A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Quantum Leap: The Complete Fifth Season, part one
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1992-1993
By Dan Toland
07 August 2008 — Throughout high school, if you had asked me what my favorite show was, my answer largely depended on whether there were any girls around. If so, I would have looked you right in the eyes and told you Cheers. This would, of course, have been a shameless lie. Truth be told, throughout most of high school, I was addicted to Quantum Leap.
A brief summary, for those of you not born in the 1970s: Project Quantum Leap was the brainchild of Dr. Sam Beckett, a physicist of the far-flung future of 1992 (this was later changed to 1999 when 1992 actually rolled around) who theorized that a person could time travel within the confines of his own lifetime (due largely through the producers' almost entirely incorrect reading of string theory). Like other scientists since the beginning of time, he experiments on himself even though the machine isn't totally ready, and naturally enough, it all goes wrong.
The effect of this is that Sam would "leap" into (that is, essentially take over) the life of a random person at any point between 1953 (his year of birth) and 1992 (the year he leapt). His connection to home comes in the form of Al, a holographic representation of a senior military advisor on the project, who no one but Sam can see — unless the story needed someone else to. Al feeds Sam information concerning his leap (RE: who, where and why, the latter of which was never 100% certain), and then Sam changes events so that everyone lives happily ever after, at which point he's promptly pulled out of that person and deposited into someone else who's about to have the worst day ever. And so on.
And, with the exception of that central, basic setup, and the fact that Sam's best friend has a tendency to walk through people, there are actually very few fantastical elements in this show. Once Sam arrives wherever he's needed that week, the show becomes a very character- and issue-based story, and for the first few years it was on, it may have been one of the best shows on television. Created by producer Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum, PI, JAG, NCIS), this was a very intelligent show, filled with humor, drama and wonderful interaction between the two stars. Dean Stockwell (Battlestar Galactica) is hilarious, and Scott Bakula (Enterprise) is just one of those actors who can do pretty much anything. And this was the show that let him. NBC Head of Programming Brandon Tartikoff believed in the show so much, despite its ratings (Full House was kicking its ass), that he instituted "Quantum Leap Weeks" after seasons three and four, giving the show a prime airing five nights in a row in an effort to attract new viewers; this worked, turning the show around and making it a bona fide success for the network.
Unfortunately, during the fourth season, something happened. Maybe they ran out of stories, maybe the producers lost faith in the concept. I don't know. But the series slowly began to gaze into its own navel, creating episodes about its own mythology and having Sam run into famous people with alarming frequency. He always had "kisses with history," such as not realizing until the very end of an episode set in early 1950s Texas that that weird kid who had nothing to do with the plot but to sit on the porch and be window-dressing, playing his guitar throughout the hour, was Buddy Holly trying to write "Peggy Sue." But here, he's actually leaping into Elvis and Dr. Ruth and Lee Harvey Oswald. And then, in season five, Sam Beckett got off to a running start and took a flying leap right over that shark with reckless abandon.
So this week we're doing something a little different: we're taking a look at how a once-great show slides into mediocrity and cancellation. (Not that there aren't some bright spots here.)
Oh, and one thing: because of the nature of this show, things can get confusing. If Sam leaps into a guy named Fred, and Fred needs to eat his waffles, assume that Sam is eating Fred's waffles if I write, "Sam eats his waffles," and not that Sam made it home to 1999 and is sitting in his own kitchen, by his own toaster, waiting for his Eggos of the Future (or Eggos Beyond; I haven't decided what I'm calling them yet) to pop out.
Quantum Leap: The Complete Fifth Season
Episodes / DVDs: 21 episodes on six DVDs
Starring: Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett and Dean Stockwell as Al Calavicci
Lee Harvey Oswald: October 5, 1957 - November 22, 1963
Writer: Donald P. Bellisario
The Plot: Bellisario saw JFK, and he didn't care for it. Two-hour episode.
Good Stuff: The episode opens with a photomontage detailing the life of John F. Kennedy, interspersed with shots of Lee Harvey Oswald. The Kennedy assassination was, of course, a crucial turning point for an entire generation, and this is actually a very effective way of invoking the idea of JFK, who had become an almost mythical hero in the American consciousness by the early 90s.
It totally pushes the limits of what the series has shown in the past, but Oswald is very much a presence in Sam's mind in this episode. He lapses in and out of Sam's mind throughout the two hours. This is mainly because it's what needs to happen to get Bellisario's story across, but it does give Bakula range to stretch his acting muscles. He doesn't even have to say anything; you can see it in his eyes when Oswald takes over.
There's a really good bar fight about 30 minutes in. And the way Al gets Sam out if it makes for a tremendous character moment.
Not So Good Stuff: The new opening theme sucks ass. It sounds like a performance by a high school marching band on Thanksgiving morning at halftime. Not that the original version is the best piece of music ever, but this is terrible.
The actor playing Oswald — unlike most episodes of Quantum Leap, here the person Sam leaps into has a fairly large role in the story — isn't great. He's the weakest link in a pretty good guest cast.
I have no idea how accurate this episode is with its details, but I have to think that a Marine in the 1950s who was openly reading socialist newspapers, carrying a dog-eared copy of the Communist Manifesto in his back pocket at all times, while spouting Marxist doctrine to anyone close enough to listen would not be a Marine for very long. (It does go to explaining why someone could be in the service for two years and never advance past PFC, however.)
Random Observations: This was made, obviously, in the shadow of Oliver Stone's JFK, and Kennedy assassination theories were running riot all over popular culture. Bellisario, who actually knew Oswald from their days in the service, had no question in his mind that he had acted alone, and wrote this episode purely as an answer to Stone's film.
Overall: Whether you agree, disagree or don't really care about the central premise, this is a pretty effective episode. There's very little soapboxing going on (although Al is there in the usual role of "guy who's wrong," which he plays whenever the writers are trying to teach us something), and the show focuses less on the assassination than on Oswald himself; shooter or not, the man was a big pot of crazy stew. Sam Beckett is usually the world's nicest guy, and here Bakula turns on a dime and gives us a performance that's creepy as a backrub from your grandma. So despite the fact that this episode, right here, is the one you can point to and say, "This is where things started to go wrong," it's a very successful couple of hours of television: 8.5 out of 10.
Leaping of the Shrew: September 27, 1956
Writers: Richard C. Okie and Robin Jill Bernheim
Guest starring: Brooke Shields as Vanessa Foster
The Plot: Sam leaps into a sailor trapped on a deserted island with a spoiled rich girl. Hilarity ensues.
Good Stuff: After a really heavy two-part episode, it was very smart to plunge into something so unabashedly goofy.
Al spends the entire episode appearing to Sam in his pajamas. And he plays Sam like a dime-store fiddle. Al is the freaking man.
Not So Good Stuff: You can't really fault them for making do with what they had, but this clearly takes place in a studio tank. The backdrop even has wrinkles in it.
Shields has a certain facility for comedy and she would certainly get better at it, but she's really not a brilliant actress.
I don't care how spoiled or unfamiliar with the ways of the world you are, no one is so stupid as to pee in the only source of fresh water on the island.
Random Observations: This season saw a certain amount of stunt casting in an effort to bring in more viewers; for some reason they decided to start with Shields, who at this time was best known for having used to be famous. (She would have a bit of a comeback shortly after this, with a fairly legendary guest spot on Friends, followed in short order by her sitcom Suddenly Susan.)
Overall: It's aiming for a screwball comedy vibe, and it's not working. Bakula's no stranger to comedy, but he doesn't seem comfortable with something this lightweight, and Shields, well, she's certainly trying. It's not a bad episode by any means. The ending's too pat, although that fits in with the screwball tone. All in all, it's okay, and not the worst way I've ever killed 45 minutes, but it's not going to change your life: 6.5 out of 10.
Nowhere to Run: August 10, 1968
Writer: Tommy Thompson
Guest starring: Jennifer Aniston as Kiki Wilson
The Plot: Sam is a Vietnam War-era captain in a veterans' hospital who must save the life of a fellow patient determined to kill himself, as he works to save his own marriage.
Good Stuff: The guest cast (see below) is all very good. Boatman and Hoag, in particular, do wonderful jobs with their roles. (Aniston, on the other hand, hasn't really learned to act yet at this point. She's not awful, but she's not especially good, either.)
I'm going to try not to do this for every episode, but Dean Stockwell is just great. This show, especially in its later years, really had Vietnam on the brain, but Stockwell was always able to give his speeches about the subject in a way that didn't make you roll your eyes and say, "Christ, not this again!"
Not So Good Stuff: Sam's been leaping around for over four years at this point. He shouldn't be this nervous and inept at interacting with people anymore.
This is set in a hospital, so naturally, there has to be an evil orderly terrorizing the patients. This is trite: it's way overdone, and is slapped on the episode to fill time and give us a villain to hiss at.
Seeing Bakula (who was pushing 40) flirt with Aniston (who barely looked 20) is skeevy.
Random Observations: The episode takes some time to cover how the leaping thing works. Sam leaps into someone's life, not their body. He looks to everyone like the "leapee" in question, but it's still Sam's body. So even though this week's episode has him looking like someone who lost his legs to a land mine, Sam is fully intact and can walk around. Of course, that would freak people out.
This episode stars a very young, pre-nose job(s) Jennifer Aniston (Friends) as a volunteer at the hospital, Michael Boatman (Spin City, Arliss) as the suicidal patient, and Judith Hoag (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) as Sam's wife.
Overall: Quantum Leap was, like lots of other shows at the time, made by boomers for boomers. It paid particular attention to the period running from the late 1950s to the late 1960s, and Vietnam was a well they went to a lot. It was a stupid, pointless war. I know this because this show (and many others of the time) told me so every three or four weeks. Now, if you can get beyond that, this episode has some stuff going for it. The guest cast is phenomenal, it's directed well and Bakula gives his usual commendable performance. However, it's completely joyless. There's just nothing here that really grabs the viewer. Sometimes an episode just has to fill a season order: 6 out of 10.
Disc one is worth your time for the Oswald episode alone.
Killin' Time: June 18, 1958
Writer: Tommy Thompson
The Plot: Sam is a mass murderer who's taken hostages as he hides from the police. While the real killer is loose in Project Quantum Leap, Sam reveals who he is to his hostages.
Good Stuff: The only indication we usually get that Project Quantum Leap is as important as it is, is that references are occasionally made to Al being a Rear Admiral in the US Navy. This episode makes it clear that this is a very top-level project with a strong military presence.
Dennis Wolfberg, a talented stand-up comedian of the day who should have been much more famous than he was and was taken much too young, plays Gushie, a scientist on staff at the project. He's always fun when he shows up. Here he gets to play the Al role while the real Al is off hunting for the escaped killer.
The scene where Sam proves who he is to his hostage is well done. She's understandably skeptical, but not obnoxiously so.
Not So Good Stuff: The Waiting Room is where the person Sam leaps into hangs out while Sam is fixing their problems. Here it's the actual killer dressed in white tights and nothing else. So what the fuck is Chad McKillsalot doing with a gun in the Waiting Room? I know they had to get the story moving quickly, but they can't take a few seconds to explain this?
In the future, hookers will have dresses made of Christmas lights! They will drive electromagnetic automobiles! There will be an artificial intelligence in every home! There will not, however, be cell phones. (Reminder: the Project Quantum Leap scenes are set a mere seven years after these episodes aired. I don't know what kind of amazing technological advances they thought we were going to make in that time span, but it never occurred to anyone that cellular phone technology, which was up and running by then, would catch on.)
Speaking of hookers: oy, this scene just won't stop happening. The actress is terrible, and it's just stupid and weird on too many levels to take seriously.
Random Observations: Nope. Pretty straightforward episode.
Overall: This isn't bad. Again, the scene in which the killer is with a prostitute is interminable, but the rest of the episode is really quite good. Like the Oswald episode, this is an example of a good episode that does things that get way overdone the rest of the year: it examines the project, while the leap itself is almost incidental. To give you an idea: in five seasons, we saw the project six times. This season contains four of those appearances. Still, this is very entertaining all around: 8 out of 10.
Star Light, Star Bright: May 21, 1966
Writer: Richard C. Okie
The Plot: Sam is an elderly man in danger of being committed to a mental institution when he insists to his family that he's seen a flying saucer.
Good Stuff: Sam leaps in, looks up, sees a UFO and the leap is immediately forgotten. Without thinking, without assessing his situation, Sam calls out to the UFO. He's excited. He's absolutely thrilled at even the faint prospect of seeing alien life, and it drives home the concept that Sam is a scientist; he's constantly learning and seeking answers in a way that no amount of technobabble can ever hope to.
Morgan Weisser, as Tim the grandson, plays well with Bakula. There's a scene when Tim, a guitarist, talks to Sam about some of his influences, and Sam tries to explain the impact Jimi Hendrix will shortly have. Of course, words can't do it, so Sam straps on Tim's guitar (this probably wasn't done live, but Bakula is a creditable guitar player) and rips a Hendixed-up version of "Glory Glory Hallelujah" to his grandson. This should be humiliating and awkward to watch, especially when the camera goes to a mirror showing Grandpa jamming away, but it's not.
Not So Good Stuff: Sam is taking absolutely no care when talking to Al in public, and people are watching this old man they already think is nuts talking to himself. Some of it can be explained away as Sam being excited by the prospect of proving the existence of alien life, but after four seasons of scrupulously ensuring his conversations with Al are private, this is really sloppy and a cheap way of adding drama to the "keep Sam out of the hospital" plotline.
Sam turns Tim away from the horrors of drug abuse — in a two-minute conversation.
Random Observations: Despite what the title card says, there's reason to believe that the timeframe here should be 1968, not 1966: Sam tells his grandson that within the year he should be able to hear Jimi Hendrix play at Woodstock (June 1969), and that Brian Jones would be dead (July 1969). There's also evidence that the 1966 date is correct: Tim hasn't heard of Janis Joplin or Jim Morrison yet (both would break in 1967). Basically, someone wasn't paying attention.
Overall: This is a wonderful episode. Bakula acts his socks off. It wanders a bit in the second half and the ending is downright dense, but there's so much character development here that it carries through: 9 out of 10.
Deliver Us from Evil: March 19, 1966
Writers: Robin Jill Bernheim and Tommy Thompson & Deborah Pratt
Guest starring: Renée Coleman as Alia and Carolyn Seymour as Zoey
The Plot: Returning to a leap from the second season, Sam has to re-fix a family situation he thought he had put right two years before. This episode marks the introduction of Alia, the "Evil Leaper."
Background: This follows on the second season episode "Jimmy: October 14, 1964," in which Sam leaped into a mentally handicapped man named (naturally enough) Jimmy, who was in the care of his older brother and sister-in-law, preventing Jimmy from being sent to an institution in the era before mainstreaming. This was one of the most powerful episodes of the entire five-year run.
Good Stuff: Sam is positively giddy at being Jimmy again. He connected very strongly with Jimmy's family, and is absolutely delighted at seeing them again. It's great for the viewers who remember the original episode, too.
Special effects had come a long way in the five years this show was on the air. The effects surrounding Alia and Zoey (her "Al"), such as an early use of "morphing" technology, are noticeably smoother and more realistic than the ones we're used to. This goes to show that the producers resisted the temptation to update the effects on this show over the years, instead keeping consistent with the graphics used from the beginning.
Not So Good Stuff: This, right here, is where the shark starts poking his fin out of the water. I'll tell you the honest truth: I really dug this storyline when it first aired. It's an interesting idea, and injects some science fiction into a show that, again, other than the central premise, didn't have a whole lot. And as teenage Dan would have happily told you, Renée Coleman is not at all difficult to look at. But this is clearly a panic move by writers who've run out of ways to keep the anthology format going, and felt the need to introduce new, semi-regular antagonists in a bid to attract viewers (NBC pushed the hell out of this storyline in the summer trailers).
The ending blows. The episode sets things up in the bleakest possible situation with no reasonable way to have a happy ending, but after an insipid speech about how Alia killing Sam would be killing herself, which makes no sense, reality is punched and life is peaches and cream for everyone. Ugh.
Random Observations: This has absolutely nothing to do with the episode whatsoever, but whenever I think the phrase "evil leaper" to myself, I always, without meaning to, do so with a bad French accent. You know, like Batroc ze Leapair! I have no idea why.
It had long been hinted at that Sam's leaping was being controlled by God. Here, they just come out and say that Alia and Zoey are working their way out of Hell.
Overall: Now, despite the total brainlessness of the fact that we have an evil leaper to deal with, and an ending that gives me a headache when I think about it too hard, this isn't a bad episode. It's a bit of a jumble and the number of writers shows, but the guest cast is good and the first three quarters of the episode are excellent. In fact, it's just the last five minutes that stop this from being one of the season's better episodes: 7.5 out of 10.
Trilogy: Part One (One Little Heart): August 8, 1955
Writer: Deborah Pratt
The Plot: Sam is a small-town sheriff in Louisiana, investigating a pair of murders that his young daughter is entangled in.
Good Stuff: Man, they were just throwing all kinds of things at the wall. Once again, the series is trying something new this season. This is the first of a three-part story arc which follows a single woman, Abigail Fuller, at various points in her life. It's an interesting idea, and the shows are relatively self-contained, so it's not beating you over the head with its concept too hard.
The first thing Sam sees when he leaps in is a dead body. His reaction? "Too late. Why am I too late?"
Max Wright (ALF) is, as always, wonderful. It's been too long since I've seen him in anything.
Bakula works extremely well with Kimberly Cullum, the actress playing the young Abigail.
The ending is actually pretty exciting.
Not So Good Stuff: Having buried her daughter and then her husband, it stands to reason that a woman would be upset, but Mary Gordon Murray's performance as widow Leta Aider is like nails on a chalkboard. She's a screeching, shrieking harridan and I want to crush pills in her drink.
Random Observations: The DVD set gives this episode's title as "One Little Heart."
Overall: It's not a perfect episode by any stretch, but the good outweighs the bad. The supporting cast (other than Murray) is solid, and there's a sense that there's been some really dark happenings in this sleepy town. And although it's the start of a trilogy, it still manages to work as a standalone episode: 7.5 out of 10.
Disc two has two great episodes ("Killin' Time" and "Star Light, Star Bright"), and two good ones as well. The weakest, "Deliver Us from Evil," is, if nothing else, important to the show's mythos.
And the end has been set into motion. Quantum Leap always had solid if unspectacular ratings, and the producers have by this point in the season come up with everything they could think of to attract new viewers and rejuvenate a premise that may have been growing tired: stunt casting, having Sam leap into famous people, opening up the inner workings of the project itself, multipart extravaganzas and ze evil leapair. The desperation was clearly starting to show, and although some very good episodes came out of all this, the sharks were circling.
See you in a week.