a battle which forced Captain Klag to fight a sect of mutinous Klingons. Having taken aboard some Klingons from other crews, security chief Lokor is anxious about a possibly mutiny among the ground troops and he begins to institute preventative measures against a coup on Klag's life. When the Gorkon gets word about the destruction of the Kravokh and the presence of some of its crew as prisoners on the Elabrej homeworld, the Gorkon moves to intercept to save their brethren's lives. As they find themselves outmatched by a fleet of Elabrej ships, the crew falls divided among some of the planets in the Elabrej starsystem where they join with the rebels to attempt to get their crew back, putting at risk the entire central government of the Elabrej Hegemony!

The essential problems with Enemy Territory is that it is exceptionally hard to care and it is made much more difficult by the sheer amount of new information thrown at the reader. First, while the crew of the Gorkon has a pretty standard rank system (based on Naval ranks) the reader is compelled to deal with a second ranking system for the ground troops with generic ranks like "Leader" at the same time they are assimilating the position and caste names of the various strata of the Elabrej Hegemony. For such a short book, with a race that most readers know will be gone by the end of the book (the Elabrej bear the "episodic" portion of the serialized Gorkon novels), most readers will not want to invest the emotional energy to keep everything sorted out and straight.

As well, Keith R.A. DeCandido seems to be operating on what the last writers in the Star Trek franchise had to deal with; Klingon names. For sure, it is confusing when all of the names begin with "K," but it also makes it very clear when one is referring to a known Klingon character versus one of the Klingons on the Gorkon, a Klingon on the Kravokh, a Klingon killed on San-Tarah OR one of the Elabrej. While DeCandido uses Klingons who were named in the television series without "K" first names, for years, that was how Klingons were easily defined and having so many new characters with so many different little affiliations in this book is needlessly complicated for a 320 page novel.

But more than that, an inordinate amount of time is spent with characters who it is hard to care about. Captain Klag is largely a secondary character as the various spies and intelligence agents and officers are fleshing out their stories and half the book is preoccupied with characters in the Hegemony and telling the story from their perspective. That last part, the Elabrej getting their voice in, is worthwhile and interesting, save that DeCandido gives voice and focus to the least interesting of the Elabrej, the members of the Hegemony. The government officials spend most of their time bickering with the theological authorities and while there is some amusement to be had there - especially for the Bush Administration allusions DeCandido sneaks in - the rebels who are fighting against the religious orthodoxy are far more interesting. As a result, chapters are spent with characters that the reader will be rooting against and with the repetitive descriptions of spaces (we get that everything in the Hegemony is spherical!) waste space more than make interesting and fleshed out settings.

In the details, DeCandido truly falls down in Enemy Territory. On pages 169 to 175 there is a space battle described which knocks the Gorkon out of the Elabrej sky. The problem here is that the battle was not proofedited at all. As a result, Elabrej ships appear, more than the number that appear are destroyed or crippled before untouched ships that never appeared begin firing. In short, how many ships the Gorkon is up against changes virtually with every line and DeCandido and his editors did a poor job of making sure it all made sense before the book was published.

Outside that, the book is rather simple in its writing style and diction. Anyone with a fifth grade education ought to be able to read it and while there are mentions of sex and violence (these are Klingons, after all!) there is nothing too graphic for younger readers to read.

This, too, is part of the problem. The characters who have been mentioned in other works are rarely mentioned, so when they are, their characterizations are more abrupt and explicit than actually developed. For example, Chief Engineer Kurak is now a drunk and Rodak and Leskit are virtual nonentities. Similarly, Toq has more references to his backstory and to being recently promoted to First Officer than any development now that he is first officer. The result is a sense of stagnation in the characters who those who watched the television series' would know.

Even Captain Klag is far from heroically developed in this novel. In Enemy Territory, there is some concern that some of the enlisted soldiers are mounting an attempt to kill him and take over the Gorkon. Klag, though, is not characterized as anything or anyone heroic, he simply goes about working on getting his newly-grafted arm to function better and he defers virtually all of the major decisions dealing with the conspirators. In other words, it is not his heroics that either deal with the conspiracy against his captaincy or with the Elabrej problem, but rather those around him who do all of the work. Without counting pages, I would suspect Klag is on less than a quarter of the book's pages. In other words, he is not a strong Star Trek captain, not even a Jonathan Archer!

The last portion of the book devolves into a fast-paced action adventure book as one of the Kravokh's crew escapes and begins a killing spree on the Elabrej and Toq joins with the Separatists to rescue the Klingon survivors, but by that point it is hard to care. Even more disappointing - for someone who has only read one other "Gorkon" novel - is the way DeCandido resolves the book the same way he resolved the other one I read! This, too, is disappointing and while the idea of a new and different crew in the Star Trek universe is a clever one, DeCandido fails to sell readers on this particular one.

For other Star Trek books, please be sure to visit my reviews of:
Star Trek: The Motion Picture by Gene Roddenberry
The Klingon Dictionary by Marc Okrand
Avenger by William Shatner


For other book reviews, please check out my Book Review Index Page for organized lists of the books I have reviewed!

© 2012, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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