Quantum Leap: Season 1 Review

As with my episode reviews… spoilers ahead. Beware.

Quantum Leap tells the story of Dr. Sam Beckett’s time travel journeys. Airing in 1989, the actual time travel on the show took place initially in 1995, a mere six years later. The rules for his “Quantum Leap” time machine are as follows:

  1. When Sam travels into the past, he inhabits the body of a person from the past.
  2. He can only inhabit a person who was alive during his own life time.
  3. He inhabits a person from the past until he changes some particular event from history to *correct* history. Sam does not know what to change, with certainty, ahead of his leaps. When he changes the correct particular event from the life of the person he is inhabiting, he then “leaps” into a new person.
  4. He has one human helper from 1995 – Al. Al can appear to Sam in the past in the form of a hologram.
  5. Sam and Al rely on a super-computer named Ziggy to give them advice regarding which event from history that needs to change with each leap.

So… this is an interesting and unique time travel premise.

Let’s talk about the characters:

Dr. Sam Beckett was born in 1953 (making him 42 years old when we meet him.) He is a difficult character to evaluate. Whoever he might have been before he stepped into the time travel machine for the first time, he is someone else after his first leap. For the entirety of the first season, he has “swiss cheese brain” and cannot remember much about his life, his own background, details of the project, etc. Instead of getting the time travel journey of a super genius with six PhDs, once he completed the first leap, Sam is usually just a regular guy.

Who is regular guy Sam? He is a romantic. That might actually be his defining characteristic in Season 1. He has a habit of falling into insta-love with the pre-existing love interest of the person he hijacks. Romantic love drives a lot of his decision-making in the series. This was a particularly large problem when he worked to change his own timeline in the episode Star-Crossed. By the finale, he fell in love with a potentially dangerous romantic interest of his host – almost at first sight – despite the fact that she was a suspected murderer.

Regular Guy Sam occasionally has flashes of “Genius Sam,” though. The genius has a tendency to emerge when the plot requires that genius for Sam to work though a problem.

Admiral Al Calavicci is the hologram sidekick. What is he like? Ugh. My episode recaps make no secret of my issues with how they write Al. He is a womanizer, a former pilot, a flamboyant dresser, a boxer, a drinker, a gambler, and a civil rights activist. He’s all over the map. Sometimes he takes his job seriously. Sometimes he is so preoccupied with 1995 that he can barely be bothered to help. In “How the Tess Was Won,” at a critical moment, he just essentially walked off the job and left Sam to figure things out on his own. He is not really any one thing consistently. On the other hand, I was consistently befuddled that someone with his temperament is given such a crucial job. His job performance distracted my ability to suspend disbelief and enjoy the show.

We learned a little bit of Al’s backstory in season 1. He spent time in an orphanage growing up. Despite that, he had a living father who provided him with a prostitute as his first sexual experience as a young teenager. He has been married multiple times. He has an on-again, off-again toxic relationship with a woman from 1995 named Tina. He served in Vietnam. He marched in the Civil Rights Movement and was active enough therein to have suffered beatings and jail for the cause. There is interesting material in all of that from which to work. But I need to be able to believe the story.

Season 1 was clunky in its execution. The writers could not decide how much comedy to infuse into the show. Often when watching, I felt as though they were trying to use a sci-fi premise to write a comedy. That approach did not work. I also felt as though the writers could not settle on who each character was supposed to be. In one episode, Al was distracted and ignoring the mission. In another episode, Sam ignored the advice of mission-oriented Al and Ziggy to pursue a romantic goal. Neither man settling into a reliable role pulled me out of the episode on a regular basis. Believability – completely unrelated to the time travel premise – was a big issue with this season.

Can a genius solve a problem using his brain and a time traveling hologram helper? Absolutely. Can he out-rodeo a ranch heiress? Can he out-box a professional boxer? Absolutely not. If the show wants me to suspend my disbelief, that’s fine. But the writers went too far with that a few times in season 1.

This is how I would rank and grade the episodes:

  1. Genesis (A-)
  2. Double Identity (B+)
  3. Star-Crossed (B)
  4. Camikazi Kid (B-)
  5. The Right Hand of God (C+)
  6. The Color of Truth (D)
  7. How the Tess Was Won (D)
  8. Play It Again, Seymour (D-)

In hindsight, I am probably giving Genesis some benefit of the doubt because it was a pilot episode and it had so much world-building work to accomplish. Overall I think about half the season is average or better television. The three episodes that were bad were bad for different reasons. The Color of Truth tackled racism in a very poor and cringey fashion. How the Tess Was Won had a major “implausibility” issue with Sam and cowboy work. The twist with Buddy Holly at the end of the episode was funny, but it was also a little frustrating because it meant that no part of the episode prior to the last minute actually mattered. Play it Again, Seymour just had story-telling issues. There were not enough clues regarding the bad guy twist at the end of the episode. The “mission” twist at the end felt like a rip-off of the Buddy Holly twist. This episode also gave us a temporarily prescient Sam and then poorly explained that prescience away.

Some stray thoughts regarding the show as the season played out:

  • There was something icky about the way that Sam kept falling in love with his host body’s love interest. The whole thing comes off a little bit like emotional pornography. “Sam” never put much work into these relationships. He inherits the relationship work done by someone else. We did not see how things played out with his love interests off screen, but if we had, it might have felt like actual pornography, too. Or rape? The women he meets do not know that he is a total stranger. He is impersonating men they know. How would you feel if you found out that Mark Zuckerberg has been inhabiting your love interest’s body for a few days without your knowledge? Then again, some of you might be into that idea.
  • We do not know (yet) know what the consequences are for Sam’s “work.” How many lives are altered – some for the worse – by what he does? He is playing God in a real sense. I suspect we will eventually see consequences but knowing that they are coming, and not seeing them at all, made watching Season 1 frustrating.
  • Speaking of God – we see throughout that Sam appears to be a Christian. We never see him reflect about the juxtaposition of what he is doing and his faith generally.
  • I think Al could end up being a really interesting character. I do not mind his gray area morality all that much – at least not yet. What bothers me is his indifference to his TIME TRAVEL JOB. Fix that and I think the show gets markedly better.
  • So far, the show has not leaned too heavily into attending or changing specific historical events. Star-Crossed took the episode to the Watergate Hotel. Double Identity visited and inadvertently caused the famous Northeast Blackout of 1965. For the most part, though, the show avoided sending Sam to kick-start or change events from history. The most notable exception in season 1 was his cringe-worthy role in launching the Civil Rights Movement in Alabama in 1955.

I was leaning toward taking a long break from this show before starting season 2. I remembered this show being better and this season just did not deliver. However, I shared some of these concerns with a friend who is a major Quantum Leap fan, and I was assured that the show improves. I will continue on with Season 2 in the very near future.