One of our summer traditions is to binge-watch a show, or two, depending on the number of episodes. On a few occasions, we’ve picked a show that’s been on a while, and we binge watch from the beginning to get caught up. (e.g., We’d never watched NCIS, until the first 8 or 9 seasons dropped on Netflix. Same with Madame Secretary.) But usually we’ll pick a show we’ve never seen, or one we loved and want to see again. Sometimes, I write about our intrepid viewing exploits.
For my birthday back in March, I got the blu-ray DVD boxed set of Quantum Leap, so we decided to re-watch all five seasons. I’ve been a fan of this show since it premiered as a mid-season replacement back in March of 1989. It ran until May of 1993, when it was surreptitious cancelled.
The premise of the show is stated in a voice-over at the beginning of each episode:
"Theorizing that one can time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator...and vanished. He awoke 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 or 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."
Dr. Sam Beckett is a brilliant scientist, with multiple degrees, including medicine. He developed Project Quantum Leap and the technology to time travel. When the show premiered, it was set in the near-future, though we’re not sure the exact date. Based on the age of Dr. Beckett, and the fact he can only travel with his own lifetime, and references in later episodes, it’s mid- to late 90s.
(Which is now our past.)
Each time Sam leaps—the term for his jaunts through time—it leaves gaps in his memory of his own time, his own life. They refer to it as “swiss-cheese” brain. Admiral Albert “Al” Calavicci, who only Sam can see, is not allowed to tell Sam about the future, especially Sam’s. In fact, we learn through the series there are many “rules” in the time travel mission, such as not interfering with their own past. We also see those rules can be…violated, but there are consequences.
Author’s note: While Al, the hologram, is usually only visible to Sam, we learn he can be seen by young children, animals and some mentally challenged people.
No one knows why…or how…Sam leaps into the people he does, though it doesn’t seem random. Sam and Al come to attribute it to some cosmic force, often even relegating the leaping actions to the divine. Or an anthropomorphic choice by Time, or the Universe. Regardless, Sam must change the history, or he’s stuck in that time and in that life. Also, if he’s there to save the person’s life he inhabits, and he fails, Sam will die as well.
On the surface, it sounds a bit strange, but this is not your average science-fiction show about people going back in time, trying to change history. Don’t let the “string theory quantum physics” or time-travel elements scare you off; those are not the emphasis of this show. In fact, Quantum Leap is really not about the science, and avoids getting bogged down in history.
The show concentrates on the lives of people Dr. Beckett is there to help. Once he “leaps” into the body…and life…of someone, he and Al must determine why Sam is there, and what he needs to do change their history. (i.e., prevent them from dying, help them with the courage to stand up, such as convincing a radio station owner to defy the wishes of a narrow-minded town council and play “roll and roll music”) Some have labeled it another “rescue of the week” show, like Touched by an Angel or Highway to Heaven. (UGH!) I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment, but it is a show about helping people, and it’s often people in dire, desperate or deadly situation. More than that, Quantum Leap emphasizes acceptance of our differences. Each show was the (literal) embodiment of the old cliché: “walk a mile in my shoes.”
And that includes a wide variety of interesting, mostly ordinary people:
An elderly black man facing the prejudices of the 1950s Alabama.
A boy with Downs Syndrome trying to hold down his first job, surrounded by those who see only his disability.
An unwed pregnant teen who wants to enlist her own father’s help so she can keep her baby.
A southern beauty queen and pageant contestant who makes a bad choice to get publicity.
A mental patient being abused in a treatment facility.
A woman trying to prove she was raped by the high school’s popular football star.
A black doctor in love with a white woman in a time and place where that was not popular.
A young cadet, accused of being gay, trying to prevent the death of a friend who was kicked out of the academy for his sexual orientation. (Note: See additional information on this one at the end of the post.)
Clearly, the show was unafraid of addressing social issues…from the inside.
(Inside. See what I did there? I crack me up!)
Whether it was the Vietnam war, inequality of pay for women, homophobia, bullying, the cruelty of animal testing, or the worst forms of bigotry, the show confronted it with humanity.
And to add some interest, Sam doesn’t always leap into the life of the “good guy.” He’s a hit man, a crooked law enforcement officer, and once, he actually leaps into the life of a Klansman, and has to witness their hatred, and what it’s doing to his family…especially his young son.
There are more than enough heart-tugging moments to merit keeping a box of tissues nearby.
But not every episode had those heavy themes; that would be exhausting. Some were fun, and a few were…strange. Sam leaps into a hunky young actor who’s living with an older woman with a dream of becoming a singer. Or he’s a veterinarian, trying to save a prize pig. A blind pianist. A stand-in for a drunk lead actor.
And there were time when tiny interactions brought significant results. He taught a young Michael Jackson how to moonwalk, helped a struggling Buddy Holly with the lyrics to his first hit song, gave Chubby Checker Twist lesson, and (regrettably) inspired a young Donald Trump to go into real estate.
I admit to being a huge fan of Scott Bakula. He is multi-talented, and the show often showcased this. He can sing, play the piano and the guitar, and write music. (He was nominated for a Tony for a Broadway musical!) He has a nice body, and it seemed to be in his contact that at least once every few episodes, he’d be shirtless. (Not that I’m complaining!) Any episode that featured him leaping into a female was amusing. Sam/Scott in a dress…not for drag…was fun to watch.
One of the best elements of the show (besides Scott being shirtless) is the music. This show had an incredible, era-driven soundtracks on TV that tied the story to the time of history.
Author’s Note: When the entire series came out of on DVD back in 2004, I was excited and purchased it, much to my disappointment. To me, it looked like a quick, cheap efforts by NBC Universal that diminished this fun show. Besides the fact the episodes were recorded on the front and back of the discs, diminishing the quality, most of the original soundtrack had been removed, replaced with innocuous songs that tried to capture the historic era of that episode, but missed the rich texture of having actual music…by the real artists…of that day. I’m sure it was a cost-cutting measure, but I thought it was like eliminating a major character in the story.
(That’s why I encourage those who want to watch it to skip that early DVD set and opt for the blu-ray. You don’t want to miss the music!)
Re-watching the series brought a few revelations. And some cringes. The show didn’t shy away from words that would be offensive outside the historic context. The n-word was frequent. And while appropriate in its use, it was hard to hear. As was retarded, queer, faggot, and sissy. Not to mention all the chauvinistic terms talking to women.
I must suffer from my own form of swiss-cheese brain, because I’d forgotten how sexist and misogynistic Al was in the show. He is the classic horndog (operative word = horny!), and so demeaning to women. (Maybe that’s why he was married five times!) Honestly, it got tedious. And made even more confusing by Al’s clear defense of feminism in the show.
And like most shows, there are times when I had to wonder if this leap actually “jumped the sharp.”
Sam becoming real people, like Dr. Ruth, Elvis, or Lee-Harvey Oswald.
Ghosts and vampires
A visit to the Civil War, which was definitely not in Sam’s lifetime.
Evil leapers, working to disrupt history
Sam’s guardian angel
About that final episode:
Quantum Leap fans, known as Leapers, have mixed reactions to the finale. They felt cheated, and for good reason. First and foremost, that was never supposed to be how the series ended. The creator of the show, Donald Bellisario, wrote an episode that could serve as the end of the season, and with additional scenes that could end the series. But then a last minute decision came to cancel QL, and scenes were scrapped. The episode was metaphysical, philosophical and brought up many question questions. We saw some of the folks Sam had helped.
At the end, the editors threw up two placeholders, telling us what had happened to Sam and Al.
It offered some closure, but without much thought.
(In fact, whoever did it even misspelled the name of Dr. Sam Beckett. Seriously?)
I personally didn’t hate the ending. It was poignant, and gave a small amount of closure to me.
(I do know I am not in the majority of Leap fans!)
But if I could leap back in time, I’d make sure we had more answers.
And maybe more of Dr. Beckett…shirtless.
Closing note: I think the episode that dealt with gays in the military—years before that was a reality, in either time period—was amazing. It contains one of my favorite lines from the entire QL series, which is the last line of the episode.
(It happens to be the first line in this video.)
If you’d like a more in-depth analysis, I direct you to Matt Baume, and his Culture Cruise series. He details the ways classic TV (e.g., The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family) handled LGBT issues.
He has this video dedicate to this Quantum Leap episode, and it’s really good.