The Quantum Leap Sequel Series Mostly Sticks the Leap

The Quantum Leap sequel series couldn’t help but feel a little manufactured. Made-in-a-lab. Only because the original show was so utterly weird and idiosyncratic that any return to the story was going to feel a little over-produced. But having watched the pilot, “July 13th, 1985”, I think the sequel is off to a good start, heading in an interesting direction—and the cast more than makes up for any initial bumps in the quantum accelerator.

The pilot episode is a bit heavy on the exposition… in the same way that Admiral Al Calavicci’s clothes were a bit loud. But of course there’s a good and forgivable reason for that. The original pilot dropped us into a sleek near future desert. We meet Al driving a ludicrously fast experimental sportscar as he picks up a stranded driver—who also happens to be an incredibly hot woman in futuristic light-up heels. In the course of their brief conversation, we learn: Al is huge slut; there have been rumors of top secret experiments at an old bomb-testing site on the horizon; there’s a phenomenal light show happening at said testing site; Al’s not great at lying. The conversation ends when Al receives a call (to his experimental car phone!) that “Sam’s leaping!!!” and then the show cuts to a man engulfed in light. Opening credits, clouds whooshing by, and a moment later, the man we just saw wakes up in the 1950s as a test pilot, with only a spotty recollection of his own identity. Mostly he knows that he’s not the man he sees in the mirror. It takes a long time before Al shows back up and gradually explains who Sam really is or what he’s done.

That original pilot introduces us to a unique sci-fi concept, a form of time travel, the juxtaposition of the then-near-future with a variety of points in the past, and our two main characters—who were both huge personalities. The only baggage the show was carrying was that viewers expected sci-fi, and older viewers probably knew a bit about Dean Stockwell’s long acting career and real-life antics as part of a wild ‘70s Hollywood circle that included Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda. Aside from that, everything’s new, and the show could go anywhere.

Screenshot: NBC Universal

Now, the sequel series is picking up 29 years after the original ended. It’s taking up the banner of a show that was resolutely progressive, but that has also aged a bit. The writers have to give us exposition for the sequel and introduce a whole slew of new main characters, while also explaining the original show’s concept for n00bs, and providing in-universe backstory for the Quantum Leap Project, filling us in on what happened to Sam and Al, and, finally, hinting at why a new project/show was needed.

Hence why I said “forgivable”—I think the writers have done a pretty amazing job hitting all those marks while also giving us a pilot episode with a plot and forward momentum.

You know how in silent films or Looney Tunes a bunch of people will get into a brawl, and all you see is the dust they kick up, and then the occasional—head or foot sticks out? That’s what QL was like. Career military people working with idealistic nigh-pacifists! A garishly-dressed woman working with the nerdiest non-Real Genius character of the ‘80s! A multi-Ph.D’d man who was also a literal farmboy! A show that celebrated science but also theorized that God would step in to direct a science experiment! A super religious show that also theorized that God messed up badly enough to have to go back and edit their timeline! (Free Will was a MISTAKE.)

None of it should work! It doesn’t, always! But when it does it makes for a classic SFF show: heartfelt, funny, curious, honoring the past while looking into the future. It also always, always takes the side of the marginalized.

The new series is still finding its feet in establishing the new characters as weirdly and jangly, but where it really sticks the landing is in the big, heartfelt emotion. The show begins at an engagement party and just goes from there. In one fast-paced scene we meet: Ben Song (Raymond Lee), the project’s lead physicist; Addison Augustine (Caitlin Bassett), the project Comms Director/Ben’s new fiancé; Jenn (Nanrisa Lee), the head of security; Ian (Mason Alexander Park), the AI architect; and Magic Williams (Ernie Hudson), the project’s leader. Ben is established as a huge nerd in a pretty stereotypical way: he’s desperately uncomfortable at his own engagement party, to the point that Addison accuses him of hiding in the bathroom. Then, lest people think Ben is too nerdy, the two of them agree to “grab a bottle of Bulleit and sneak off to that spot under the pier where no one can see us”. But then, when Ben’s pushed into giving a speech, he gazes into Addison’s eyes, declares the “science is romance” and talks about quantum entanglement:

Once two particles experience a shared state, they’re no longer separate entities. They exist as one, even when they’re separated by great distances.

This, this is the kind of high-quality cheese that made the original show amazing. But what gives a hint that this show might be a little darker is that Ben has an ulterior motive. A mysterious stranger is doing something at the QL headquarters. They tell Ben “our window is closing” and the next thing we know he’s leaping without anyone knowledge or OK. So that great romantic speech was also him preparing Addison for what he was about to do.

Screenshot: NBC Universal

Where this show differs most significantly from its predecessor is that we spend equal amounts of time in 2022 and in 1985. Thanks to that the rest of Project Quantum Leap is given screentime to come to life. Jenn is the head of security, but she’s also clearly insecure in a lot of ways, thinks Ben’s leap has proved that she’s unfit for her job, and refers to Magic giving her a chance when no one else would. Magic is the “gruff team leader barking orders”, but he also cares about his team as people and takes time to listen to them in their panic over Ben’s leap. And of course Ian was always going to pop the most, as the eccentric AI designer, but they also have the closest to Al’s sense of style, and they get lines like “this almost makes me believe in monogamy” (in reply to Ben’s quantum entanglement speech) and “this is like a mushroom trip I can’t sober up from” (about possibly losing Ben in the past) that show this person doesn’t match the stereotype of either an employee of the U.S. military or a computer nerd—which I think makes the character a much more realistic rep of both.

The first leap is a good one, because it’s almost purely a personal mission. Rather than leaping into a giant historical event or righting some catastrophic wrong, this is a story of a heist gone awry. (Granted, the heist is of the Hope Diamond, but it’s not like we have to stop Anwar Sadat’s assassination or help Stephen King finish IT.) This is the story of an ordinary man who was driven into a life of crime because of the one-two punch of his wife’s cancer diagnosis and the failure of his restaurant. We get some mentions of the bank not approving a loan, and the nightmare that is the U.S. healthcare system. We meet his adorable child.

Screenshot: NBC Universal

The ‘80s details are fun but not overpowering. Ben can’t drive stick because, well, who learns stick anymore? But Addison’s able to talk him through it. The beginning of the heist is set to a portable TV broadcast of David Bowie’s Live Aid performance, a movie theater has a double bill of The Goonies and St. Elmo’s Fire, and a couple of period-appropriate hits play at a museum gala. My one ding would be that as usual the clothes are a little off—I feel like people never capture the boxy tailoring or preponderance of pastels and shades of brown that marked the decade—but they don’t fall into the hyper neon retrowave kitsch that’s so popular today.

The other thing that has an interesting working-to-not-working ratio: the interactions between Addison and Ben. I have friend who can barely make it through episodes of QL because of the dysphoria of watching Sam navigate someone else’s body. That never got me—I’m the kind of enby who’s uncomfortable in almost every form of drag I try anyway, so if anything I found Sam’s discomfort relaxing. Where I used to lose my mind was watching Sam try to find places where he could talk to Al without people noticing, overhearing, asking if he was talking to himself, asking if he was crazy. “July 13th, 1985” creates multiple situations where Ben and Addison can be alone to talk, which was really helpful to me. Where I thought the show exploited the discomfort was when Ben needs information, muses aloud to get Addison to look it up for him, and has to wait a long skin-crawling moment before she feeds him facts to recite.

But this relationship adds another layer to the show as well. I’m still on the fence about the two leads of the Quantum Leap Project also being a couple, simply because I love platonic love. But it is interesting to see how this ups the stakes. Addison is terrified she’s lost her partner forever, and even if she hasn’t, she has to grapple with the fact that he hid something huge from her. Every time she steps into the imaging chamber to act as his guide, she might see the man she loves gets hurt or even die in front of her. She can’t touch him or help him. He has no idea who she is, and their shared history just doesn’t exist for him. On top of that is the fear that the higher-ups will can the project once they learn the truth, that even Ian can’t understand the mysterious new code, that Ben might get lost, and that there’s some huge crisis unfolding that was so important he had to lie to everyone and take the risk of leaping alone. The sequel series has taken a sci-fi “Weekly Woobie” show with one big stake—will Sam Beckett make it home?—and filled it with enough stakes to take out the entire Cullen clan.

Screenshot: NBC Universal

We’re given some tantalizing mysteries: where in the OG QL, Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap Accelerator and…vanished because the funding was getting cut, here we see an unknown person messing with the computer during the engagement party, and then we learn that Ben is working with them. But why, when the project was going well, and had funding and support? Instead of Sam Beckett’s “swiss-cheesed mind” he’s got full amnesia. Once he comes to in his leapee’s body, he has no idea who he is or why he leaped—just that he is not the person he sees in the mirror. He’s as confused and upset as Addison, whom he doesn’t remember.

But again, the important thing here is that it’s all grounded in real emotion. 2022 Ben makes the decision to leap, and leaves a message for Addison saying “This is bigger than us. I’m doing this because it has to be done.” 1985 Ben, stuck in the past and terrified, has a chance to pull the plug on the leap. Ziggy tells Addison that there’s a 99% chance that if he just calls the cops on the heist, Ryan will live and he’ll leap. But Ben knows that doing that will ruin Ryan and his family, puts the phone down, and says “I don’t care what Ziggy says. I know what I have to do” and promptly heads out into an incredibly dangerous situation to help a guy he barely knows. As long as the new series sticks to stuff like that it’ll prove to be a worthy successor to the classic.

So he and the mysterious person are working together, check. And I’m pretty sure we learn the identity of the mystery person…unless that identity’s a red herring. But we still have no idea why. Of course, every time Addison, Ian, or Magic says something along the lines of “I don’t know why the algorithm’s acting this way” it took all my self-control not to reply with “Gee, Davy, d’you think it was…” but the thing is we don’t know. The current team seems to think the machines controlled the old leaps, and that the new code is what’s guiding the new ones, but are they?

I’m happy to be along for the leaps to find out.


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