A Casual TV Fan's Guide
Quantum Leap: The Complete Fifth Season, part three
Rated: N/A :: Air dates: 1992-1993
By Dan Toland
21 August 2008 — I'm not sure I can express how I'm feeling right now. Quantum Leap really appealed to me as a kid, but as I write this I'm finding myself actually getting a little upset at times. That's because the fifth season has these little flashes of brilliance — even the worst episode has the remarkable chemistry of Scott Bakula and Dean Stockwell — but as the episodes progress, the central concept falls flat. The idea of a man fixing the lives of ordinary people gets washed away by a listless parade of vague pseudo-celebrities, a fascination with its own mythology and a highly promoted new antagonist who has yet to really antagonize anyone. And it's a damn shame.
Oh, and I have a few things to say about the finale.
Revenge of the Evil Leaper: September 16, 1987
Writer: Deborah Pratt
Guest starring: Renée Coleman as Alia and Carolyn Seymour as Zoey
The Plot: Sam and Alia leap together into a women's prison. I'm sorry, but the picture that just popped into your head is far more entertaining than anything you will actually see in this episode.
Good Stuff: Well, we finally get some evil leaping in this damn thing. When Alia leapt with Sam, Zoey got promoted from holographic assistant to full-fledged Evil Leaper. Unlike the "whiny and needy" Alia, Zoey there to cause havoc, and she's enjoying the hell out of it. And Hinton Battle, as Thames, is a riot — at least until he gets to be too much. However, neither of them actually does anything!
Not So Good Stuff: The actual leap itself (Sam has to find out who killed an inmate) gets about five minutes of play at the beginning of the show, and then gets wrapped up almost as an afterthought at the end.
Renée Coleman literally spends the first two-thirds of this episode screaming and crying. Well, that is after Sam hypnotizes her into forgetting who she is and she imagines she's on top of a mountain in a flowing peasant dress. I swear, they never had any idea what to do with this character.
Sam should never kill anyone. Not under any circumstances.
Random Observations: When Alia leaps out of the episode, she's bathed in a blue light, rather than the red flash that marks the evil leapers. From that we're supposed to assume she's now on Sam's side. However, we never find out, because this was the last time we saw her.
When Thames appears and disappears, the sound effect is a blaster firing from Star Wars.
Deborah Pratt, the writer for this episode and many of the better episodes we've covered so far, was producer Donald Bellisario's wife (ex-wife by this point, actually), as well as being the voiceover artist who delivered the opening spiel before the credits every week.
Overall: It started promisingly, then went nowhere. The leap itself was incidental to the plot, Alia barely registered at all and when they finally bring in someone to actually be a bad guy, she spends the entire episode in her office wondering where Alia is. I mean, the evil leaper was a bad idea, but if you're going to have one, freaking have one. At least in "Deliver Us from Evil" Alia was actually up to something and almost killed Sam. This could have been much better, and it goes to show that two episodes were wasted on this crap. Bonsoir, Evil Leapair: 5.5 out of 10.
Goodbye Norma Jean: April 4, 1960
Writer: Richard C. Okie
The Plot: Sam leaps into Marilyn Monroe's driver four days before her death.
Good Stuff: Susan Griffiths plays Marilyn without making the huge mistake of trying to impersonate her.
Not So Good Stuff: You should know by now what an issue I have with the "famous people" episodes. And this is crammed full of them: Peter Lawford, John Huston, Clark Gable.
Random Observations: Barbara, Marilyn's new and somewhat creepy personal assistant, is played by an extremely young Liz "Captain Liberty" Vassey (CSI, The Tick).
"Green Onions" by Booker T & the MG's is used, although this episode takes place a full two years before it was released.
Sam saves Marilyn's life for now; originally in the show's timeline, she died in 1960. She would live for another two years.
Overall: There is zero characterization going on here; the best episodes of Quantum Leap were the ones that gave you a reason to root for the characters, but the only character notes this episode gives to Marilyn is that she was a real person under the persona. But at the same time, we're expected to care about her for no reason other than because she's Marilyn, and they can't have it both ways: 3 out of 10.
The Beast Within: November 6, 1972
Writer: John D'Aquino
The Plot: Sam is either a homeless Vietnam veteran living in the mountains or Bigfoot.
Good Stuff: Um...
Not So Good Stuff: Oh, good. More Vietnam.
David Tom, the kid playing Daniel, the kid who thinks Sam is Bigfoot, seriously needs Gil Gerard to jump in and land a flying scissor kick to his stomach. All the mean old adults are crushing his dreams by telling him that Bigfoot isn't real. However, we know for a fact that what he saw was Sam, so all that comes across is this petulant brat who refuses to accept reality.
Random Observations: This episode was written by John D'Aquino, who played Jimmy's brother in "Deliver Us from Evil." It's the only episode all season written by someone who's not listed as a producer.
Overall: Mediocre script. Inconsistent guest cast. Practically no Al. And a bucket full of people who were messed up in the 'Nam. And unfortunately, this is the last straightforward episode the series ever did. It's really too bad: 3 out of 10.
The Leap Between the States: September 20, 1862
Writer: Richard C. Okie
The Plot: No, that date isn't a mistake. Taking the last of the show's constraints and heaving it out the window, Sam leaps into his great-grandfather, a Union captain in the Civil War.
Good Stuff: Kate McNeil, who plays Sam's future great-grandmother, works well with Bakula; they bicker and fight in that TV flirting kind of way, yet they pull it off. And Michael D. Roberts, as Isaac, is extremely good.
I won't lie: there's a part of me that's kinda jazzed by this. Quantum Leap was really much more about nostalgia than history. I'm a big ol' history nerd, and this is the only time the show ever really pushed that button and took a look at anything more than 50 years old. And it's kinda cool that the episode starts off with a Civil War battle.
Not So Good Stuff: There's another part of me that just wants to give up. Bellisario was trying to create a time travel show about real people in relatable situations; he didn't want to go on the Time Tunnel model of appearing on the Titanic just before it sank. So he set rules in place, and the biggest rule was that Sam could not leap outside of his own lifetime. Now, theoretically, this new wrinkle (that Sam can leap into his ancestors because of similarities in their DNA; and no, I'm not totally clear on how that works, either) opened up the possibility of leaping into more exotic situations, but now there are officially no rules.
Oh noes! The obvious stick! Slavery is wrong! Thwack! Someday women will vote! Thwack!
Random Observations: Nothing I can really see. It's pretty uncomplicated.
Overall: This is excellent. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'm not crazy about the fact that they made it. But it's done extremely well. The guest cast is fantastic — possibly the best all year — and they do an amazing job with the material. If anything, it suffers from having too much material shoved into its 45 minutes, but after the run of crap we've been dealing with lately, this is a definite step in the right direction: 9.5 out of 10.
Disc five is, on the whole, garbage. The last episode is wonderful, but wait for it to show up in reruns. And "Revenge of the Evil Leaper" isn't bad, really, but it's certainly not something you should feel like you need to seek out.
Memphis Melody: July 3, 1954
Writer: Robin Jill Bernheim
The Plot: Sam is Elvis, two days before he was discovered. While helping to prevent a waitress from ruining her life with the wrong guy, Sam has to take extra care not to foul things up for Elvis.
Good Stuff: Scott Bakula is a Tony Award-nominated fixture of musical theatre and a fine guitarist in his own right. Every once in a while they'd throw him an episode like this, knowing full well he'd knock it out of the park.
John Boyd West is outstanding as Red West, Elvis' best friend. (Incidentally, John Boyd West is the actual son of Red West.)
First five minutes, Sam is up on stage singing "Dixie." Now, he's doing fine; however, he's playing it as Sam, not as Elvis, and while the audience is confused about how boring Elvis seems to be today, Al is positively disgusted with him. In fact, the Sam / Al dynamic is on this entire episode.
Not So Good Stuff: Another leap involving another famous person.
Random Observations: The ending is patently ridiculous, until I realized it was, for all intents and purposes, an Elvis movie.
Overall: This episode had so much going against it. Sam leaps into a famous person? Check. An overexposed famous person I'm not especially a fan of? Check. Written by Robin Bernheim? Check. That right there made me seriously consider skimming through it in 15 minutes and getting on with my day. Then something happened: it started to kick all kinds of ass. It's a lightweight 45 minutes. The music is excellent. And a scene in which Al is trying to teach Sam to sing "My Happiness" in a recording studio as Sam slowly realizes Al is singing "Happy Birthday" instead ranks as one of the funniest things in the entire season: 9.5 out of 10.
Mirror Image: August 8, 1953
Writer: Donald P. Bellisario
Guest starring: Bruce McGill as Al the bartender
Get ready for some serious spoilerage, people. I've got my rantin' pants on.
The Plot: In the final episode of the series, Sam leaps into the local tavern in a coal mining town on the day of his birth, and for the first time in five years, looks into the mirror and sees his own face. The people in the bar all have the faces of people Sam's met on his leaps and the names of people back at the Project. And the bartender knows more than he's telling.
Good Stuff: The scene when Sam looks in the mirror for the first time is great. He marvels at his new crow's feet, and the shock of white hair in front that hadn't been there in the first season.
I don't know if I can come up with enough superlatives to praise Bruce McGill (Animal House, MacGyver, almost every TV show and movie since the beginning of time) in his performance as Al the bartender. It's very nuanced, as he slowly goes from being a friendly neighborhood tavern owner to the man who might have the answers to all of Sam's questions.
On the whole, the guest cast is wonderful; the bar is filled with actors who had been in well-remembered episodes, and they chose very wisely. Essentially, this episode is filled with some of the best guest actors that had ever been on the show.
This episode is seriously tense.
Sam briefly returns to a leap from the second season, "M.I.A.: April 1, 1969," in which, because leaping for personal gain was seriously against the rules, he had originally not prevented Al's "widow" Beth from having him declared legally dead when he was held as a POW in Vietnam. Now, realizing that this was a terrible mistake, Sam leaps back and ensures that when Al returns to America, his wife will be waiting for him. In this, Sam puts right something that he himself had made wrong.
Not So Good Stuff: Sam is off the grid, and Al and Gushie have no means to find him. So they start to look across the 46 years they have to play with, until Al says they focus on Sam's birthday. How did he know? Just a hunch. (Oh, and because they needed to get the plot moving.) Al might as well not have even been in this episode, as he gets a grand total of about three minutes of screen time.
Random Observations: This episode came out a year before Dennis Wolfberg died of cancer. I don't know if that was affecting things, but he doesn't look well here.
Gushie makes a comment that they searched all of Sam's birthdays, up to the end of the 21st century. Which suggests that, had they ever decided to go that route, the whole "traveling within your own lifetime" includes the years you have ahead of you as well, and they could have set episodes in the future. In fact, copies of the full script with the original cliffhanger ending (more on this in a minute) exist, and that's precisely what was meant to start season six.
The Ending: What could have been one of, if not potentially the greatest episode this series ever put out, is completely undone by an ending that should not have happened. Or, at least, not the way it happened.
Here's the deal: this was not meant to be the final episode. This was intended to be the season-ending cliffhanger. Despite the fact that Quantum Leap had been on the brink of cancellation for years, the producers decided to make the episode and hope that they were picked up for a sixth season. Unfortunately, NBC did end up canceling the series, with just enough time to turn a season finale into a series finale. How did they turn it into a series finale? Did they bring Bakula and Stockwell in for some scenes that wrapped everything up?
No, they did not.
Did they give the show the proper sendoff that a network staple had coming to it?
No, they did not.
What did they do? I'm so glad you asked.
They shoved a caption on the screen at the end: "Dr. Sam Becket never returned home."
I'm going to repeat that, because it strikes me as being vaguely important: "Dr. Sam Becket never returned home."
The fuck? I get that not every story has a happy ending, and the script here actually sets that up — Sam may be subconsciously leaping himself around, with no outside influence, and as badly as he wants to go home, he's not the kind of person who can stop as long as there's anyone who needs his help. But offhandedly putting that on a title card at the very tail end with no explanation or exploration is not right. "Oh, by the way, the hero was never seen again. Later, suckers!"
At the very least, they could have spelled the main character's name correctly!
Overall: I know people who still blanch with rage when asked about this ending. My buddy Greg actually put it really well: "I understand that the show was cancelled by the network, that's still no excuse. It's not like filming a proper ending would have taken more than five minutes. 'Please stand here, Mr. Bakula. Smile at the camera. Okay, done.'" NBC did this show a huge disservice by not giving the creators enough time to do a real series finale.
Separating that from the episode itself is very difficult. This is a shame, because it's an incredible hour of television. The guest cast is topnotch, the script is superb and Scott Bakula is on top of his game. The entire thing, while not perfect, is just riveting. I'm going to give it an 8 out of 10, because it's really not the fault of the episode that the series didn't end properly.
Disc six has a whopping two episodes on it. "Memphis Melody" is a lot of goofy fun, and "Mirror Image" is positively amazing, although it rewards fans much more than casual watchers. The disc also has the entirety of the set's special features, which consist of the blueprints to build the Project set. That's it. Them's the extras. You will look at this precisely no times.
Final Verdict: Although there are good episodes sprinkled throughout the season, your best bet is to look at disc two. "Killin' Time" and "Star Light, Star Bright" are both amazing, and "Trilogy: Part One" is also very good. "Deliver Us from Evil," which introduced the phrase "evil leaper" to the English language, is also here. And truth be told, it's not a bad episode at all. Oh, the ending is totally witless, but it's pretty good before it gets there.
The producers tried. Lord knows they tried. They just about did every goofy ratings stunt they could think of to keep their show on the air, and they had more coming (the original cliffhanger ending to "Mirror Image" would have had season six opening on a futuristic space station, with Al now as a leaper in his own right trying to track down Sam), but it just wasn't enough. Despite pulling out all the stops (of the 21 episodes in this season, I count a grand total of eight that were basic, gimmick-free stories), interest in Quantum Leap simply could not be revived, and NBC pulled the plug a matter of weeks before the season was over. And while there were definitely some entertaining stories here, and I remained a fan, even in 1993 I could see it coming. Quantum Leap had been built on stories of two men helping ordinary people with relatable, if catastrophic problems, and it had long worked on that basic human level. Now, with the influx of famous people and outside antagonists actively standing against Sam, it just didn't feel the same anymore. And with that, we fade out...
A Casual TV Fan's Guide: September 11, 2008
Writer: Dan Toland
Hang on, what? Where'd that blue light come from?
I'm falling? No, wait... flying? Sure, okay...
Is that Robert Culp on the ground? Is he hollering his Reagan-era manifesto at me?
What the hell am I wearing? Red spandex? Oh, with a skirt. Very dignified. Almost as dignified, if that reflection in the passing window is anything to go by, as the huge blond afro I seem to be rocking.
Um, that building up ahead is hurtling toward me awfully fast. I, uh, I don't know how to turn. Or stop. Or steer at all, really. And this black cape keeps whipping around and covering my face, which doesn't help, either.
Yeah, I'm definitely in a red spandex costume about to smear myself all over this building.