Created by Donald P. Bellisario
Starring Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell
Quantum Leap was like no other science fiction show.
The concept behind it is complicated. Scientist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) is accidentally sent back in time, trading places with someone from the past. And that was meant literally: he would look to everyone but the audience just like the person he replaced as he would try to fix something that had gone wrong. If he failed to make the change, he’d be stuck as the other person forever. He was assisted by Al (Dean Stockwell), a holographic image of a man from his own time who only Sam could see. Things were complicated by the fact that the leaps “Swiss-cheesed” his brain, so that there were gaps in his knowledge.
Creator Donald P. Bellisario had had a big hit with Magnum PI, and wanted originally to do an anthology show. But he knew the business well enough to to understand no network would ever agree to one. That’s where he came up with the idea, allowing there to be the same lead character in every episode, while being able to tell stories of all different times and places.
The show started out with some strict ground rules.* Sam could only travel within his own lifetime. No one but Sam could see or hear Al. And the story would not have him leaping into famous people or anyone near them (though he did have encounters with them, something Bellisario called a “Kiss with History”).
What made the show live up to the concept was the writing. Bellisario wrote many of the scripts, including most of the best. His wife, Deborah Platt, also contributed quite a bit, and it’s a toss up to figure out who was better. Tommy Thompson also contributed many good ones.
As for the acting, the two leads were terrific. Bakula played Beckett with a basic decency and wonder about what was going on around him.** Dean Stockwell’s Al was a comic relief and a big ladies man whose personality completely obliterated the fact that his main role was to dump information about what was going on to both Sam and the audience.***
Some of the most memorable episodes were:
- The Color of Truth. A take on Driving Miss Daisy with Sam as a Black chauffeur in the segregated South.
- What Price Gloria? Sam leaps into a woman had has to save her roommate while learning to live as a woman.
- Jimmy. Sam leaps into a Down Syndrome man who needs to show he can work in the real world.
- Another Mother. Sam learns the problems of motherhood from the female point of view.
- M.I.A. Sam has to prevent a woman from declaring her military husband dead and marrying another person. At first. But it turns out much more is going on than Al is willing to tell him.
- The Leap Home (Part 1). Sam leaps into himself as a teenager and, as a side mission, tries to keep his family from making bad decisions. They won’t listen to him and Sam nearly ruins the leap as he tries.****
- The Leap Home (Part 2), which is not the second part of the previous episode, but a sequel to it, where Sam is in Vietnam with his brother, trying to save him while accomplishing its mission. This had a great multiple-twist ending, each of which is an emotionally charged surprise.
- 8 1/2 Months. Sam as a pregnant woman.
- Future Boy. About a kid’s show host who has a theory about traveling in time.
- A Leap for Lisa, where Sam leaps into a younger version of Al, and accidentally messes things up, so that Al is replaced in midsentence.
- Lee Harvey Oswald. Bellisario jettisoned the “no historical figures” rule in response to Oliver Stone’s JFK. Bellisario didn’t believe in a JFK conspiracy – and actually knew Oswald (a character playing him appears in the episode). It also shows how to handle time paradoxes the right way.
- Deliver Us from Evil. Introduces Alia, the “evil leaper,” who showed up as a nemesis in other episodes as someone leaping to undo what Sam had done. The title “evil leaper” was misleading: she was less actively evil than she was misguided.
- Trilogy. Three episodes, all set in a small Louisiana town at three different times, and centering on Abigail Fuller. All three stories stand on their own, but the arc is designed so that the final episode builds on things we learned in the first two.
- Mirror Image. The series finale, where Sam leaps into a small-town bar where things are revealed. It’s a bit mystical, and not the best episode, but it’s essential, and still gives plenty to think about.
The show was never a ratings smash, but did well enough to continue for five seasons.***** It had a rabid cult following (who probably are upset I’m calling it “forgotten”), but the general public never warmed to it, and there’s been no revival of it. DVDs are out, and the entire series is available on Hulu (the first two seasons for free), but since it’s so hard to explain the concept, it’s also hard to get people to watch.
If you’ve seen it, you’ll agree it was a great show. If you haven’t, you’re in for a real treat.
*Most of which were broken or modified during the show’s run.
**His “Oh, Boy,” which he often said when he showed up in a new situation (and it always was an awkward one), was the show’s catchphrase, so much so that when Superman of the time traveled in a story during the show’s run, he used it, too.
***This sort of info dump is the bane of bad science fiction, but it works here because Al is such an interesting character and because Sam doesn’t know the information.
****Which leads to one of the most powerful exchanges in the show: Sam is bemoaning the fact that they won’t listen.
Sam: It's not fair, Al. I mean, come on, it's not fair.
Al: Well, I think, uh, I think it's damned fair.
Al: I'd give anything to see my father and sister for a few days. To be able to talk with them again, laugh with them, tell them how much I love them. I'd give anything to have what you have, Sam, anything.
*****It helped that the director of programming liked it.