Since the alphabet is the building block of our language, the Powet Alphabet is the building block of what makes us geeks.

Quantum Leap (Season 1)

Not long ago, there began a somewhat off-kilter TV show with an unbelievable premise that nonetheless captured the hearts and minds of America. Guest stars who were associated with it went on to have long careers of their own, even as the principals struggled to escape its overpowering shadow. Despite the sometimes-inexplicable twist and turns of the plot, what really attracted audiences were the touching and realistic character pieces that this show delivered week after week.

I could be talking about ABC’s LOST, but before LOST was NBC’s Quantum Leap. Read on to find out why this show held, and twenty years later continues to hold, a special place in the hearts of science geeks, acting geeks, history buffs, and non-geeks alike.

First of all, Quantum Leap isn’t a science fiction show not really. Sure, at the heart of its premise was a convenient time travel device (although not so convenient for the characters), and the Harvey-esque hologram Al who was backed up by the super-smart super computer Ziggy to help Sam out as he bounced around history almost always completely over his head. Resolutions to the plot typically relied on Sam’s foreknowledge of events, or his interaction with Al and Ziggy to do things that no person unaided could have done in Sam’s place.

But I think I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s recap a little for those who haven’t seen the show in a while if at all.

The Premise

sam-leap As explained in the intro for the latter seasons, super-genius Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) headed up a secretive time travel project called Quantum Leap at some point in the then-future of the 1990s, aided by his best friend Rear Admiral Albert “Al” Calivicci (Dean Stockwell) as the project observer who is the only person who can make contact with Sam while he’s in the past. Originally funded by private enterprises, Sam felt pressured to step up his timetable and perform the first “leap” without the safeties in place that would ensure his return to the present time.

As a result, Sam “leaps” about from point to point, seemingly at random, but along certain guidelines as predicted by his “String theory” of time travel (unrelated to quantum string theory). The basics: the time traveler can only travel to other points in time during his own lifetime (with a few exceptions), the time traveler shouldn’t (but often does) change events that directly affect his own timeline, and since he appears to everyone around him as a person already inhabiting that time period (more on this later) the traveler must convince those around him that he is who he appears to be.

The idea is enough to make any science fiction fanboy weep for joy, but the facts I’ve divulged are almost entirely glossed over, or only doled out in chunks over the course of the show’s five seasons. Quantum Leap is in actuality a unique vehicle for exploring the recent past (mostly the ’50s through the ’70s) through period and character/morality pieces that serve to examine and even try to make sense of the more tumultuous events of the 20th century.

Stories range from examining social topics, such as the equal rights movement and the Vietnam protests, to serving as a vehicle for the production team’s affections for classic movies, television, and historical figures. In one episode, Sam might end up as the “Morgan Freeman” of Driving Miss Daisy, forcing a small town to integrate because “it’s the right thing to do”, and the next he might spend the TV hour convincing his host’s sister not to marry some guy because he turns out to be an abusive asshole ten years down the line.

These down-to Earth stories steeped in the common cultural consciousness, but couched in otherwise pseudo-science-y explanations, are what made this show so accessible to audiences who probably wouldn’t identify themselves as fans of science fiction. So who were the minds behind this winning combination?

The Creator

donaldbellisario Running from 1989 to 1993, Quantum Leap was developed by Donald Bellisario, who was also responsible for other shows such as Magnum P.I., JAG, and NCIS. Bellisario liked to work in aspects of his own life into that of his shows: main characters were often ex-military (Al is a retired navy aviator), and his birthday — August 8th, 1935 — popped up as significant dates in his shows (Sam’s birthday is August 8th, 1953).

At the time the series was being produced, Bellisario was married to Deborah Pratt, who starred as the haunted titular character of “A Portrait for Troian”. (Troian is also the name of Bellisario’s daughter from his marriage to Pratt.) Bellisario himself acted as Sam’s reflection for the episode. Ms. Pratt later went on to do the very recognizable standard voiceover narration at the top of the show, replacing the Season 1 pattern of Sam briefly recapping his previous adventures, and ultimately voiced Ziggy when Sam finally (albeit briefly) made it back home to his present time.

Reportedly, the inspiration for the Quantum leap came to Bellisario from the 1978 Warren Beatty movie “Heaven Can Wait”, where a football player, dead before his time, hops around various bodies (mostly by being killed again and again) in order to “restore the cosmic balance”. Sounds kind of familiar, right?

The Man Upstairs

One direct result of the “Heaven can wait” influence is the characters’ ready (and unscientific) assumption that God must be controlling where Sam leaps to next, as well as setting the criteria for success while Sam is there. Even with the aid of Ziggy, far off in the future computing statistical probabilities (and often working from spotty records), Sam and Al are often unsure of their purpose during a leap, and even disagree — sometimes vehemently — about what can or should be done while there.

Unlike other shows with a similar premise, such as Seven Days or even Doctor Who, Sam can only seem to effect the personal lives of those he’s lept into, and the people around him. Even if he tries to directly affect cultural events, he often fails, or is only able to make a small change while leaving the larger event intact. The presumption for much of this show is “that’s how He wants it”.

Running somewhat counter to that are Sam’s largely inadvertent influences on historical figures, stemming from his often-anachronistic ’90s references that he tosses off without thinking. The result is that Sam introduces many time loops (effects without any originating cause): he suggests the lyrics of Peggy Sue to Buddy Holly, shows a very young Michael Jackson how to moonwalk, performs the Heimlich Maneuver on Dr. Heimlich, and teaches Chubby Checker (played by himself) how to do The Twist.

The Science (if you can call it that)

By now it should be fairly clear that the specifics of how and why the time travel that allows the show to function was not of great concern to the writers, much less the creators. However, the details that were divulged from the pilot onward left implications that couldn’t help but be fleshed out over the years the series ran.

The time travel process itself involves trading places with a person already in the past using some loose interpretation of quantum entanglement. Sam and his target switch places in time and space with the wrinkle that Sam appears physically as the displaced person to those around him, to Al (who plays up this fact for comedic effect when Sam leaps into especially attractive women), and even to himself when he looks into a mirror.

This is presumably the goal of the experiment, as the person Sam has lept into appears to inhabit the body of Sam in his relative present, and is kept in a “waiting room” for questioning by Al to help determine where Sam has ended up in time and space. (Do they keep a bathroom in there?) But since Sam made his first leap before the project was ready, he has never successfully been completely recalled to the present — despite numerous attempts by Al, Gooshi, and Ziggy to use the failsafes already in place.

The leaping process produces holes in Sam’s memory, which — according to the rules of the project — Al is forbidden to fill… unless it serves the plot. (The person who finds him- or herself out of time also only has spotty memories of the experience once they return to their own time, although this is rarely addressed.) This is a convenient device for gradually revealing Sam’s varied, yet improbable skillset, as well as his personal history — which has the tendency to fluctuate despite efforts (and a project directive) not to alter events of the leaper’s own lifetime or that of anyone else in the Quantum Leap project. Regardless, the very future of the project, and Sam’s ability to stay in contact with Al, has depended upon convenient changes to history that ensured the project continues, stays well-funded (as is the plot of the Season 2 premiere), and becomes more efficient through the recruitment of new talent.

One such notable change is Ziggy’s gender. Referred to as “he” for most of the series, Ziggy is referred to as “she” (voiced by Deborah Pratt) once Sam briefly returns to his own time, and for the rest of the series thereafter. We also get to find out the effects of several other changes that Sam had already made to his timeline for the first three seasons of the show, but why spoil the revelations here?

Despite the need to appease the fanboys and girls with such details, the series is otherwise episodic, fairly self-contained, and remains fresh through varied film styles and storytelling devices. So there’s no need to try to inject new life into it by doing something blatantly ratings-grabbing, right?


The Evil Leaper

evil-leapers If you accept that there is a time traveler working for the cause of good, “putting right what once went wrong”, a potential extrapolation of that paradigm is the possibility of an evil time-traveling counterpart working for the forces of evil to “set wrong what once went right.” As a result, in the fifth and final season, we were introduced to evil quantum leaper Alia, her evil observer Zoe, and their EVIL computer Lothos.

No, really. Why are you laughing?

It might have seemed like a good idea, but in actual practice it seems really ridiculous. It might have worked better if it was a competing, private, industrialized firm who was less concerned with such personal, touching changes, and wanted to make the big societal changes that Sam was unable (or forbidden) to make for the “good” of a corporation, or one country over the expense of another. Such changes that a person might uncaringly make to affect the lives of millions could be seen as evil, but the person making them might not share that view.

Not so with Alia, Zoe, and Lothos. They were quite clear on what their mission was: to destroy happy lives, one person at a time.

But you can stop laughing: it turns out that the evil leaper is a chick. And hot. And oh doesn’t actually want to be evil. In a later three-parter, Sam tries to free Alia from the life and mission she claims to reject. While potentially making bad drama — possibly poking holes in the entire premise of the series itself — it made for great television

(Special Note: Zoe is played by Carolyn Seymour, who might be better known by voice, anyhow as Dr. Chakwas in the Mass Effect series.)

The Future

al-and-tina Since the “future” of the series takes place in the mid-to-late ’90s, but the show was produced starting in 1989, the writers had to make some assumptions about what the coming decade would be like. If their predilection for blinking lights on clothing and jewelry were any indication (as well as a continued fascination with feathered and/or crimped hair), they were taking their cues from Back to the Future II. And, seriously, guys, neon? This isn’t a Joel Schumacher Batman movie. Then again, those films were in the future too, so maybe they weren’t too far off…

Once in a while, however, the writers would hit something right on the mark. One such instance came during the second season episode “All Americans”, where Al mentioned that the Steelers were down 3 points during Superbowl XXX. As of the release of the episode, Superbowl XXX would not occur for 6 years, yet the Steelers did indeed make it to the Superbowl that year, and were down by three points in the fourth quarter against the Cowboys. What a nailbiter!

Sam’s hyper-moral, feministic, sensitive nice-guy routine would also be indicative of ’90s stereotypes, but it’s really hard to say whether this was a predictor, or whether the character simply influenced a generation to give his brand of machismo a shot.

Gaffes and sticky situations

sam-in-dress Can there be any continuity errors in time travel, where history is up in the air? The show occasionally seemed to break its own rules, by allowing Sam to leap into people before his birthday in two episodes. Explanation? The earliest was April 1953, at which point Sam was not yet born, but was safely gestating in utero and arguably conscious. Only us silly non-time traveling types consider our lives to begin at the expulsion from the womb. One episode did take place during the Civil War, however, due to a surprising DNA compatibility of one of Sam’s ancestors.

Which presents interesting questions: can Sam die while leaping? Quite often he is faced with certain death, only to escape through fairly pedestrian means, or by leaping out before leaving the poor, unwitting victim meets his (or her) fate. Would letting an ancestor (or himself) die nullify his timeline? The exact nature of leaping had to be dealt with in rather specific ways over the course of the show. Sam leaps into someone who is supposed to be blind, but Sam is not blind himself. In the body of a double-amputee, he is still able to walk on his own two legs (appearing to “float” to everyone else), yet is able to fit into the wardrobe of ladies he has lept into. There is indication that the mental state of his hosts has some effect on him, but physically? He’s always (usually) Sam Beckett. So doe he age?

It was a question that was still unanswered when the show ended in 1993.

The End

The finale came as a surprise to me — and to Sam himself. He had leapt completely bodily as his own self — not into anyone else — at the very moment of his birth. A bartender named Al (played by the same guy who played Weird Ernie in the pilot episode) gave pretty broad hints as to what was happening to Sam, but refused to give up his own identity, nor the mysterious source of his knowledge. Sam had encountered apparent full-body leapers before, in the form of Angela — not coincidentally the Spanish (feminine) word for “Angel”. However, once Angela left, Sam had no memory of her — only Al, who did not strictly exist in the time frame where Angela had been altering history.

Sam experienced a similar situation with an elderly mine worker who helped free several trapped souls in a collapsed mine — with Sam’s help, of course. Once the task was done, the old mine worker appeared to disappear (by leaping). Only Sam (and apparently Al the bartender) could remember that he had ever been there. The implication? Now that Sam was physically whole, he could do much the same.

And in the end– oh, why spoil it? Check it out for yourselves!

That’s it, go leap home!

teri-hatcher Quantum Leap was a fantastic show that might not have made better the lives of indiscriminate strangers in the past, but certainly affected those who watched it, and definitely those who acted in it. Teri Hatcher, Claudia Christian, Jason Priestly, Robert Duncan McNeill, Marcia Cross, Jennifer Aniston, Brooke Shields, Terry Farrell, Bob Saget, Carla Gugino, John Cullum and Janine Turner (of Northern Exposure, both in the same episode!), and many others graced the guest star list during its five-year run.

You owe it to yourself to track it down and re-watch it — or watch it for the first time!