Digital Polyphony

film, games, memories & random thoughts

Liquid Nostalgia #16

Quantum Leap: A Look Back

 

Science Fiction is one of few terms that is able to show extreme diversity. By this I mean it is, by its very nature, a commentary on society and the human condition. At the same time it's able to not merely be a single-note definition but, instead, is able to transcend its ideologies into more, clear-cut genres such as drama, comedy and horror. I suppose, in a sense, "Science Fiction" itself isn't a genre at all. It's simply a term people use to describe a certain thought process or approach to something that stimulates our minds and has us looking at our world and ourselves in the process. 

You see, science fiction is less so a singularly defined category as much as it is a comprehensive idea or approach to a certain thematic principle already established in other genres. Because of this, "science fiction"  isn't a genre at all and as a result we are able to have an absolute endless amount of it at the same time as it curves into those more defined, familiar genres. Science Fiction can be funny, satirical, dramatic, a psychological thrillers or even a gory horror and romanticized tragedy.

Many great science fiction films and books have a solid one or two of these elements. A great science fiction series for television has all of them, although it doesn't always work out for the best (such as the recent "V" television reboot which attempts satire but doesn't quite grasp it). Science fiction might be able to surmise the most variety and be the most lenient in how people approach it, yet at the same time it's also one of the most difficult to get right. There was one show that had all this variety, all this commentary, all these styles, tones and genre elements. No, it's not Star Trek, though that would be a great answer, but it is the classic program Quantum Leap. 

I think my first exposure to science fiction, and by this I mean actual science fiction and fantasy, was Quantum Leap. I was around ten, so my awareness to all these new things was still relatively new. Hell, Star Trek the Next Generation wasn't even on the air but a few years before Quantum Leap, so even my exposure to that cultural phenomenon was limited and was something I simply clicked by (when my mom would let me stay up to watch TV, at least). So in 1989, Quantum Leap came on the air and so began by loving relationship with everything science fiction. From that point on I explored and grew more with things such as Star Trek, Philip K. Dick, Blade Runner and Isaac Asimov. Everything that I would eventual seek out and come to appreciate can be traced back to one little television show from the early 1990s.

It just so happens that the show itself was finely made on top of it all. It wasn't SyFy channel schlock or cheap and contrived with its stories. Melodramatic perhaps but it never forgot its roots of humanity, a central element to any good science fiction, and engaging characters, a central element to plain quality storytelling. It was well written, adventurous, emotional, comedic and tragic. In a way, this science fiction show explored the variety of tones and styles that science fiction itself could take on. It's something I've grown more and more appreciative of in my adult years and whenever I say "there's nothing good on" as I sit on my couch, I'm always apt to pop in an episode of something that will guarantee itself to be good. It Doesn't matter which episode, you'll get something out of any of them and that is a rarity and shows how much "more" this show really is beyond its surface of time traveling and dialogue banter - that's something only the best science fiction, and best television entertainment can legitimately say.


 

A Brief History of Quantum Leap

 

-It's odd that I couldn't really find a good, cumulative history of Quantum Leap outside of its creator and legend, Donald Bellisario, who was inspired to do a science fiction show about time travel after reading a novel about the subject and looking at classic films like Heaven Can Wait. Bellisario had previously worked as a writer for Battlestar Gallactica and produced some hugely successful television programs such as Magnum PI and Airwolf. Bellisario has noted Quantum Leap as his favorite.

-Nearly everyone got along which is probably why there's little written about its history other than the infamous "oh boy" Bakula would utter at the end of each episode originally just ad libbed but made a constant throughout the series. Oh, and Stockwell insisted on cigars because it got him free cigars.

 -The series aired five seasons on NBC from 1989 to 1993 with a total of 96 Episodes. The show nearly ended due to low ratings after its third season, but a fan campaign managed to ensure it stay on the air. A comic book series also spawned, although it only had a brief run.

-It garnered a handful of awards during its run, but its best moments came in 1990 with Dean Stockwell winning a Golden Globe for best supporting actor and in 1992 with Scott Bakula taking the lead actor prize himself. Although neither won the Emmy, they were nominated every year (other than 1989) and the show itself nominated numerous times for Best Drama as well.

-The series finale was not intended to be a series finale at all, but word came down during production of the fifth season that it would be the last, so it was reconfigured to be the ending leaving it all rather open.

-And that's really it, far from the usual detailed history I can give for something. It really was a show that came and went, seemed to be well produced and had itself a great run with a slew of fans that loved tuning in every week. Speaking of that...let's look at the reasons why that might have been.


  

Top Ten Things that Made Quantum Leap Great

 There are a lot of ways I could have approached my appreciation for Quantum Leap, from the characters to specific episodes, but I decided to focus on the reasons why it was such an appealing show as well as why, and this could merely be my opinion, it is one of the best pieces of science fiction to grace us. So agree or disagree, let's look at the ten best attributes Quantum Leap offered us "Leapers."


10: A Costume Epic

A superficial reason, but you would be lying to yourself if you said you didn't love seeing what weird costume Scott Bakula would be sporting each week. Hell, I'm willing to bet that one of your favorite parts is the "oh boy" teaser at the end of each episode just to see what he's wearing and who he is in anticipation of next week's episode. I would have to suspect the costume and set budget was pretty high for the show, and it all showed with nice authenticity and Bakula always willing to put on any outfit, no matter how ridiculous it might have been. He always wore it well, even if it was a black mini skirt.


9: Cameos

It was always fun each week to see if Sam would encounter some historical figure (or historical situation at least) but it was also kind of fun to see if a supporting role would be played by a guest star. In the show, Sam crossed paths with Michael Jackson, Jack Kerouac while many guest stars would show up such as Eriq la Salle, Neil Patrick Harris and Michael Madsen and before-they-were stars Jennifer Aniston or a very, very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Even Bob Sagat made an appearance, and if that's not a stamp of approval, I don't know what is. Good people behind the camera and good people in front makes for a good end product.

Roddy McDowall, seen to the right here, was in quite an interesting episode (a very Back to the Future-esque one). We learn about Al's past, what he does in life, find out Ziggy is feminine in nature and it shows how affecting the past can change the future (McDowall's character shows up as Al's replacement as Al's past begins to change). It was this smart writing that drew good actors to the project and made the show immensely entertaining as a result.


8: Al and Ziggy

While not a major aspect of the drive of the show, one of the best "little moments" it throws out there once is a while is the character Al's relationship with "Ziggy." In every episode, he pushes the buttons of his little datapad, usually slaps it a few times and will relay the information Ziggy gives to Sam. Of course, this grows and grows as Al tends to become more and more annoyed and frustrated with Ziggy and every once in a while, though, you can get a sense of his resentment. For those not aware, Ziggy is the supercomputer designed by Sam Beckett to run the Quantum Leap Accelerator.  It's feminine in nature and has an ego that is about on par with Al's, which makes for a good amount of comedy when they are in disagreement over something.


7: The Gamut of Genres

Sports. Thrillers. Romance. Comedy. Drama.  Characters of all types, decades of history, varied locations and a slew of styles, tones and costumes. One of the series' defining traits is the fact it made an effort to offer us something new every week. One week you might see Sam as a blind musician and the next as a baseball player. A few weeks later he could be a politician and the week after a writer or doctor. Quantum Leap really established itself as seemingly able to reinvent itself every episode and it never seemed to wear itself out despite the repetition. Not only this, it always seemed to do it incredibly well and because each show is self-contained and episodic, with only the small thread of Sam and Al's stories as the overarching arc, it's able to throw in a massive amount of variety. When it was emotional, it could really tug at your heart strings, especially when it dealt with Sam and Al on a more personal level. When it wanted to be comedic, it managed to do it well with witty dialogue and also because Sam having to pretend he's someone else leaves the door open for countless comedic opportunities. There are few shows that take this route and even fewer that actually pull it off.


6: Great Production Values

While it might be a little dated by today's standards, at the time Quantum Leap was one hell of a good looking show. Actually, I'd still argue it's a great looking show even today even if it isn't all that flashy anymore. From its sets and costumes to its music and sounds. All were used to capture a decade. Then you have quality directing and cinematography, which it was often nominated for, and just a fine looking, film-quality show that was pretty damn impressive. Throw in the great costumes and set I mentioned previously, and the show looked well above other shows at the time and really had a great deal of polish from beginning to end.


5: Having to Pretend and Act Like a Different Person

Quantum Leap is the ultimate "fish out of water" show. Sam doesn't know where he's going, and the audience often loved the final teaser where we get a glimpse at his next adventure. Will he be a baseball pitcher? A pianist? A priest? A farm boy? Will he be a pregnant woman? He's still Sam with all of Sam (and Al's and Ziggy's) knowledge yet knows he can't simply walk like man if he's wearing high-heels or convincingly tell someone how to save a life if he's only a teenager. He had to act the part and find different paths to get his results. Plus, as is the case with number 10, it's pretty damn funny to see how he adjusts to the costumes of the eras, especially if it's a different gender.

Just seeing the lengths Sam would go through to be convincing in his "role playing" was a joy to watch. This taps right into our brains of playing pretend as children and we relive our imagination run amok vicariously by watching him. I'll be a cop, you be the robber.Sam will probably play both at some time.


4: The Idea of Something Bigger

An element that is often taken for granted with the show is that between the science fiction elements and era hopping is a rather spiritual take as it relates to the "whys" of everything that is happening. From the very beginning, there's these small, very tiny insinuations that a greater force is at work. Even Sam feels that a hand is guiding him, noting that it's not merely coincidence. After all, he's there to "put right what once went wrong." What's interesting is that this brings out a whole slew of new ideas and concepts, questions of morality and divine intervention in relation to fate and individual decisions. The truth is, Quantum Leap was a deeper, more complex and philosophical/theological show than it's "era jumping" and science fiction framework lets on. Sure, it's nice to enjoy the nostalgic principles the series is really founded on, but it's also a show that really gets you to think as well as make it all bittersweet as you eventually discover Sam's fate at the end and whether or not it's the right thing to do.


3: The Theme Song

The beginning if every episode was as follows, it's odd that it never got old and many would jump to see the show early to enjoy the opening sequences:

-Starts with a brief 50 second "summary" of what Quantum Leap is (by I believe Ziggy, somebody correct me if I'm wrong on that).

-The teaser that played at the end of the last episode.

-Cue awesome opening credits and theme song - a theme song I would argue as one of best every written.

Pretty Much Showcased Here.

Now if that doesn't get you to watch the show, I don't know what will. Those opening credits are sharp, the music perfect and with a ton of energy. It really gets you excited for the show and I can guarantee a good number of people can hum that tune.


2:  A Great Friend

The final two entries should be obvious ones. The show isn't so much a science fiction program as much as it is a character drama. The writers went out of their way to truly define Sam and Al's relationships, histories and exchanges. Al is incredibly well-written and thanks to great effort by Dean Stockwell, he not only shows he's a bit of cynical, strange outfit wearing, cigar-smoking jerk but also a humanitarian, friend and knows a good joke or two. What's more is that all this has to be conveyed with only dialogue. Al, technically, doesn't exist. He can't shake Sam's hand. He usually only appears briefly in certain scenes. He can't even help Sam when he's in need other than to tell him where to go. It's completely through personality, performance and smart writing that Al transcends merely being an "observer" to being a great friend that you hope, one day, Sam can share a beer with.


1:  A Great Lead

In 1989, still relatively young in his eventual decades-spanning career, Scott Bakula's acting roles pretty much consisted of small recurring parts  and supporting roles in shows like Designing Women and Gung Ho. Then, voila, he was thrust into a lead of a daring concept and soon became a household name. It wasn't because the show was hugely successful because ratings were consistently low since its first seasons (although winning a handful of awards helped). I think it's because Bakula himself is just an incredibly likable guy and the character of Sam is pretty much him playing himself - only with amnesia, so it literally is a blank slate for him to use his own personality. 

Because of this "blank slate" approach, in a way we could really identify with Sam and put ourselves in his shoes (as he stepped in so many shoes himself). He was 100% identifiable because he had no identity himself, plus he was just incredibly likable, sympathetic, charming, caring and one of the best lead protagonists for a television program. Let's face it, though. Any role where it's a defined as "putting right what once went wrong" is going to be pretty likable in any event, but Bakula really made it into a great character with a personality we can find appealing entirely on his own.

 


 

If you've never caught Quantum Leap when it originally aired, I'm certain you stumbled on it in syndication at some point. Even recently Hulu and Netflix have picked it up for streaming (Netflix streaming all the seasons, I might point out). In today's rather harsh climate and high expectations, I don't know how Quantum Leap holds up. I know it's dated, but I don't know if someone first watching it today would enjoy as much as its original fans did because, at that time, it was something incredibly new, fresh and unique.

It all really came down to the characters. Sam and Al were great guys you wanted to spend time with. You hoped and cared for them and whatever situation they found themselves in. Especially Sam, who you cheer and route for because he's so damn likable. There's a lot of television "duos" in the history of the medium but Sam and Al are so often disregarded, such is the fate of a relatively popular yet ultimately unappreciated program like Quantum Leap. It had the elements to really take off and become even bigger than what it was, but after only five seasons and less than 100 episodes, I can't help but wish we had at least some more time to spend with our time traveling friends. But, as they say. It's not about the time you have left, but what you do with the time given to you...and Quantum Leap did a hell of a lot.

 

 

*On a side note, see those little images of Al's Ziggy remote I use as section dividers? That's actually from the iphone app called "Ziggy Lights On" that turns your iphone into a Ziggy remote simulator. You can hit it, push the button, yell at it and make it make weird noises just as Al did. It also acts as a game, which makes one wonder if Al was just playing a lights-on game the entire time. For more information on Quantum Leap, you can also check out the fansite Al's Place.


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