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Cult TV Essentials: Quantum Leap

Quantum Leap was an explosion of ideas, a quasi-alternate reality show starring Scott Bakula’s Sam Beckett and Dean Stockwell’s Al, two mesmerising characters that kept us coming back for more. The show started with a simple but brilliant concept. Sam Beckett jumped from one body to another, guided by Al, a hologram, the only man who could see the real him. Sam’s mission was to change the actions of the man or woman he inhabited. Only by making their lives better could he ‘leap’ to the next body, hoping that the next leap would be ‘the final leap home’.

Almost every single Quantum Leap episode ends with Sam being thrown into the deep end in a new and terrifying situation, forcing him to either sink or swim right away, going from smiling earnestly one second to being literally seconds later dropped into the body of a man about to be fried in an electric chair. There was a great blend of comedy in drama in the show. Seeing Sam as a pregnant woman, a trapeze artist, a pageant queen, a rock artist or the first chimpanzee in space…was always fun, but it was those dramatic moments that really made the show. Sam leaping into the body of a patient in a mental hospital made for a fascinating season 3 finale. In that episode “Shock Theater” Sam develops a multiple personality disorder. Sam keeps shifting back and forth between adopting the various identities of those he’d once leapt into in the past. To save his own life and maintain his connection with Al, Sam needs to have electroshock re-administered to him at a dangerously high voltage.

Unfortunately after Five Seasons the show did begin to wain slightly.  It’s always kind of sad when you see your favourite show trying too hard to get big ratings. However, sometimes when you watch older shows in syndication or on Netflix you may not be aware of it because your viewing is happening so long after the fact.  But let’s look at what Quantum Leap did in its fifth and final season:

  • Sam Leaping Into Dr. Ruth, Elvis, and Lee-Harvey Oswald; even Though he wasn’t supposed to leap into Historical Figures
  • Sam Leaping Into Someone Working for Marilyn Monroe
  • Sam Leaping Into the Civil War Even Thought He Wasn’t Supposed to be Able to Leap Outside of His Own Lifetime
  • A Trilogy Focused Upon Sam Being the Father, the Lover, and then the Court Defender of One Woman At 3 Different Stages in Her Life
  • A Trilogy Focused on the Concept of There Being Evil Leapers Out There Just As Sam is a Good Leaper
  • Stunt-casting of Brooke Shields in an episode somewhat recreating the scenario of her film Blue Lagoon
  • Sam leaping into a vampire

Some if not most of these episodes are pretty good, and the trilogy focused on Abigail was admirably ambitious and the concept of an evil yin to Sam’s not-evil yang long overdue.  However, taken as a whole it becomes pretty apparent they were ditching all of their old rules and just throwing everything at the wall in the hopes of getting the ratings necessary for a sixth season. Plus, they re-did their theme song – the amazing, instantly hummable Mike Post-composed theme song.

Alas, they got themselves cancelled. And yet Quantum Leap was a show of happy endings.  Most if not all episodes ended with Al assuring Sam (and by extension the audience) that everything worked out ‘A-Okay’ for all involved. Back in the day, Scott Bakula was what might best be described as man candy. His Sam Beckett was the consummate sensitive 90s male, not afraid to cry (and boy did it show) but tough enough to stand up for what’s right.  So, obviously, the show featured Bakula shirtless…a lot.  Like at least once every other episode.

You can’t really talk about Quantum Leap without mentioning the final episode, but I won’t spoil it here. It frustrated a lot of people yet delighted just as many. (Me included). Tackling everything from racism, sexism, mental health, alcoholism, the death penalty, suicide and even the death of JFK, Quantum Leap was as diverse in its focus on human issues as it was in the lives that Sam leaped into.

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Stephen Pryde-Jarman is a Cult TV and Film journalist, award winning short story writer, playwright and screenwriter. A natural hoarder, second hand shopping fulfils his basic human need for hunter-gathering; but rummaging through a charity shop’s bric-a-brac shelf also brought him the inspiration for his novel Rubble Girl having seen a picture of a Blitz survivor sat amongst the rubble of her house with a cup and saucer. Rubble Girl has been described as " thought-provoking" and "fast paced ... with plenty of twists and turns." Amazon.

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