I recently finished my Quantum Leap rewatch. I purposely eked out the five seasons, as, despite the dated effects and inconsistent internal logic, it is, and will likely remain, my favourite TV show of all time.
Before I go on, be warned, I am going to discuss the series quite freely, so there’s obviously going to be spoilers.
Quantum Leap stars Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist who gets lost in time after a time travel experiment, “leaping” into people to “put right what once went wrong”. Sam’s only link with his own time is Project Quantum Leap Observer Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), who appears as a hologram that only he can see and hear.
It has everything I could want from a 45 minute show: comedy, drama, action, thrills, social commentary, romance, vaguely plausible science, philosophy… and most importantly, the charming and earnest Dr. Beckett, who as I’ve already mentioned, is one of my top TV boyfriends.
Sam is truly a juicy role – Bakula has to inhabit a new character every week, while differentiating and developing the show’s protagonist. He has to be sincere, funny, romantic, vulnerable, heroic, and in touch with his feminine side, which he likely found a whole lot easier than the heels and hairdos he had to sport in the process! Not to mention that he has a “Swiss-cheesed” memory, and knew almost nothing about himself at the beginning of the series.
The rewatch only confirmed my love for Quantum Leap – and Dr. Beckett. It’s obvious how original and important it was in its day, in terms of influence and legacy. I see distinct echoes in Tru Calling, Dollhouse (two Eliza Dushku shows!), Journeyman, Day Break, Sliders… the list goes on.
However, not everything was quite how I remembered. Some parts were worse, and some parts were better. Much better.
It’s hard to pick a favourite, but at a push I’d single out “What Price Gloria?” (2.4). “Gloria” marked the first time Sam found himself in a female host – coincidentally also called Sam(antha). Poor Sam, burdened with the appearance of being an extremely attractive secretary in the 1960s, had to simultaneously fend off the unwanted attentions of his lecherous boss (as well as the smitten Al!) and prevent Samantha’s colleague and friend Gloria from committing suicide after romantic disappointment with aforementioned boss.
It wasn’t the storyline itself that was especially compelling, but Sam’s handling of his tiresome allure. He had absolutely no patience for any man that tried to grab him, threatening “to break their faces”.
I also highly regard “Miss Deep South” (3.6) and “A Song for the Soul” (4.15). In the former, Sam leaps into a beauty contestant who must protect a fellow contestant – the image of Sam posing in a onepiece is one I’m happy to have emblazoned on my mind forever. In “Soul”, Sam is part of a Supreme-like trio, and seeing him endure the dance routines had me in stitches.
At this juncture, I’d like to address what Quantum Leap is often charged with – of being a White Guy Saves the Day show. TV is certainly rife with those, and I won’t deny Quantum Leap can be viewed as such, particularly in episodes in which he leaps into: women, ethnic minorities, children, those physically or mentally impaired. And especially as his nemesis, the Evil Leaper Alia, is a woman – as is her counterpart to Al.
However, I think that what’s important is that Quantum Leap raises these issues to begin with, and, by having Sam leap into such hosts, allows viewers to spend 45 minutes or so considering a point of view that we may or may not have otherwise, that of a woman in the workplace pre-liberation, a pregnant teen without support, a black man during race riots, a young man with Down’s syndrome striving for independence.
In addition, Sam doesn’t nanny these hosts – he just gives them another chance. They’re the ones that will live their lives, while Sam continues leaping into white and black, male and female, etc, alike. Wouldn’t it be more criminal if he only leapt into other White Guys? Would his heroism only be acceptable if he was disadvantaged in some way? I could argue as he’s largely disembodied, he hardly reaps any of the presumed advantages of being a White Guy anyway. Sure he’s strong and super-intelligent, but that isn’t necessarily contingent on the colour of his skin and the shape of his genitals.
Returning to our regular programming, as you can see, I’ve got a weakness for the show’s comic side. (And cross-dressing in general.) However, besides the funny drag episodes, I commend the ones that center on Al – “MIA” (2.22) and “A Leap for Lisa” (4.22) – thus allowing him character development . After all, where would Sam be without his wisecracking, loud-suited, much-married and skirt-chasing Observer?
In fact we find that out in “Lisa”, in which Sam leaps into a young Al, who is on trial for the rape and murder of his commander’s wife. After accidentally landing Al with a death sentence, Sam is saddled with Edward St. John (Roddy McDowell), a decidedly dour Observer. Luckily it all works out in the end.
And “MIA” contains the most bittersweet moment in the entire series. Al attempts to use Sam’s leap to save his own marriage to his first – and most beloved – wife Beth, who, believing Al to have died in Vietnam, remarried two years before he was finally released from war camp, and disappeared into the ether. (Although I find that hard to believe, as tracking her down should have been a piece of cake for Ziggy, the rainbow-coloured supercomputer that assists Sam and Al with figuring out what’s what). Sam eventually gets his mission back on track – just – at the expense of Al’s deepest wish. At the end of the episode, after Sam has leapt, Al sticks around (it’s here you learn that Al can go to wherever he wants to in time…!) and “dances” with Beth, who seems to sense his presence.
Other episodes worth singling out are “Runaway” (3.11, Sam gets smacked around by his older sister!), “Glitter Rock” (3.17, Sam does glam rock!), “The Play’s the Thing” (4.11, Sam does a cougar!), “Running for Honor” (4.12, Sam does gayness!), and “Return of the Evil Leaper” (5.15, post-Dougie Houser-pre-HIMYM NPH!).
Of course, there are also episodes I’m glad I’d forgotten. It’s not like they were the worst TV ever, but they didn’t measure up to Quantum Leap’s exacting standards… and reeked of desperation. It’s not too surprising that most of the offenders belonged to the latter seasons, as the show approached cancellation.
Among my least favourites are the one where Sam leaps into a space chimp (“The Wrong Stuff”, 4.7, never has a title been so on the nose) and the one where Sam has a Japanese bride in the 50s (“The Americanization of Machiko”, 2.3) – I’m not sure what was worse, the show’s own unintentional Orientalism on top of the antagonists’ racism, or the annoying scarlet harlot that kept trying to rape Sam. “Dreams” (4.8) and “Temptation Eyes” (4.13) are also episodes that best suit multitasking.
Season 5 was pretty much the season of celebrity leaps, a creative decision I understand but lament. The “Lee Harvey Oswald” two parter (5.1) was so dreary and documentary-like, especially Sam’s rather convenient mind-merge with Oswald and even more convenient leap out just before he was compelled to shoot JFK.
Similarly, the Elvis episode (“Memphis Melody”, 5.20), left me cold – to my intense surprise, as I thought I’d really enjoy seeing Bakula do Elvis. (After all, I’ve managed to tolerate several Nic Cage attempts.) While there was nothing (too) wrong with Sam’s crooning and grooving, I just didn’t give a toss about the supposed mission – he had to help a young female songwriter realise her own dreams while ensuring Elvis still got discovered – especially as he essentially failed halfway through, and then the episode really became about him trying to get Elvis back on track.
And while I more enjoyed “Goodbye Norma Jean” (5.17), the Marilyn Monroe episode (in which Sam leaps into her chauffeur), it also felt unnecessary, with its positing that Marilyn originally died earlier and didn’t make The Misfits with Clark Gable. I much prefer Quantum Leap when it sticks to “ordinary” people, rather than saddling itself with the thankless task of mediocre impersonation and celebrity cosseting.
The biggest disappointment of all was the Trilogy (“One Little Heart”, “For Your Love”, “The Last Door”, 5.7-9), particularly as I was looking forward to revisiting it. I remembered it as epic and gripping. However, it was irritating and convoluted. The only upside was that the subsequent episodes more or less acted like Trilogy never happened – which also makes it more disappointing and unnecessary.
I suppose the ultimate point of Trilogy was to give Sam a child – Sammy Jo, whom he conceived with Abagail Fuller, the “cursed” subject of his three consecutive leaps in the same small town in different decades, and at different points in Abagail’s life, from when she was 11 to when she was a mother with a daughter the same age (Sammy Jo). Sam acts as her father, fiance and lawyer respectively, each time having to save Abagail’s life, as she is constantly accused of murder and at risk of arson, lynching and the electric chair.
Unfortunately, Abagail was the main problem with Trilogy. She was largely unlikeable, and as child, downright creepy, with a violent temper, which made her seem capable of murder. (I’m guessing they asked Kimberly Cullum to play it like that, Sammy Jo, whom she also played, was a few notches more bearable.) As an adult (Melora Hardin), Abagail’s whole character seemed to be about being in lust/love with her future husband, and wanting to not be alone and be taken care of.
Sam was the next big problem, as a result of the strange and unrealistic characterization of Abagail. Quantum Leap only works if you love Sam, and support his various crusades. But he was just so WEIRD in Trilogy. It took me awhile to figure out that he was meant to be Abagail’s cop father, and just when I had gotten used to that (weak) dynamic, he actually leapt INTO (I kid you not) Abagail, in the body of Will Kinman, her fiancé.
Worst of all, he didn’t seem to feel at all uncomfortable about switching so suddenly from father to lover of the same person, something he’s never done before. Sure, the old Swiss-cheese effect may explain some of this lack of concern for incest, but he certainly realized that it was Abagail, as he commented on her transition from scared little girl to “glorious” young woman. Plus it’s never pleasant to see Sam in sexual addiction mode – maybe I’m just jealous but he’s typically highly respectful and almost Boy Scout-like – which is how I like him. You want Sam to be doing what he does for a higher cause – not his nether regions.
The third worst part of Trilogy was main antagonist Leta Aider, who believed that Abagail had killed her daughter and husband, and later attempted to frame the latter for her suicide. Obviously, Leta was meant to be abhorrent, but she was just too over the top evil, and hard to watch sometimes, with her constant grousing and self-pitying. After all, she had real grounds to be bitter, after losing her whole family and never getting resolution. And later it does turn out that her ire was rightfully directed at the Fullers, even if she had the wrong one in her crosshairs. Quantum Leap normally has a more nuanced approach to villains – by making Leta one-note, it felt like they were trying to cheat the audience into sympathizing with Abagail, instead of better developing Abagail herself.
Finally, I found Will’s stutter – and Sam’s emulation of it – hard to bear. Combined with the above elements, the entire Trilogy was an assault on my senses and nerves, and stretched my suspension of disbelief to breaking point. The only part I liked was Meg Foster’s performance as Abagail’s institutionalized mother Laura, who ultimately held the key to her daughter’s true freedom.
Laura was haunting and sympathetic, especially when she took to the stand for her daughter. Now, if only they’d taken a bit of her characterization and shared it with Abagail and Leta… Really, Trilogy was like Sam leaping around in a bad Virginia Andrews novel, and as much as I enjoy Flowers in the Attic, that’s just all wrong for a series of its calibre.
However, one episode did come off a lot better than I remembered. The final one, “Mirror Image”, in which Sam leaps into himself on the day he was born, in a strange mining town, with familiar strangers and a philosopher-psychic-psychiatrist bartender called Al (played by Bruce McGill, who was in the very first episode too).
When I first watched this, I was incredibly unsatisfied. It felt like a cop-out ending, a premature finale for a series that should have gone on much longer.
What happens is that Al the Bartender essentially tells Sam it’s up to him if he wants to stop leaping, and that it’s only going to get much harder. (There’s already foreshadowing for the increasing difficulty with the frequency of Sam’s mind merging with hosts). And that Sam’s done more good than he could ever imagine – each of the lives he’s enhanced have enhanced other lives in their turn, and so on. So our intrepid leaper seems to decide not to return home, and instead asks that he be given the chance to fix the one wrong he never even tried to fix… telling Beth, Al’s first and most-loved wife, that Al WILL come home to her. So Beth waits, and she and Al have four kids (instead of Al’s countless marriages).
But, as the final line of the epilogue reads:
Dr Samuel Beckett never returned home.
I found that unbearable the first time, because I felt I was OWED Sam returning home, that HE more than deserved it for all the good he had done. It would have been so easy for them to just let him, to give the viewers a proper ending, some real closure! So I braced myself for feeling that all over again. And yet, this time around, it was the perfect ending.
Perhaps it was because I got the sense that the show had come to a natural end anyway, that it was running out of steam, with more duds than goodies in the fourth and fifth seasons… but it was also because Sam had become so much more than just a man who wanted to return home. Who better to improve the world one life at a time than all-singing, all-dancing Dr. Sam, well-endowed with a bottomless well of compassion and the kindest brown eyes ever?
Best of all, the ending properly recognised that Quantum Leap was never just about Sam, but about Sam and Al, who have possibly the most beautiful bromance that ever grace the small screen. More than once, Sam, has – unintentionally – let Al down. When he went to Vietnam, he inadvertently saved his brother’s life instead of taking the opportunity to rescue Al from POW camp. When he leaped into a teenaged Al, he almost sent him to death row. (Any others?). But by giving Al back his Beth, Sam repaid his friend’s loyalty in spades.
With this open ending, it’s like Sam is still out there, with a flamboyantly dressed Al by his side, putting right what once went wrong. And I find that idea, however whimsical, enormously comforting.