To celebrate Leap Day, I’ve decided to take a look back at one of my favorite TV shows, Quantum Leap and the two-part, season three opener “The Leap Home.”
At this point, Quantum Leap had been on the air a year and a half or so, establishing itself as a solid anthology series with a hint of on-going character development and the loose arc of trying to get Dr. Sam Beckett back home again. Sam had leaped into people of different races, women and even into a person with special needs. Most episodes unfolded along a similar storyline of Sam correcting something in the life of the person he had leaped into or someone closely by. In a few cases, the series had a twist or two of Sam making a major impact on history, such as giving Buddy Holly the name Peggy Sue for his hit song or meeting author Stephen King early in his life.
The show rarely allowed Sam to make a direct impact on his own personal timeline or that of his assistant and friend, Al. We saw Sam try to correct a wrong in his own life in the second episode and the season before ended with Al trying to ensure his first ex-wife wouldn’t give up on him while he was a POW in Vietnam. It’s not until the fourth season that we find out whether or not Sam is able to make an impact on his own time line (he does change things and is married to the woman who initially left him at the altar). Up to this point, we had some hints of what had shaped Sam and his family–including that his father died of cancer, his sister married an abusive alcoholic and his older brother was killed in Vietnam.
All of these character hints set the table for the first half of “The Leap Home” where Sam leaps into himself at the age of sixteen. Assuming he’s being rewarded and allowed to help himself and his family, Sam works to try and save his family from the tragedies to come, only to find in the end he can’t make the changes he so desperately wishes he could and instead is just there to win the big basketball game and make some other people’s lives a bit better in the process.
The essence of the first half of the story boils down to a conversation Al and Sam have in a cornfield as Sam rails against the perceived unfair nature of the Leap. He wants to make his family’s life better and can’t. Acting juvenile, Sam threatens to quit his travels through time until Al points out the real reward Sam is being given–a chance to spend Thanksgiving his with family one last time and tell them all he loves them. Given what we saw Al put through in the previous episode, it’s one of the more moving moments of the series and it really helps set the first half of the story apart in terms of its emotional impact.
Of course, Sam does the right thing in the end, winning the game. But Sam tries to trick history by betting his brother that if he wins the big game, on the day he’s killed, his brother won’t go into combat but will instead lay low. His brother agrees, but the bet fails…at least at this point.
Sam leaps out and into Vietnam on the day before his brother is set to die. Again seeing this as his second chance, Sam fights to find a way to stay in that time zone until he can ensure his brother lives. Sam even tries to remind his brother of the promise he exacted from him. However, a top secret mission to free some POW’s takes priority and Tom can’t keep the promise.
In the end, Sam trades the life of a driven female photographer for the life of his brother. The mission turns out to be a trap and while Sam saves Tom, he doesn’t manage to free the POWs.
Which we find out in the episode’s coda, one of which was Al. Al tells Sam he knew he was free in his head and what the heck, why not help out his friend Sam? Again, to fully understand the implications of this moment, you have to recall that Al believes his lack of ability to commit to a woman stems from his first wife (and love of his life) having him declared dead during his five years as a POW and marrying another man. In the end, it’s Al who makes the difficult choice not to change his future and allow Sam to change his instead. The big reveal of this is one of the more moving moments in the show and is one of the many reasons this two part story ranks among my ten favorite tv episodes of any show.
Of course, fans of the show will recall that it’s this series of events that form the crux of just why Sam is traveling in time. While many fans will debate the merits of the series finale, I will fully admit I loved every second of it and the implications. In it, we find out that for all the good he’s done for everyone else, there is still one wrong that Sam never corrected for Al. The coda finds Sam correcting this wrong in history and we find out Al is still married to Beth and they have a couple of daughters. We also find out that Sam never made it home, thus leaving the door open to possible movies or books based on the show.
And while at times Quantum Leap could be a bit repetitive in terms of what Sam was there to accomplish (he seemed to save people from pre-mature death a lot!), there were times when the show tweaked the formula just enough to have it be something special. Some of these tweaks worked better than others. (The concept of Sam leaping into Lee Harvey Oswald was a fascinating one, though his leaping into other historical figures like Dr. Ruth or Elvis was less intriguing). But the series really hit a high note in this two-part story and while I won’t say it was all downhill from here, this is still the high water mark for one of the most enjoyable sci-fi anthology shows out there.
(Interestingly, one of the most intriguing Leap moments happens not in the show, but in one of the tie-in novels associated with the show. In it, Al sits in Sam’s office, reflecting on how Sam has made changes to history that only Al can recall (it’s due to the link he and Sam share that allows them to interact throughout history). Al sees a picture of Sam and Tom on Sam’s desk, taken after Tom makes it back from Vietnam. There is also discussion of how Sam married Donna in this timeline as well (the show confirms this at the start of season four). It’s a fascinating moment in the book and one that has stuck with me. The sad part is that I can’t recall much more about the book itself or even which in the series it was!)