Quantum Leap: When Can a Leaper Change Fate?

Leapers change history but only in small ways, but when can the rules be bent or broken on Quantum Leap?

Sam and Ben from Quantum Leap.
Photo: NBC

This article contains spoilers for Quantum Leap season 2 episode 11 “The Outsider.”

Fate. The main narrative thrust of the original and new Quantum Leap is changing fate. To put right what once went wrong. That doesn’t mean that Leapers like Sam (Scott Bakula) and Ben (Raymond Lee) can just change anything they want however. When Leapers are given their missions they’re often small, helping individual lives instead of making changes on a global scale. Why? Why can’t a Leaper, who’s supposed to make the world better, change bigger parts of the fate of history?

Season 2 episode 11 of the new Quantum Leap, “The Outsider” brings this question to the forefront. In the two previous episodes, Ben had learned current love interest Hannah’s husband was going to die of heart disease. In a full Back to the Future moment, Ben writes a letter to Hannah before that happens so she can prevent it. In “The Outsider” Ben asks Addison (Caitlin Bassett) for an update. She informs him that while Hannah was able to prevent her husband dying from heart disease, he still died in a car accident a year after that. Despite Ben’s attempt to rewrite history, it didn’t change. 

Does this mean there are some points in time that are fixed? That no matter what a Leaper does they can’t be changed? At first this is what the original series stuck to, especially in Season 2 episode 1, “Honeymoon Express.” There, a government committee puts Project Quantum Leap in danger when they aren’t impressed with the small changes Sam’s made to history and threaten to shut down the Project. Al (Dean Stockwell) attempts to explain that Sam can’t change, “anything beyond individual lives.”

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Al isn’t believed and is forced to get Sam to use a leap, originally meant to help a woman pass her bar exam, for something bigger. To stop the 1960 U-2 incident from occurring and thus dramatically curtail the Cold War. Sam, who firmly states he can only impact individual lives, isn’t able to manage this anyway. However in helping the woman pass her bar exam Sam inadvertently changed history in a way he didn’t expect. Time changes and that same woman becomes the leader of the government committee that was threatening the Project, which now, under her leadership, supports it.

This means that small changes can lead to bigger changes that make everything work out in the end, right? Well, not exactly. In Season 3 episode 1 of the original Quantum Leap, “The Leap Home, Part 1,” Sam leaps into his younger self. Al explains that Sam’s mission is to simply win a basketball game which, in the long run, would improve the life of his coach and fellow players but Sam doesn’t care about that. He’s focused on the opportunity to stop his dad from dying of a coronary, his sister marrying an abusive alcoholic, and his brother, Tom (David Newsom), dying in Vietnam. Al reminds Sam this can’t be done, that in the season 2 finale of the original series they tried to change history so Al’s first wife, Beth, wouldn’t marry someone else after she presumed he was dead in Vietnam but no matter what they tried it didn’t work.

Sam presses on with his family but no matter what he does, history doesn’t change. It’s fate. Resigning himself to this, Sam wins the basketball game but ends up leaping into Vietnam in “The Leap Home, Part II.” Fate seemingly gave Sam another chance and this time he succeeded, preventing Tom’s death but at a heavy price. A photojournalist, Maggie, dies when she hadn’t in the original history before Sam leapt in. As Sam regretfully puts it, “I traded a life for a life.”

Fate can be changed, but only with sacrifice. This comes up again in the original Quantum Leap finale, “Mirror Image” where Sam is given the chance to finally go home before returning to even “tougher” leaps. While the episode is intentionally vague, one interpretation is that Sam gives up this chance to return home in exchange for changing history for Al. Sam does so and Beth and Al stay married, changing what had originally been thought to be an unalterable part of history. Sam sacrificed his chance to get home to make life better for Al, just like he sacrificed Maggie in Vietnam to keep his brother alive. 

A way to change fate in a big way seems to be sacrifice, an idea that was broached earlier in the second season of the new series. In episode 4, “The Lonely Hearts Club,” government auditor Tom (Peter Gadiot, a different character from Sam’s brother in the original series) speculated, “what if sacrifice is the price we have to pay for change?”

In that episode this was in the context of “sacrifice,” being the reason a Leaper can’t get home. Still, Tom’s speculation can also apply to why bigger changes in fate can occur with sacrifice. 

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Ben could still save Hannah’s husband but it would cost him. Is Ben willing to pay that price, without knowing what it could be? Perhaps that price has already come to collect, what with Addison and Tom’s relationship falling apart and Magic (Ernie Hudson) being forced to resign from the Project.

But what counts as a change in history that requires a sacrifice and one that doesn’t?  What’s the line when a change in history becomes too big or isn’t “fated” to happen? In “The Outsider” Ben’s actions not only turn a struggling reporter’s career around but saves thousands of people from exposure to a deadly weed killer. Is that not a huge change? 

There’s still a lot about how leaping works when it comes to fate that hasn’t been made clear in both the original and new Quantum Leap. After all, in “Mirror Image” Sam was told that the people he helped in small ways touched other people’s lives for the better and those lives touched others. We may never get a definitive answer but no matter if history can be changed or not, Ben sums up perfectly in “The Outsider” what a Leaper needs to do no matter what.

“Sometimes things don’t go the way we want them to. People leave us. People die. But that doesn’t mean you stop trying to do the right thing.

New episodes of Quantum Leap season 2 premiere Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on NBC.

(Special thanks to the “Als Place – A Quantum Leap Fansite” for their image archive of the series.)