Sensor Scan: Quantum Leap


I remember quite well when the first trailers for Enterprise debuted. I'll save talking about exactly how much of an event it felt like for me (that's two books from now, after all), but one thing in particular caught my attention straight away: There were these two guys (in *baseball caps*) sitting in what I assumed to be some form of shuttlecraft talking about how the new Warp Drive engine would allow them to go to “Neptune and back in six minutes”. One of those guys looked awfully familiar-Was that...was that who I thought it was?

Omigish it is! It's Scott Bakula! The guy from Quantum Leap is on Star Trek! And he's the new captain! 

Quantum Leap is a show I have fond memories of. It was never something I followed religiously; I was only ever a casual viewer. But it was a show that seemed to always be around, it eventually developed a kind of comfort blanket appeal for me and, in retrospect, seems actually sort of lovely and wonderful. I remember Starlog Magazine covering it back in the day when it was on the air, talking to Bakula, Dean Stockwell and the show's creative team, so it was one of those shows that was one of my early introductions to science fiction. In much later years, I remember it primarily as the lead-in to the Sci-Fi Channel's reruns of the Original Star Trek in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Sometimes I would tune in early to watch a whole episode, while other times I'd just catch the tail end of one before TOS came on. Either way it was something I always enjoyed and appreciated whenever I managed to see it: It always seemed a rather pleasant and charming little series.

A great deal of Quantum Leap's appeal for me comes from Scott Bakula's character, Doctor Sam Backett. He's a quantum physicist heading up a research programme looking into the possibility of time travel, and when the government threatens to shut the project down Beckett protests by throwing himself into the quantum accelerator, “leaping” through the time-space continuum. Thus begins the series' central gimmick: Every episode Beckett “leaps” to a new point in time and *into* the body of a different person. Soon, Beckett and his friend Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell's character) and their AI friend Ziggy (series executive producer and narrator Deborah Pratt) discover that Sam's leaps through time are caused by his behaviour in his present time: In particular, his efforts to right a wrong or correct an injustice that subtly alter the course of history. Upon this revelation, Sam is emboldened to keep leaping through the timeline to do what he can to change history for the better.

It's this simple, unpretentious conviction to do good, to be a good person and to do what you can, no matter how humble the act, to make the universe a better place in your own small way that makes Sam such an endearing character for me. He's honestly, genuinely, sincerely a nice guy, and it helps Scott Bakula is the perfect actor for the job: He consistently, doggedly conveys this and drives it home each and every time for 97 episodes and five seasons. Sam is so likable and sympathetic he naturally, and entirely appropriately, becomes the narrative singularity around which the whole of Quantum Leap's universe revolves-Not only do a lot of stories end up dealing with his own life, but he's understandably the primary reason we want to tune in and keep watching. This helps the show in other ways too, as Quantum Leap's sci-fi convictions are in truth little more than a framing device to tell a series of anthology tales, the creators fearing they wouldn't be able to sell such a series without such a conceit. It's Sam Beckett's good nature and Scott Bakula's affable and incredibly attractive charisma that link together all these wildly disparate personal vignettes about otherwise unrelated people.

In some ways, Quantum Leap serves as a much more elegant and streamlined version of Doctor Who, another series that, at its best, is basically just an anthology show with a science fiction framing device. Quantum Leap's advantage here is its staunch rejection of serialization, thus meaning there's no way it's going to inherit a huge surplus of continuity baggage to make it intimidating for new viewers: You could tune in entirely at random, as I did, and still get a great deal of enjoyment out of Quantum Leap's done-in-one morality plays and character dramas. It's an entirely functional and effective approach to sci-fi television that dates all the way back to The Twilight Zone. But I think what appeals to me the most about Quantum Leap at the stage of life I'm at right now is what I read its values and beliefs to be in the most general: This is a show about a person wandering through time and space, guided by the universe to do good deeds and leave the collective unconsciousness of humanity a little better off then when he got there. Sometimes Sam must do things that seem counterinutitive or live through events that are traumatic or hurtful in the short term, but history is always the better off for it in the end. It's a lesson Kei and Yuri would not at all find foreign, and the moment I realised this, Quantum Leap's stature in the pantheon of my half-remembered pop culture memories shot up quite a bit.

I don't have a ton of specific episodes of this show I remember especially vividly. Quantum Leap was always something I enjoyed in the aggregate and I don't have any real lasting or formative memories of it. I do recall not really liking whenever they did so-called “Kisses with History” episodes where Sam is injected into real, actual documented historical events-My distaste for this kind of story comes from the same place as my baseline rejection of historical fiction as a genre that I talked about *way* back in the first volume in the context of “Balance of Terror”. There was at least one episode where Sam lept into the body of a pregnant woman I remember finding...interesting. But the one episode I want to highlight in particular I just found out about now when I was doing research for this piece to refresh my memory: The fourth season finale is an episode called “A Leap For Lisa”, in which Sam leaps into the body of a young Al, at risk of being court martialed for a murder he didn't commit. Al can't prove his innocence without revealing he'd been having an affair with an army nurse named Lisa Sherman while they were both married ( other people).

What makes this story noteworthy, apart from the strong character moments for Sam and Al, is the character of Lisa. In the original, “bad” course of events she dies in a car accident, but Sam's intervention keeps her alive. At first it seems like this has actually made things worse, as this new set of events leads to Al getting convicted and executed. But Sam manages to change history a second time by finding a key piece of evidence that creates a timeline where both Lisa *and* Al live.

By the way, Lisa is played by Terry Farrell.

Lisa is no Cat to be sure, but Farrell is every bit as coquettishly and provocatively sexual and every bit as magnetically energetic as she is in every other part she plays. And of course, I can't get over how giddy it makes me to find out that one of my favourite men and one of my favourite women were in an production together, and they even play lovers!

(There's an additional level of poignancy here for me in having a character played by Scott Bakula saving the life of a character played by Terry Farrell in order to bring about a better future. That hits at a number of levels and will prove somewhat heartrendingly prophetic.)

Utopianism need not be an ideal state. It need not even be a roadmap to such things. “Utopianism is a framework for utopias”, in the words of Robert Nozick, and maybe utopianism also means doing small things for each other to make everyone's lives a little happier, a little more hopeful and a little more wonderful. Maybe we can't leap through time like Sam Beckett or journey to the stars like Jonathan Archer, but we all travel through time and space together every day and the effect is the same. The future is always now, and it's always been on us to make it a good one.


BadCatMan 5 years, 10 months ago

Oh boy.

I was waiting to see if you cover Quantum Leap, and was meaning to ask if you would. Because I've been thinking about it all this time in preparation.

I loved Quantum Leap as a kid, but didn't remember too much about it. I think I lived for the reveals of who Sam was that week or next week. Later, I was dismayed that some younger SF fans had never seen it or knew about it, then realised how much older I actually was. I rewatched the whole series a few years ago. The daytime movie drama stories usually didn't really do it for me then (I'm too much of an SF&F geek, though I can get into emotional storylines if there's a spaceship or something for a lead-in), and it was too limited to modern American history and genres, but I was more intrigued by the mystical aspects and the very different approach to time travel. I wish there'd been more background and explanation, but maybe that's the SF geek in me.

There don't seem to be many or even any SF series that go out of their way to change history, even Doctor Who, but Quantum Leap is based on it. And then, rather than big historical changes, it's just changing and improving one life at a time to make the world a better place. The most important thing is ensuring someone isn't a bit miserable the rest of their life. It's a nice idea. It's probably a more reliable means of altering history anyway. I imagine Sam's timeline as a great big knot of string, with Sam slowly unpicking it, one loop at a time.

It avoids big history and big names, most of the time, bar the few Kisses with History. I think these were generally subverted. The big one would be "Lee Harvey Oswald" (where Sam mostly leaps into Oswald himself.) In the end, he fails to save John F Kennedy, but that wasn't the point – he was meant to save Jackie. (The episode's also semi-autobiographical – series creator Bellasario clashed with Oswald when he was a marine.)

A lot of time travel fiction talks about chaos theory and the butterfly effect, how a butterfly flapping its wings here starts a destructive storm there, how a small change will have a huge, disastrous change. Bradbury's "A Sound of Thunder" is the classic here. Which ignores that butterflies flap their wings all the time. Actual chaos theory shows how chaotic systems are sensitive to even small perturbations, but also quite resilient to small and large perturbations. The oddly butterfly-shaped plots of chaotic systems just keep coming back to the shapes. Other time travellers avoid stepping on butterflies or don't notice, but Sam comes along and picks them up and lets them fly.

There's something mystical about him stepping into other people's lives, seeing through their eyes, acquiring memories and feelings from each, and being enlightened by it (though it's suggested he's an angel and God's sending him on his path, which is a bit too Christian).

Plus there's the bravery of putting a straight white man into the bodies of women, black men, black women. A gay man. A mentally disabled person. A rape victim. Oh, and even a chimp. Generally it seemed (to me, at least) to be handled well.

Dean Stockwell appeared in Enterprise once, in the episode "Detained" as a prison camp governor holding Archer captive.

I would have loved to see an episode of Enterprise open with Archer looking at a mirror and saying "Oh boy." Or near the end see him ask a blank wall why he hasn't leaped yet. Quantum leaping would have been the perfect solution to the Temporal Cold War.

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EclecticDave 5 years, 10 months ago

I loved this series when I was younger and it's on my "watch the whole thing again" list for if I ever find the time (it's on Netflix, at least last time I checked).

Although often derided for its "silly" episodes, there were a number of stand out episodes, however the final will be the one that always stays with me. (Note: SPOILERS!)

It's in that episode that it's revealed that nothing is forcing Sam to leap other than Sam himself - he could have gone home at any time if he'd ever been selfish enough to put himself before all the people he could help. While previously his sense of moral obligation was subconsciously keeping him Leaping, even after he knows where he stands he's still unable to allow himself to go home - instead (in tears, no less) choosing to fix the one time he feels he was selfish, in the two part story "The Leap Home", where he saves his brother when he should have been saving Al. Of course the series then ends in the only way it ever could - with the words "and Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home".

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David Faggiani 5 years, 10 months ago

Hey, so I'm a big Star Trek fan, particularly of DS9. I've never seen 'A Leap for Lisa', but, given the summary you provide, isn't that the plot of a first-season DS9 episode? Where Jadzia Dax (Terry Farrell, of course) is on trial for a murder Curzon may have committed, and the only escape for her is (SPOILERS) the revelation that Curzon was having an affair? That's a really weird co-incidence/influence!

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David Faggiani 5 years, 10 months ago

Aha, here it is!

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K. Jones 5 years, 10 months ago

If I ever watched Leap it was because I was too busy playing with toys to change the channel, but I was totally aware of it and knew the premise long before the internet. I assume this means that the show's iconography and short-hand was presented in a way that was really, really easy for the casual viewer to understand. Which is pretty cool!

At any rate, Bakula himself had a pretty large presence on TV. Any given talk show or guest appearance boasting "Quantum Leap's Scott Bakula!" sticks in my memory as one way of having met him. I was quite aware of who he was by the time ENT rolled around, and pleased to see a sort of vetted sci-fi actor keeping Trek anchored, ironically. He seems like a nice dude.

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tom harries 5 years, 10 months ago

"Plus there's the bravery of putting a straight white man into the bodies of women, black men, black women. A gay man. A mentally disabled person. A rape victim. Oh, and even a chimp. Generally it seemed (to me, at least) to be handled well."

Um, I think bravery might be overdoing it. It was still a straight white man as the lead and getting all the screen-time. Admittedly, it's Scott Bakula, but ... still. More than once, having him leap into a black guy's body meant that we had a white actor (playing a black character) lecturing a black actor about racism.

It's a great show, don't get me wrong, but it was one of the things that made me notice that all the lectures my generation were getting about prejudice and morality and "don't do bad things to other people" all seemed to be coming from middle-aged, middle-class white guys who looked like my Dad!

PS I loved that episode of Enterprise with Stockwell and Bakula!

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BadCatMan 5 years, 10 months ago

I meant more the identity issues. I imagine it was brave for the time, in late 80s, early 90s mainstream television. Though they did flipflop on whether Sam's mind was in their bodies or his body somehow replaced theirs without anyone else seeing anything different. (To the point he made someone without legs walk.)

But yeah, good point. Though in "Raped" at least they brought back the girl's mind and switched the POV so she herself could confront and accuse her attacker.

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Froborr 5 years, 10 months ago

Interesting. I also have vague childhood memories of liking Quantum Leap, but have never gone back to rewatch it. I do remember, when Enterprise was announced, I was already well into my not-caring-about-Trek phase, but I was aware of it due to my roommate still being a big fan. (Not of Enterprise, of course, but of Trek in general.)

And the main thought I recall having was "Scott Bakula? Quantum Leap guy? No way, he's way too nice to be a captain." Because, well, all the Trek captains are pretty forbidding? They're capable of being actively friendly, sure, especially Picard and Sisko, but that's when they consciously choose to be; by default, all the captains are rather closed off, albeit in very different ways.

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Daru 5 years, 10 months ago

"and maybe utopianism also means doing small things for each other to make everyone's lives a little happier"

I have very fond memories of watching this show often in my teens and with my parents. I think we really (especially with my father) felt some togetherness in watching the show. Yes, I liked that the premise was simple and straightforward and that it was easy to just dip in an see episodes at random.

I haven't watched it all, but love and agree with your sentiment above Josh. I believe sincerely in the small things we can do for one another.

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