by Billie Doux
Quantum Leap began as a mid-season replacement in early 1989, ran for five seasons (1989-1993), and made a television star out of Scott Bakula. While it was running, it was one of my two favorite shows (the other was Star Trek: The Next Generation). There wasn't much good science fiction on television back then. Actually, there wasn't much sci-fi on television at all, unlike today's sci-fi-rich television environment.
A brilliant scientist named Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) invents time travel. Pressured to produce results or lose funding, he tries it on himself — and wakes up in 1956 in someone else's body. With the help of his Quantum Leap Project partner Al (Dean Stockwell) who visits Sam in the form of a neurological hologram, Sam discovers that he must correct whatever it was that "went wrong" in the original timeline before he can leap out again. It is theorized by Ziggy, the artificial intelligence back at the Project, that if Sam can't make the appropriate correction in each leap, he'll be stuck in that person's body forever.
There is so much to love about Quantum Leap. Fortunately, the two best things about the show are the main characters, Sam and Al, and the actors who played them. I've always thought that Sam Beckett is a dream role for an actor, and Scott Bakula was more than up to the challenge of playing a new character in a new situation every week. Okay, not exactly a new character, but he still had to play Sam's interpretation of that character, which added some acting layers while still preserving the integrity of Sam himself as a character.
Yes, Sam Beckett is just too perfect. A genius with six doctorates, his massive intellect made him capable of stepping into nearly anyone's life. What helped make Sam less perfect was that the Quantum Leap process made "swiss cheese" out of his memory. His partial amnesia also helped disconnect him from his old life, making it easier to immerse himself in the lives of the people he leaped into, an excellent plot device.
And then there is Al, who is also brilliant and multi-talented, and whatever Sam can't do while living someone else's life, like fly a plane or speak Italian, Al can step in and help. Al is also the king of double entendres and references to scoring with women, and under other circumstances, I would have found such a character repulsive. But Dean Stockwell is just so lovable in this part. He made it easy to see the humanity and goodness inside Al, right from the start. And Bakula and Stockwell played so well off each other. Even though Sam and Al were totally different people, they were believable as close friends.
The basic premise of the series is great, too; it's a fascinating framework for a time travel series. The only real limitation is that Sam couldn't travel to the future or to a time earlier than 1953. Setting episodes in the fifties, sixties or seventies made Quantum Leap all about the nostalgia, though. Gender roles, period music, historical events woven into the story like the east coast blackout and the streaking fad in the early seventies, you name it.
And then there were the clothes. I have little interest in fashion, but I love the costumes on this show. Scott Bakula looked so comfortable and natural, so right in those period outfits. Sometimes they were yummy; occasionally they were hilarious. What I enjoyed just as much was Al showing up in bizarre futuristic outfits in outrageous colors, which fortunately never became fashionable in real life. Like Bakula with the period clothes, Dean Stockwell simply made that wardrobe work. Al is a colorful character, and his wardrobe matches his personality.
What doesn't work
There isn't much I don't like about Quantum Leap. Maybe it would have been interesting if they hadn't been limited to Sam's lifespan, and the United States (and yes, brief spoiler, they do get around that occasionally in future episodes). And yes, it tends toward the procedural, since most of the episodes are Leaps of the Week, but hey, it was the nineties.
One thing did leap :) out at me during this rewatch — the show's tendency to lecture. In this abbreviated first season, we got "The Color of Truth," the first time that Sam leaped into the body of someone who wasn't a white guy like himself. Instead of just being a person of color with an important life experience that Sam had to figure out and change, "The Color of Truth" is a sixty-minute lecture on the evils of racial segregation in 1955 Alabama. Not that there's anything wrong with the topic: it was a huge and important part of the recent past, and the episode was both well-intentioned and well done. But preachiness can be a turnoff, and this wasn't the only time it happened.
Another thing I didn't like was that every episode ended in a cliffhanger as Sam leaped into his next challenge, in what always appeared to be dire circumstances. Yes, I get it, cliffhangers help bring the audience back. But I would have been a lot happier if they had simply ended each episode with Sam leaping out, who knows where.
The music replacement controversy
When Quantum Leap was initially released on DVD way back when, Universal decided not to buy the rights to a number of the songs featured on the series simply because it was prohibitively expensive. Changing the music changed the series, though, and many fans were livid about it. The worst offenders were the season two episodes "M.I.A." and "Good Morning, Peoria." (I'll talk more about why fans were upset in my review of season two.)
After some research, I can report that Amazon and Netflix fixed this serious problem; the original music is intact. (I'm writing this review in December 2016, and I live in the U.S.) Unfortunately, Netflix decided to stop carrying Quantum Leap as of January 1, 2017, when I hadn't quite finished my rewatch, so I had to move to Hulu. And unfortunately, Hulu does not feature the original music.
I have no idea what is going on with the music in the DVD sets. (Amazon link on the right.) If you plan to buy Quantum Leap on DVD, you might want to find out about the music replacement situation before purchasing, if it matters to you.
1.1/1.2 "Genesis (September 13, 1956)": This is a decent two-part pilot. The brave test pilots and their long suffering wives waiting at home kept reminding me of the 1983 movie The Right Stuff, which might have been their intention. (In fact, many Quantum Leap episodes remind me of specific movies.) Maybe it shouldn't have been a two-parter, though, because honestly, while Sam's "wife" was doing the laundry, I got a little bored.
This pilot does mention the possibility that Sam's leaping is being directed by God. You'd think God would have the power to fix things Herself without having to use Sam, but okay. Maybe God employs other people like Sam, too.
1.6 "Double Identity (November 8, 1965)": Best episode of the season, and an obvious tribute to The Godfather. The wedding scene where Sam had to sing and Al gave Sam the Italian lyrics to "Volare" was funny, and kept getting funnier as Sam channeled his inner lounge lizard and really got into it. In fact, it went on so long that you'd think it would stop being funny, but it didn't.
(This might be a good time to mention that Scott Bakula has a beautiful, professional singing voice that they often featured in the series.)
Later, during a life and death situation and wearing hair clips and shaving cream, Sam had to converse in Al-prompted Italian. Bakula spoke the lines Sam didn't understand as if he were reciting poetry. And the ending with the thousand watt hair dryer in Buffalo causing the east coast blackout of 1965 was practically perfect.
1.9 "Play It Again, Seymour (April 14, 1953)": A very Sam Spade sort of episode with bits of Casablanca, with Sam in the body of a private eye who looked like Bogart investigating the murder of his partner. Of course, there was a dame — his partner's slinky wife, Alison (Claudia Christian, one of my favorites from Babylon 5). There was also a poorly written novel called Dead Men Don't Die, a dropper named Klapper, and every hardboiled detective cliche you can imagine.
Much of "Play It Again, Seymour" was filmed in the Bradbury Building, a Los Angeles landmark that was also used as a major location in my favorite science fiction movie, Blade Runner. When I was living in L.A., I went to see the building in person. It's gorgeous.
Sam was born in August 1953, and this final leap of the season was set in April 1953. I can only assume the leap range was defined by Sam's conception, not his birth?
Bits and pieces:
-- In season one, Sam leaps into and must become: a test pilot, a professor of literature, a boxer, a veterinarian, a chauffeur, a drag-racing teenager, and a private eye.
-- There are many references to three characters we don't get to meet in this first season: Ziggy, the artificial intelligence that gives Al projections on what Sam is supposed to change; Gooshie, a little guy with bad breath who also works on the Project; and Al's current girlfriend Tina. (Okay, oops, I'm wrong. According to IMDb, Tina is the woman with the flashing earrings that Al picked up in his car.)
-- The person that Sam replaces turns up in the imaging chamber, and Sam only knows how others see him by looking in a mirror. The synchronized mirror scenes are okay, although the motions were never choreographed well enough for me to suspend belief. Maybe those scenes should have been done more simply.
-- In the pilot, Sam wanted desperately to contact his late father but couldn't remember his own last name. Later in the season, in a lovely scene, Sam did speak with his father on the phone but of course, didn't tell him who he was.
-- It is established in season one that animals can see Al, that Al had been raised in an orphanage, had participated in protests during the civil rights movement, and has been married five times.
-- Famous people: Sam gives teen Buddy Holly the lyrics to "Peggy Sue," and shows a tiny Michael Jackson how to moon walk.
-- Notable actors: Teri Hatcher as Sam's first love in "Star-Crossed," Mark Margolis from Breaking Bad in "Double Identity," and Claudia Christian in "Play it Again, Seymour."
-- The saga sell is fun and so are the opening credits and theme music. But come on. A little "caca"? That's childish. I'm glad they didn't retain that.
-- Scott Bakula has a streak of white in his hair. It's not artificial; he has said during interviews that he's had it since childhood.
-- We're told that you cannot fix your own life. Why?
Season one is all "leap of the week" episodes, but it's a short first season and there's nothing wrong with that. By the end, we still don't know much about Sam, Al, or the Quantum Leap Project, so there's a lot of story left to tell.
On to season two!
Billie Doux loves good television, especially science fiction, and spends way too much time writing about it.