Quantum Leap — And a Shirtless Scott Bakula — Changed Episodic Sci-Fi Forever

What other actor has the range to play both a chimp and Lee Harvey Oswald?

Written by Jon O'Brien
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As the saying almost goes, you wait ages for one body swap comedy and then half a dozen come along at once. From the good (Big), the bad (Vice Versa), and the downright ugly (Kirk Cameron’s Like Father Like Son), the late 1980s was a boom time for planting someone’s mind into another person’s body with oh-so-hilarious consequences. But it was Quantum Leap, a weekly NBC procedural that ran for 97 episodes, that pushed the concept to its outer limits.

The two-part pilot, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary, might not turn its hero into a chimp, or even more bafflingly, Lee Harvey Oswald (yes, both later happened). But by jumping from the near-future of 1999 to a ’50s military training program and a ’60s Minor League Baseball game, it brilliantly sets the “anything goes” tone from the offset.

Say what you like about the original Quantum Leap, created by Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum P.I.) in homage to a 1941 movie about a second chance at life, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, but it doesn’t waste a second. Now, as many series tease their reasons for being to the point of frustration, it’s almost disorientating to watch a show that discloses its central premise in the opening five minutes.

Before the opening credits have even rolled, we learn that physicist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) has spent years and $43 billion of government money on a time-travel project. A lack of concrete results means it’s about to lose all funding, so Beckett defies all advice and personally tests it. By the following scene, we’ve also learned that, far from hurtling into the future, the man Time magazine dubbed “the next Einstein” has been thrown into the past.

Scott Bakula’s newly-shaven Sam has just missed a bit.


It’s a dizzying start to a show that proved the procedural could work beyond the usual police stations, hospitals, and courts of law. Sure, the same thing happens every week: Sam is transported to a different body to course-correct a particular moment from his lifetime. But with the ever-changing cast of supporting characters, elaborate world-building (the attention to period details are magnificent), and clear end goals, every episode brought a sense of the unknown.

It’s fair to say that the pilot’s first storyline, which begins with Sam waking up next to a pregnant woman he’s never seen before, intrigues far more than the second. “Where am I?” comes the voiceover, a narrative device that allows the audience to discover and comprehend the show’s rules in tandem with its lead character.

These include the fact Sam can only make another leap when he’s fulfilled his purpose, only he can see his holographic sidekick, Al (Dean Stockwell), who routinely pops up to offer guidance, and that Sam has what’s coined “Swiss cheese memory.” While he can’t remember anything about the experiment that “went a little caca,” Sam does recall the skills he picked up as a black belt, master musician, and holder of six degrees. Luckily, these assets will be applicable throughout his adventures; in this case, his medical training allows him to prevent a stillbirth.

Jennifer Runyon as the quintessential 1950s housewife.


Sam first literally steps into the shoes of Tom Stratton, a Bell X-2 pilot from 1956 who died while attempting to break Mach-3. Tom was obviously a prankster, too, considering how his colleagues instantly dismiss Sam’s constant confessions that he lacks flying experience as just another joke. Cue sweats and screams as he’s suddenly forced to take control of a rocket-powered aircraft thousands of feet in the air, one of several daredevil set pieces that get the adrenaline pumping.

The show gets plenty of comic mileage from this fish-out-of-water scenario. “Area code?” puzzled wife Peg (Jennifer Runyon) remarks when Sam wants to phone his headquarters, which probably hasn’t been built yet. Bakula displays pitch-perfect timing when coming to terms with his unexpected transformation, like in the first moment he spots his reflection. Although we see him as Bakula, everyone in Quantum Leap sees Sam as the form he’s taken.

However, it’s the emotional beats where this first episode excels. There’s a beautifully tender moment when Sam, who’s developed genuine feelings for Peg, asks her to dance during a celebratory trip to a dive bar. And then there’s the tear-jerking scene when Sam recognizes a perk of going back in time: getting another chance to speak to his late dad. Their shared phone call, in which a choked-up Sam pretends to be his own long-lost cousin, is a masterclass in saying much without saying anything at all. When a young Sam pipes up on the other end of the line, well, there’s unlikely to be a dry eye in the house.

Dean Stockwell’s Al in the world’s shiniest jacket.


It’s easy to see why the square-jawed Bakula became a TV Guide pin-up, too. The show never misses an opportunity to display his hairy chest, yet he also boasts a vulnerability missing from most of his hyper-macho peers, particularly whenever there are flickers of recognition about his past. And who doesn’t love a man who can reel off complex medical procedures without drawing a breath?

Sadly, the pilot’s B plot feels more like an afterthought introduced to fill the runtime. While the first 70 minutes center on the survival of a war hero, his wife, and their unborn baby, the final 20 revolves around victory in a baseball game. Quantum Leap got much better at combining life-or-death with light relief, but here, it feels like they hadn’t quite sussed out the proper balance.

Still, this inventive introduction hit the ground running. “You know, maybe this quantum leaping isn’t so bad after all,” Sam remarks to Al while walking off the field. A meta remark, you could say, but by revolutionizing both the procedural and the episodic sci-fi, “isn’t so bad” would be selling Quantum Leap’s pilot short.

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