Can Sam Beckett Survive a Quantum Leap to 2011?

Sam Beckett may never have returned home, but Comic-Con fans welcomed news that he may yet leap into the future again. Scott Bakula, who played the earnest do-gooder on Quantum Leap, announced yet another proposed movie based on the once-popular series. Leapers (QL fans) briefly rejoiced, although this is not the first time series’ creator Donald Bellisario (also well known for NCIS, JAG, and Magnum, P.I.) has tried to launch a QL movie. This time, however, Bakula sounded confident that a movie will be made, even if the deal has not yet been finalized.

What made the highly publicized announcement bittersweet for long-time fans, many who faithfully watched episodes from 1989 to 1993, is the proposed casting. Bakula gamely noted that his leaping days are over. Although he and co-star Dean Stockwell (Al Calavicci) most likely would have roles, they would not star in the movie. In fact, the Comic-Con crowd was left wondering whether someone else might play Sam or if the character, too, might be retired.

Either way, fans of the original immediately responded with their desire to have both Bakula and Stockwell in the proposed movie—and that they play, respectively, Sam and Al, preferably longer than a cameo. Some fans created a Facebook page to gather support for a Bakula-Stockwell on-screen reunion. “The Fans of Quantum Leap—Putting Things Right Before They Can Go Wrong” site encourages fans to voice their support for the original stars to play these much-loved characters on film.

The “announcement” of a QL movie seems like more of a wish than a reality, although fans can hope that this time the news will pan out and a movie be made. Previous attempts over the years failed, in part because so many individuals and companies own a piece of QL. Now, however, may be a better time to leap back to the 1989-1993 series. Hollywood has frequently turned its re-imagination to television as the source for movies (e.g., Get Smart, The Brady Bunch Movie, Starsky & Hutch), some with better cinematic and box office results than others. The often-rerun Quantum Leap still has a core fanbase of nostalgic Leapers plus a new generation of viewers who would likely buy tickets and DVDs.

In March 2009, fans celebrated 20 years of Quantum Leap with The Leap Back, a Los Angeles convention also attended by the series’ creators and several actors, including Bakula. Fans, through fundraisers such as sales of convention DVDs, raised $30,000 for the Starlight Children’s Foundation. This philanthropy provided a way for fans to follow in Sam Beckett’s footsteps by making a positive difference in the lives of others.

The fans who continue to follow Bakula’s career and to celebrate the original series undoubtedly would like to see Sam as a movie or TV hero for the 2010s. Compared with other movies made from TV series, a Quantum Leap movie seems like a no-brainer.

Can Quantum Leap return without a massive overhaul? Would such an overhaul destroy the original concept? In many ways the original was a groundbreaking series about civil rights, gender equality, animal rights (remember the infamous “chimpanzee” episode?), and the belief than anyone can make a positive difference in the world. During his many adventures “to put right what once went wrong,” Sam leaped into the lives of, among others, a blind pianist, an institutionalized mental patient, a pregnant teen, a convicted killer, a soldier, a university professor, a fraternity brother—any character became fair game for writers. Sam has been both genders and multiple ethnicities, races, religions, and ages. His TV life truly embodied walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, whether they were moccasins or stilettos.

That a TV series can tackle social issues is not a unique concept. Choosing to gently educate an audience or expand their frame of reference has been key to many popular series in many genres, such as I Spy’s drama, Star Trek’s science fiction, Golden Girls’ comedy, or Buffy’s coming-of-age story. What separated Sam Beckett from other TV heroes is not just that he embodied so many different personas at so many different crisis points in their or US history, but that he did so with words and quiet deeds. Sam was not always a pacifist, but he favored non-violent ways to make a point, save the day, change a life.

Television hits and blockbusters today do not whisper so much as shout, mediate as often as challenge or attack, sooth as quickly as condemn. The low-key approach to social change often is not the first choice for drama. TV and movie dramas, whether science fiction or gritty reality, are more likely to be fast paced, violent, and morally ambiguous. With the possible exception of sitcoms (or musicals), television is more cutthroat than in Sam’s day.

Modern Family and Glee, for example, may have become Emmy contenders this year because they challenge stereotypes while presenting family-friendly “feel-good” stories. Their approach to social change is to infiltrate softly, but Emmy award-winning Quantum Leap in any season took on more social issues than either of these current nominees have done in their first year. What would Sam Beckett need to become in order to be successful today, either on television or in a movie?

The most successful “re-imaginings” of television dramas have required major overhauls of their gentler, kinder predecessors. Battlestar Galactica’s Adama and Starbuck faced some impossible choices and grew battle weary in their latest incarnation. In a recent TV Guide interview about the new Hawaii Five-O, actor Alex O’Loughlin compared his Steve McGarrett more closely to 24’s Jack Bauer than to the version initially played by Jack Lord in the ’60s: “There are definitely Jack Bauer elements to my Steve McGarrett. He’s not averse to methods others would be jailed for.” Do TV and movie audiences now expect those in charge of “putting right what once went wrong” to be tougher, harsher, more violent, and less likely to ask questions before taking action; to do whatever they feel necessary to improve the world?

QL’s optimistic model may seem outdated, even among TV series trying to elevate the role of heroes. A January 2010 Heroes episode (“Pass/Fail”) required the most sincere of the series’ heroic characters, Hiro Nakamura, to defend his actions in a court of morals. He tried using the QL defense: he time traveled to the past to right a wrong. That response, however, failed to win over the prosecutor or judge, who—like the audience—had heard that one before.

How would Sam fare in such a court of popular opinion? In trying to solve a problem or save the day, he inevitably changed the future, and the series left viewers with the impression that the lives he changed were vastly improved. Would today’s TV or movie audiences buy the idea of possible happy (or at least happier) endings? Is a simple cause-effect relationship still viable as a plot structure? In a cynical age, is the idea that one person can make a difference too unlikely, even for fiction?

QL’s continuing fandom includes a new generation whose parents watched the series or who found it on their own through reruns, downloads, or DVDs. Perhaps they, as well as their elders, are looking for a different kind of hero—a Sam Beckett rather than a Jack Bauer. Perhaps a QL movie might “make a difference” by re-introducing a different type of TV or movie hero.

Sam was a conscience-driven physicist who sacrificed his personal life in order to advance humanity, whether through science or simply “doing good”. Can he be re-imagined for the 2010s without losing his humanity or becoming morally ambiguous? If Sam Beckett—or his successor—leaps into a new millennium, he (or she) had better be ready to face new challenges required by shifts in cinematic storytelling and a different sociopolitical reality. Leaping 20 years into the future isn’t impossible for science fiction, but Quantum Leap‘s scriptwriters need to carefully look before they leap into a very different cinematic culture.