Ben Song and his new fiancée (and colleague) Addison Augustine are hosting a party to celebrate their news, their vast apartment hosting friends and some key fellow workers. Only some of the gathered are aware that Ben and Addison are part of a top-secret initiative to revive the ‘Quantum Leap’ project that ran in the 1990s and from which Doctor Sam Bewckett disappeared into the time-stream. There’s a limited knowledge that the AWOL physicist somehow had to put right what once went wrong, but whatever the truth he’s still missing after thirty years.
The project is doing well, but is far from completion, even with the latest AI computer version of Ziggy trying to join the dots. But when Ben gets a text from a mysterious woman, he makes his excuses and leaves, heading back to the project and starting the Accelerator to whisk him back in time.
His team are determined to bring him home, but when it becomes clear that Ben made the Leap willingly and that he seems to have sabotaged the surveillance and changed the computer code, there’s also a sense of confusion and even betrayal.
But with Ben now back in 1986 with a Swiss-cheesed memory, he’s hardly a help when looking for answers. Now Addison must act as his hologram overseer and advise him on what his Leap must entail… and hoping that it will succeed so that his next leap… will be the Leap home…
For a long time many Quantum Leap fans wanted some sort of sequel series to the classic sf show. The enigmatic ‘final’ episode of the original run apparently left Doctor Sam Beckett more in charge of his ‘leaps’ but facing bigger challenges as he leapt around the time-stream trying ‘to put right what once went wrong…‘. With the idea of a sixth season being formally halted, the final moments of the Season Five finale decided to replace scenes of Al (Dean Stockwell) and his wife planning a new strategy to follow Sam with a simple screen-card reading ‘Sam Becket never leaped home…’ The rather downbeat message (and the wrong spelling of their own lead-character’s surname) led many to be frustrated with the vague lack of closure.
But sf fans walk a fine-line between being passionate about sequels and reboots to being very cautious about those sequels and reboots. Every such attempt to emulate the heights of success brings the possibility of tarnishing the original’s memory and the accusation of networks being opportunistic for a known IP rather just genuinely, creatively nostalgic.
When the rumours of a reboot surfaced last year, many fans were skeptical it would even happen. It was somewhat understandable: those rumours were nothing new and there were still the usual uncertainties about rights and formats. It was highly likely that, once again, nothing would come of it. But it did… and it soon became clear that, this time, there was real momentum behind it at NBC.
The show, we were told, would not be a wholesale reboot but would involve a contemporary 2022-based team trying to find out what went wrong with the original Project and that would involve another character getting caught up in the Leaps. The QL lead would now be Doctor Ben Song played by Raymond Lee (Top Gun: Maverick and Kevin Can F**k Himself)
However, events over the last few months still left fans uneasy. First came the news that Bakula, though perhaps involved in some capacity, wasn’t going to be back as Sam. Bakula was already attached to a western show pilot called Unbroken (which ultimately didn’t go forward). Then came the confusing news that the premiere episode had been shifted and the story for the third episode would now take its place. Such re-sequencing was definitely a head-scratcher on the narrative structure and a double-edged sword for shows like Firefly (infamously manhandled by FOX). It didn’t bode well for a ‘mapped out’ continuity: it seemed unlikely you could have the start of a quest and then move it around out of order, even if tweaking it to fit. Then last week came a very carefully worded statement (via Instagram) from Bakula himself that put a full-stop on those of us who felt NBC might be sneaking Bakula into the mix as a surprise:
“In January, the pilot was sold and a script was sent to me because the character of Sam Beckett was in it, which makes sense, right? As so many of you have been asking me the last several months, ‘How could you do QL without Sam?'(or Al, for that matter) Well, I guess we’re about to find out. That’s the story. As the show has always been near and dear to my heart, it was a very difficult decision to pass on the project, a decision that has upset and confused so many fans of the original series. However, the idea of anyone ‘leaping’ around in time and walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, remains a very appealing concept and so worthy of exploration, especially given the current state of mankind. In that spirit, I am crossing my fingers that this new cast and crew are lucky enough to tap into the magic that propelled the original Quantum Leap into the hearts and minds of generations past and present. I wish them good luck and happy leaping!”
While certainly polite and gracious, the statement also hinted that Bakula felt Sam Beckett was – understandably – an obvious component of the concept and he had decided to pass on it for an unspecified reason… it was a ‘good luck and best wishes‘ message that was benevolent but fell a little short of a wholesale ringing endorsement.
But the ultimate verdict can only be given after the viewing. With nostalgia being literally up for grabs… what is the result?
There’s a mixture of good news and less good news from viewing the first episode. Let’s get the iffy factors out of the way – but there’s quite a few. As of the pilot screening on Monday night, there’s no signature blue-flash as Ben leaps in to a new body (only, inexplicably, on the way out) and there’s not a single note of that memorable theme tune – though that may arrive for the second episode? Those could be described as nostalgic touchstones that the series could possibly live without (unwisely or not) – but… and this is a BIG headscratcher… there doesn’t seem to be a ‘Waiting Room’ (the place in the Project where the person who Sam would Leap into would find themselves during his mission). If there had been this first mission would have gone far more easily but the show’s producers have confirmed that that element isn’t part of the reboot… which then really does alter the whole premise of a show that’s already having to pick and choose elements that are sacred and those that are to be tweaked or discarded. There are the ‘mirror-reveals’, the ‘swiss-cheesed’ memory and requisite factors needed to complicate Ben’s missions.
The VFX are strangely unimpressive for such a high-profile show. There are some blatant examples (including within the Project, in car journeys and an explosion) where the green-screen backgrounds and added-elements are noticeably applied post-production (something that hobbles a supposedly cutting-edge show) and moments where some too-obvious ADR (perhaps altering the dialogue because of the episode’s shift in sequence) seep through. Sam Beckett does appear as a name-checked character but his face only seen in a holographic projection and it’s annoyingly just a repurposed well-known publicity shot from the ’90s run.
Let’s get to the grit. Quantum Leap was not just a high-concept sf show able to turn its episodic tone on a dime, it was also a buddy-show driven by the lightning-in-a-bottle charismatic chemistry of Bakula and Stockwell.
Raymond Lee as Ben gives an Asian actor the lead role in a primetime show (something rarer than it should be when even Hawaii Five-O couldn’t manage) and he gives an engaging-enough performance, mixing a generally nice-guy persona with the fact that there’s something about the character that has made it possible for him to deceive his nearest and dearest before he even sets foot in the Accelerator. As a series lead he’ll likely be fine, but it will be up to the writing to give him material that stretches him and the concept beyond the obvious to make us like him rather than ponder his intentions.
Caitlin Bassett essays Addison Augustine, our modern equivalent to Al and whom the audience know is also Ben’s fiancée (something Ben forgets during his first Leap). She’s far straighter-laced than Calavacci but provides the grounding Ben needs on his Leaps. It will be interesting to see if the chemistry builds up with Ben over the coming weeks but this is an entirely different status-quo where Addison is actively concealing their true relationship and where we find out Ben has likely been deceiving her about something important for some time and made the active decision to usurp her Leaper-to-be status. Those are pretty significant issues.
With a couple of occasional exceptions there were no other regulars in the original run and yet here NBC goes with a more modern glossy ensemble formula that’s a given for primetime shows now…giving us a whole raft of supporting players back at the Project that are given almost equal time.
There’s also a bullet-list of diversity in that supporting cast – including non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park (most recently seen as Desire in Netflix‘s The Sandman) as Ian Wright, one of the lead-programmers of the new Ziggy, Nanrisa Lee as Jen Chou, head of security and Herbert ‘Magic’ Williams essayed by ex-Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson… and all of them spouting a mountain of incredibly unconvincing and awkward exposition that distracts rather than informs. Magic is, at least, directly related to the original show – the Vsoldier that Sam saved during classic ep The Leap Home: Part II – Vietnam and one suspects that will be further explored in the weeks to come. Deborah Pratt will apparently continue to voice Ziggy, but so far only in the opening narration.
One early fan theory about any continuation of the QL story was that Sam’s daughter – fathered during one of his more epic-leaps would be the key to the future of the project (she was known to work there in the altered future), but that doesn’t seem to be the case… however a last minute surprise reveal suggests Al’s daughter Janice (Georgina Reilly) is to become a significant factor in the series and directly linked to Ben’s sudden decision to Leap (for which he leaves Addison a ‘just in case’ video which indicates some foreknowledge of what may happen). The show’s Powers That Be have said that Dean Stockwell (to whom this new pilot is dedicated) was alive when the series first started moving forward and they’d wanted some direct link to Al. That’s fine, but one is still left with questions about where Sam’s biological daughter Sammy Jo (Kimberly Cullum) and wife (Donna,played by Mimi Kuzyk) who presumably are still alive (and at least had high-security clearance) are now? Again, that’s the problem with generational legacy shows – some things have to change or be ignored (QL’s future 1999 setting has come and gone) but there’s always a counterbalance of entirely fair ‘butwhatabout?’ to choose from that trips up some internal logic. Time-travel alterations, however, are a great ‘out’ for continuity fault-lines!
As a pilot unto itself, July 13th, 1985 is….journeyman (not a reference to another late, lamented, but briefer time-travel show unless you’d like it to be). The plot doesn’t make a lick of sense when you stop to evaluate it which might explain why so many instant reviews of the episode have bypassed it to talk about the whys and wisdom of a reboot (guilty as charged, I’m afraid!). Strip away the references (it’s Live Aid weekend, folks!), the requisite music soundtrack of the era and general fashions of the 80s and the story is hardly fully-formed. The idea of multiple raids during the day’s distractions is pretty flimsy, the gang’s plans don’t seem very detailed and the bad-guys get cursary character-traits that are never expanded beyond the type we’d actually see in 1980s primetime slots, they suggest that one version of the script probably filled them out far better. On top of that the ne-er-do-wells and crime-boss get away with everything and disappear into the night with barely a backwards glance (will they somehow be back at some point?). Even the de facto ‘good cause’ of the story, the Leap’s a mission to help a petty crook only taking part in the scheme to get money for his family’s chemotherapy (but who originally got killed for his troubles) feels so trite that I initially couldn’t remember a single 1986 character’s name. (For the record, Dax Campbell plays Nick Rounder, the hijacked body and Michael Welch plays Ryan who needs his fate altered). Again, the lack of the ‘Waiting Room’ also makes the undercover-cop revelation far too convenient.
Blindspot‘s Martin Gero took over as Quantum Leap showrunner after production started and that may change certain aspects, but you still have an original show that always thrived on its plot-of-the-week now putting a considerable amount of effort into an episodic mystery format that requires less-earned loyalty and which the original left well-alone (allowing the audience to factor in their own ‘guiding hand’). Bringing Ben home by an eventual series-finale may be do-able… but if one of the main arcs was always to bring Sam Beckett home, then Bakula seems to have scuppered one of the key support beams.
There’s a half-decent show in here which may well improve as we go forward and enough to keep me watching out of fealty to the nostalgia that it relies too heavily upon, but beyond this opening salvo there are immediate things to put right that are already going wrong. Neither ‘Oh Boy!‘ nor ‘Oh, Shit!‘, but ‘Oh, well…’ this isn’t so much a Leap forward as a nostalgic echo marking time… Quantum Leap has a past – does it have a future?
The clock’s ticking.
- Production Design / VFX7