Tue
Jan 11 2011 11:11am

Quantum Leap: “Dr. Ruth”

Quantum Leap episode Dr. Ruth“Doctor Ruth”: April 25, 1985
Original airdate: January 19, 1993
Visit the Quantum Leap Rewatch index

Sam ends up taking care of some decidedly frisky business for the “Sister Wendy of Sexuality,” in a peculiar leap to the land of media crossovers. In “Doctor Ruth,” he finds himself on the air at the tail end of a live broadcast of Dr. Ruth Westheimer’s radio show. He’s immediately knocked flat by a caller’s candid question regarding the size of a man’s foot and how it compares to his—ahem!—love muscle. Sam being Sam, this is just about enough to drive him into the fetal position.

When Al shows up, it is only to say that Sam’s supposed to play Cupid to the battling Doug—his radio announcer—and Debbie—their producer. But by then, Sam is already certain he’s there about one of his callers, a young legal secretary who’s been fending off sexual advances made by her predatory boss. But the secretary didn’t give her last name, Al insists he’s there for Doug and Debbie, and just to keep things lively, the whole of Manhattan is busily queuing up to get Sam’s opinions on their orgasms.

Cheesy in the extreme and—by the standards of the day—a bit on the risque side, the “Dr. Ruth” episode pits Sam against his own prudery, Al against his intimacy issues, and a fuzzily photographed mirror image of Dr. Ruth’s stunt double—pearls, wig and all—against the rapacious lawyer. All the silliness and drama comes to a head when Sam is obliged to sprint over a row of stalled cabs, in a so-familiar staid blue dress, to save the day.

Dr. Ruth Westheimer was a bona fide cultural icon in the ’90s, and the fusion of a classic Quantum Leap story with her infamous straight talk about sex gives this episode story a distinctly off-beat tang. Its flavor might not be to everyone’s taste—and a steady diet of it would be out of the question!—but the fusion is an interesting one. The story highlights the gap between Sam, Al, and their respective approaches to all things erotic, and reminds us too of Al’s tragic first marriage. But what is niftiest about the episode, I think, is that it has a more historic aura now than it did twenty years ago. At the time, Westheimer had only just become a household word, and the episode felt very current. It was a novelty then, the TV equivalent of a wacky rubber chicken. Today, it’s just another leap into the familiar recent past.

“Dr. Ruth” was another of the experiments I talked about at length last week, and it was a harbinger of the end of the show. Quantum Leap’s creators, cast and crew were hoping to get a renewal for a sixth season, and they had big plans to break their existing mold. The familiar rules of time travel were getting bent and broken in Season Five: a quantum plothole sent Sam back to the U.S. Civil War in “The Leap Between the States” and the original cliffhanger ending for “Mirror Image” sent Sam into the far future. (The ending was changed, of course, when the show was cancelled.)

Denied a chance to evolve, Quantum Leap had nevertheless planted a huge number of creative seeds, spawning homages and imitators aplenty. Touched By an Angel might, arguably, have been first out of the gate, running from 1994 to 2003. The Pretender aired from 1996 to 2000. The idea of a compassionate outsider setting people’s lives right just as they reached a crisis is a powerful one, and TV writers were not ready to let it go.

The alchemy of Quantum Leap is as unique as a fingerprint, though, defying straight transcription. In each of the riffs off the Quantum block, the original show’s unique elements underwent a necessary process of mix and match. Touched by an Angel went heavy on the spirituality that Quantum Leap kept in its background. In Joss Whedon’s Dollhouse, we see a weird, high-tech take on the Swiss cheese memory, while Caroline’s desire to return to a life she’s already lost is Sam Beckett’s dilemma precisely. The short-lived but brilliant Journeyman kept the unpredictable leaps into recent history while allowing its main character, Dan Vasser, to go back to an increasingly frustrated family.

Leapers, meanwhile, have continued to yearn for a faithful reimagining of the show under its own brand. Rumors have come and gone about movie adaptations and new series, but for now another Project Quantum Leap remains a cherished and apparently distant dream.


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.

6 comments
Jeff R.
1. Jeff R.
I'm not sure all of the shows you mention are really all that QL-inspired. At least a few of them go back to the original structural inspiration of Quantum Leap, The Fugitive. (Or to the "The Fugitive+the supernatural" formula that starts with The Incredible Hulk.)
Jeff R.
2. kvon
The 'compassionate outsider' idea reminds me of Highway to Heaven. Would you consider that an influence on QL? For me, it was the time travel components combined with seeing mundane life in various settings that set QL aside.
Jeff R.
3. Dr. Thanatos
Before we make too much fun of the concept of Dr. Ruth vaulting over cabs in pursuit of nasty lawyers, it would be useful to remember that she was a Holocaust survivor and served in the Israeli Defence Forces in the 1948 War of Independence . We think of her as a wierd old lady on the radio, but I suspect that the writers knew something about her history when they wrote this...
C C
4. Hatgirl
@1 and @2
Don't forget to add The Littlest Hobo to that list!
Walter Croft
5. walterhisownself
One of the story arcs I enjoyed in the series was the whole metaplot about the "evil" leaper from an alternate timeline and whose sole purpose was to interfere with Sam's objectives. I wish that this storyline would have been further developed.

I too enjoyed Journeyman, and the direction the stories were taking the short-lived series.
Alyx Dellamonica
6. AMDellamonica
I am sure they did know Dr. Ruth's history, Thanatos, and though the episode was played for laughs to a great degree, I would argue that it wasn't disrespectful toward her. The Sam-in-drag comedy aspect was set alongside Ruth giving Al some genuine assistance with his emotional problems.

Kvon, I have to admit I've no familiarity at all with Highway to Heaven.

Jeff, your point about The Fugitive and The Incredible Hulk is right on--they were definitely QL precedents, part of the same storytelling tradition. As for The Littlest Hobo, Hatgirl... wow. Never thought of that connection!

Walter, it's not too late to propose one of the Evil Leaper episodes as one of my fan-chosen top ten rewatches!

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