Looking Back at Quantum Leap
Neil celebrates the wonder that is cult sci-fi series Quantum Leap. All together now, “Oh boy…”
This article contains spoilers.
It’s 1991. I’m fourteen years old. It’s Wednesday night. A hushed silence would fall on the room. With bated breath I’d wait for it…like an audience nervously awaits an orchestra. Then it began:
“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.”
Doesn’t it still make those hairs on the back of your neck stand up? If you heard this ethereal introduction anywhere from 1989-1993, then chances are one programme was about to charge into your living room with all the power that Mike Post’s jazzy theme song could muster: Quantum Leap. What a weird show! No, strike that! What a weird and simply wonderful show! For all intents and purposes, it should never have even made it on the air, let alone last for five seasons. Can you picture the meeting where Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum P.I.,NCIS) pitched the concept to NBC?
NBC: Okay Don you just came off of Magnum P.I. So what do you have for us?
BELLISARIO: Let’s make a series about a scientist who travels through time correcting history by "Leaping” into other people. Oh, and he has a holographic friend from the future. Oh, and at some point he’ll Leap into a monkey.
NBC: Okay, we’ll give you eight episodes.
This was the 80s for you! A magical time on television where cars could talk and fight crime, an island could grant fantasies, and ALF reigned supreme. So, maybe in retrospect, Don wasn’t that far off the mark after all.
On Easter Sunday March 26, 1989, Bellisario’s bold concept premiered as a two-hour movie called Genesis (Ep. 1.1). In it, we meet Dr. Sam Beckett (no relation to the playwright), a scientist from the far-out futuristic year of…1995. In an effort to not lose government funding, Sam steps into the previously mentioned Quantum Leap Accelerator and… you know the rest.
Along for the ride is the cigar-smoking Admiral Al Calavicci, the project 'Observer'. Through the apparent miracle of mid-nineties technology and the aptly named Imaging Chamber, Al is able to appear to Sam as a hologram tuned into his brainwaves. Why you ask? Well, to guide him on what he has to fix in each year of course. How does Al know all this? Well, silly, he has the help of Ziggy, the project’s talking, hybrid, super computer. All the while, the people who Sam has replaced are left to chill out and twiddle their thumbs in the mysterious Waiting Room.
Genesis gives us two Leaps for the price of one. In the first hour, Sam’s a doomed Air Force pilot from the 1950s who must break Mach-3 and survive to save his baby from being born prematurely. In the second hour, he’s a minor-league baseball player who has to win the big game. All this would definitely be a lot to handle for the average time traveller, but they had to keep this going every week. So, to give the show an ultimate direction and purpose, Bellisario added the caveat of Home, and Sam’s desire to get there. However, according to Al, “God, fate, or whatever” has determined he must succeed in setting history right each time in order to get one step closer to his goal. Or so they hoped. Miraculously, all this was enough to get it through the finish line and renewed past its low-rated first season
If there was ever a gateway drug to a science fiction show, then Mr. Scott Bakula was it. Bellisario has always had a knack for picking leading men who walked that fine line of sensitivity for the ladies and hero qualities for the men; a quality that Bakula fit to a tee. As a multi-talented veteran of the theatre and failed TV pilots, Bakula was a triple threat, no a quadruple, no a….you get the point. Comedy? Drama? Singing? Dancing? Whatever they threw at him, he dove right into it like a champion. I’d even say he deserved a medal for it, but I guess he had to settle for a Golden Globe.
I recently read an interview where Bakula said that not a day goes by where he’s still not asked about the show. Bakula brought to Sam that every man, Midwestern quality that was necessary for the character. On top of that, was an underlying weariness and befuddlement each week at his lot in life… or someone else’s. You felt for him like a friend. You were there with him throughout all his ups and downs. The name Scott Bakula and Quantum Leap are synonymous, and I’m willing to bet that the reason people kept coming back wasn’t always for the Leaping.
The sci-fi/fantasy genre was always lacking in the somewhat sleazy, womanizing, holographic sidekick department. Enter Dean Stockwell. He got his start as a child actor in the 40s, and grew up to be one of those recognizable faces who darted here and there between movies and TV. But, as the man himself once said, Al was, and still is, his favorite role.
How could you not love him? Al was the kind of fun uncle you never had, except this one would occasionally walk through walls and only children and dogs could see him. Without Al, we never would have had the words “Swiss-cheesed” (describing Sam’s spotty partial amnesia from Leaping), “nozzle” (an insult), and “magna-foozled (I have no idea what that one means). Also, where would our lives be without Al’s constantly malfunctioning, Lego-like, computer hand link to Ziggy? Do I even need to mention the constant complaints to Gooshie, the project’s computer programmer? They still reverberate in my pop culture consciousness.
If Sam was the choir boy of the two, then Al was certainly not. You couldn’t keep the guy away from leering at ladies, suggestive innuendos, and late 80s/early 90s inspired “futuristic” clothing. But, this was all part and parcel of the character’s charm, and his devotion to Sam was always first and foremost. The facts of which were eventually divulged in Play Ball (ep. 4.2). Evidently, Al had been a washed up drunk who was close to being fired from something cryptically referred to as “The Starbright Project.” A young Sam Beckett saw the good in Al, befriended him, and helped him to turn his life around.
Ultimately, here were two actors who couldn’t be more dissimilar in acting styles and personality. But, somehow something clicked. Great writing aside, Bakula and Stockwell’s excellent yin-yang camaraderie was so on point that you never doubted it for a second. It’s no wonder that they were close friends off screen as well as on.
What started out initially as a mid-season replacement series quickly grew into something much, much more. Like Star Trek before it, Quantum Leap tackled the sensitive and relevant issues of the day under the guise of science-fiction. It didn’t matter if the 'Leapee' was a man or woman. If you once had a problem, Sam was on it. In the episode Jimmy (ep. 2.8), the issue of Down-Syndrome is sensitively handled with Sam fighting to keep the person he Leaped into from being institutionalized. Justice (ep. 4.4) deals with the harsh realities of racism in the 1950s, and the fight against the Ku Klux Klan.
While the highly controversial Running for Honor (ep. 4.12), touched on topics of closeted homosexuality and hate crimes. Lastly, is The Wrong Stuff (ep. 4.7), where Sam does indeed Leap into a 1960s NASA chimpanzee named Bobo. While it may sound ridiculous at first, it’s actually quite heart-warming and brought to light important issues of animal rights. That was Quantum Leap for you.
Did you really think I was going to let it slide? It was the catch phrase to end all catch phrases! “Damn it Jim!?” ”Nanoo, Nanoo?” They have nothing on “Oh Boy!” If you’re not in the know, at the end of every episode was a brief teaser for next week. Sam would inevitably be caught in a precarious situation, and his exasperated response of “Oh Boy” was certainly the “Wait for it!” moment in the series. The evolution of “Oh Boy” within the show started off slow, and it didn’t hit its full stride until the second season. But, I have to hand it to Bakula. If you ever wondered how one actor can milk two words for all their possible worth and emotion…he’s your guy! My personal favorite is in Shock Theatre (ep. 3.22). This tantalizing season ending cliffhanger left Sam and Al switching places in time through reasons way too long to explain here. Sam is now the hologram and Al is the Leaper. If you have to ask me what they say in unison then you haven’t been paying attention.
Now there is a white elephant in the room, and it’s called Mirror Image (ep. 5.21). Rather than going out on a high, the final episode of the series has a rather polarizing effect among fans. In it, Sam finds himself in an other-worldly mining town bar populated with customers who look like people he has helped throughout time. All the while, an omnipotent bartender, who may or may not be God, dishes out enigmatic hints and clues as to the purpose of Sam’s five-year journey. With the bartender’s help, Sam comes to realize that he could always have gone home, but in his subconscious chose not to. He is allowed to right a wrong in Al’s life, and continue on Leaping and helping people. The final title card in the show reads “Dr. Sam Beckett Never Returned Home.”
Now to say that this episode is Bellisario’s philosophical homage to The Wizard of Oz is an understatement. The fact that fans are still scratching their heads and pondering its true meaning lends credence to the show’s staying power. However, it’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. Personally, I’ve come to appreciate it as an analogy for life. Things aren’t always what they seem and our journey, however long, is something we should appreciate. But, in the end you’d have to ask Bellisario about that one.
When all is said and done, Quantum Leap is like a fine wine. It gets better with age, and its vintage is eternal. In the years since, it has become timeless and is one of those beloved shows that remain with us long after the television set has been switched off. So, while Dr. Sam Beckett may or may not physically have returned home…he found one within many people.