Quantum Leap The Leap Home
“Quantum Leap” (1989-1993) was one of my favorite TV shows. It is a remarkable series because it is the only major network television series (of which I am aware) whose central premise each week was to make viewers consider how other people bought, felt, and reacted. When my British friend, Terence Towles Canote, asked me to write a piece for the Favorite TV Show Episode Blogathon, I immediately thought of one particular “Quantum Leap” episode. I will tell you about the episode – and the series – in a moment. But first I wanted to tell you why it has been on my mind lately.
Riots In Ferguson – The Divergent Narrative Dilemma
In 2014, the USA was rocked by riots in Ferguson, Missouri after a police officer shot and killed a young African-American man. Reactions to the killing and to the rioting varied widely across the country. Some scholars have referred to this as the “Divergent Narrative Dilemma.” My teenage daughter has grown up in a suburban community where, from the time she was very little, she learned to see the police as helpful, polite, good guys. Had she been an African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, her view of the police might be very different. How we interpret events is based on our preconceptions. More and more, our nation has become so politically polarized that words like “compromise” and “moderation” have gone from being desirable goals to epithets. It is becoming harder and harder to see the other person’s point of view. How I wish we had a TV show like “Quantum Leap” still on the air! It encouraged people to think differently. And it saw understanding other people’s points of view as a positive goal.
“Quantum Leap”: Tricky Concept, Wonderful Payoff
“Quantum Leap” is not a show that can be explained quickly. Unlike a routine detective show or situation comedy, it challenged our notions of what narrative structure should look like. The premise was that a scientist named Sam Beckett (played by Scott Bakula) had created a top-secret government laboratory in which he invented a time travel machine. Dr. Beckett traveled through events of recent history. When he “leaped” – their word for traveling to a different time – he would take on the physical appearance and voice of a person whose life had been in crisis. He would have to figure out whose life he had “leapt” into and how to solve their problem before he could “leap” again. One time, for instance, Dr. Beckett “leapt” into the body of an elderly black man in Alabama in the 1950s. Although we, as the viewers, would continue to see Scott Bakula as he looks to us, if he passed by a mirror or a reflection, we would understand that everyone he was interacting with saw and heard an elderly black man. In the picture, we are looking over the shoulder of Sam, who is white and in his 30s, staring at his reflection in a store window. The black man in the reflection is how he looks to everyone with whom he interacts.
“Quantum Leap”: See the World Through Someone Else’s Eyes
The challenge each week was to solve a problem using only the skills, knowledge and ideas that were practical for the time and place. One time Sam “leapt” into the body of a mentally challenged young man in the early 1960s. When a character collapsed, Sam, who among his many degrees was an MD in the future, immediately began doing CPR. Everyone reacted in horror – CPR had not yet been developed and it looked cruel. And how would a mentally challenged teen know how to save someone who wasn’t breathing anyway? Sam explained his actions by saying, “They taught us how to do this at the home.” These occasional historical “goofs” were designed to remind us that Sam could not use knowledge of the future in any significant way to solve the problems of the past.
“Quantum Leap” The Leap Home
Now we come to the episode I chose. I used to be a psychology teacher at a wonderful high school. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving break I would show the students Quantum Leap The Leap Home, ending it just before the resolution. I would then tell them their homework over Thanksgiving break was to tell their family about the episode and see what everybody thought should happen. There is no right answer but the feedback I got from many students and many parents was that the discussions were intense and meaningful for them.
“Quantum Leap” The Leap Home: Plot And Dilemma –
Can You Go Home Again?
This particular episode was set at Thanksgiving. Sam “leapt” back to his childhood home. He appeared to everyone exactly as he looked and sounded
when he was 16 years old. Sam knew what was going to happen to his family. He knew the exact day in a few years his brother would die in Vietnam, he knew that his father was going to die in three years of a heart attack and that his younger sister was going to run off with an abusive alcoholic who would ruin her life. Obviously, he wanted to change their futures. But there was a problem. They saw him as a 16-year-old kid. How could he possibly explain all the things that he knew were going to happen in the future? He tried numerous ways to plant ideas to change the tragic fates that would befall three members of his family. But none of them made any sense to them. All they saw was a 16-year-old kid who seemed to be acting somewhat crazy. Meanwhile, we know that he is exactly right but he can’t explain himself. And so he has Thanksgiving dinner one last time with two people he knows are already dead and a third whose life will soon be in ruins. He desperately needs to figure out if there is any way he can save his family.
Ostensibly, the reason Sam had been sent back was to change the outcome of a basketball game he had played in high school. According to Ziggy, the supercomputer in his future lab, that game was a turning point in the lives of several of the other guys on the team. It said that if they had won the game, they would’ve gone on to much better futures.
Would You Want to Know the Future?
I’ve known many people who read their horoscope, have gone to fortune tellers, and consulted other means of trying to know what their future would be. The question I always asked them was: “If you could truly, really know exactly what was going to happen in your future and you could not change it, would you really want to know?” Never once did I have anyone say yes. On this amazing episode, Sam actually does know what is going to happen and the information makes him miserable.
“Quantum Leap” The Leap Home – The Decision
For a while, Sam merely decides to enjoy his Thanksgiving one more time. He feasts on his mother’s cooking and delights in his father’s stories. If you have ever lost a parent or grandparent who was special to you, imagine how it would feel to be with them one more time, in good health and at a happy occasion. That is what Sam experienced but as the plot moves towards its conclusion, Sam has to make a decision.
If he helps during the basketball game,
he will “leap” out, having made the lives of his friends so much better and he will have the opportunity to continue traveling. But if he throws the game, he will continue to relive his life from the age of 16 and have more time to try and save his brother and father and rescue his sister. That choice will end the quantum leap project and have negative consequences for his friends. There is also no guarantee that he will be able to change the future anyway. He just feels like he can’t walk away from trying to save his family. So here is the choice. The last shot in the game comes down to Sam. He knows he can make the shot. If he shoots and wins, he helps his friends, continues his travels, and had the opportunity to see his family one more time. If he misses the shot, he will never leave the past, but can possibly save his father and brother by having more time to come up with a way to change their choices. What should he do?
Why Doesn’t He Just Tell Them About Time Travel?
That is the logical question. Why doesn’t Sam simply say, “I have traveled back from the future and can tell you what is going to happen.” This is part of what makes the episode so completely riveting. This was the only time in the history of the show he did exactly that. He told his family everything about his role in creating the time travel quantum leap project. It is an enormously emotional moment as he sits with his sister on the front porch of the farmhouse. She laughs and says, “Okay, Sam, if you’re really from the future tell me what happens to the Beatles. Especially John! He’s my favorite.”
He starts to answer when his best friend from the future, Al (Dean Stockwell) appears. Al is in the future and appears to Sam as a hologram that no one else can see or hear. He allows, as a narrative device, Sam to get information about the effects of his choices. Al tells him, “Don’t tell her!” He knows she can’t change it and it will only make her miserable.” Instead, Sam sings the song ” Imagine.” Click here to see the scene. Remember, Katie sees him as a 16-year-old and cannot see or hear Al at all. At first his little sister loves the song. Then she is stricken in horror. She realizes that if Sam is telling the truth that her father and brother are both going to die. She collapses in tears and Sam realizes the futility of telling people their future.” Sam “confesses” that he made it all up because he was scared about his brother going to Vietnam.
“Quantum Leap” The Leap Home – What Would You Choose?
What Would You Choose?
Back to the game. With the ball in his hand and the last seconds ticking off the clock, Sam has to make a choice. This is where I would stop the video. I would tell the students that when they came back on Monday I expected they would have written out what choice they would make. They would always demand to know what happened! I wouldn’t tell them – not until they had a chance to think it through.
“Quantum Leap” The Leap Home –
Putting Right What Once Went Wrong
But I wanted them to consider one more thing. Sam learned that since we cannot know the future, living with gratitude is the healthiest way to be. I encouraged them to take the show’s motto: “put right what once went wrong,” and make it real. Since we cannot know the future, I would explain, don’t wait until tomorrow to do the right thing. If there is an apology you should make, an olive branch you should hold out or if there is somebody who really needs to hear you say “I love you,” there is no reason not to do it right now. I would tell the students that they should consider that part of their homework. For years I would receive lovely emails and moving telephone calls from parents who told me about the loving conversations fostered by “Quantum Leap” The Leap Home.
This particular episode of “Quantum Leap” was emotionally moving to me. While the central concept of time travel immediately brands “Quantum Leap” The Leap Home as science fiction, the underlying truth about our own mortality and our lack of understanding of the future inevitably moves audiences. If you want to know what choice Sam made, leave a question in the comments section below and I will tell you. I don’t want to put the spoiler here. I will simply say that the next episode of the show was equally riveting, building off a theme developed in “Quantum Leap” The Leap Home.