Quantum Leap: Putting Right What Once Went Wrong

Yes, I am huge Quantum Leap fan.  And yes, the title of this piece is referring to Sam Beckett’s good and godly mission to, with the help of friend and colleague Al Calavicci, correct wrongs within his own lifetime (and some without).  But this isn’t exactly or entirely a love letter to Quantum Leap.  The title is hopefully a clever way to advocate for one thing: a better ending for Quantum Leap.

You gotta be patient though, because I have some long-winded meandering left in the tank (even after my long ass Batman: Mask of the Phantasm post).  Readers beware: I love to meander.   

So I go a this monthly local comic book club where local comic book fans discuss current events in comics/geek culture and also a chosen topic.  This month’s topic was: endings/finales.  It was so appropriate.  Game of Thrones just ended.  Avengers: Endgame ended the Marvel Cinematic Universe (to some degree).  Big Bang Theory (which I’m not a fan of) ended.  Deadwood (not a big fan either despite having watched it all hoping that I might grow to love it) ended with a movie (which I saw but wasn’t impressed with).  The Netflix Marvel superhero shows were ending.  A lot of big popular stuff just happened to end all around the same time.

The meeting went well.  We talked about series finales.  We talked a bit about how it feels like serialization is increasing in the American/Western media landscape.  Shows or movie series that maybe you thought were over are increasingly returning.  And so more finales are being undone and redone.  For example, Roseanne’s original ending was radically undone to allow the show to continue with its same core cast.  The entertainment industry is increasingly showing its disdain for endings, because firm endings mean it can no longer shamelessly exploit the franchise anymore to make money.  You see, the entertainment industry is really an insurance industry, and the best way to ensure reliable safe predictable return on investment is name or brand recognition.  That’s why we will be forced to suffer a hellish eternity of crappy overlong predictable Star Wars films, Marvel films, Fast and Furious films, etc.

We also talked a bit about what makes for a great series finale.  It’s a hard question to answer briefly.  One person said a great finale leaves you wanting more.  I wasn’t sure I agreed with that per se, at least not entirely.  I offered that a great ending takes the show/series to its logical extreme or conclusion and leaves you with some thoughtful insight into something (like the what the show was really about at its core).  But there are all sorts of good answers to the question, because there’s probably no single approach to designing a series finale that fits all shows.  Creativity demands variety.

Back to Quantum Leap, it was a fantastic show.  If you don’t know, it was a time travel show (that mixed so many genres) that ran on NBC for five seasons between 1989 and 1993.  I don’t think much of anyone was satisfied with how the show ended in the fifth season episode titled “Mirror Image.”  Entertainment news website Uproxx did a good random article on the finale back in 2014.  The piece smartly reminded us of the finale’s context: “Mirror Image” wasn’t originally designed to be the series finale.  But NBC would cancel the show and the episode then became a rush job ending to Quantum Leap.  The hasty finale agonizingly teased all sorts of big juicy answers, but instead only created more questions and ends with a black credits page saying:  “Dr. Sam Becket [note: spelled wrong] never returned home.”

Now to be fair, I can’t say the Quantum Leap finale failed in all aspects.  Its best part was Sam leaping back to the Vietnam era to tell Al’s would-have-been ex-wife to wait for him (thus saving Al’s marriage since he was MIA in a POW camp for a time during ‘Nam).  And the finale also did kind of push the show’s story to an interesting logical extreme.  It raised a question I don’t think fans thought to ask: Is it best that Sam stops saving lives all over time and returns home?  Returning home may be best for Sam himself, but what about all the other lives Sam might save if he continues to leap around time on the higher power’s behalf?  And what if Sam controlled his own fate all along and everything we thought was wrong?  What if leaping home was simply a matter of whether Sam, deep down, had the true desire to stop all this and return home to his wife?  All the ideas were interesting.

But the episode failed to execute or develop these ideas.  And the black credits page coda felt like a betrayal of the more positive hopeful nature of the show.  Sure, I think show creator Donald Bellisario’s intention was a superficially positive message that time traveler Sam Beckett is always going to be out there saving lives, but it didn’t feel that way.  In fact Quantum Leap‘s ending postscript felt exactly like the hilarious Simpson‘s episode where Itchy & Scratchy’s new dog character Poochie (voiced by Homer) is hastily written out of the show via a handwritten title card (that radically reframed Poochie as an alien) saying; “Note: Poochie died on the way back to his home planet.”  But without the hilarity of course. 

The opening theme to every episode of Quantum Leap reminded us that Sam hoped to one day leap home to his wife, his own time. his friends, his work, etc.  But, per “Mirror Image,” he ultimately chooses to not return, or is condemned to not return and instead endures a lifetime of time travel heroism?  Isn’t that a bit harsh?  Is wanting to return home after having saved many lives somehow bad or selfish?  Does he ever see his best friend Al or his wife ever again or what?  Whether you think the ending is positive or a downer, I don’t think one can deny that it doesn’t offer much closure.  That’s why when an alternate ending turned up recently, almost every news headline talked about how this newly discovered footage provides some closure. 

So what turned up?  Rough cut video footage of unknown origin of an alternate ending surfaced on Reddit.  It shows Al telling his wife Beth that Project Quantum Leap is going to launch a search for Sam.  Beth assures Al that he’ll find him, but Al says he’s not so sure.  The footage is different from a script that’s been circulating the internet for years that has Al choosing to actually leap himself to find Sam and risk never returning like Sam. 

I’m sorry but I didn’t find enough closure in this rough cut footage turning up after all these 26 years.  It’s interesting, no doubt, but it is not a substitute for an episode or a movie or TV movie.  On your DVD sets, you won’t even find this discovered footage.  The last episode of Quantum Leap is still 1993’s “Mirror Image.”  Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell are both alive and Scott is still acting (starring in NCIS: New Orleans, which I don’t watch).  And Donald Bellisario did announce in 2015 at  LA Comic Con that he’d written a Quantum Leap movie, but he had no idea what might happen with it and offered no details as to the nature of it (was it a reboot?).  I find it hard to feel closure when I consider all these factors and all the other shows that have been resurrected in recent times. 

I am hoping Quantum Leap gets another chance put right an ending that once went wrong, whether Dean Stockwell at 83 years old could participate or not.  Even if one liked the ending, that episode was not originally written to be the ending.  Donald Bellisario was basically forced to morph a regular episode’s script into an ending.  But if an ending could have been crafted from scratch, what would that have been?  We’ll never know it seems (unless Bellisario’s script contains that answer and someday finds it way to the internet).  I think a new ending that makes use of the nearly 30 years of time that would have passed since “Mirror Image” would be especially interesting.  Maybe we would catch up with Sam after he’s returned home or maybe after 30 years, Sam *chooses* to return home and the higher power obliges.  I don’t know, but I do not find it unreasonable to want to Quantum Leap to get one last bite at the apple.  A lot of other franchises are getting their second bite and Quantum Leap fans are hungry.  

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