Quantum Leap was one of those programmes that everyone remembers fondly, but they rarely remember the episode titles. It was never like a Star Trek where all you had to say was “The Trouble with Tribbles,” and fans would get on their knees and bow.
No, no, Quantum Leap was in a league all by itself. All someone has to say is “Do you remember the one where he was a (fill in the blank here)?,” and those strong Bakula-based memories get your eyes all misty. You long for a future where cigar smoking holograms could be your best pal, and a hybrid-computer named Ziggy told you what needed to be fixed.
So what do you say? Why don’t we put “right what once went wrong,” and give some names to these episodes. Or more to the point, leap into the top ten best episodes of one the most creative shows that ever snuck onto American network television.
10. Killin’ Time
Original airdate: 10/20/92
“Killin’ Time” strongly stands out in the sense that it’s two stories. One has Sam (Scott Bakula) Leaping into a murderer holding a mother and daughter hostage during a police standoff in 1958. The other flashes forward to 1999 where the unhinged Leapee finds himself in the strange futuristic world of “Project Quantum Leap.”
By holding Al (Dean Stockwell) at gunpoint, he escapes and makes his way into a late 90s version of Downtown Los Angeles, that could only have been thought of in the early 90s. This episode gives us a view of Al’s neon and pastel based futuristic world, and for a change leaves Sam to fend for himself against a sheriff bent on revenge!
9. The Wrong Stuff
Original airdate: 11/6/91
It’s 1961, and for the first time, Sam Leaps into an animal. As Bobo the Astrochimp, Sam must ensure that this budding astronaut makes the space program, or he, along with Sam, will die via cruel animal testing. Along the way, he encounters a kindly female military veterinarian, and the doctor who wants to use chimps for deadly experiments in flight impact helmets.
What begins as a romp with Sam in diapers, drinking caterpillar juice, and fumbling through space testing, becomes something deeper and message driven. In true Quantum Leap style, we are reminded of the harsh realities of our world (i.e. animal cruelty), and the positive ways that we as a people can overcome them.
8. Catch a Falling Star
Original airdate: 12/6/89
The universal themes of Man of La Mancha are put to excellent use when in 1979, Sam must understudy the part of Don Quixote to famed and pompous actor, John O’Malley (John Cullum). With Al as his own Sancho Panza, Sam is at his bewildered best as he quickly tries to prepare for the part, and figure out a way to save O’Malley from a drunken fall that will end his career.
However, things get romantically complicated when a ghost from his own past returns in the form of his old piano teacher. What’s a Leaper to do when the object of a past school-boy crush is now his fellow understudy? Sing! Scott Bakula’s musical background charges to the forefront with rollicking selections from La Mancha, and a finale that will certainly make you dream “The Impossible Dream”!
7. Future Boy
Original airdate: 3/13/91
This fan favorite finds Sam as “Future Boy,” the co-host of the late 1950s children’s sci-fi program Captain Galaxy. The lead actor of the series, Moe Stein (Richard Herd), is a dreamer who rambles on about time travel and his longing for a better world. However, his on-air outbursts, eccentric behavior, and claims of building a time machine have led his estranged daughter to try to forcefully have him committed to a mental institution.
The fine line of what constitutes mental illness vs. eccentricity is at the heart of Sam’s struggle to save his new friend. By episode’s end, it proves that while we can’t always change our problems of the past, we still have time to work on our present.
6. The Color of Truth
Original airdate: 5/3/89
You have to hand it to a show that at the tail-end of its eight-episode first season was already testing its boundaries. It’s Alabama in the late 1950s, and Sam finds himself one Jessie Tyler, a black chauffeur to the aging but, rich Ms. Melony. Racism and violence run rampant, and while Al says he’s there to save Ms. Melony from dying when her car was hit by a train, Sam feels he’s also there for something much greater: racial equality.
From this point on, there was no looking back for Quantum Leap. This episode establishes its frequent hallmarks of contemporary-to-then social relevance, sympathetic characters, and above all, quality writing. Whether you’re a hard core Leaper or a casual fan, there’s something to be said for “The Color of Truth.”
5. Shock Theater
Original airdate: 5/22/91
Things take a terrifying Leap for the worse, when Sam is a 1950s mental patient seconds away from receiving shock treatment. He barely utters an “Oh Boy” before electricity courses through his head, and all this before the opening theme song.
“Shock Theater”is a race against time, as Sam relives the personalities of people he has Leaped into over the previous three years. And as if it can’t get any worse, Al is in danger of losing contact forever as Sam’s brain spirals further out of control; all this in full view of a very confused staff of doctors. Re-watching the episode’s tense final moments brought back the same rush of emotions I had as a 14-year-old sitting at the edge of my bed. There’s only one way to describe this third season finale: shocking!
4. A Leap for Lisa
Original airdate: 5/20/92
An officer’s wife is found murdered on a beach, leaving Al’s life and very existence on the line. When Sam Leaps into Al as a 23-year-old naval pilot, things quickly unravel when he inadvertently alters history, causing the young cadet to stand trial for a murder he never committed. Time is literally of the essence, when Sam must solve a murder, quickly patch-up history, or watch his best buddy die in the gas chamber.
If that weren’t enough, lifelines ebb and flow throughout this mind-bending episode, Al briefly vanishes from the future, and Roddy McDowall (Planet of the Apes) even shows up as an alternate history Project Observer. Yes folks, this episode brought the “wibbly-wobbly, timey-wimey” long before a certain Time Lord ever uttered those words.
Original airdate: 11/22/89
This second season gem has Sam inhabiting Jimmy LaMotta, a dockworker with Down Syndrome in 1964. Jimmy’s brother Frank has recently gotten him out of an institution in a last-ditch attempt to integrate him back into society. But, as usual with Quantum Leap, things are never as easy as they seem.
Frank’s wife wants Jimmy sent back to the institution, and the dockworkers are relentless in their vicious taunts against the brothers. If things don’t improve fast, Sam learns from Al that Jimmy will spend the rest of his life back at the institution. “Jimmy” speaks to us not only because of its realistic portrayal of the plight of disabled, but the way it teaches us that if we just look close enough, Leap or no Leap, deep down every one is really the same.
Original airdate: 5/9/90
To say this episode is heart-breaking is an understatement. “M.I.A.” is only one of a handful of episodes that really deal with Al’s past, and to understand this episode is really to understand Al. As a San Diego rookie cop in 1969, Sam has to figure out what is real and what is not. Al keeps saying that he’s there to save a naval nurse named Beth from remarrying and abandoning her M.I.A husband, but Sam suspects otherwise.
At its conclusion, we’re left with the realization that the husband was a young Al, and he was trying all along to manipulate time to his own advantage. The real reason for Sam’s Leap is superfluous to the episode’s final moments, when Al takes one final dance with the woman he loves to the tune of Ray Charles’s “Georgia.” Although he’s a hologram, in this moment, Al was all human.
1. The Leap Home (Part One)
Original airdate: 9/28/90
To his stunned amazement, Sam Leaps into himself as a teenager in 1970. His father and brother are alive, his mom is as caring as she ever was, his sister has yet to meet her abusive husband, and the family farm in Indiana remains.
However, the joy he feels is fleeting, thanks as usual to Al, who tells him that he’s not there to save them, but to win the big Thanksgiving basketball game he long ago lost. The theme of “you can’t go home again” plays heavily, and it takes a tough love session from Al for Sam to realize how lucky he actually is.
In the end, he treasures one last Thanksgiving dinner with his family, wins the big game, and knows that his father will eventually die of a heart attack and his brother will be killed in Vietnam. This episode remains firmly in my heart, and is also Scott Bakula’s personal favorite. Its imagery and music, coupled with the core bond of Sam and Al, make this an episode to have a box of tissues close by. While Sam wasn’t able to go home again, he was able to briefly say hello.
So there you have it, folks. In my opinion, these are the top ten episodes of Quantum Leap. While I debated putting the first (“Genesis”) and last episodes (“Mirror Image”) in this list, in the end I feel the 10 I chose represent the highs of the show and when it was at its personal best.
Quantum Leap was daring, innovative, and the concept was way outside the box for its time. It’s to its credit that the show lasted as long as it did, and that the series still holds a warm fuzzy place within people and pop culture. There aren’t many shows on now that speak from a core message of good and positivity for the world. Its mission was pure, and along the way many, many people came along for its five-year ride. So, Mr. Bakula, Mr. Stockwell, and Mr. Bellisario? A toast to Quantum Leap!