Quantum Leap:

Time Travelling Without Moving

 

by Tom Riley

Quantum Leap, the American science-fiction television series that ran from 1989 to 1993, saw Dr. Samuel Beckett "leaping" into a different individual in the recent past after a failed time travel experiment, his mind temporarily displacing that of his host. In order to leap out of one host and into the next, Sam had to "put right what once went wrong" by completing various tasks communicated to him through Al, a long-time friend and colleague who Sam perceived as a neurological hologram. These tasks came from an advanced computer named Ziggy, though the protagonists also discussed the tasks that "God" has assigned them, Ziggy seemingly being a conduit for God’s wishes. Through all of this, Sam hoped to leap back into his own body.

 

Sam's CV was ridiculous. He was a Nobel prize-winning scientist and had seven doctorates. He was fluent in seven modern and four dead languages. He sung, played multiple musical instruments and was a gifted dancer. His solid Midwestern upbringing on a farm in Indiana gave him an unshakable sense of decency and morality. He was a talented athlete and martial artist. That Sam was actually a charming lead rather than insufferable all-American hero was only because of an outstanding and sensitive performance by Scott Bakula.

 

Sam leapt into the past to change it for the better, but he didn’t really go anywhere, instead landing in a nostalgic fictionalised version of the previous few decades. While his leaping gave him the perfect opportunity to (literally) engage with the past and broaden his perspective on life, he actually spent most of his time dispensing advice from a morally superior viewpoint. He was the ultimate cultural tourist, conquering and consuming rather than listening and understanding.

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This is not to say that the show is not progressive. In fact, one of its disarming charms is how much it wears its fuzzy heart on its sleeve. The show’s perspective, on an almost elemental level, was that Sam was there to do good and it was good that he was there. At the end of each episode he must have done the right thing, according to God no less, as he leapt into the next host. The show held itself up to the highest moral standards imaginable; a less charitable reading is that Sam conducted parasitic mind control for his own amusement before leaving the host to deal with the life changing consequences of his actions.

 

This has some disturbing connotations that the show didn’t actively contemplate. For instance, Sam was frequently there to fix the problems faced by a woman and frequently the solution tended to be a romantic encounter with Sam, as in the episdes "One Strobe Over the Line" or "Private Dancer". Sam didn’t seem to mind that he was using the host’s body for sexual purposes without consent, or that his partner for the night was not aware of his true identity. Spending the night with Sam seemingly bestowed upon these troubled women the power of independent thought and nineties values, allowing them to stand up for themselves and overcome the troubles they faced, usually caused by another white man.

Sam, a white male, spent the vast majority of the show inside white males (the show made a heroic effort never to consider the homoerotic implications of this). It seems the boundaries of time and space were easier to cross than race, gender or sexuality. When he did manage this (in less than 15% of episodes, hardly reflecting American demographics), Sam always leapt into a host whose identity was entirely defined by this characteristic in an episode that was sure to be tackling some Very Important Issues.

 

In these Very Special Episodes, such as "The Colour of Truth" or "Black and White on Fire", the audience was presented with the shocking truth that some aspects of the past, even a romanticised version of the past, were bad. However, the show heavily implied, particularly through Sam and Al’s ongoing moral commentary, that Sam’s success in improving the past meant the present was a better place, free from oppression and discrimination. More than this, Sam’s actions in the past (to put right what once went wrong) willingly and beneficently bestowed upon those he was sent to help the very freedoms and privileges other less enlightened white men fought (and fight) to retain. This reclaiming of progressive advances as a gift freely given away by a nice white man, rather than hard fought for by those oppressed, does the cultural work of soothing anxieties about change. It functions as a more insidious and five season long riff on the scene in Back To The Future (1985) where Marty McFly teaches Johnny B Goode to Chuck Berry via his cousin Marvin.

 

Sam’s leaping constructed a safe space doubly removed (in time and in reality) from the cultural anxieties facing Sam and his white heterosexual male contemporaries. From this safe space, Sam recast recent history into a more favourable form as an inadvertent part of the movement against progressive changes in American society observed by Susan Faludi in Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women (1991).

 

Oh boy. Despite the rather heavy-handed criticism above, Quantum Leap did make a genuine and well-intentioned attempt to tackle difficult issues from a progressive perspective (much like this article, which is guilty of the same crimes at one further step removed). The show boasted an endearingly woozy attitude to its own mechanics, which were never made explicit and frequently contradicted whenever the show had written itself into a corner. Many guest stars were just starting out on their way to bigger things and a familiar face was never far away. Finally, Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell (as Al) had such fantastic chemistry that the show, even at its most earnest or predictable, was always supremely watchable.

quantum leap private dancer

Sam fixing lady problems

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A few years later, Bakula would take the lead in Enterprise (2001-2005), a revisionist prequel to Star Trek: The Original Series. Bakula seemingly possesses the power to change the fictionalised future for the better, as well as the fictionalised past. This is not surprising; Bakula’s performance in Quantum Leap was remarkable and it is worth underlining again how few performers could have played so many roles so sympathetically. Similarly, Stockwell would go on to play a supporting role in the reboot of Battlestar Galactica (2004-2009), which also, and more successfully, updated the values of the original.

 

There are occasional rumours of a Quantum Leap reunion special or a full reboot, but perhaps it is best to leave Dr Sam where he is. Though the show sometimes played interestingly on genre conventions, Sam never made it off the studio backlot, out of Hollywood’s rosy view of history and into the real past. His mission will never be completed, because he never really started.

White saviour complex

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