“Shock Theater”: October 3, 1954
(Original air date: May 22, 1991)
Season three of Quantum Leap ends with a high voltage sizzle and the zap of lightning, when Sam Beckett leaps into Sam Beiderman, a psychiatric patient in a mental hospital in Havenwell, Pennsylvania. Beiderman has lashed out at one of the orderlies, and before Sam can do anything to orient himself to his locale or put a positive spin on the attack, he’s given a massive and unnecessary dose of electroshock therapy. The jolt scrambles his mind well beyond its usual state of partial, leap-induced amnesia. After it, Sam is confused, afraid, uncooperative…and utterly incapable of processing anything beyond his fervent desire to get away from the hospital.
By way of making sense of his disoriented state, Sam grabs at scraps of people he’s leaped into previously, adopting their personas. He becomes Samantha Stormer, a young secretary he helped with workplace sexual harassment, and then Jesse Tyler, the black chauffeur from “The Color of Truth.” The doctors in Havenwell drink it all up, thinking they’ve got an emerging case of multiple personality disorder on their hands. Al, meanwhile, discovers that a good half-dozen of the hospital’s other patients can see him.
Sam’s shifting personalities also threatens his link to Project Quantum Leap. If Al cannot find a way to restore his memory and help him leap away from 1954, the two may lose touch altogether.
Televised science fiction has rarely been a beacon of hard science fiction, and Quantum Leap was never very rigorous: the show always had as much spirituality and magic in it as physics. If you choose to really examine “Shock Theatre,” you see the plot holes looming especially large. The story’s development has more in common with Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen than it does with any kind of logic. So don’t look too closely: in fact, enjoy it as though it were, in fact, an opera. This episode is dramatic, and laden with big outbursts, teary reunions, and perils both real and psychic.
(Al even gets to sing again… well, sort of. He gets to rap. Whether or not this is a good thing, I leave to you.)
The point of opera, you see, is not that it makes literal sense, or has a plot that holds together like a finely tuned watch. The only logic is emotional. Scott Bakula gets to completely chew the scenery here as he switches from one personality to the next. Danger threatens from all sides: there’s the nasty orderly, the predatory doctors with their big needles full of drugs, the chance Al will vanish. Sam faces the risk of becoming mad, permanently, and finding himself trapped in an especially inhumane mental health facility.
And all of it, in its way, is payback.
When I watched “The Leap Home,” I talked about Sam’s lapse from his usual altruism, and how it ultimately hurt Al more than it hurt him. In “Shock Theater,” that debt comes due. Sam simply suffers, and there is no way for anyone to prevent it. Not even the friend who so generously forgave him can spare Sam the wrath of the universe.
It is the nature of fiction to overly punish its heroes for having feet of clay. (Remember what happened when Buffy and Angel got together? She had sex, hardly the biggest of moral lapses, and yet the carnage was terrible. And then she got raked over the coals for running away after she’d put things right!) The narrative logic goes something like this: our heroes are supposed to be better than ordinary mortals, and so when they fail us, they must endure consequences that are all out of proportion to their alleged “sins.”
Of course, the real reason for this trend is that it makes for unforgettable TV.
Am I reaching to tie the events of “Shock Theater” all the way back to the end of the preceding season, to “M.I.A.” and Sam’s return to Elk Ridge, Indiana? In the nineties, after all, few science fiction series had the kind of arc writing we see from most dramatic shows now. Quantum Leap didn’t have the kind of piece-by-piece storytelling of a Babylon 5, a Farscape, or Buffy. But the threads are there. Sam buys into a crazy, painful solution to his entrapment in the 1954 mental hospital, and his next leap takes him home to his own timeline. He gets his memory back, and reaps the rewards of his various changes to his own past. He gets the option to stop leaping. It is a chance, once more, to think of himself.
Instead he leaps again, because the choice is the same one that confronted him earlier, and again it’s Al who is at risk. This time, Sam doesn’t even hesitate.
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.