One of the reasons I wanted to do this countdown was so I could finally discuss not only one of my favourite sci-fi televisions shows, but one of my all-time favourite television shows in general, Quantum Leap. It’s something I have been trying to broach since I started this blog with Lauren, but I just didn’t know where or how to begin (the beginning seems like a reasonable place, I know, but I’ve struggled). Despite having aged very poorly over the last 20 years, I still think that Quantum Leap was an amazing concept and as far as television dramas go, was not only well executed, but educational and well played by all parties involved (both the two leads, who had amazing buddy chemistry, and all the weekly guest stars). I like to think that it was Sam and Al that somehow inspired me to become an historian. Certainly their weekly trips through time played a role in fostering my own interest in all things to do with history. I’ll always owe a debt to them for that.
Also, after a trip back in time through the string theory of my own life, I may finally have confirmed (for my own peace of mind) that Dr. Sam Beckett is certainly my first television show crush (turns out Quantum Leap premiered before Beverly Hills 90210, which bought Dylan McKay into my living room and heart. Retrospectively I don’t know why I ever doubted that Sam was there first. The love for Luke Perry faded long ago, but Scott Bakula… I still would…)
(time traveller and genius, Sam Beckett is the genuine all-rounder: he can dance, he can sing, he can take a punch, he can throw a punch, he can tell a joke, be romantic, save the day, dig a post hole, ride a horse… and he’s a medical Doctor!!)
The futuristic looking pilot episode of Quantum Leap opens not with Sam, but with the ever faithful side-kick and best friend, Al, (Dean Stockwell in the only role I have ever loved him in), driving through the desert in a modified Ferrari looking car, on the prowl for any stranded women who may be about (Al, it turns out, is always on the prowl, a fact which the writers are at pains to set up early on). Ultimately, it is through Al that we as the audience begin to piece together the backstory of Sam and his quantum time travel, how it’s come about and what role Al plays in the project (outside of sexual deviant). It is also through Al that we are delighted and horrified by the fashion concepts which late 80’s television envisioned for the millennium. The funniest thing in this pilot, like so many movies/television shows which deal with time travel and which were made in the 80’s, is the way it imagines time and the future. Set in the late 90’s, the open scenes denotes the future with fashions that include flashing shoes and disco earrings. It is also clearly prior to the invention of hair straighteners, cause damn random lady, your hairs (shame)…
(Sam and Al – That ridiculous jacket is just one of the first in a long line)
When we do finally see Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), he is dressed in some kind of futuristic white body suit and surrounded by dry ice and white light… about to leap, half-cocked, through time and space and into 1956, possibly never to return. When Sam wakes up, he cannot remember who he is, where he is or how he got there. Surrounded by complete strangers and not able to see himself in the mirror, Sam (as we all would) convinces himself that he is in a dream. Thankfully, that’s about the time Al shows up to begin trying to explain what the hell is going on. As far as concepts go, this was never going to be a super easy one to explain unless the audience is told via this mechanism, which is a bit annoying, but ultimately the quickest way to establish how the series is going to progress, which is thus: Sam leaps through time, Sam needs to right a wrong in the life of the person that he leaps into, once that is accomplished Sam can move on. Al is part of the Quantum Leap program in the future (we’ll say future although technically it is the present as far as Al is concerned, although in our current time it’s well in the past) and for his part, needs to determine where Sam is, who he is (if that data is unavailable) and what it is that he needs to put right. There is a genuine love between Sam and Al, you get the impression right off the bat that they’ve been involved in this project together for a long time, that they both have a lot invested into it and that as a result, a really strong friendship has developed between them – different as they are).
(Al is not infrequently hung over… here he attempts to help Sam fill in the gaps in his memory)
In his first leap, Sam ends up as a fighter pilot (playing a pilot in the pilot – LoL), trying to decipher what is going on within the scheme of his own project as well as in the world of 1956. This first mission involves trying to break mach3 and trying to establish a stronger relationship with his wife. How he will go about either of these tasks, when he has no memory and no experience as a pilot, is where we get the guts of the episode. It’s later revealed that Sam entered the quantum accelerator early as government funding was about to be cut on the project, which is the reason not only for his memory loss, but also the reason he cannot get back to his own time. Still, why he leaps into the people that he leaps into is one of the mysteries which the show is never completely able to solve.
(Remember when chest hair was a normal, manly thing? It was the best of times…)
I really like the fact that, right from the beginning, the writers are very ambiguous about who is moving Sam through time. In much the same way as later shows, such as the X Files walk a fine line between religion and science, Quantum Leap, while being scientifically driven, does not suppose that science negates the need to believe in a higher power. Sam too, despite being a quantum physicist, never makes the assumption that there is no higher power or God that is ultimately in control of destiny – I appreciate that about him and about the show.
(Yes, Al, we’re all equally as confused as Sam over that choice of shirt)
I’m not going to pretend that this show doesn’t have some issues in as far as time paradoxes and so on though, because it clearly does. Primary among these is the whole butterfly effect thing. I mean, Sam is out there ‘putting all these things right’ but there doesn’t seem to be any explanation about the effect that these righted wrongs have in the present. Later in the series they do attempt to touch upon how Sam is able to change both his life and Al’s, but early on, there doesn’t seem to be any dramatic impact when Sam saves lives or stops tragedies from happening. If other time travel shows/movies have taught us anything, it’s that this can never be the case, there is always a ripple effect. I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, but the way the series ended was also an epic issue (for me) but we can talk about that in another post, because this is supposed to be a celebration of the pilot.
Unlike other episodes in the series, this is also one of the few where we see Sam leap into multiple people and across a large time gap. The last 15 minutes or so of the episode involves him leaping into a baseball player in Waco in the 1960’s. While there isn’t much depth to this second leap (Sam appears to be there only to assist in the final innings of the baseball game), it does allow the writers the opportunity to lay the groundwork for the compassionate aspects of Sam and Al’s relationship. Throughout the first half of the pilot, Sam is at pains to remember his own past, but Al, under the instruction of other members of the project, has been warned that he cannot tell Sam anything about himself or Quantum Leap. Sam cannot remember his own last name, a source of much distress, but during his leap into the ball player, Al finally breaks down and tells Sam that his full name is Samuel Beckett. This allows Sam to make a telephone call to his father (who in the present has died) which brings him some element of peace, in what has been a traumatic journey. We see here that, apart from being a co-worker and buddy, Al has a deep caring and compassion for Sam. This relationship forms the glue of the whole series, which wouldn’t have lasted half as long had the two leads not depicted this camaraderie so well.
I’m pretty sure that Sam Beckett was not only my first television crush, but remains my number one television show love (sorry, Fox Mulder, sorry Dean Winchester, sorry Dr. Spencer Reid). While he may not be much chop as far as sex symbol status goes today, in the late 80’s he was the epitome of the sensitive new aged guy (I actually think Fox Mulder owes a lot to Sam Beckett in his early character development in the first few seasons of the X Files. Seriously, if you compare their mannerisms and behaviour, they’re really quite similar and representative of a time when men still got to be all manly sometimes). It was a beautiful thing – If I’m lying, I’m dying…