Season One, Episode One
They don’t make ’em like this any more.
Quantum Leap is one of those shows where almost anything can happen every week. We’ll let the main character, Sam Beckett, explain the premise:
‘Getting a second chance to put things right, to make the world a better place.’
Because shear away the time-travel, and that’s it. He is a time-traveller, but unlike Doctor Who he’s not contractually obligated to meet monsters everywhere he goes (and really, what are the odds of that?). Sam bounces around in time solving problems, some huge, some not. He’s limited by his lifetime, so anywhere between the 50s and the 80s is fine, although rules including this one would wobble in the show’s later years. And he can never be himself: he trades places with someone new each week, and it’s only us that sees him as he really is. Besides these restrictions (and the general A-Team/Knight Rider structure of rolling into town and solving somebody’s problems), the writers have at it. Quantum Leap managed to be at the same time reassuringly easy to follow and refreshingly brand new every week. We love it.
Sam (Scott Bakula) wakes up in
in 1956. He has amnesia. The guy in the mirror has a different face, and everyone keeps calling him Tom. To make matters worse, Tom’s a daring test pilot scheduled to make a record-breaking flight in a few days. Oh, and there’s a weird guy in a suit and tie that seemingly only Sam/Tom can see. Texas
We love the What The Hell Is Going On-ness of all of this, so it’s a shame there’s a pre-credits scene that gives it away to some extent. Some time in the future, Al (Dean Stockwell), a snappy-dresser/ladies’ man, finds out that Sam has prematurely entered the Quantum Leap Accelerator. That chucks quite a bit of the suspense out of the window right away. How much more exciting and intriguing would this be if the episode opened when Sam woke up? We wouldn’t know for sure if it was a dream, or if Sam had gone crazy, or what. (Kind of reminds us of another show about a guy called Sam.)
Also, probably one of the least successful aspects of Quantum Leap is the show’s vision of the future. Apparently, everything comes with flashing neon lights, people dress like idiots, and did we mention neon?
Predicting the future is virtually impossible, especially on a TV budget, we understand that. (And we don’t even mind. Back To The Future Part II had hovercars predicted for 2015. Four years to go – we can still make it, guys!) But it is a recurring nuisance that this show, which began in 1989, predicted by the 90s mankind would have time travel sorted and fashion would look like the 80s had hulked out.
Luckily we don’t have to spend any time there. We are with Sam and it’s Howdy Doody Time on TV. As all good time travel stories tell us, that means we’re in the 50s.
Sam narrates, or rather, we hear his thoughts, and for once this technique isn’t just there to paper over script holes. Sam’s as lost as we are, and having him try to figure it out in his head is both succinct (‘We did it! … Did what?’) and funny. (‘Whoever she is, she’s certainly pregnant. Very pregnant.’) His inner monologue also happens to sound like a cute five-year-old, due to a mixture of his amnesiac confusion and fear of what the hell is going on; it all helps cement Dr Sam Beckett as the world’s nicest man, but he's also enormously mysterious. In just a couple of minutes, we’re ready to watch a series about this guy.
Scott Bakula is super likeable, extremely sweet and very sympathetic. He’s also convincing as a genius with amnesia. This is one fairly rounded (if improbable) character right off the bat, with tons of room to grow. He has emotional depths that’ll bring a tear to the eye, thanks largely to Bakula’s forlorn face; he’s quick-witted, funny and possesses the best withering glare of the decade. (See beginning of review.)
Al fares less well. Where Sam has emotional depth, Al has wacky costumes. Where Sam is instantly endearing, Al is sleazy. Kids might enjoy him on the level of a funny sidekick, but when they get older and actually understand what the stuff he’s saying means… euw. Al is clearly written as the opposite of Sam. While Sam is the wholesome hero, there has to be the grimy naughty one so the audience don’t get bored. But we don’t find Dr Sam Beckett boring and for us Al is just a little bit too far down the gross path. Al is here to fill in Sam’s missing memory, but can we really imagine that back in the future, these two could ever have been friends? And while we can believe Sam is a mega genius farm boy, because we like Scott Bakula and he can’t remember it, Al’s admission that ‘I’m also an ex-astronaut’ just sounds like nonsense. Two characters pulling talents out of nowhere is possibly pushing it.
Still, the contrast is funny, and it gives Sam something to rage about when Al is either late or otherwise useless. And, spoiler: Sam rages often.
This is a great pilot. The premise is colourfully explained, and he leaps twice (thrice if you include the soon-to-be-regular cliffhanger lead-in to next week) in the space of one (feature-length) episode, opening up the possibilities to pretty much anything. (And when those possibilities include baseball, something neither of us knows or cares anything about, and we like it, we know we’re watching a great show.)
The guest cast walk a fine line between suspecting Tom of winding them up, and thinking he’s genuinely lost it, which gives them all a different way to react that tests the format’s waters, especially when Sam comes up with life-saving medical knowledge from the future. There’s also the beginning of a few running jokes where Sam A) talks to Al a little too loudly and attracts attention, and B) lets slip about something from the future. Not to mention the iconic different-face-in-the-mirror shot.
The special effects (though meagre) do the job splendidly. The episode is also very well directed: the title sequence, which so far consists of the camera racing through the clouds, pivots and pirouettes and ultimately zooms straight into Tom’s bedroom, making it part of the actual story. How neat is that? (We wonder if the opening shot of Russell T Davies’ Doctor Who took inspiration from it.)
The only thing bugging us is the opening scene, but hey, all you have to do is skip forwards slightly on your DVD. Problem solved!
The best stories are the ones with something for everyone. We both love Back To The Future because it uses science fiction as a way into a funny, exciting, romantic story – so, something for everyone. Quantum Leap is a similar concept, expanded to an entire series. Sam flies a jet and plays baseball this week, but he also has to stop a pregnant woman going into labour nine weeks prematurely and the climax of the episode is Sam having a touching phone call with his dead father. And all that in one episode. Oh boy. Imagine what he’ll accomplish before he’s done?
(Just for fun, we'll try to keep track of Sam's and Al's various accolades. So far...)
The Sam Beckett Genius Tally
- Has six doctorates, one in medicine, one in quantum physics.
- Invented the super computer, Ziggy.
- Discovered time travel.
- Dubbed "the next Einstein."
The Albert Calavicci Sleazy Files
- Unwary lady by the side of the road.
- A little Lithuanian girl named Danesa. (Back at MIT.)
- Martha. (Met at a playoff after-party.)
- Brenda. (The cute little redhead in coding.)