“Theorising that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator - and vanished.” And the first time he did so was exactly 25 years ago today, going on to leap into various characters for five seasons and 96 episodes.
The creator of Quantum Leap, Donald P Bellisario, created some of the most popular shows of the ‘80s and ‘90s (Airwolf, Magnum PI and JAG amongst others), but Quantum Leap was his first and thus far only leap into the realm of science fiction. But the links to science fiction were kept very light, generally just relating to the actual premise, Al’s hologram status, and the handheld link to Ziggy (which looked like a load of Tetris blocks stuck together – very much a child of the late ‘80s). Instead, Quantum Leap was more of a comedy-melodrama. Sam’s leaping meant each episode dealt with different issues, which occasionally got a bit heavy-handed on the morals, but at least it was varied. One week Sam would be a man trying to save his relationship, and another week he’d be a chimp trying to get into the space program. It was more about the mystery and the drama, the relationships between people, than it was ever about science fiction.
And then there were the historical elements to the series. With a couple of exceptions (leaping into an ancestor, or into a time nine months before his birth), Sam could only leap within his lifetime. For contemporary American audiences, that meant seeing a lot of recent history on screen. There were episodes about the Civil Rights movement, and more than one episode touched upon Vietnam. Partly that was down to Bellisario’s trademark of including military characters in his shows, but you can also view it as the trauma suffered by the whole nation in that post-Vietnam period. But Sam also leapt into real life people, or met them – amongst others, he taught Michael Jackson to dance, changed Buddy Holly’s song lyrics, and helped Marilyn Monroe make one last film. Oh, yeah, and once he leaped into Lee Harvey Oswald and merged minds with him, luckily leaping out before he actually shot Kennedy.
The show has lasted a long time in the public imagination, whether that’s in the form of a reference in Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (“this is going to be the most significant televisual event since Quantum Leap”) or the hype over Dean Stockwell’s guest appearance opposite Scott Bakula in Enterprise. Over the years, there have been plenty of spin-off books and comics. But attempts at making a film version have always stalled ending up in development hell. Given how many ‘80s series have recently received reboots on the big screen, it’s probably about time to try again. And maybe this time, Dr Sam Beckett would get to finally leap home.