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.