Sunday, March 29, 2015
Sensor Scan: Quantum Leap
Omigish it is! It's Scott Bakula! The guy from Quantum Leap is on Star Trek! And he's the new captain!
Quantum Leap is a show I have fond memories of. It was never something I followed religiously; I was only ever a casual viewer. But it was a show that seemed to always be around, it eventually developed a kind of comfort blanket appeal for me and, in retrospect, seems actually sort of lovely and wonderful. I remember Starlog Magazine covering it back in the day when it was on the air, talking to Bakula, Dean Stockwell and the show's creative team, so it was one of those shows that was one of my early introductions to science fiction. In much later years, I remember it primarily as the lead-in to the Sci-Fi Channel's reruns of the Original Star Trek in the late-1990s and early-2000s. Sometimes I would tune in early to watch a whole episode, while other times I'd just catch the tail end of one before TOS came on. Either way it was something I always enjoyed and appreciated whenever I managed to see it: It always seemed a rather pleasant and charming little series.
A great deal of Quantum Leap's appeal for me comes from Scott Bakula's character, Doctor Sam Backett. He's a quantum physicist heading up a research programme looking into the possibility of time travel, and when the government threatens to shut the project down Beckett protests by throwing himself into the quantum accelerator, “leaping” through the time-space continuum. Thus begins the series' central gimmick: Every episode Beckett “leaps” to a new point in time and *into* the body of a different person. Soon, Beckett and his friend Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell's character) and their AI friend Ziggy (series executive producer and narrator Deborah Pratt) discover that Sam's leaps through time are caused by his behaviour in his present time: In particular, his efforts to right a wrong or correct an injustice that subtly alter the course of history. Upon this revelation, Sam is emboldened to keep leaping through the timeline to do what he can to change history for the better.
It's this simple, unpretentious conviction to do good, to be a good person and to do what you can, no matter how humble the act, to make the universe a better place in your own small way that makes Sam such an endearing character for me. He's honestly, genuinely, sincerely a nice guy, and it helps Scott Bakula is the perfect actor for the job: He consistently, doggedly conveys this and drives it home each and every time for 97 episodes and five seasons. Sam is so likable and sympathetic he naturally, and entirely appropriately, becomes the narrative singularity around which the whole of Quantum Leap's universe revolves-Not only do a lot of stories end up dealing with his own life, but he's understandably the primary reason we want to tune in and keep watching. This helps the show in other ways too, as Quantum Leap's sci-fi convictions are in truth little more than a framing device to tell a series of anthology tales, the creators fearing they wouldn't be able to sell such a series without such a conceit. It's Sam Beckett's good nature and Scott Bakula's affable and incredibly attractive charisma that link together all these wildly disparate personal vignettes about otherwise unrelated people.
In some ways, Quantum Leap serves as a much more elegant and streamlined version of Doctor Who, another series that, at its best, is basically just an anthology show with a science fiction framing device. Quantum Leap's advantage here is its staunch rejection of serialization, thus meaning there's no way it's going to inherit a huge surplus of continuity baggage to make it intimidating for new viewers: You could tune in entirely at random, as I did, and still get a great deal of enjoyment out of Quantum Leap's done-in-one morality plays and character dramas. It's an entirely functional and effective approach to sci-fi television that dates all the way back to The Twilight Zone. But I think what appeals to me the most about Quantum Leap at the stage of life I'm at right now is what I read its values and beliefs to be in the most general: This is a show about a person wandering through time and space, guided by the universe to do good deeds and leave the collective unconsciousness of humanity a little better off then when he got there. Sometimes Sam must do things that seem counterinutitive or live through events that are traumatic or hurtful in the short term, but history is always the better off for it in the end. It's a lesson Kei and Yuri would not at all find foreign, and the moment I realised this, Quantum Leap's stature in the pantheon of my half-remembered pop culture memories shot up quite a bit.
I don't have a ton of specific episodes of this show I remember especially vividly. Quantum Leap was always something I enjoyed in the aggregate and I don't have any real lasting or formative memories of it. I do recall not really liking whenever they did so-called “Kisses with History” episodes where Sam is injected into real, actual documented historical events-My distaste for this kind of story comes from the same place as my baseline rejection of historical fiction as a genre that I talked about *way* back in the first volume in the context of “Balance of Terror”. There was at least one episode where Sam lept into the body of a pregnant woman I remember finding...interesting. But the one episode I want to highlight in particular I just found out about now when I was doing research for this piece to refresh my memory: The fourth season finale is an episode called “A Leap For Lisa”, in which Sam leaps into the body of a young Al, at risk of being court martialed for a murder he didn't commit. Al can't prove his innocence without revealing he'd been having an affair with an army nurse named Lisa Sherman while they were both married (...to other people).
What makes this story noteworthy, apart from the strong character moments for Sam and Al, is the character of Lisa. In the original, “bad” course of events she dies in a car accident, but Sam's intervention keeps her alive. At first it seems like this has actually made things worse, as this new set of events leads to Al getting convicted and executed. But Sam manages to change history a second time by finding a key piece of evidence that creates a timeline where both Lisa *and* Al live.
By the way, Lisa is played by Terry Farrell.
Lisa is no Cat to be sure, but Farrell is every bit as coquettishly and provocatively sexual and every bit as magnetically energetic as she is in every other part she plays. And of course, I can't get over how giddy it makes me to find out that one of my favourite men and one of my favourite women were in an production together, and they even play lovers!
(There's an additional level of poignancy here for me in having a character played by Scott Bakula saving the life of a character played by Terry Farrell in order to bring about a better future. That hits at a number of levels and will prove somewhat heartrendingly prophetic.)
Utopianism need not be an ideal state. It need not even be a roadmap to such things. “Utopianism is a framework for utopias”, in the words of Robert Nozick, and maybe utopianism also means doing small things for each other to make everyone's lives a little happier, a little more hopeful and a little more wonderful. Maybe we can't leap through time like Sam Beckett or journey to the stars like Jonathan Archer, but we all travel through time and space together every day and the effect is the same. The future is always now, and it's always been on us to make it a good one.