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Friday, 26 April 2013

Quantum Leap

"Theorizing that time travel was possible within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and vanished!

He awoke to find himself trapped in the past. Facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better.

His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear.

And so Dr. Beckett finds himself, leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap, will be the leap home."

These are the opening words to the NBC science fiction show, Quantum Leap, which ran from 1989-1993. Starring Scott Bakula as Sam Beckett, and Dean Stockwell as Al, the show followed a simple format and is summed up quite nicely by the opening words, listed above.

I remember watching this show as a kid, and I wonder what I liked about it back then. I most likely missed 90% of the subtext, context, and humour, but maybe I just enjoyed the oddity of a man walking through things (Al) or of another seeing the face of someone else in the mirror (Sam).

Recently, Netflix has been adding a lot of content. I mean A LOT! Scrolling through the selection, I saw Quantum Leap and decided I would check it out again. Parking myself on the couch, I then proceeded to watch the entire first season. I found that I still enjoyed the show and, as is common with many things, I found that I enjoyed it more now that I am older.

First thing, the show is quite formulaic; Sam leaps into the body of someone else, and they leap into his body in the future. He is faced with a humorous and difficult objective, defined by Al and his computer's historical memory banks and with luck and effort, Sam accomplishes his task and "leaps" to his next adventure at the end of every episode. What is beautiful about the show is that they follow this simple format while building on it an episode at a time. Through a few key design choices, they make a show which could have just been a series of unconnected events into something which grows with the characters and the audience over time.
Dr. Sam Beckett played by the immortal Scott Bakula
The first brilliant design choice is that they gave Sam partial amnesia. Affectionately referred to as his "Swiss-Cheese memory", it seems that the leaping process has interfered with Sam's memory. In the first episode, he has no idea who he really is and he thinks he is insane when he sees Al while no one else can. This choice is brilliant as a method of exposition, as Al's explanation of things allows the audience to catch up, and share in the suspense of Sam's lack of knowledge. Over time, Sam remembers more and more, often being reminded by his present (or past) surroundings.

This choice allows Sam to grow as a character, and allows just the right amount of abstraction. If Sam knew everything he did before leaping, the show would be a lot less interesting. But instead, we learn about Sam, his hobbies, skills, and history, and we connect more with him.

The "man out of time" trope has been used often. The first one which comes to mind, other than this show, is Back to the Future. A popular setting in science fiction, it allows the writer to mix the familiar with the unfamiliar. As I reread this, I thought of changing the above to say "person out of time", but I can only think of a few female time travelers; Hermoine Granger from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of  Azkaban, Kate Erickson from Timeline, and Claire Fraser from the Outlander series. While my knowledge of science fiction isn't exhaustive, it is extensive and I find it interesting that there haven't been more women lost in time. If you can think of more, let me know. I am interested in women who make a distinctive addition to the time-traveling genre. By distinctive, I mean they are more than just companions, or Companions (for you Dr. Who fans out there). (In order to avoid the ire of Who fans, let it be known that I mean to find out more about women who are the primary character involved.) Anyway, I digress.

Sam's situation ranges from the downright humorous (leaping into the life of a woman and working to get 3rd prize in a beauty pageant) to the serious (saving lives, preventing accidents and bad choices) and often this range is covered in the same episode. Sometimes, Sam is in a familiar part of American history, and sometimes, he is just in some remote part of the past. No matter the case, his situation is never historically important enough to make any big changes, however the show does feature "brushes with greatness". For instance, Sam inadvertently gives the lyrics to Peggy Sue to Buddy Holly, tipped a young Donald Trump to the importance of real estate, and showed Michael Jackson how to moonwalk.
Admiral Al Calavicci played by the hilarious Dean Stockwell
Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell are excellent together and they help make the show heart-warming and engaging. Stockwell's Al is a hilarious, caring, cigar-smoking ladies-man whose personality is as colourful as his wardrobe, wildly differing from episode to episode. Bakula's Sam is seriously responsible, intelligent, but almost innocently naive. One thing which confuses me a little is that Sam is supposed to be an incredible scientist, holding 6 doctoral degrees, yet he is so emotionally driven. I am not saying the two are mutually exclusive, but Sam is guilty of acting rather illogically, which I find odd, but it also is probably the reason the general audience keeps coming back. Sam is thrown into situations which require that bridge of intuition between logic and feelings, and so I guess it makes sense that Sam's heedlessness is warranted.  

Delivering more than laughs and drama, Quantum Leap works like any good piece of fiction, sometimes as a mirror, sometimes as a lens. Being reminded of the past gives us the chance to reflect on our cultural perspectives then and now, and to more closely examine the transition which took place. The show features episodes which examine segregation, women's rights, religion, and several other important issues. As the episodes progress, themes of sacrifice and morality play a larger role.

At times, both Sam and Al comment on their inability to control the leaping process. While Sam stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator prematurely, a fact left out in the opening sequence of the later seasons, it seems odd that they have no control or idea over the control of the experiment. In the end, they attribute the control to time, fate, God, or some other force.

I find this point interesting because its implication is one I have seen in many works of science fiction. The implication is that there is some kind of plan, and whether it be a sentient force at work, or just the way of things, it seems that the writers of this fiction, and many others, believe that there is a set way things should be and the universe will work toward making that happen.

What does seem clear, both inside and outside the context of this being a piece of fiction, is that Sam's leaping revolves around his own life. The idea that one could time-travel within one's own lifetime has an extra meaning in the sense that the leaping process seems to be contrived to reflect upon the person doing the leaping. Sam finds himself in situations very similar to ones he faced in his own past, or remind him of it in some way. Sam gets indirect and direct "second chances", indirect being the times he faces a situation similar to his own past which allows him to reconsider his choices and perspective, and direct being the times he literally relives moments from his own past.

These moments give Sam the opportunity to grow, and allows us to become better acquainted and connected with Sam. He has made mistakes, and he has desires which make some choices difficult. Some of these situations offer Sam the chance to fix mistakes, while others seem to be there to remind him of the inevitability of them. I don't want to reveal too much about the plot, but some of the most heart-wrenching episodes involve Sam having to make a choice between doing what he knows to be right and what he wants to be true.

In the end, the show entertains me, and makes me think, which are two key elements I desire in my life. Should you find any of the above attractive, I advise you to check it out. Whether it be the simple format, the heart-warming acting and direction, or the morality-questioning and heart-wrenching story, Quantum Leap is an experience which brings me back time and time again.

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