The Big Bang Theory: “The Russian Rocket Reaction”
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The Big Bang Theory: “The Russian Rocket Reaction”

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The Big Bang Theory

“The Russian Rocket Reaction”

Season 5, Episode 5

Two weeks ago, we had an episode where Raj barely appeared, and it was very good. Last week, Raj was in the spotlight, and the episode was one of the series’ worst. Raj is gone for most of “The Russian Rocket Reaction,” and it’s the best half-hour of this season. Looks like The Big Bang Theory has a Koothrappali Conundrum. The writers haven’t allowed Raj to evolve like the rest of the cast. He’s trapped in season one mode all the time, while the rest of the characters mature in their own bizarre ways. Sheldon has become a more flexible and inviting person, Leonard has become a bit of a ladies' man, and Howard is learning what being in a relationship really means. Raj still can’t talk to a girl unless he’s drunk or she’s deaf. He’s the weak link of the show, and it’s not because Kunal Nayyar is a bad actor. As implausible as the Raj/Penny situation was, it at least took the character in a new direction that opened the door for more substantial stories, but the writers have already backpedaled past any progress that event introduced.

“The Russian Rocket Reaction” is a great episode because it goes to Big Bang Theory’s nerd roots. Beginning at Comics Center with Sheldon and Leonard ogling a replica of a sword used on Game Of Thrones, this episode is steeped in nerd culture. When Sheldon’s mortal enemy Wil Wheaton comes in to buy the Jim Lee alternate sketch cover of Batman #612, he invites the guys to a party at his house, which Leonard decides to attend. This results in Sheldon employing the philosophy of “Shroedinger’s friendship”: Until Leonard does not go/goes the party, Sheldon will/will not be Leonard’s friend. It’s a much more logical and clever adjustment to Sheldon’s mental faculties than having him roll polyhedral dice to make decisions, although it makes him seem kind of crazy with the rapid flow of contradictory statements.

Penny and Amy fill the supporting duo role as Howard graduates to a main plot and Raj wallows in the background, and their partnership is again one of the strongest parts of the show. When Sheldon begins to explain the principle of “Shroedinger’s cat” to Penny, she cuts him off to remind him she already knows, following up with an anecdote about her own dead cat. This prompts Amy to chime in with the formula for why Penny is so beloved:

Homespun stories (country charm) + knowledge of physics (ability to adapt in order to make friends) + bosom that defies physics (she's pretty) = Penny

That sounds about right.

Howard bursts in with news that NASA has picked his team’s telescope design for the International Space Station, and they’ve chosen him to go up to space for its installation. Hopefully it goes better than Howard’s space toilet. Everyone but Bernadette is thrilled at the news, who is angry that Howard didn’t discuss his decision with her first. It’s a typical sitcom plot with a nerd twist. One person is mad that the other didn’t consult them in a decision, but that decision is getting sent to a remote location in Kazakhstan to get shot into space in a Cold War-era rocket. When Bernadette explains that her father was a police officer, and she doesn’t want to have to worry about Howard’s safety like she did her father’s, Howard responds by talking about how his dad left him and his mom when Howard was 11, never to be seen again. In the episode’s funniest moment, Bernadette responds to the tender confession apathetically: “Boo hoo, you’re not going to space!”

Melissa Rauch and Simon Helberg have great chemistry this episode, and it’s nice to see Howard make an effort to adapt to the problems he will face as their relationship continues. Then Bernadette tells Howard’s mother about the space trip, and he reverts back to a whimpering child, but the fact that we see him act like a man, albeit briefly, makes him a much more tolerable character. The writers show both the male and female reactions to the Bernadette/Howard drama, and seeing the three ladies gathered around Penny’s island with a bottle of white wine discussing the guys is a situation we should see a lot more of this season. Penny takes the opportunity while the relationship is shaky to see if Bernadette is really 100% in love with Howard, because she really just has to make sure, and Rauch is believably sincere when she tells her yes. Penny and Amy don’t quite understand, but they can see that Howard makes Bernadette happy, so they support her. The couple makes up, but there’s no way Howard’s mom is letting him go into space, so that plot is probably just going to get thrown out.

The Wil Wheaton storyline not only gives Leonard something to do this episode but leads to a very fun elaboration on Sheldon’s list of mortal enemies. Consisting of 61 names stored on a floppy disc, Sheldon started the list at age 9. Again: Sheldon began compiling a database of people he despises at age 9, and he's kept it on a floppy disc for over 20 years. It’s a wonder he became a scientist and not a serial killer.

When Leonard tells Sheldon that Brent “Data” Spiner will be at the party, Sheldon renounces his love of Star Trek for a fleeting moment before caving and heading to the party himself. Once there, Wil Wheaton gives Sheldon an autographed, mint condition, unopened action figure of Wesley Crusher, his Star Trek: The Next Generation character. Wheaton immediately goes from mortal enemy to nerd idol, with Spiner taking his place on Sheldon’s list when he opens the box to make a joke about making the toys masturbate. Big Bang Theory is at its best when it finds a way to both exploit and glorify the absurdity of hardcore nerds, and the Wil Wheaton plot, combined with the emotional hook of the Bernadette/Howard story, shows that the writers can still craft scripts with brains and heart.

Stray observations:

  • Those new DC #1s sure are prominent on the comic shop shelves. I really hope the writers do a Big Bang relaunch for one episode. Also, Sheldon’s Satellite Era Justice League shirt is awesome.
  • Fantastic symmetry in starting the episode with Leonard haggling the price of the Game Of Thrones sword, then closing with Leonard haggling for two signed Data action figures.
  • Ways in which Howard has the comparative weakness of a baby bird: Old library books give him asthma attacks, and he gets seasick on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.
  • Sheldon compares Leonard going to Wil Wheaton’s party to giving up C-3P0 and R2-D2 to the Empire, which is a fantastic way to dig at someone attending a Star Trek actor’s party.
  • “Two grown men with a hobbit’s dagger. Wouldn’t we look silly.”
  • “OK, if you’re going to question the importance of an actor’s signature on a plastic helmet from a movie based on a comic book, then all of our lives have no meaning.”
  • “I took our love and threw it under his bus-sized mother.”
  • “Remember how we used to make these things look like they were masturbating?”

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