Quantum Leap: revisiting the highs and lows

Guy fondly revisits Scott Bakula-starring time travel series Quantum Leap, the closest we’ll ever come to a live-action Mr Benn…

Throughout the ’90s, Starfleet’s Captain Archer bounced around time meddling in other people’s lives, aided and abetted by the third-tier villain from Beverly Hills Cop 2 in holographic form. No, this wasn’t a fever dream – this was Quantum Leap: possibly the lowest-key sci-fi show ever televised (and all the better for it).

I’d argue that Quantum Leap was one of the best sci-fi shows that really didn’t need that much in the way of fictionalised science. Indeed, when the plots began to lean on this aspect more heavily, the show seemed to lose sight of what made it great in the first place. The internal logic started to unravel, the plots became increasingly far-fetched, and it even started to become a little (whisper it) naff…

Yes, I have a bit of a love-hate thing with Quantum Leap. Like a relationship with a clingy ex that went on far longer than it should have, I went from feeling enamoured and special to falling into a comfortable but predictable routine, eventually becoming increasingly frustrated by their antics before ultimately losing patience with their faintly embarrassing cries for attention (I’m looking at you, re-mixed theme tune).

But let’s not dwell upon the disappointment it became; let us first cast our minds back to the glory of its genesis…

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“You’re part of a time travel experiment that went… a little caca.”

In these hyper-marketed days of ‘event television’ it’s easy to forget that in times gone by you occasionally just happened across TV gems like Quantum Leap.

I remember my initial exposure quite profoundly. Listed as a ‘film’ in the paper’s telly guide (listings seemed untroubled by distinctions such as ‘TV movie’ or ‘feature-length pilot episode’ back then), my dear old mum suggested we give it a try. It was a ‘film’ I had never heard of so I was somewhat dubious, but the last time mother talked me into watching an obscure sci-fi film, it was Runaway, which featured Tom Selleck battling robots and Gene Simmons. So I gave her the benefit of the doubt.

It didn’t start well.

We were in the future, telegraphed by a woman wearing giant Perspex blocks with flashing LEDs for earrings and a car modified by the addition of a fluorescent strip light. The budget was showing signs of under spend and we weren’t even past the 10-second mark. But then Dean Stockwell was revealed as the driver and I relaxed. Even at 13 I knew I was in safe hands. There aren’t many actors that can spout lines alternately laced with cheese, sleaze and technobabble with such levels of charm and affability, but Stockwell’s one of them. It helps that he has a voice so gravelly he could pebbledash a wall at twenty paces.

A panicked phone call later (imparting the premature nature of the eponymous “leap”) and I was in. Even the sight of a man in a unitard doing his best Kate Bush/Babushka impression couldn’t put me off.

As the ‘film’ progressed I was further hooked by its sci-fi mysteries: why was ‘Future bloke in unitard’ now in the past? Why was his reflection that of a different man? Why was he married to the hot blonde from the start of Ghostbusters?

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All was eventually made clear: he was an amnesiac scientist from the future called Sam Beckett whose time travel experiment had cocked up, causing him to swap places with a test pilot from the 50s. For reasons that would eventually become rather convoluted, everyone saw Sam as the fellow he had leaped into. Comedy hijinks ensued as Sam tried to blend in and act like a Top Gun, all the while hampered by narratively convenient amnesia.

The only way for him to get back home was to correct a mistake in time – said test pilot’s untimely death. The stakes didn’t seem particularly high (I still thought I was watching a proper movie at this point) but the whole thing was so darn charming that I went with it and, despite acknowledging the relative cheapness of it all, I kind of fell in love.

Needless to say, despite not having a pilot’s license, Sam succeeded in averting his host’s obliteration during a test flight with the help of Stockwell’s character Al, a holographic projection of Sam’s friend from the future that only Sam could see and hear. He also saves the wife and unborn child to boot after remembering he’s a medical genius. All right with the timeline, he’s enveloped in blue neon and leaps into the life of a baseball player, and then a college professor, and then… oh, it’s finished.

It was only at this point, aided by the distinctly televisual end credits, that it dawned on me what I was watching. The BBC’s continuity announcer spoke over the credits to confirm: Quantum Leap the series would be starting at the same time next week.

Reader, I could have married him.

“Kick in the butt, ain’t it?”

The first few seasons represent Quantum Leap at its purest and arguably most successful. The beauty of the set-up was the ability to tell pretty much any story the writers wanted in any modern time period (Sam could – with occasional exceptions – only leap within the timeframe of his own life). The variety on display from week to week, both in terms of story and production design, was admirable. Sam could be a boxer in ’70s LA for one episode and a black chauffeur in the Deep South of the 50s the next; every show was like a unique mini-movie.

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Aside from the basic premise, and the occasional dodgy shot of Al walking through things, there was very little sci-fi to the show. The primary joy came from watching how Sam adapted to his new surroundings every week and how he’d go about rectifying the timeline with only his brains and his holographic familiar for support.

A key part of its success was the easy charm of our main protagonist. If you found Scott Bakula stiff and not particularly engaging in Star Trek: Enterprise, then join the club, but as a bewildered time-travelling adventurer he was a joy. Funny, genial and sincere, the show simply wouldn’t have worked without him being such great company. And he needed to be ­­- there must be very little footage across the entire series in which he doesn’t feature. It helps that he’s got one of the best “I don’t particularly understand what’s going on right now” faces in the business; an expression that was required with unerring regularity. Sam’s chemistry with Al was equally important, especially considering that as a personalised holographic projection from the future, Stockwell only ever had Bakula to play off.

Together, they and the show hit upon a winning formula not unlike The Fugitive or one of my other favourite shows The Incredible Hulk. As with poor Dr Banner, each week Sam would find himself in a new environment surrounded by new guest stars and have to use his unique abilities to help those around him (although “abilities” in Sam’s case were future knowledge and brainiac skills rather than the capacity to turn into an Italian bodybuilder covered in vegetable dye).

Cute recurring elements not yet dulled by overuse delighted with each familiar appearance: Sam’s Swiss cheese memory, Al’s womanising, Gushie’s bad breath… Then, of course there was the show’s “catchphrase” for want of a better word. Sam’s stock response after assessing his new surroundings following an end-of-show leap was the understated “Oh Boy”. This was the “I am Groot” of the 90s, with every conceivable inflection delivered to sum up the appropriate hilarity/terror/incredulity of the given scenario.

And as a show set in the past, there was more foreshadowing than an episode of Gotham, with Sam inadvertently inventing Trivial Pursuit, writing the lyrics to Peggy Sue, and teaching Chubby Checker how to Twist. Think Forrest Gump but with low-rent lookie-likeys rather than special effects. (Actually, I think Chubby Checker played himself – which didn’t make any sense whatsoever…)

Perhaps the only misstep in the early years was a propensity towards finding inspiration from famous movies. Considering the writers had carte blanche to create any scenario they wanted, it was occasionally disappointing to find Sam in made-for-TV recreations of Driving Miss Daisy and Animal House.

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“You tell me how to blend in agitated carbon quarks, and I’ll make the scientific journal…”

Series creator Donald P. Bellisario (who also created Magnum – the PI, not the ice cream) has gone on record saying that he always wanted to do an anthology show, and the time-travelling mechanic seemed a convenient way of him achieving this rather than the being the rasion d’etre. Indeed, when the mythology was expanded upon, and stories began to pressure test the already slightly flimsy concept, some cracks started to appear.

The most straightforward pseudo-explanation for what happened every time Sam leaped was that he was taking over the body of whomever he leaped into. However, early in the second season a few plots emerged that required Sam to possess his own physical attributes. So when leaping into a blind man, he wasn’t blind, and when leaping into a double leg amputee, he was (bizarrely) able to walk around.

The eventual explanation was that Sam’s body is physically doing the leaps, but that everyone around him is unable to see that their friend/colleague/husband has been replaced due to an “aura” that surrounds him.

Oh come on…

Firstly, why go down this road in the first place? Surely it’s more interesting to see how Sam copes with blindness, or being an amputee? His main attributes –genius-level intellect, command of languages, penchant for kung-fu – would all be present and correct regardless of the body he found himself in. I can’t think of many episodes that would have suffered had this been the status quo (although kung-fu might have been more challenging as an amputee). Instead, we’re left with a plot mechanic so thin it could’ve been fed by Roger Murtaugh’s wife.

Why do his hosts’ clothes always fit? Was everybody into whom he leapt the same shoe size? What happened when he took something off a shelf his host wouldn’t have been able to reach? What about his voice? His eye line? His weight?? It didn’t make any sense!!

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The time-travel logic was also incredibly iffy, mixing pre-destiny, alternate pasts, and a constantly adapting timeline depending on the plot requirements. And sometimes the writers threw common sense out the window entirely. In a rare peek into the future at the start of Season 2, Al is sat before a Senate committee arguing for the project’s continued funding. When Sam’s actions in the past cause the sceptical chairman about to shut down the project to be replaced with a more sympathetic adjudicator halfway through the summation, Al somehow notices the switch (no one else, even the senators sitting next to the chairman seem to clock that he’s suddenly turned into a woman). His response to the change suggests that the show runners and/or writers were perfectly happy to sacrifice internal logic if it allowed one of the main actors a great reaction shot. Such inattention to one of the show’s fundamental concepts grated somewhat.

Then there was the not-small matter of why Sam was trapped in this cycle of do-goddery in the first place. As early as the pilot episode it was established that “God or Fate or Time, or something” had hijacked Sam’s experiment and was using him to correct the timeline. It’s a charming attempt to be secular, but each of those options represents a higher power, and the fact that everyone so readily accepts it is frankly baffling for a bunch of scientists. Wasn’t there a chance it was Kevin in IT? Why did no one question if it was the artificially intelligent super-computer overseeing the experiment? After all, it was said computer that came up with the God theory in the first place!

At the very least, this explanation warranted some exploration. I have no issue with spiritual elements informing part of my sci-fi, but hey everyone! You’ve just accepted the existence of God! Shouldn’t you talk about that for a bit?

“A minute ago you said it was crap”

As the seasons progressed, even the character work began to suffer. Chief among the gripes was the writers’ relentless insistence on creating a personal connection between the main characters and an episode’s events. The logic was sound – the stakes are a bit higher when one of our heroes has an investment in how things turn out – but this technique was overused to such an extent that Sam and Al developed back stories that bordered on the comical. Al was an orphan, and a pool shark, and an amateur boxer, and dabbled in a spot of acting, and was a Vietnam vet, a prisoner of war, an astronaut, an alcoholic, was falsely accused of a murder-rape, and had a sister with Down’s syndrome… By the fifth and final season, it was all getting a little ridiculous.

That final season reveals a show clearly struggling for ideas and not knowing how to expand upon its mythology without sacrificing its simplistic charm. You always know a show’s in trouble when the main actors get to direct an episode or two, but the biggest clue was the new theme tune. My God, that theme tune… Taking the understated, chipper melody from the first four seasons and marrying it with a Yamaha keyboard demo track was clearly a mistake. Mike Post, who should really have known better, seemed to have been momentarily possessed by ‘cool dad at a disco’, producing a take on the beloved theme that a bunch of middle-aged suits probably thought was “trendy” but that everyone else rightly decreed as utterly naff.

It also heralded an irritating propensity towards “stunt leaping”. After the ignominy of swapping places with a space chimp in season four, the final season was littered with cool-sounding but ultimately rather dull scenarios for Sam, ranging from him being a vampire to then-famous sex therapist Dr Ruth. If only the accompanying stories had been as intriguing as the premises…

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Quantum Leap finally ended as it had always threatened to: in an unsatisfying and convoluted mess of its own making. Mistaking obtuseness for being deep and enigmatic, the final episode failed to wrap up the series in any kind of meaningful way.

In a manner depressingly familiar to long-standing fans, fundamental changes to the mythos were plucked out of nowhere to tell a confusing and underwhelming tale concerning why Sam was leaping throughout time. God appeared to be involved, but apparently it was under Sam’s control all along, and a long-forgotten episode from season 2 was suddenly revealed to have been a pivotal moment for the series. And then the whole thing ended with a bunch of title cards mundanely describing the fates of our heroes. Title cards! Oh boy, indeed.

“What the hell… I get repatriated in 5 years.”

Despite my descent into negativity, I warmly recommend giving Quantum Leap a chance the next time you’re surfing the more obscure channels on TV.

Yes it had lost its way a bit by the end, and there were more stories to tell that never got explored – alas, we’ll never get to see the long-mooted episode where Sam leaps into a baby (although after they fudged the leap logic, it’s hard to see how that could have worked). But we’ll always have stand-out episodes like “The Leap Home” parts 1 and 2, which took us on a journey from small-town America to the jungles of Vietnam, gave us glimpses into our heroes’ past, and offered small personal victories together with heroic sacrifices; it was a perfect distillation of everything that made Quantum Leap great. Except for the casting of Scott Bakula as Sam’s dad, perhaps…

A lot of shows get labelled ‘gentle’ as if it’s a bad thing, but I can’t think of a word that sums up Quantum Leap more appropriately. It was occasionally dramatic, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, but never less than charming. 

Read our pick of Quantum Leap’s top ten episodes, here.

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