TV GEMS: Quantum Leap (1989-1993)

Sam Beckett is on a mission to change the past in this beloved sci-fi series. Liam fires up Ziggy to give it another look.

The 1980s provided us with an abundance of much-loved telly classics with instantly recognisable quotes, characters and theme tunes, which cemented their place in pop-culture. We really were spoiled for choice and, as the new decade edged ever closer, there was still time to add one more classic to the long list of 80s greats. Television producer Donald P. Bellisario, whose CV included Magnum P.I. and Airwolf, had a new show to lead us into the 90s, and in March of 1989, Quantum Leap began airing on NBC with the pilot episode “Genesis.”

Set in a futuristic yet stereotypically 80’s 1995, we meet Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), a retired Navy Admiral and notorious womaniser who is driving to a top secret location in the New Mexico desert. He is involved in a project called “Quantum Leap,” a time-travel experiment based on the string theory of his friend Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), which hypothesised that one end of the string represents birth and the other death; attach both ends and you create a loop in time. If you then tangle the string up, so to speak, so that all the days of our lives are crossing over, it might be possible to “‘leap” from era to another within our own lifetime. Al approaches the secret desert base and notices a strange illumination resembling the northern lights in the distance, and a colleague referred to as “Gooshie” (Dennis Wolfberg) contacts him to advise that Sam, a brilliant scientist with six doctoral degrees and an IQ of 267, has prematurely entered the Quantum Leap accelerator. Al advises that the device is not yet ready, but it is too late, as the impetuous Sam – eager to prove the doubters and financiers wrong – suddenly vanishes and is seemingly lost in time.

Al and tech genius Gooshie then use a super computer with access to vast historical data known as “Ziggy” to find Sam and, with the use of a holographic imaging chamber, Al is able to reach the confused Sam who has awoken in the body of a 1956 airforce test pilot, with no recollection of who or where he is. Al the hologram – who can only be seen by Sam, animals and the mentally-challenged – must then help Beckett through the initial “swiss cheese” memory loss and coach him through a life-changing event in another’s past, with the hope that righting a wrong will transport him back to the present. This would be the template for each episode. Sam and Al complete a mission successfully, Sam leaps into the body of someone between 1953 and 1995, and Al operating the handheld Ziggy figures out what Sam has to do in order to make the next leap.

To begin with, Sam would retain his own physical abilities such as in the episode “Nowhere to Run,” in which he leaps into the body of a suicidal Vietnam veteran and amputee. He begins to walk whilst appearing to onlookers as if he is floating. This was altered in later episodes so that Sam would inherit the physical abilities and key personality traits of the individual he was inhabiting, which led to some dramatic storylines such as the excellent two-parter “Lee Harvey Oswald” and the equally good “Timmy,” when Sam leaps into the body of a boy with Downs Syndrome. There are also plenty of lighter moments, such as Sam experiencing a pregnant woman’s hormonal imbalance in the otherwise serious “81⁄2″ from season 3. Sam would also, on occasion, carry over some of his own extensive knowledge and abilities, like showcasing his martial arts talents or his medical knowledge by performing the Heimlich maneuver on Dr. Henry Heimlich himself! Such interaction with famous historical figures saw him inadvertently encourage or inspire Buddy Holly, Marilyn Monroe and even Michael Jackson. These chance encounters are reminiscent of those later seen in Forrest Gump (1994).

The standouts for me are several instalments that involve the personal fates of either Sam or Al, such as  “A Leap for Lisa,” in which Beckett leaps into the younger Al whilst he is on trial for the rape and murder of a naval commander’s wife. Al is sentenced to death, creating an alternate timeline with Roddy McDowell (Planet of the Apes) appearing as Sam’s new hologram partner. There’s also “The Leap Home,” a two-parter in which Sam has the chance to save his brother’s life during the Vietnam War. Another favourite of mine is the 1990 Christmas special “A Little Miracle,” a take on Dickens’ A Christmas Carol that uses Al’s hologram as a ghost to spook a greedy Scrooge-like character.

Quantum Leap was a different beast to shows that audiences were used to seeing throughout the 80s. Bellisario and his writers created a new type of format to usher in the 90s that would appeal to a broader audience and have far more emotional depth. All of this whilst retaining the Boy’s Own spirit that he and rival producers of the period, Glen A. Larson and Stephen J. Cannell, had produced with Knight Rider, The Fall Guy and The A-­Team among others. Quantum Leap actually has far more in common with the excellent Irwin Allen-produced television of the 1960s with titles such as Lost in Space (1965), Land of the Giants (1968) and most notably The Time Tunnel (1966), which actually has a near-identical plot with two men being switched from one period in time to another. The Time Tunnel is a little-known gem that warrants a look if only to compare its similarities with Quantum.

In 2002, there was talk of a TV movie based on Quantum Leap that would have been produced by the SyFy Channel with the hope of leading to a new series, but thankfully that never happened. The story could easily be picked up from where it left off, however, though any potential reboot must surely include both Bakula and Stockwell or suffer the same fate as 2008’s Knight Rider. Personally, as a fan of the original show, I would love to see a straight continuation from the finale in 1993. Both the original leads are still active and available, and the relationship between Sam and Al is what made the show such a success; they are as good a double act as any you’ve seen in a cop show or buddy movie, complimenting each other perfectly. Stockwell playing the wisecracking, lecherous orphan and former prisoner of war with five ex-wives is a backstory worthy of a own spin-off, and Bakula was able to show his extensive acting abilities by playing a multitude of characters as Dr. Sam Beckett. He is a brilliant protagonist that the audience can root for, always hoping that his next leap will be the leap home…

Useless Trivia

(Via IMDb)
  • Scott Bakula ad-libbed the line “Oh boy!” at the end of an episode. The producer liked it so much that it became the signature final line of each episode, as Sam finds himself in a new body.
  • Al’s cigar was the idea of Dean Stockwell, who said it was “a good way to get freecigars for five years.”
  • Sam leaped into the year 1958 eight different times, which made it the most leaped into year during Quantum Leap‘s entire run.
  • Though no special mention is made during the series, with the exception of Gooshie, Project Quantum Leap is run almost entirely by women. They include: Dr. Donna Eleese, Sam’s wife, also a physicist; Dr. Beeks, a medical technician; Teena Martinez, Al’s girlfriend and assistant programmer; an unnamed military envoy; and, though she is never seen, Dr. Sammy Jo Fuller, Sam’s daughter sired during a leap, also a physicist. In addition, Ziggy, the sentient computer that controls the project, displays female characteristics.

Liam Brennan

Film buff, aspiring screenwriter and filmmaker.

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