Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished….
These words, uttered by series writer Deborah Pratt, ushered in nearly every episode of NBC’s iconic sci-fi series Quantum Leap. It was a rare success for the time, a science fiction series light on the gimmickry and absent any rubber-foreheaded aliens.
Instead, the premise was simple, approachable, and incredibly optimistic: Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a hyper-smart, goofy, but principled scientist, is ushered throughout mid-20th-century American history, hopping in and out of people’s lives to help steer their fates from tragic to hopeful.
The only hint of its genre trappings, apart from the mechanism that ushers Bakula from life to life each week, was Dean Stockwell’s Al, a garishly-styled, streetwise hologram from the future who served as Sam’s confidant, sounding board, and sidekick. Think Touched by an Angel with a hint of Back to the Future.
The formula, crafted by TV titan Donald P. Bellisario, was a winning one, not just critically but commercially: The show would net 43 award nominations and 17 wins, including Emmys for cinematography and Golden Globes for both Bakula and Stockwell. What’s more, it was that rare crossover hit for a science fiction show, the kind of adventure you could watch with your mom.
And that kind of old-fashioned attitude worked for the show, whose do-gooder remit made it that rare series that tackled throny social issues like racism, sexism, and homophobia, without a hint of cynicism. It’s cozy and optimistic about the American experiment (bordering on naive), which puts it out of lockstep with our modern disillusionment with the nation’s historical evils.
But in a post-Watergate, post-Reagan environment, with AIDS on the rise and the Cold War drawing to an end, Quantum Leap still held out hope that we could make the world a better place if we just helped each other.
After nearly thirty years off the air, Quantum Leap is getting a flashy revival on NBC (ostensibly a continuation of the original series’ timeline). To mark that occasion, we’ve dusted off our handlinks, stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and zapped back to some of our favorite episodes of the show’s inaugural run.