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'The Big Bang Theory' review: William Shatner plays himself in an amusing episode

Wil Wheaton, left, William Shatner and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

Wil Wheaton, left, William Shatner and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar guest star on Thursday's episode of CBS' "The Big Bang Theory," with series regular Johnny Galecki. Photo Credit: CBS/Michael Yarish

SITCOM "The Big Bang Theory"

WHEN | WHERE Thursday at 8 p.m. on CBS/2

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Amy (Mayim Bialik) and Sheldon (Jim Parsons) are appearing on the kids' science series "The Professor Proton Show" — Professor Proton now played by Wil Wheaton — to discuss a theory they have discovered about symmetry (super-asymmetry, to be exact) when suddenly, the doorbell rings. Sheldon goes to open it and … standing there, in the flesh, is William Shatner. Sheldon loses his cool, or what little he has of it anyway.

Meanwhile, it turns out Wheaton has struck up a friendship with Shatner because he's been hosting a secret celebrity Dungeons & Dragons tournament with some other celebrities, including the once-and-always Capt. James T. Kirk. The other celebs are Joe Manganiello, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Kevin Smith. Naturally, or inevitably, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Howard (Simon Helberg) and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) are desperate to join the game, too.

MY SAY The last time Shatner, 87, appeared in a live-action, prime-time sitcom as William Shatner was in 1996, in "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." The episode was titled "Eye, Tooth." Further details — was it good, bad, dumb, indifferent? — are inconsequential. The key point is that William Shatner has not appeared as William Shatner on a sitcom in 23 years.

How could this possibly be so? Shatner has appeared everywhere else these past 23 years. He doesn't go to the opening of envelopes, but who knows, really? Maybe if the envelope were big enough or interesting enough …

In Thursday's historic — that's right, historic — episode William Shatner actually appears as William Shatner in two separate shows: "The Professor Proton Show," or show-within-a-show, and "TBBT." It's a clever play on Amy and Sheldon's symmetry discussion at the episode's outset, while possibly — that's right, possibly — Sheldon is talking about Shatner when he says, "Imagine you have a billion mirrors, each reflecting one thing about you correctly and a billion things about you incorrectly …"

What have those billion mirrors said about "Shat" all these years? He famously, at times hilariously, played William Shatner in that series of Priceline commercials  on and off for years. Recall the one where he was fired as Priceline spokesman, then said: "Who could possibly replace me?" Cue to Leonard Nimoy entering the office.

He even starred in some with "TBBT's" own Kaley Cuoco. In one of them, he killed his daughter's (Cuoco) boyfriend so graphically that the networks would air only a sanitized version.

In these glimpses, Shatner-as-Shatner is clearly funny and self-deprecating, but also a bit of a pompous blowhard whose vanity is easily wounded when fans insist on calling him Capt. Kirk. Thursday's "The D & D Vortex" economically addresses both: "You're William Shatner," sputters Sheldon, when the door is opened. "You can call me Bill," says Shatner.

"Can I call you Captain?"

"No."

 Sheldon does anyway, of course.

Shatner has told the press that "TBBT" has made a number of offers over the years to come on, and that he rebuffed all. He apparently would appear only if the writers would craft him a story that would win him a guest-star Emmy, much as they had done for the original Prof. Proton, Bob Newhart. He may or may not have been kidding, but probably a little bit of both.

Few shows over the years have done a better job of cameo casting than "TBBT," which has drawn real-life superstar scientists (George Smoot, Brian Greene, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Stephen Hawking), entrepreneurs (Bill Gates, Steve Wozniak, Elon Musk), and geek superstars, from Adam West to Nimoy.

But after all these years, until now, there was that one holdout. "TBBT" wraps in a couple of months, and it's inconceivable that this run would have been complete without him.

So here's to you, Bill. You may get that Emmy, but don't hold your breath. Instead, what you give "TBBT" fans and "TBBT" itself is something far more valuable: Closure.

BOTTOM LINE "The Shat" plays himself only as he can in this amusing episode.

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