Quantum Leap: An Episode Roadmap for Beginners
If Quantum Leap has always been on your to-watch list but you've never had the time, here are a few suggestions to get you started...
This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Is there a popular show you’d really like to watch but you just don’t have time to wade through years of it all at once? Do you just want to know why that one character keeps turning up on Tumblr? Do the fans all tell you “season one is a bit iffy but stick with it, it gets great!” leaving you with absolutely zero desire ever to watch the boring/silly/just plain weird season one? Then Maps To TV Shows is for you!
In these articles, we outline routes through popular TV shows focusing on particular characters, story arcs or episode types. Are you really into the Klingon episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation? Do you want to get the overall gist of the aliens arc on The X-Files? Or perhaps you’d rather avoid aliens and watch the highlights of their Monsters of the Week? Do you just want to know who that guy dressed like Constantine is?
In these articles, we provide you with a series of routes through long-running shows designed for new viewers so that you can tailor your journey through the very best TV has to offer. While skipping most of season one. It gets better.
Since part of the aim of these articles is to encourage new viewers, spoilers will be kept to a minimum. However, be aware that, due to the nature of the piece, certain elements of world-building, bad guy-revelation, late character arrivals, etc. will be spoiled, and looking at the details of one suggested “route” may spoil another.
A few words on Quantum Leap before we start…
Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished…He woke 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.
Route 1: Setting right what once went wrong
Quantum Leap is an almost entirely episodic show, with only a few recurring elements beyond the main set-up and the two main characters. The general concept is that Sam Beckett “leaps” into people from various periods within his own lifetime, taking on their appearance though not (usually) their physical attributes. He has to set right what once went wrong and fix something that happened – a death, a career disaster, a personal tragedy – so that history changes and someone’s life goes better than it had.
Whenever Sam arrives in a new ‘leapee’ with his catchphrase, “Oh boy!” he has to first work out what it is he’s there to fix (something he often gets wrong at first) and then fix it. A new viewer can jump in to almost any episode (some exceptions appear below) and see a self-contained story about a unique set of characters that will be resolved by the end of the hour. Our picks for some of the best of these general stories are listed below. (N.B. This is not a best-of, which would include many Sam/Al-based episodes – just highlights of the entirely self-contained stories).
“Genesis Parts 1 & 2”
“The Color Of Truth”
“Play It Again, Seymour”
“Genesis,” the pilot, sets up the show’s raison d’etre neatly with a story that’s simple but nonetheless engaging. “The Color Of Truth” is one of the show’s earliest and best serious dramatic episodes, while light-hearted Humphrey Bogart homage “Play It Again, Seymour” is one of their most fun comedy hours.
“What Price Gloria?”
“Good Night, Dear Heart”
“Jimmy” is one of the series’ most popular episodes featuring one of its most popular leapees, while “What Price Gloria?” marked the first time Sam leapt into a woman – something he did only rarely, but which usually provided humour and social commentary in equal measure. “Good Night, Dear Heart” is one of a few Quantum Leap episodes that take the form of a murder mystery, and one of the most touching.
“Black on White on Fire”
“Last Dance Before an Execution”
These four episodes provide a mixture of drama and social commentary (“Black on White on Fire”), dramatic tension and extreme uncertainty concerning the leap itself (“Last Dance Before an Execution”), tragedy and comedy blended together (“Future Boy”) and an episode that is a simple, straightforward leap aimed at helping someone with a minor comment on disability, done very well (“Private Dancer”).
“A Single Drop of Rain”
“Running for Honor”
Once again, social commentary (“Running for Honor”) and murder mystery (“Dreams”) are the show’s strengths, but the climax of “A Single Drop of Rain” is a welcome moment of pure joy.
“Nowhere to Run”
Much of season five was spent experimenting with the format, producing episodes that focused more on Sam and Al, or on science fiction and fantasy, or on famous people (see the other Routes). But “Nowhere to Run” is a nice, fairly straightforward hour showcasing a young Jennifer Aniston, while “Killin’ Time” blends high concept with a fairly simple story for Sam himself.
Route 2: Sam and Al
Even Quantum Leap was not entirely removed from any form of serialization. For the most part, serialized elements appeared in the form of episodes focusing on Sam and Al themselves – their families, their lives, their characters and their own personal timelines.
Many of the best and most popular episodes are those that focus on Sam and/or Al, because of course, we tend to care more about stories that touch our favorite characters that we tune in for every week than weekly stories about characters we don’t know and don’t see again.
This Route collects all the stories that focus on Sam or Al themselves, and a few others that feature recurring threads or characters. We should add that in at least one case listed below, the connection to our heroes is supposed to be a surprise reveal, so – spoiler alert.
“Genesis Parts 1&2”
The pilot (“Genesis”) sets up the show and that means setting up the characters of Sam and Al as well, providing a snapshot of who they are, their backstories and their motivations as well as establishing their friendship. “Star-Crossed” incorporates elements of Sam’s personal history for the first time, and introduces an important character. Add “Camikazi Kid” for some more references to Sam’s family.
“Catch a Falling Star”
The first season had featured a running thread about needing to secure funding to keep Project Quantum Leap going, which reaches its culmination in “Honeymoon Express,” which is also a quite personal story for Sam. “Catch a Falling Star” focuses once again on Sam’s past, while “Her Charm” may show us the origins of Project Quantum Leap.
The season finale, “M.I.A.,” a very personal story, is possibly the most popular episode the series ever did. For more subtle references, add “Disco Inferno,” in which Sam starts to remember more about his family, while Al reveals more about his in “Jimmy.”
“The Leap Home Parts 1 & 2”
Season opener “The Leap Home” does what it says on the tin and focuses on Sam’s family, to tragic and touching effect. While much of the season focused on standalone stories, season finale “Shock Theater” offers a powerful and powerfully acted twist on the clip show that allows Sam to revisit some of his most affecting leaps.
“The Leap Back”
“A Leap for Lisa”
The season opener and season finale of Season Four both play with the format and with Al’s role as Sam’s guide. “The Leap Back” swaps their roles and allows Sam to return briefly to his own life, while “A Leap for Lisa” briefly replaces Al and provides a little more insight into his earlier years. “Temptation Eyes” provides another of Sam’s occasional romances in which he gets more involved than usual with the people he meets while leaping.
“Deliver Us from Evil”
“Trilogy Parts 1, 2, & 3”
“Return of the Evil Leaper”
“Revenge of the Evil Leaper”
Season five saw the writers playing with the format much more than any previous season, and so included many more episodes that were personal to the lead characters or featured recurring elements.
“Trilogy” has Sam leap into connected people in the same small town at three different times and includes possibly the most intense of his occasional romances. “Deliver Us from Evil” introduced Sam’s counterpart, Alia the Evil Leaper, while also revisiting a fan favourite leapee – we’ll leave you to identify the follow-up episodes for yourself.
The series finale, “Mirror Image,” remains highly controversial, but it paid homage to the show, revisited a fan favourite storyline and offered emotional moments and closure – of a sort – for both the show’s heroes. Add “Killin’ Time” for an expanded role for Al and another glimpse of the world outside Project Quantum Leap.
Route 3: Social Contexts
The core of Quantum Leap’s concept was that Sam Beckett was putting right historical wrongs, and many times, these were caused by ongoing social problems including racism, sexism, homophobia, attitudes towards disability, warfare and PTSD, and many others issues that were the subject of discussion in the early 1990s. Although many episodes featured social commentary of one kind or another, this Route highlights those episodes in which the main purpose of the episode is to explore a particular social issue.
“The Color of Truth”
Quantum Leap’s first social issues episode, “The Color of Truth,” deals with racism in the American South, offering a fresh perspective by having Sam, a white man, experience life as a black man, as everyone around him sees the black leapee. Add “Camikazi Kid” for a story centred on themes of domestic violence.
“The Americanization of Machiko”
“What Price Gloria?”
“So Help Me God”
Quantum Leap’s first full-length season tackled mixed marriages and immigration (“The Americanization of Machiko”), sexism (“What Price Gloria?”) and the situation of Native Americans (“Freedom”) as well as returning to civil rights (“So Help Me God”) and introducing a fan favorite character in a story focused on disability and surrounding stigma in “Jimmy.”
“Black on White on Fire”
Although season 3 continued to highlight social issues, including a woman being coerced into posing for nude photographs (“Miss Deep South”), teen pregnancy (“8 ½ Months”) and prostitution (“Southern Comforts”), most episodes tended to tell a broader story touching more lightly on these issues.
“Black on White on Fire,” however, this season’s hour highlighting race relations in the US, was one of their best dramatic episodes. Add “The Leap Home Part 2” for one of the most dramatic episodes featuring the Vietnam War (a theme that came up numerous times as both Al and Sam’s older brother Tom were veterans of this war) and “Last Dance Before an Execution” for a glimpse at Death Row.
“Running for Honor”
Where the previous season had tended to tell broader stories with a social theme, Season four went somewhat the other way, most notably in “Raped,” a rare episode in which the actress playing the leapee and rape victim is highlighted in the credits and takes over acting duties from Scott Bakula for a powerful sequence in which she talks about what happened to her.
“Justice” is this season’s civil rights episode, offering a chilling look into the Ku Klux Klan, while “Running for Honor” deals with homophobia in the navy. Add “The Wrong Stuff” for an episode largely concerned with animal rights, and “Unchained” for an homage to classic Tony Curtis/Sidney Poitier film “The Defiant Ones” that deals with racism once again.
“Nowhere to Run”
“The Beast Within”
While much of season five played with the format in new ways, the show’s social conscience was not forgotten, with “Liberation” rather broadly discussing feminism, and both “Nowhere to Run” and “The Beast Within” focusing on traumatised Vietnam veterans.
Route 4: Science Fiction and Fantasy
This may sound like a strange category for a Route – Quantum Leap is a science fiction show about time travel and body swapping. However, while the basic premise of the show is science fiction, many of the stories told in individual episodes had no science fiction elements present beyond Sam’s presence and Al’s information from the future.
read more: Quantum Leap — 10 Greatest Guest Performances
If the story were told from the point of view of a character unaware of Al’s presence, there would appear to be nothing odd about it at all. However, the show did sometimes dip its toe into the pool of more mainstream science fiction or, more often, fantasy, and include other elements of speculative fiction that had a more or less significant impact on the plot.
There are no overt science fiction or fantasy episodes in Season One beyond the set-up of the show in the pilot (“Genesis”). However, season one did establish an ongoing theme of the show, in the small, inexplicable moments and miracles that sometimes occurred – in this case, Ms Melny briefly hears Al in “The Color of Truth” and it saves her life. Considering Sam believed it was God, Fate, Time, or Whatever – some kind of omnipotent, omnipresent force – that was ‘leaping’ him around, such small miracles fit neatly into the series’ universe.
“A Portrait for Troian”
“A Portrait for Troian” was the first of several episodes to embrace a classic story-telling technique – an apparently fantastical story is introduced, the hero is able to provide a scientific explanation that solves the mystery, but at the end, there’s an element that remains mysterious and scientifically inexplicable… Add “Her Charm” for references to time travel and possibly the instigation of a stable time loop.
“A Little Miracle”
Season three’s Halloween episode. “The Boogieman” builds on the spooky vibe of “A Portrait for Troian” to produce the show’s first overtly fantastical story – something writers can always get away with more easily on Halloween. “A Little Miracle,” by contrast, does not feature any science fiction or fantasy elements beyond the usual mechanics of the show, but sees Sam and Al making more inventive use of leaping and time travel than they usually do.
Add “Future Boy” for some more references to time travel. “Shock Theater” is the first episode to change things up a bit in the mechanics of “leaping” and put Sam in a new situation – add “8 ½ Months” for an earlier instance of Sam experiencing strange levels of connection with the leapee.
“The Leap Back”
“It’s a Wonderful Leap”
“The Curse of Ptah-Hotep”
Season four started to incorporate fantastical elements more often, with episodes featuring an angel (“It’s a Wonderful Leap”), a mummy (“The Curse of Ptah-Hotep”), strange goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle (“Ghost Ship”) and a pretty decent psychic (“Temptation Eyes”).
This increased willingness to play around with science fiction and fantasy tropes was perhaps evident from the season opener, “The Leap Back,” in which the dynamics of the show are temporarily switched up and we get our first real glimpse of the world in the far-off future year of 1999 since the pilot. Add “Dreams” for more blending between Sam and the leapee and “A Single Drop of Rain” for perhaps the series’ most satisfying miracle.
Add “A Leap for Lisa” for some alterations to the personal timeline of one of our heroes. Add “The Wrong Stuff” for an episode which doesn’t feature additional speculative fiction elements, but is notable for having Sam leap into a non-human.
“Star Light, Star Bright”
“Deliver Us from Evil”
“Return of the Evil Leaper”
“Revenge of The Evil Leaper”
“The Leap Between the States”
Season five continued the trend set by season four of experimenting more and more with the series’ format and with added science fiction elements. The most notable of these is the introduction of Sam’s dark counterpart Alia, the Evil Leaper, featured in “Deliver Us from Evil,” “Return of the Evil Leaper,” and “Revenge of the Evil Leaper.” Sam also jumped outside his own lifetime for only the second time in the only leap to leave the twentieth century in “The Leap Between the States” and we saw a little bit more of the neon world of 1999 in “Killin’ Time.”
Meanwhile, the series continued to pay homage to classic speculative fiction tropes in “Blood Moon” (vampires) and “Star Light, Star Bright” (alien abductions). Finally, the series finale, “Mirror Image” may not have answered our questions exactly, but you can’t deny it was focused on the process and consequences of leaping. Add “Trilogy Parts 2 & 3” for some more unexpected consequences of some of Sam’s leaps.
Route 5: Famous names
The aim of Quantum Leap was to show Sam making a difference in people’s lives, because every life matters. In early seasons, he would often briefly brush past someone historically famous, but rarely interact with them at length. As time went on the show started to play around with famous figures a bit more, culminating in Sam actually leaping into someone very famous indeed.
Many episodes featured references to historical events, movements and so on in one way or another, as that was part of the nature of the show – the episodes collected here are more specifically those featuring fictional representations of famous people on screen.
“How the Tess Was Won”
Season one sets up the series’ standard attitude towards cameos from famous names – a character would appear identified only by a first name or nickname, Sam would tell them something interesting from the future, and it would turn out the person themselves was the originator, implying that Dr. Sam Beckett was ultimately responsible for quite a significant chunk of late twentieth century popular culture.
Here, he teaches Michael Jackson the Moonwalk in “Camikazi Kid,” and suggests the title “Peggy Sue” to Buddy Holly in “How the Tess Was Won.” Add “Star-Crossed” to see him inadvertently help to cause the Watergate scandal.
“Good Morning, Peoria”
“Thou Shalt Not…”
Season two took the same approach – in Good Morning, Vietnam homage “Good Morning, Peoria,” Sam teaches Chubby Checker to do the Twist, while in “Thou Shalt Not…” he demonstrates the Heimlich maneuver on Dr. Henry Heimlich. Add “Blind Faith” for a story that takes place during the Beatles’ visit to New York City.
“Leap of Faith”
“Rebel Without a Clue”
Sam continues to shape popular culture, meeting Jack Kerouac in “Rebel Without a Clue,” Sylvester Stallone in “Leap of Faith,” and in famously creepy episode “The Boogieman,” he inspires a young Stephen King.
In Season Four, Sam decided to have a rest from actually meeting famous people and stick to homages like “Unchained”’s play on The Defiant Ones.
“Lee Harvey Oswald Parts 1 & 2”
“Goodbye Norma Jean”
As part of the general shake-up and expansion of the format in season five, Sam started actually to leap into famous people, or those close to them. The most effective was the first, offering a very different view of “Lee Harvey Oswald” and the Kennedy assassination than that provided by Oliver Stone’s 1991 film JFK. “Dr. Ruth” was a rare highlight for the leapee as Sam leaped into the well-known celebrity, and we also see her (guest starring as herself) talking with Al in the imaging room, while “Goodbye Norma Jean” and “Memphis Melody” offer stories about American legends Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley.
One nice element to these stories was that they really highlighted the way Sam had been changing history throughout the show. By the end of the episode, whatever Sam had done would have created the history we know, but it was often revealed that this had not been the case beforehand, giving the audience a relatable sense of the difference Sam had been making in people’s lives all this time.