Sunday, January 13, 2013

Nostalgia Theater: Oh Boy, Quantum Leap!

Quantum Leap is a show that really shouldn't have worked nearly as well as it did -- and certainly not for as long as it did. Nonetheless, the fact that it managed to eke out five seasons and nearly one hundred episodes during its '89-'93 run despite being shuffled across multiple timeslots by home network NBC says something not only about the unique appeal of its deceptively simple concept, but of the likable leads inhabiting it, Scott Bakula (in his star-making role) and Dean Stockwell.

Created by Donald P. Bellisario, of Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, and JAG fame, Quantum Leap was the tale of Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula), a scientist at the goverment's secret Quantum Leap Project in the late '90s (a.k.a. "The World of Tomorrow!"), working under the theory that time travel is possible if attempted during traveler's own lifetime, but then...well, watch the saga sell from the fourth season's extended opening sequence, which should tell you everything you need to know, and then some:

Any questions?

(That music, by the way, is by Mike Post, the undisputed king of '80s theme tunes, and it stayed that way until it was slightly re-orchestrated -- to lesser results, in my opinion -- for the final season.)

Quantum Leap began its run on NBC in late March 1989 with an abbreviated nine episode first season that aired on Friday nights. Though it struggled in its original slot (no great surprise, as Friday has tended to be a death night for new programming, especially of the sci-fi variety), there was enough promise in the initial ratings to prompt the Peacock to give it a go for another year, this time on another night. And so it went for the next few years, with the show bouncing through time slots the way its protagonist bounced through time.

Every ep, Sam would swap with some unfortunate (actually physically taking their place, though others would still see whoever he was supposed to be), leaping at various times into an African-American in the segregated South, Lee Harvey Oswald, Elvis Presley, and more (Bellisario even considered having Sam leap into Tom Selleck as Magnum, though that never materialized). Providing necessary exposition and comic relief was Stockwell as the holographic Al, whose access to the computer Ziggy gave Sam (and us) all the info we need to get through this particular leap.

What force determined where Sam was needed? How did the whole time travel thing even work? None of that mattered, because what made Quantum Leap such a brilliant bit of conceptualization is that it was essentially an anthology show wrapped around a quest show wrapped around a sci-fi show. The writers consistently found ways to direct the out-there premise toward something that illuminated and illustrated the human condition, in ways that were sometimes humorous, sometimes profound, sometimes moving, and all of which showcased Bakula's consummate skills as a performer par excellence (with both he and Stockwell recognized with Golden Globes for their work here).

Sadly, as is not at all uncommon with these kind of quest shows (the "quest" being whether Sam would ever make it home) some of the ratings steam went out of the wagon by the '92-'93 season, and while the series ended with its fifth season, and with the producers no doubt holding out hope for a last-minute reprieve, or a TV movie (or a movie movie), the final episode failed to provide the definitive conclusion many were hoping for. I won't get into details here, just in case you decide to check the series out on DVD or Netflix, but personally I loved the nebulousness of the finale, and I still do. Here's a promo hyping the impending last episode:

Amazingly enough, this May will mark twenty years since "Mirror Image," the final episode of Quantum Leap, aired. Where does the time go? There remains talk even after all these decades of some kind of revival/reboot/something to bring the brand back. Hollywood being Hollywood, I don't doubt that it'll happen at some point, but the longer it takes, the further away we get from the original series, the lesser the likelihood that the original Leap team of Bakula and Stockwell (who would later re-team on an episode of Bakula's Star Trek: Enterprise) will be a part of it, and thus the lesser my interest in seeing it happen. As far as I'm concerned, Sam is still leaping from life to life, righting what once went wrong. And that's just fine.

(As an aside, I wrote an entry for Geek Wisdom wherein I reflected on the life lessons we can extract from Sam's trademark catchphrase of "Oh boy." Be sure to buy the book to see what I had to say!)


Abdul-Halim V. said...

Quantum Leap was definitely an interesting show. My favorite episodes were the multi-episode arcs or the ones which reflected on the nature of leaping (the Oswald episodes where Sam saves Jackie Kennedy, the Evil Leaper story, the Leap Home, the ones related to Sam or Al's life).

The mythology definitely contained seeds of some ideas which I wish were developed more (Sam is actually married but forgets due to the "swiss cheese" brain, Sam conceived a daughter during a leap who is working at Quantum Leap)

- I liked how you mention Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell's later work together. Another interesting reference to the show (in my opinion) was Scott Bakula's voice cameo in Source Code where he (appropriately enough) plays the father of the "leaper" character.

Sean Coyle said...

I was a little "hinky" when you posted this as part of your Nostalgia Theature segment. Usually it's an opportunity for you to poke fun at the ridiculousness of something ridiculous. But this was a great look back at a great show.

I remember loving the one where Sam leaps into the body of a guy in his brother's unit in Vietnam (his brother having been killed in Vietnam).

And another great moment (possibly in the same episode) where he's talking to a young girl and she is telling him how much she loves the Beatles, particularly John Lennon.

Sam almost blurts the news about Lennon's tragic fate until Al butts in and is like "uh, Sam!. . . don't."

And the "lil' Stevie King" episode was rad!

Great post, Zaki!

Zaki said...

See, that tells me you don't read very many of the Nostalgia Theater posts. I'd say they're about 50/50 love/laugh.

Abdul-Halim V. said...

Yeah, Sam singing "Imagine" to his sister (the young girl) is probably one of the top two or three best moments of the show. (btw, him leaping into his brother's unit is the next episode of the arc)