“Catch a Falling Star”: May 21, 1979
Original Airdate: December 6, 1989
Season two of Quantum Leap has a stunning number of my all time favorite episodes—the courtroom drama “So Help Me God,” and Sam’s unforgettable first leap into a woman in “What Price Gloria.” It tackles the Vietnam War and reveals the loss of Sam’s brother in that conflict in “Animal Frat.” I even feel a certain fondness for the Good Morning Vietnam
rip-off homage, set in 1959 Peoria.
By contrast, when he leaps into actor Ray Hutton and finds himself confronting the prospect of being booed offstage in Syracuse because he doesn’t know Ray’s lines in Don Quixote, the stakes don’t seem very high. But then Sam catches sight of the piano teacher he adored as a lovesick teenager. Their eyes meet, and an apparently routine leap promptly derails.
As Nicole lights up at the sight of him, Sam dares to entertain a truly impossible dream: that she somehow sees the real him. The truth is more prosaic: she and Ray had a thing back when they were both at The Juilliard School together, and though they parted ways, she’s harboured fond enough feelings to fast-track a whirlwind romance now.
In “Catch a Falling Star,” there is never any doubt as to what Sam’s current leap is all about: he’s understudying Cervantes for a venerable old Broadway warhorse, John O’Malley, who’s about to suffer a debilitating onstage accident. But from the moment Sam sees his old crush object, the question isn’t whether there’s a ten percent chance he should do something else, or how he can pull off his cosmically assigned task. This time, the question is will he even try? The rationale behind completing each leap is that Sam will go elsewhere—hopefully home—after he saves the day. Now he reasons: doesn’t that imply he’ll stay with Nicole if he lets one unlikable, alcohol-abusing blowhard fall and break his leg?
Sam’s rebellions against Ziggy’s various pronouncements and the force leaping him through time are usually driven either by altruism or by a gut instinct that tells him his leaping priorities should be elsewhere. On this occasion, though, he’s caught an understandable case of enlightened self-interest. After a dozen bounces across twentieth century America, after risking his neck over and over again doing life-altering favors for strangers, all without thanks or a vacation, the idea that he’s going home is starting to lose its traction. And “virtue is its own reward” can only take a guy so far, especially when one’s first love turns up, costumed in the low-cut tatters of Dulcinea, and suddenly, through a quirk of time, boosted into an age-appropriate dating bracket.
As Al argues the uncharacteristic position that sex and love should come second place to Sam’s duty and mission, there are backstage machinations afoot. The lead actors are out to get their understudies, and sow dissention between them. As they sabotage the relationship between Ray and Nicole, Sam gets sulky and even less inclined to help O’Malley.
That Sam should cling to a boyhood love so tenaciously is just another indication of how much he lives—pardon the pun—in the past. In later episodes, we see this again: at the first sign that he might salvage his life’s personal disasters, Sam digs in his heels, throwing away his rulebook and his ideals.
The parallels with Don Quixote, whose main character has become entirely divorced from reality, releasing his grip on the present in favour of a chivalrous dream of days gone by, are obvious. (An earlier version of the script considered using My Fair Lady, but the similarities between Sam and Al and Don Quixote and Sancho were irresistible, as was the temptation to use “The Impossible Dream” as an anthem for the time travel project).
But Don Quixote’s dreams of heroism are (mostly) fantasy, just like Sam’s delusions of selfishness in this episode. Ultimately, he is incapable of letting a romantic rival—or anyone else—take a plunge for him. He tries to convince himself he can be that cold-blooded, trying on the role like any actor might. Then, in the end, he springs into action. He catches O’Malley, lets go of Nicole and Ray with good grace and leaps on.
A.M. Dellamonica writes novels and short fiction and teaches writing online. She is passionate about environmentalism, food and drink, and art in every form, and dabbles in several: photography, choral music, theater, dance, cooking and crafts. Catch up with her on her blog here.