“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished… He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Dr Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”
Is there anything in the history of television that sums up a series in an opening narration as simply and as effectively as Quantum Leaps? It even transpires that the voice giving us this info dump is none other than the super A.I. computer, Ziggy, created by Dr Sam Beckett himself. We learn about the project, the main persons involved in said project and the actual purpose of the project…all within a couple of minutes. The show ran for five seasons between 1989-1993 and I have very vivid memories of watching it during its run…yes, especially that final episode. So, 23 years later and after receiving the boxset for Christmas, I sat down and re-watched it again, this time with my girlfriend…who had never even heard of it!
Created by Donald P. Bellisario (creator of Airwolf, Magnum P.I. and writer on Battlestar Galactica) it became one of the most beloved (if not the most beloved) sci-fi television shows of all time winning acting Golden Globes, various Emmys and notching up countless nominations whilst also managing to impress both critic and fan alike. To this day, many want to see the show return and discussions, and arguments, still go on regarding the final episode. Because yes, Quantum Leap was one of the many shows to get cancelled leading to a finale that splits critics and fans right down the middle… but more on that later. Oh, by the way… spoilers!!
The first thing that absolutely stands out, and is beyond perfect, is the casting of the two main characters. Scott Bakula gives Dr Sam Beckett heart and goodness. He instils within him the best of man; brave, intelligent, selfless, funny and driven. Bakula carries the show through every episode and gives 100% whether he has leaped into the body of a woman, a murderer, a man with down syndrome or even a chimpanzee…the way his actual mannerisms change depending on who he has leapt into is truly amazing. He also brings with him his bravado and singing talent from time spent on stage and in theatre giving him a commanding presence on screen.
And then, of course, we have Dean Stockwell as Admiral Al Calavicci. Borderline pervert, often quite unhelpful and sometimes grumpy, Al is the perfect match for Sam. With a cigar planted firmly in his mouth and the handheld Ziggy device being constantly battered in his hand, Stockwell plays Al with glee and mischief often winding Sam up whenever he can. But beneath the childish leering after women and forced comedy, there is a real pain and soul in the character…especially when we learn of his time in Vietnam or his experiences in an orphanage. Indeed there are times, simple one line dialogue moments, where Stockwell will rip your heart out and make you cry like a baby. Suffice to say, I don’t believe there has been any show (bar maybe the original Star Trek) that has encapsulated and perfected the two lead characters and the actors who play them from the very start to the bitter end.
But of course, actors (and characters) need stories and writers…and Quantum Leap really delivers. The show was able to deal with subjects such as prejudice, rape, racism, religion, divorce, adultery and even animal cruelty. There was an episode which showed attitudes to retardation. An episode which dealt with the fear of gay men in the military. One showed the aftermath and fallout of rape. The KKK, serial killers, prisoners of war…a lot of huge subjects were touched upon during its five year run. But it also dealt with everyday subjects. The bringing together of a family, the guidance of romance, the painful loss of a loved one and the restoration of faith to name just a few. Again, bar the original Star Trek and maybe the re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica, no sci-fi show has covered such a wide range of subjects.
The premise of the show, and one of its many genius strokes, was that it was possible for Sam to leap into anyone…and I do mean anyone, including some real life people such as Lee Harvey Oswald, Elvis Presley and Dr Ruth. Sam did also manage to come across, and maybe even influence, the likes of Stephen King, Donald Trump and even Dr Heimlich (inventor of the Heimlich manoeuvre). Add to this a pretty impressive collection of various famous support actors throughout its run with the likes of Teri Hatcher, Michael Madsen, Neil Patrick Harris, Meg Foster, Terry Farrell, Brooke Shields, Jennifer Anniston, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Roddy McDowall showing up as well as a surprise appearance by Chubby Checker in one episode, and you have a huge pot of characters, and actors, to tell the writers stories.
Of course, there are some issues with the show. Although, it has dated pretty well, there are moments when it does show its age… especially when someone walks through Al’s hologram or when Sam looks into the mirror (seeing the person he has leapt into reflected back) and the timing is way off as they attempt to copy their actions. It does sometimes verge on being over preachy at times and asks the viewer to accept the notion of God and the Devil as absolutes. And although during the five season run, it didn’t really have a single “bad” episode, it does contain some which lower the quality and tone somewhat…Sam leaping into a chimpanzee was too much for some (although I love it). The final episode is a real ‘love it or hate it’ episode as well and for some didn’t satisfy their need for a resolution and can actually be viewed as a very cruel outcome for Sam (again though, I love it). But, the creator, writers and cast were only told at the eleventh hour that in fact the show had been cancelled so blame for how it turned out shouldn’t be thrown at them.
In the end though Quantum Leap was full of moments and episodes that over 20 years later can be considered the best television has graced us with. Sam leaping into his 16 year old self, Sam leaping into a younger Al, Sam and Al swapping places for an episode, the evil leaper arc, Sam encountering an angel, Sam encountering the Devil, Sam helping a deaf girl, Sam leaping into a Vietnam vet with no legs, and, Sam giving his younger self the theory of time travel…I literally could go on and on. It was a show that oozed fun and, in Bakula and Stockwell, had a chemistry, friendship and love that was more than just actors playing characters or spouting lines from writers.
Ultimately, Quantum Leap had heart. Quantum Leap had soul. Quantum Leap demanded that although we couldn’t go back and put right what once went wrong, we should live our lives and only focus on the right above the wrong.