'Quantum Leap' and the Denial of Meaning

by Kit MacFarlane

3 March 2014

Grand "explanations" are simple, it's actions and decisions that are complex. Quantum Leap treated ordinary people's problems as the real matters of cosmic importance.

Grand “explanations” are simple, it’s actions and decisions that are complex. Quantum Leap treated ordinary people’s problems as the real matters of cosmic importance.

Quantum Leap, “Mirror Image – August 8, 1953”, 4 May 1993

“Why are we here?”, according to Richard Dawkins, is a meaningless question that “doesn’t deserve an answer”; after all, the question relies on the implicit assumption that a) there is an intended purpose and b) that it can be answered in some way that won’t just lead to further presumptive questions about the purpose of that purpose.

Retro Remote isn’t here to explore the conflicts of religion and atheism (well, not much), but the same idea might be well applied to TV drama (a topic that both the devout and the atheists can presumably agree isn’t divinely inspired). For a while (and perhaps still), “What does it all mean?” became a popular question around which to construct a drama; shows like Lost (2004-2010) and The 4400 (2004-2007) piled perplexity upon perplexity in the hope that audiences would tune in each week, each year, to discover the grand design governing the mysteriously mysterious mysteries.

For some reason, this transparent narrative sleight of hand sometimes managed to keep viewers tuning in. The multiple audience interpretations offered for something like Lost – all more or less entirely workable – essentially demonstrate the problem; it can all mean whatever the producers decide they want it to mean. Hell, purgatory, characters trapped in an old Twilight Zone episode – but what does “what it all means” actually mean anyway?

Universal “explanations” tend to be simplistic; it’s actions in difficult localised circumstances that are complex. Of course, for some viewers, the literal, mechanical parts of a narrative linking together without too many leftover parts are all that matter. The not very interesting “you thought it was x but it was actually y” approach has sustained all kinds of stories but, to those who see the general arbitrariness of narrative construction, evasiveness and abstraction may be the only suitable endpoint for cosmic mysteries. The famous ending of The Prisoner might infuriate literal-minded viewers, but it also forces the viewer to start looking at the proceedings less as a series of “events” and more as a representation of abstract social ideas that culminate in a particular cultural or philosophical tension: questions rather than answers. If the butler had turned out to be the chief villain all along, or if he’d been in “purgatory” the whole time, well, so what?

Warmly-remembered series Quantum Leap (1989-1993) frequently hinted at a cosmic order behind its narrative (GFTW was the internet shorthand for the oft-invoked suggestion of “God, Fate, Time, Whatever”), but the series never really let itself get too bogged down in the “What does it all mean?” question. Despite the potential for cosmic navel-gazing in its sci-fi concept, the show operated at its best on the intimately personal level.

Before it devolved into celebrity stories (Elvis, Marilyn Monroe) and perpetually-popular points in history (the Civil War, the JFK assassination), the stories could be intimate and personal to the point of near-irrelevance culturally, let alone cosmically. Heroes Sam (Scott Bakula) and Al (Dean Stockwell) might question things like the justice and order that seemed to be guiding them, but answers were never forthcoming or really particularly relevant. Those questions remained abstract, rooted in speculation and uncertainty and, ultimately, they had no choice but to simply get back to business, facing the real, earthy, often mundane matters before them.

Despite its idiosyncratic sci-fi concept, the guiding narrative in Quantum Leap was purely traditional for episodic television. The sci-fi part goes like this: having developed a means to travel through time (limited to the scope of his own lifetime), super-smart Dr Sam Beckett tests his device on himself and… vanishes! Sam now “leaps” into people of the past, inhabiting their bodies (unknown to observers) and working to fix whatever problems they’re facing so that he can “leap” again, hopefully back home to his own time.

At its core, it’s the classic episodic, wandering hero structure; the protagonist (Richard Kimble, the Incredible Hulk, The Lone Ranger, etc.) arrives in a new place, observes a problem, solves it thanks to his or her (usually his) particular traits and characteristics, and then moves on, now loved by all but nevertheless driven for one reason or another to wander on alone.

Oddly, it’s the sci-fi element that adds an extra emotional kick to the usual structure. Where the typical protagonist in this structure gets to receive adulation and admiration before the next journey, forever remembered by the grateful dopes saved from potential doom, Quantum Leap‘s central conceit saw Sam remain (for the most part) invisible and anonymous. Nobody could ask,“Who was that masked man?”; as far as they knew, nobody else had ever been there at all. Moments of triumph would be capped off by the (awesome) sound effect and blue glow of Sam’s leap. Frequently this would take place mid-action – often the moment of triumph and celebration – further emphasising Sam’s isolation and perpetual alienation from those he contributed to and bonded with.

Even the miserable Richard Kimble in The Fugitive at least left behind a bunch of folk who knew he was a great guy (who also passed on this information to the pursuing Lt. Gerard) and at least the guys in Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Quantum Leap‘s most obvious precursor, had their buddy physically with them. Sam doesn’t even get to keep his own identity.

As well as emotionally pushing the heroic model into extreme isolation (although avoiding stretching this to the tedious angst and nihilism so popular in modern leads), this also perfectly manifests the structural idea that the traditional, episodic hero is not a “character” per se, but the embodiment of a certain world-view that rearranges undesirable scenarios, realigning them with the hero’s own ideological outlook. This is how Stanley Fish articulates the appeal of The Fugitive, seeing the story not as simply one of a man running from the law, but of an “enforcer of values”, a character who embodies independent “liberalism” infiltrating regressive social orders.

Quantum Leap makes this idea of a protagonist as a wandering ideology strangely literal. Sam, in a sense, is no longer a “person”; instead he’s a way of behaving that leads to people changing their actions and, as a result, their life circumstance. (The show does, at times, – misguidedly, I’d suggest – let Sam’s physical characteristics override those of the people he inhabits, making a man without legs stand up, for example.). Just as all those WWJD? (What Would Jesus Do?) bumper stickers got turned into things like WWTDD? (What Would The Doctor Do?) or whatever, the entire point of any Quantum Leap episode is unavoidably “WWSD?”

This may be the standard function of the episodic hero but, again, the sci-fi concept gives this an extra punch. Sam doesn’t necessarily persuade people to act differently; he actually makes people’s decisions for them. While the show often does see Sam trying to convince others to change, he just as often acts out a change himself in his host. It’s actually a slightly disturbing spin on the idea – people improve their lives by abandoning personal agency and having someone else make their decisions for them: don’t be yourself, be someone else!

Ethically, though, it’s perhaps less problematic than it might seem. As Leo Braudy puts it in relation to Roberto Rossellini’s 1959 film General Della Rovere (quoted in Slavoj Zizek‘s Enjoy Your Symptom!), “artifice – role-playing, the assumption of disguise” may, in fact, offer “a way towards moral truth”. As Zizek puts it: “we pretend to be something…till…we actually become it”. Or, as expressed via the unquestionable wisdom of Xena: Warrior Princess, “You are who you pretend to be. So you’d better pretend to be something you can live with” (“Blind Faith”,14 April 1997). Here, it’s the place that one assumes in the social network that defines the self, not some “inner” authentic being known only to the self.

There’s also a more obvious problem with this idea as it’s expressed in the show, in its image of a white, highly educated, privileged (presumably fairly affluent) man revisiting history’s failures to “put right what once went wrong”. The trope of “white man fixes history” looms large, especially when Sam leaps into people of other races, classes, genders, sexual orientation, etc. Quantum Leap can allow viewers to experience the fantasy of being a minority, but only through the mediating presence of the white American male. Where the show offers an undeniably appealing fantasy of going back to fix history’s injustices with modern liberal outlooks, the minorities being “protected” may find themselves less impressed at being used as tools for assuaging the guilt of certain segments of white America.

I don’t think this problematic element is so easily overlooked, but it’s also true that these kinds of readings work most appropriately in relation broad discussions of the media and social landscape. Quantum Leap‘s sci-fi premise makes this concept particularly tangible, but that doesn’t mean that, as an individual series, it’s any worse than most other series in the media landscape of the time or that this overrides other traits that set the series apart from its contemporaries. Fans should not dismiss this element of the show, but they should also not feel that this kind of important social and contextual criticisms invalidates all of their enjoyment or overrides Quantum Leap‘s heartfelt attempts to address social injustices.

Certainly the series also revolved around overt displays of empathy – if the show was targeting white, liberal America, it was also aiming to reconfirm ideas of social justice, equality and compassion, perhaps also aiming to drag those viewers caught up in the mindsets of previous eras into a (hopefully) more open-minded and accepting present. If Sam occupying minorities is problematic (which, it is), it at least also visualises on some level the most basic notion of empathy: “walk a mile in my shoes”.

Sam himself also comes across as a certain kind of antiquated hero; is Sam one of the last heroes to be (aside from his exile in time and space) a straight-up, almost wilfully-naive “good guy”, largely untroubled on a personal level? There’s a danger in a blind nostalgia for this kind of hero (as suggested above and explored nicely in Chris Sims’s great essay “The Racial Politics of Regressive Storytelling”), but there’s also the potential for features that go against the grain of modern, self-focused notions of heroism (insular self-obsession rather than simple, direct social engagement as the “wandering ideology”).

I’ve suggested previously that cynically rolling our eyes at simplistic “good guys” can also potentially overlook some unfortunately rare images of emotionally-aware, open, compassionate and empathetic masculinity. Quantum Leap may have frequently succumbed to the fantasy of punching out the bad guy, but far more character-defining is Sam’s sensitivity, openness and refusal to succumb to cheap cynicism. After all, this was a character whose primary function was to treat ordinary people’s problems as the real matters of cosmic importance.

But back to “what’s it all about?”. Quantum Leap toyed with universe expansion with an “evil leaper” (which also involved a return to a previous “leap”) as it lapsed into the desperation of gimmick storylines in its final seasons, but the series’ farewell had sense enough to turn away from these embellishments. Sam appears – on the date of his birth, 8 August 1953 – not in another person’s body but in his own for the first time in the course of the series (well, aside from an atypical episodic diversion here and there) seeing his own face as he looks in the mirror.

For most of its length, the final episode “Mirror Image” (4 May 1993, directed by James Whitmore Jr. and written by series creator and producer Donald P. Bellisario) is a postponement of information. Faces from Sam’s leaps appear around him in the dingy bar setting, but the only one who seems to know anything, the bartender played by Bruce McGill (who also appeared in the first episode in a different role), isn’t talking. The series presents us with an abstract sense of GFTW, but isn’t willing to unpack the acronym.

Instead, like The Prisoner before it (and despite the promise of the TV promos that “all your questions will be answered”), the series refuses literal explanations to instead use its final hour to ask us to consider the more abstract ideas that are bubbling away under the narratives we’ve seen: the finalé is a point for reflection rather than revelation. Central to the finalé‘s concerns seems to be the notion of altruism; the idea that Sam has been forced to keep leaping is more or less denied.

Like those bodies who he inhabited and then – if only temporarily – defined, is Sam defined simply by the actions he takes rather than the lingering trace of a “lost” identity? Should we Sam as someone who, defined by constraints rather than freedom, needs to find his identity in those constraints themselves not as something imagined elsewhere? It’s a nice manifestation of a postmodern and/or existential condition: the actual discovery of the authentic self is impossible, it’s only in the fragments, distortions and constraints that the true self exists.

When Sam’s final act rewrites history to help Al, it’s also an act that threatens to cut off his only lifeline to the real world. Al – womanising throughout the series and traumatised by the breakdown of his first marriage – is reunited with his first wife and is never divorced. Is it a Kierkegaardian leap into ethical action without a safety net – threatening to unravel history and his own security for the sake of fulfilling friend’s request – or is it all just a suggestion for Sam to lighten up a bit? All we’re know of the outcome is delivered in a text caption: Sam “never returned home”.

Of course, there is no “answer”. Open questions in narratives don’t really have secret meanings waiting to be uncovered and the above isn’t intended as an “explanation” of the ending – merely a point of resonance in a text that’s simultaneously complex and simple. Dramatic texts are constructed documents that rarely offer a coherent philosophical view – what they “mean” is generally far less important than what they express. Sam’s disappearance in the final episode – whether it’s his complete removal from his narrative universe or just an open-ended statement giving Bellisario an easy lead-in to further tie-ins – remains one of the more moving and strangely affecting finalés in television.

In its final story, Quantum Leap had enough sense not to try to answer questions that can perhaps never be properly answered: how to act is far more important than what it all means. Bellisario’s finalé asks us to reflect on what we’ve seen, thought and felt rather than looking for elusive external meanings that will, all too quickly, collapse into meaninglessness.


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