On March 26, 1989, NBC debuted the science fiction time travel series, Quantum Leap. I will be reviewing it here via the NBC app.
Starring Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett and Dean Stockwell as his friend and assistant Al, the series is a time travel story but with a twist.
“Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished… He woke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”
I’ll try to keep this somewhat brief because there is a LOT going on here. As you might expect.
As the 2 part movie pilot begins, the first character we meet is Al. It’s established pretty quickly that Al is a womanizer (maybe one with a heart of gold?) because he’s driving a fast car and hitting on an attractive woman. It is further established that he is working on a secret project. Soon enough, he gets a message and rushes away to where that project is taking place. He and the viewer find out that Dr. Sam Beckett has decided to test a time travel machine, himself, before his government funding runs out. And maybe before the machine is ready? With that… the show launches.
Sam wakes up in 1956, in the body of a fighter jet test pilot, with a six months pregnant wife, and no idea how to fly a fighter jet. As he moves through the house in his first morning there, he does not remember much of who *Sam* is and he knows nothing at all of the person in whose body he now resides. But he sort of lets himself be swept along with his day. He gets dressed (after getting a fan service shirtless Scott Bakula scene), picked up for work, and he heads off to figure out more.
In order to avoid being asked to fly a jet, Sam tells his commanding officer that he is suffering memory loss and cannot remember how to fly. Apparently Sam is occupying the body of a known prankster because absolutely nobody believes him – though they do make him submit to filling out a questionnaire. They show so little disregard for his memory loss that, despite his claims, he is eventually scheduled to fly a jet with an expectation that he will become the first person to break Mach 3. (I had to look this up – apparently Mach 3 is a fighter jet speed and not a high quality razor blade.)
While Sam is stumbling through this new reality, and finding out that he mostly likes it, we see Al appear to him as a hologram that only Sam can see or hear. Al is surprised to find out that Sam cannot remember anything. This is not how the machine was supposed to work. In addition, there are apparently rules which limit what Al is allowed to tell Sam about himself. This conversation is where most of the show’s info-dump occurs, too.
The rules of time-travel on this show are as follows:
1. Sam can only “leap” into the life of someone else who was alive during his own life.
2. When a “leap” happens, the real person whose body is being occupied temporarily comes out of the machine in the future from which Sam originally lept (leaped?)
3. Sam has to “correct” how a past event occurred before he can time leap to a new location/person in time.
4. Sam is assisted in that effort by Al and a super-computer named Ziggy who makes a guess each time about what Sam needs to correct before he can leave.
The assumption made by Ziggy in the pilot episode is that Sam needed to fly a jet, break Mach 3, eject from the flight, survive, and then “leap” onward. Al – conveniently a former NASA pilot – walks him through this mission by appearing next to him as a hologram inside the jet. But after succeeding – succeeding in the sense that he broke the speed barrier and blew up the plane without dying – Sam did not “leap” anywhere. Ziggy was wrong about what needed fixing.
But a short while later, Sam’s true mission revealed itself. His pregnant wife went into an early labor, and it spelled a certain doom for wife and/or baby with 1956’s more limited knowledge of medicine. In the original timeline, the pilot dies flying the jet, the mother dies giving birth, and the baby dies still born. Sam pulls from his knowledge of the future and coaches her doctor as to how to forestall her contractions and prevent the early birth from occurring. Once he successfully saves the mother and baby, he finds himself in the body of a baseball player in 1968.
Al appears at the baseball game in 1968 and lets Sam know that the baby was eventually born, and that both baby and mother lived. From Al’s perspective, a week had gone by even though for Sam the switch was almost instantaneous. However, the fact that Sam leaped into a new person instead of leaping home indicated that the time travel machine was not working as intended.
In Sam’s new body, in 1968, Al breaks some rules and lets Sam know that his *real* last name is Beckett. He also lets Sam – and the audience – know that Sam is the smartest human on earth (“the next Einstein.”) The crux of their dilemma now is that Sam is probably the only person smart enough to figure out how to get himself home. And he has memory loss issues.
With the knowledge that he might be stuck in the past, indefinitely, Dr. Sam Beckett begins to miss home, and he makes a long-distance call to his real life father. Of course, he’s doing it from the body of someone else, to a father who is much younger in 1968, and he has to pass himself off as his dad’s nephew. But it was a nice moment. We even hear a very young Sam Beckett in the background of the phone call.
This two part pilot episode had a lot to accomplish and I thought it went relatively well. I think I understand the weird premise and the episodic set-up is crafted well. The only part of the show – which aired three decades ago – that felt particularly dated from a visual standpoint was the opening scene set in the distant future of 1995. The rest is just an issue of getting period costuming done well. And I thought that they did that at least well enough to fool me.
I am looking forward to seeing how this show handles comedy. Even in the pilot they were leaning into “Al the womanizer” as a comedic sidekick. I guess we will find out how jarring it might be to my present-day sensibilities as we move forward.
Who is the real life person most likely to attempt something like this Quantum Leap project today? My money would be on Mark Zuckerberg. Elon Musk is the go-to billionaire that people think of for futuristic tech creation but Zuck is the guy focusing his energy specifically on timelines and building AI.
How would you feel if you abruptly found yourself in a futuristic time machine and were told that Mark Zuckerberg was temporarily possessing your body, fixing your mistakes, and forming lasting bonds with your wife and son? Honored? When you returned to your body, would your family be disappointed that their 3 days with Zuck were over?
I guess that is my reboot idea.