Oct 5 2010 2:23pm

Quantum Leap: “Genesis”

Scott Bakula in Quantum Leap,

What makes a given show perfect for any one science fiction fan?

I am a thoroughgoing history nerd. The first chapter books I read, as a tad, belonged to my mother when she was a kid. They were wholesome historical goodness. Most, in fact, were biographies of great U.S. women: presidential wives, Julia Howe, Jane Adams, Louisa May Alcott, and Clara Barton. I got an early start on science fiction with Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door, and Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man. My favorite Star Trek: TOS episode was, naturally “The City on the Edge of Forever.”

Atop that and for no reason I’ve ever been able to articulate, I have always been something of a sucker for Donald Bellisario’s shows: the original Battlestar Galactica, Magnum P.I., and even (embarrassingly enough) Airwolf.

You can see where this is going. When Teh Bellisario decided to take a lot of U.S. history, mix in time travel, and spice it all with the one-two charm punch of Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell, I never had a chance.

Quantum Leap began its five year run as I was wrapping up high school. I had no money and no access to cable TV: keeping up was a challenge. So, a number of years ago, I took it into my head to rewatch them on Space, which is Canada’s version of the Syfy Channel. I was expecting to be a little disappointed, honestly, to find the stories hadn’t worn well, to be put off by ’80s cheese. Time hadn’t been kind to Galactica, after all.

I couldn’t have been more wrong.

“Genesis,” the two part Quantum Leap pilot, still stands up as one of the best series openers ever made for network TV. Viewers are thrown right into Sam’s first leap, and thanks to his Swiss cheese memory, he doesn’t know any more about what is happening than we do. He’s stuck in a pilot’s life, suddenly responsible for a stranger, his pregnant wife and his son. He doesn’t know who he is, but it’s not this Tom Stratton guy...then again, when he looks in the mirror, it’s Tom he sees. Soon there’s an intangible Dean Stockwell popping in and out to—mostly—refuse to tell him what’s going on.

All of this angsty emotional stuff is straw waiting to be spun into gold by Scott Bakula. Few actors have Bakula’s gift for effortless, compassionate empathy—he’s so believably emotional. As a result, the wall between Sam Beckett and the viewer is paper thin. The genius of both the character, and Bakula’s interpretation of it is that he seems so very boy-next-door: he’s lost and confused and he wants to do the right thing. Somehow he does it in a way that invites the viewer to think: that’s exactly what I would do!

In “Genesis,” what Sam is called upon to do is fly a test plane, an achievement that’s well outside his otherwise enormous skill set. Al could do it, but he’s a hologram. The best they can do is to crash the plane in the way that does the least damage—now there’s a metaphor!—and hope that catapults Sam back into the present.

It doesn’t, of course, and as Sam settles into solving the mystery of his second leap, the full premise of the series emerges, like a ghost ship resolving out of fog: against his will, though not contrary to his character, Sam has been charged by unknown cosmic forces to put right what once went wrong. His incentive is the hope that he’ll one day get to go home: the tragedy, of course, is that over the course of Sam’s lifetime (or anyone’s) there are infinite wrongs.

Another great thing about “Genesis” is that, despite Sam’s faulty memory and general disorientation, we see that mending the past was what really he wanted all along. Inside the multi-talented physicist-musician-doctor is a kid who’s lost much, and just wants to get it back. As much as Sam and Al want to see him returned safely to their present, it is within the past that their demons await.

Anyone who worked on Quantum Leap has told an interviewer at some point or another, about how hard it was to explain the show’s basic concept as it was airing: it’s this guy, and he’s traveling in time but only in his lifetime, and he’s not himself and when he looks in the mirror...well, you know it.

It is easy to forget that in the ’80s, this particular mix of story elements was mind blowing, new, and as wildly improbable as a sea salt truffle or the mating habits of leopard slugs. Nobody had ever quite done what Quantum Leap did. This in itself is a shockingly rare accomplishment. How many programs had so few precedents? Since that time, the Quantum Leap concept has invited scores of imitators: Touched by an Angel, not one but two Eliza Dushku series (Tru Calling and Dollhouse both have obvious Leaper elements), and others. Many, like the short-lived and thoroughly wonderful Journeyman, failed to find an audience before getting the network ax. Somehow the odd and seemly imperfect mix that is Quantum Leap defies imitation—people have riffed on it, some more successfully than others, but nobody’s quite captured the magic.

Over the next few months, I’m going to rewatch my favourite three episodes from each season, and tell you all why I love them. Not all of my choices are the stand-out best episodes, or the ones with obvious political relevance. They’re a mix: some sad, some funny, some romantic. They’re all terrific. And afterwards, we’ll throw the floor open to find out about your favorites, and I’ll watch a few of your picks.*

*If you’d like to watch along, all five seasons are currently available on DVD; you can also watch them instantly via Netflix. Seasons one and two can be found on Hulu, and individual episodes may be downloaded from iTunes.

Every dedicated Leaper knows the all-important birthdate of Sam Beckett—August 8, 1953. Here in 2010, that would only make him fifty-seven. Even with all the wear and tear and bodily injury that comes with leaping, it’s easy to imagine he might still be out there, lost in time, selflessly giving ordinary people a chance at better lives. It seems only fair to travel back now and then to revisit him, doesn’t it?

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.

1. TeresaCates
I absolutely love this show!! When I was a teenager, I saved up all of my babysitting money just so I could buy my own tv and vcr in order to record every episode that came on (along with every episode of Sliders, lol)!! I even read all of the novels that I could find at the library :) I've been watching the episodes recently on Netflix with my 8-yr old daughter, who loves them almost as much as I do! I was so thrilled to meet Bakula and Stockwell at Dragon*Con last month!! You know what's funny, out of all of the video tapes that I've owned I still have less than ten...and at least 3 or 4 of those are Quantum Leap episodes from a SciFi marathon :) I always think of the episode when he leaps into himself as a teenager while his brother is fighting in the war and he's playing the guitar and singing "Imagine" to his sister on the porch swing...it makes me cry every time....
mark Proctor
2. mark-p
wow Quantum Leap used to be my favourite show.
I've been wondering if it was as good as I remembered or if that was just nostalgia masking its faults, so I am glad that you still think it is great. I'll have to try and find a few episodes.
Dan Benjamin
3. bandenjamin
I love this show. Just finished a complete re-watch of all 5 seasons. Have to say, season 5 was not very good, and I wasn't thrilled with the ending, but great show.
Chris Greenland
4. greenland
Scott Bakula looks like he just passed the most satisfying gas of his life there.
Ian Tregillis
5. ITregillis
Hooray for Quantum Leap love! (And Journeyman love, too.)
Looking forward to reliving some of that great Bakula/Stockwell chemistry. Great idea!
Bridget McGovern
6. BMcGovern
I could not be more excited about this--I adored this show the first time around, and then a few years ago my best friend and I started watching the SciFi marathons on the phone together (we were living on opposite sides of the country at the time). QL was even better than I'd remembered--and now I'm really looking forward to geeking out over Sam Beckett all over again :)
7. trench
This was me and my mom's favorite show. I was 9 and we would watch it every week. Watching this show with mom is among my happiest memories. The best thing for us was how you always had a glimpse of where Sam would be next week, and we would try to guess what the problems would be. I was always wrong.
Christoper Turkel
8. zizban
I loved this show and followed it from time slot to time slot. It does hold up well because they avoided a lot of 80's and 90's references in the show. I think the future in which he leaps from is 1997.

The last episode still perplexes me but we'll get to that eventually.
9. OtterJohn
Being fans of the show brought my wife and I together. Meeting and getting to know each other at viewing parties.

Sam, where-ever/when-ever you are, thanks!
john mullen
10. johntheirishmongol
I am a huge scifi fan and back in those days, there was so little on that was scifi that I would watch most anything, no matter how stupid. That is pretty much how I felt about this show after about a year. Not a big Bakula fan, though I somewhat enjoyed his partner, but all the PC stuff turned me off real fast.

TV has not done time travel well. Time Tunnel was a much better premise but the 'lost in time' was silly and they always seemed to land in the middle of some historically significant event. Star Trek managed time travel episodes that were pretty good, but there has never been a show designed around the concept that really worked. It's too bad because there are some great books about the subject.
Alyx Dellamonica
11. AMDellamonica
I'm glad you guys are excited! (And, Teresa, "The Leap Home" is definitely on my list--I watch it every year!)
Chris Long
12. radynski

This show had, by far, the best ending to a series I've ever seen. I still go back and watch over again. Mysterious, engaging, sad and poignant. I wish more people had taken notes from this one. And on top of that, they actually explained WHY he was leaping - the one thing I didn't think we'd ever get, and hadn't really expected out of the show.

The pilot episode was pretty good overall, although I do think the first season suffers a little in the acting. It is pretty clear that the didn' t exactly have the characters completely defined at that point.

I love the scene where they get his wife drunk in order to stop the pregnancy, and the moment where he convinces the doctor that he's right. Because air force test pilots of course know more about this than doctors...
pete hindle
13. petehindle
I always wondered what happened to Sam's body when he wasn't in it. Sometimes they said it took weeks to find him... presumably his body was in a comatose state in those periods? Probably best they didn't show that.
Alyx Dellamonica
14. AMDellamonica
As I recall, Pete, the Leapee takes up residence in Sam's body, but is sometimes too groggy or traumatized to help the team figure out where and when he is.
17. Dr. Thanatos
One of our favorite shows, and one of the few SF programs my wife would tolerate. We loved the sweetness, the depth of character of Sam and Al, and the tear-producing last screen...

All I can say is that whenever we flip on Enterprise, Chuck, or Old Christine, there's a yell of "Hey, it's Sam!"

BTW our kitten is named Samantha Mahasamatman Dr. Sam Becket But Not The Old British Guy Thanatos
19. Dr. Thanatos

As you might guess, my wife and I have different concepts of proper cat names. But we did agree completely on Dr. Sam Becket!
20. MikeMca
Loved the show. I watched it every chance I got. I was so happy when it went into syndication,, because I could watch it everyday. Recently, I happened across the ending (on some channel i don't remember) recorded it, and have watched it several times...It is simply one of the best endings for a tv series I have seen. Thanks for jumping in, I will be reading all that you write.
21. Friend to Fwiffo
I had gotten the impression that Quantum Leap was now held in contempt for being the ultimate "what these people need is a white guy" show? I haven't seen it since back in the day and I have no opinion, but I somehow thought that this was, like, a settled matter. But it's not mentioned in the post or the comments...
22. Dr. Thanatos

I had never heard that comment made about this show. Given that the roles Dr. Becket leaped into and whose lives he helped were very diverse, ranging from white to black to gay to female to male, and that he did not represent any "white establishment" I fail to see where this was a "white guy to the rescue" situation. Now I could see the concept that he was a smart guy, or a Broadway-capable guy, or a nice guy but seeing this as "white guy helping everyone else out" is an incredible stretch for me. People may say it, but people also say that the world is flat.

By the way, it's round. Like a coin...
23. Friend to Fwiffo
I think that was exactly the issue, that he would leap into a diverse bunch of people--like, "this black woman doesn't know how to live her life right, so the straight, white, middle-aged man is going to take over her body and do it right." I think it's more of a problem people have with the entire concept, because if he only leapt into straight white dudes then there would be another problem.
24. Dr. Thanatos

There's the issue: if the concept is that someone is going to help "make right what once went wrong" then you can either:

See it as a story about how things might work differently


See it as "here's an intruder telling people how to do it right."

There will always be someone who goes straight to option #2 regardless of how the story is written or what the intent is. Even if the person leaps into their own body.

I think that if someone sees the Quantum Leap storys as a middle-aged-straight-white-educated-whatever-guy telling people how to do it right, it says more about them than it does the show. We bring our own baggage to our opinions; if you look at it objectively the only story that can't be read as someone imposing their superiority on someone else is a story where everyone sits still and says and does nothing.

I don't see Quantum Leap as White-Guy-to-the-Rescue any more than I see this in The Fugitive, the Invaders, or other shows of that era. Tarzan movies are a different issue altogether.
25. redwall_hp
I'm a little bit too young to have watched Quantum Leap the first time around, but I've watched it almost twice through via Netflix (discs and later Instant Play when it became available). It's one of my favorite TV shows, and I'm still disappointed that is was prematurely cancelled. Especially after seeing the alternate ending for what was meant to be a season finale.
26. redwall_hp
Just thought I'd add that "Good Morning, Peoria" is one of my absolute favorite episodes of the series.

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