Quantum Leap — Time travel that broke the rules

While there is no shortage of time travel movies, it’s rather more rare to see a television show tackle the format. Undoubtedly, the best of the few that did try was 1989’s Quantum Leap, a five-season series that tweaked the normal time travel rules to create a show that could be endlessly inventive.

Airing from 1989 to 1993, Quantum Leap told the story of physicist Sam Beckett — played by an affably charming Scott Bakula — who created a time travel device. When the government threatens to pull funding from it, Sam jumps into the Quantum Leap Accelerator and vanishes. Obviously, something’s gone wrong, but Sam’s not dead. Instead, he’s jumped into the bodies of people in the past as those people are teleported to the future to be held for the duration of that adventure. Sam’s got to figure out who these people are, what their situation is, and “set right what once went wrong” before he can leap out again.

Because his brain is “swiss-cheesed” from the experiment, Sam doesn’t always know all of the details of his own life. To help him accomplish his mission, his best friend in the future, Al (Dean Stockwell) is able to visit him as a hologram and access the Project’s computer Ziggy, which can calculate odds of various historical events as Sam manipulates the time stream. (Weirdly enough, little kids and animals could see Al, which was used to on certain occasions.) Normally, Sam can’t leap to any time before his birthday, which is in 1953 (the Quantum Leap Project was set in the then-future of 1995), but occasionally the show bent those rules to fling him further back in history.

It’s a kind of strange set-up, but the end result is pretty simple. Sam is thrown into a different body and a different story every week, using his wits and smarts to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes he got thrown into the bodies of celebrities, such as Dr. Ruth or Stephen King, but most of the time it’s just a person who’s going through a bad hardship. The show highlighted a lot of prejudices from the 1950s through the 1980s, including racism and sexism, and Sam never hesitated in stepping up to confront those injustices.

Because obviously the show needed a constant main star and couldn’t be replacing him every week with a different actor, Bakula remained visible to us and Al as a visual reminder of who was actually in the body. But to everyone else — as signified by what Sam sees in mirrors — Sam looked very much like someone else. He still retained his own physical abilities and strength, which came in handy when he had to fend off advances as a woman. Yup, Bakula was in a drag here. A lot.

I wasn’t a die-hard Leaper, or whatever they called fans of the show, but I did partake from time to time. I thought it was generally pretty engaging, with small measures of humor, scifi, and character stories filling the hour-long stretch. Listen, there were far worse ways to spend your time watching TV in the early ’90s, that’s for sure. It seems that certain elements seem to love this show very very much for a hunka-Bakula, but that wasn’t me. Personally, I liked the banter between Sam and Al, as the two leads had pretty good chemistry even allowing for wildly different personalities.

I think it was quite ingenious to always end each episode with a tease/cliffhanger of the episode to come, because that would get you counting down until the next week’s adventure. Quantum Leap is still a beloved show three decades later, a testament to how a genre mishmash could actually work with the right setup and the right stars.

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