Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Gone But Not Forgotten: Quantum Leap (1989-1994)

"Gone But Not Forgotten" is a series in which I reminisce about great television shows that are... yes... gone but not forgotten. Previous entries include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sports Night.

"Theorizing that one can time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator... and vanished!"

Every week for five seasons from 1989-1993, we heard that voiceover precede each episode of Quantum Leap, an ambitious and engaging sci-fi drama about a scientist who "leaps" from life to life, temporarily taking the places of other people. The concept is brilliant, giving the writers ample opportunities to, naming a few, provide social commentary for different time periods and locales, explore the fish-out-of-water concept in numerous ways, and give Scott Bakula an acting exercise any performer would dream of.

The premise is simple. Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula, nominated for four Emmys for this role and winner of one Golden Globe) has created a time machine in the present day. After jumping into the accelerator before it was ready, he finds himself "trapped in the past, facing mirror images that are not his own." In order to leap out of their lives, he must alter their history to better their future. And in each leap, Sam hopes that his next one will be the leap home.

Dean Stockwell plays Al, a fellow scientist from the present day who "follows" Sam as he jumps from one life to the next. Al appears in the form of a hologram and is able to provide details to Sam that allows him to achieve his goal. To speak in Lost terms, Al is Sam's constant. Without Al, Sam would be completely disillusioned to his new surroundings.

Quantum Leap is a serialized drama, which means that every week Sam leaps into a different character and has a new goal to achieve. Some memorable leaps include: a criminal who holds a mother and daughter hostage; a chimp (yes, a chimp) who heads to outer space; a female rape victim; a co-pilot of an air taxi flying through the Bermuda Triangle; a washed-out baseball player; a Ku-Klux-Klan member; a young man with Down Syndrome (twice!); a traveling magician and so much more. But if I'm going to narrow it down to a select few over the course of five memorable seasons, these are the episodes/arcs that truly define how amazing this series used to be.

--"The Leap Home" (2 parts) - Season 3 Premiere
"I'd give anything to have what you have, Sam." That's what Al says when Sam realizes that he can save the lives of complete strangers but not his own family. In "The Leap Home Part One," he leaps into his own self at age 16 in 1969 and is finally at home again. He wants to prevent his father from dying of a heart attack and keep his brother from going to Vietnam and getting killed. But Al tells him the only reason he is there is to win a basketball game and Sam has tremendous difficulty accepting that.

What a moving, heartfelt hour of Quantum Leap. Watching Sam long for his family is heartbreaking. It was an innocent time and who wouldn't kill for a chance to rewind life back to that era and change things for the better?

In "The Leap Home Part Two," Sam leaps into a buddy from his brother's unit in Vietnam and ends up saving his life anyway. In a thrilling twist, he discovers Al as a POW in 1970. Sam wanted to free him but hologram Al refused. He got repatriated in 5 years anyway and wouldn't change a thing.

--"Shock Theater" - Season 3 Finale
The other bookend to this remarkable season was this finale in which Sam leapt into a mental patient who was administered shock treatment. This fries Sam's brain which not only weakens his connection with Al, but also causes Sam to act like some of the previous people he leapt into. This was an acting powerhouse from Scott Bakula who had to portray so many different personas for the entire hour. Really nerve-wracking drama. The tail-end of the hour has Sam leaping out of the hospital and switching places with Al in 1945. What a cliffhanger! Imagine enduring an entire summer waiting to see what happened next. It was the summer I turned 14, and I remember vividly being obsessed with this damn show. September couldn't have come any sooner.

--"The Leap Back" - Season 4 Premiere
When the show came back that September, it was as fun and rewarding as I had anticipated. The writers infused a lot of humor in this episode where Sam - finally! - got to enjoy life back at the home base in the present day. He reunited with his wife and was perfectly at ease commanding the "computer" that he designed in the first place. Sam certainly enjoyed the experience of being the hologram to Al's confused, dismayed leaper status. "Revenge is mine, saith the hologram!," Sam shouts with glee. Nice to see Quantum Leap take a break from the heavy stuff.

--"A Leap for Lisa" - Season 4 Finale
It seems the show worked best for me when the stakes were high, which happened at the beginning and end of the last three seasons. In the case of this surprising finale, Sam leaps into Al in 1957 when he was a young ensign. He tweaks history for the worse and Al is sentenced to death. The result is Sam having a new hologram to help him achieve his goal. It's safe to assume it all worked out in the end. The show is best when it toys with the elements of time and alters history as we know it. This theme continues masterfully with the next season's premiere.

--"Lee Harvey Oswald" - Season 5 Premiere
Probably Sam's most high-profile leap of the series and definitely one of the most compelling episodes the show ever produced. In another acting showcase for Bakula, Sam leaps in and out of Lee Harvey Oswald over the course of 5 years prior to the Kennedy assassination. This episode aired a year after Oliver Stone's JFK as a counter-argument for some widely-circulated conspiracy theories. Quantum Leap's creator and writer, Donald P. Bellasario, actually served in the Marine Corp with Oswald and is convinced that he acted alone in Kennedy's assassination. This episode, in which Sam retained some of Oswald's personality and was unable to control his actions (a first for the show), was a way for Bellasario to show that Oswald killed Kennedy alone because of his long-held political beliefs. Sam couldn't prevent Oswald from killing JFK, but the episode ended with the revelation that he had indeed saved the life of Jackie O. It was a tremendously satisfying conclusion to an exceptionally well-written, much-acclaimed episode.

--"Mirror Image" - Series Finale
Oh, how this finale made me so mad. "Mirror Image," a fun, twisty hour of time-travel goodness, was originally intended as a season finale. NBC opted at the last minute to cancel the show, leaving Bellasario with little choice but to wrap up the series with a cue card essentially stating that Sam "never returned home." Seriously? I felt we were owed so much more than that. There had been talk for many, many years about a follow-up TV movie, but it never happened. One of the worst things a series finale could do was not provide any sense of satisfying closure, and that's what happened with Quantum Leap. Having said that, I look back on this hour and realize how enjoyable it is. In a way, "Mirror Image" is a fitting end to the series because it featured a collection of popular personalities that we were familiar with from over the years. In the end, though, Sam did what he felt was right. He had the opportunity to go home, but he had to break some rules and fix Al's marriage. I suppose it was the least Sam could do after all Al had done for him. But when that fateful, frustrating cue card came up at the very end, I slapped my forehead.

Oh boy, indeed.


Dan said...

Oh boy! This used to be on BBC 2 in the UK on Tuesdays after a Question of Sport. Used to watch it religiously. Loved the concept and the characters, and of course, that brilliant ending to every episode which left you begging for more.

I'd love to see the original cast back together for a film. That would be great!

Brent Allard said...

great pick. This was such a fun show. I wasn't happy with the finale either, but what can you do? So many wondeful episodes.

Dave said...

Dan, you're so right. A movie would be wonderful. I still think it could happen. Well, I'm hoping!

Brent, I could have listed more than the 5 or 6 that I mentioned. There's just a great selection to choose from.

Thanks for writing, gentlemen!


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...