Quantum Leap and Non-Productive Non-Productivity

In the old days, before cellphones, people had nothing to do while standing in bank lines or walking into oncoming traffic. We only had two options, "paying attention" or "day dreaming," both of which are essential skills for a writer, although I have always been partial to the latter.

A normally-wired human might see these as the "productive" and "non-productive" choices (where "productive" equals "not run over by a car") but a writer knows better. A writer weaponizes "non-productivity" to generate food and shelter and hate mail. There is an awful lot of brainstorming, writing, and revising that can happen in one's head. This is what we call "productive non-productivity."

But if there is "productive non-productivity," there must also be "non-productive non-productivity," and I enjoy this too. Daydreaming too much about stories that aren't going to go anywhere. That are never going to pay your rent or buy you a cheeseburger. But maybe, maybe, maybe this kind of daydreaming can be turned to productive ends too. "Productive non-productive non-productivity."

That is today's rabbit hole. And/or an excuse to talk about the TV show Quantum Leap and reboots in this era of peak TV. Let's jump in.

Quantum Leap was a really great show, and the fact that it went off the air 24 years ago reminds me how amazingly old I am how the recent past can seem so unfathomably long ago to young people. I grew up in the 80s, at a time when the early 60s were as far away as the early 90s are now. From the Beatles to Doctor Who, the 60s were black and white to me (and British, I guess), ancient and alien.

I tend to think of things from the early 90s as still being contemporary, whether it's music or television or color itself, but that's probably just a trick of my age. I'm sure that young people look back to that era of standard definition and no internet as just as alien. Time is really subjective that way.

Quantum Leap! For the uninitiated: "Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator - and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that his next leap... will be the leap home." Quoted from the pre-credits preamble that every 90s sci-fi show seemed to think it needed.

Quantum Leap is one of the all-time great time travel shows. If you haven't watched it, you should, although in this age of streaming, it's hard to find all of the episodes, as some featured a lot of period music that they've since had trouble clearing the rights to.

The central conceit is that Doctor Sam Beckett has figured out a way to travel back in time that's basically body swapping with someone from the past, generally someone who's in some kind of trouble or just needs Sam's help to kick their life in the right direction. And as soon as he "fixed" things (usually right at the end of the episode) he'd swap to someone else's body. And, yes, that meant that the person from the past was always sitting in a locked room in the Sam's present day, confused about what was happening. The show tried not to talk about that too much.

Like other time travel shows, Quantum Leap is extremely well-suited to the sort of episodic television that was prevalent in its era. Each episode was set somewhere new, somewhen new, with Sam essentially becoming someone new. But there were threads that played out across the season:

One was the Gilligan's Island problem. (To muddy the discussion with an even older television show.) This is to say, everyone was very concerned with how to get Sam home, but of course if that ever happened, the series would end. Of course, the series did end, so maybe they succeeded eventually? I won't spoil that here.

The second and more profound thread the series explored was the question of who or what controlled Sam's "leaps." How was it that he was always in the right place and the right date? A question that is also dealt with by the end of the series.

Another interesting conceit of the show was the "within his own lifetime" part. That didn't just mean "Sam thought he could invent time travel before he died." It literally meant that he couldn't travel further back in time than his birth in 1953 or further forward than the show's present. (In true late 80s/early 90s style, the crazy future world where someone finally invented time travel was 1995.)

This wasn't just a helpful storytelling constraint. It was really the mission statement of the show, exploring four decades of (mostly) American life and social upheaval. And this was a family show, something parents and kids would watch together (as I can attest). As a kid, this was a show that ranged from the recent, recognizable past into those ancient/alien days I talked about before. For my parents, though, it was all a blink of an eye ago. As contemporary to them, as Quantum Leap still is to me. Time is really very subjective.

And one final thing worth calling out about Quantum Leap is that there are two main characters. Sam and also his friend Al, who appears to him as a hologram projected back in time, and is his link to the present day and the team of scientists who are theoretically working to bring him home. Sam is a renaissance man. A scientist, who's also a really kind, decent guy, and a badass when he needs to be. Al is no scientist. He's a military guy, a bit of a horndog, but with layers underneath that the series devotes significant time to exploring. As the only two regulars on the show, the dynamic of their friendship is key to the show's success.

Okay, so that's a lot I just unpacked, and I haven't even started on "Evil Leapers." The question of the day is "How would I do Quantum Leap for today's audience?" The sort of question that I spend my unproductive unproductive time on. So let's ask the question, and then we can talk about whether there's anything productive that can come from such an enterprise.

To be clear, I see no universe in which I will be in a position to pitch a continuation or reboot of Quantum Leap. But if I were, I would definitely go reboot. Don't get me wrong, I suspect that there are many people (including the original series creator) who could dust off the old format and bring back Quantum Leap with original star Scott Bakula and do a successful X-Files-style continuation. But "more of the same" is an awfully short trip for an entire train of thought.

So reboots. Some people hate reboots, but I think that revisiting an idea from another angle, looking for ways to capitalize on unrealized notions, leaning into strengths, and learning from mistakes are all important skills for writers. And if you can't necessarily make something better, you can at least make something that's different and interesting. Or not. But, yeah, reboots.

And all that aside, there is one major, compelling reason to do a Quantum Leap reboot. And that's because we're 24 years on, a lot has happened in the world, and a lot has changed. The original show did a great job of telling the American story of the 50s through the 80s from the perspective of the late 80s and early 90s. A new show could tackle the 80s through the present day in similar fashion. AIDS and gay rights, the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of the internet, terrorism and war, Trump and the alt-right, feminism.

And that gets me to my next point of departure. In a rebooted Quantum Leap, Sam Beckett should be a woman. In the original series, Sam leaped into all types of people. People of color, people of different religions, people with disabilities, at least one instance of a person of a different sexual orientation, and sometimes women. If there's a flaw in that dynamic, it's that an able-bodied white guy has to show up and take the place of a black guy or a guy in a wheelchair or a woman in order for that story to be told, and the white guy has to be the one to fix that person's problem, and the white guy is the one, if anybody, who learns a lesson at the end.

In a rebooted Quantum Leap, at minimum, it would be best to get a woman in there, and maybe as a person of color, so that we're not reinforcing that dynamic of "only the white guy can save us." And I say that as a white guy.

What do you do with the Sam-and-Al relationship with a female Sam? I'm more ambivalent on this. You could gender flip them both, or keep Al as an older platonic friend and mentor. You could certainly go slashy, although that complicates the show in ways that are possibly not helpful. Ultimately, the thing I like best about original Al is that he's a seeming screw-up with hidden reserves of grit. That's the element I'd most want to preserve for a new show.

And now we're getting further into the weeds. Changing the time period and changing gender feel like really essential changes. But there are other changes I would make, which I think are more interesting and possibly more helpful in driving this exercise somewhere productive.

In this era of peak television, there's really been a push against episodic formats. Except for series that are true anthologies like Black Mirror, you're seeing more effort to focus on character growth and extend plotlines across whole seasons and beyond. You see this in popular sci-fi series like Game of Thrones and Cowboy Game of Thrones Westworld, in the latest Star Trek series, and even in episodic stalwarts like Doctor Who. For a show like Quantum Leap, is there any room to break away from a strict episodic format, and if so, would there be any value in it?

As I mentioned up above (so, so far above) there were a couple of elements of very, very light serialization in the original Quantum Leap: the effort to bring Sam home, and the question of who or what controls the leaps. Those are very interesting questions (to me, at least!) that were rarely, barely touched on in the original show. Maybe there's a way to tackle them more directly.

The solution is probably heresy, but I would break the format and treat the team of scientists in the "present" (whatever year that is, exactly) as series regulars with their own plotlines and character arcs. At the same time, I would break away from the strict one leap per episode format that the original series stuck to for most of its run. Some leaps might last one episode. But they might also span multi-episode arcs, maybe even a whole season depending on exact format. And other leaps might be condensed into a montage.

This approach deliberately trades one of the series' greatest strengths (how well it's engineered for episodic television) and opens up these new avenues for storytelling, X-Files-style mythology, and Lost/Westworld-style mysteries.

What might this look like? Well, in the Quantum Leap pilot, there's a throwaway line when Al finally arrives as a hologram in the past, where he says that it took them weeks to find him. Weeks during which they had a guy who looked like Sam in their present who swore he was someone from the past. Weeks where they had to figure out how to project a hologram through time. Weeks where they had to justify to people in power that what they were doing was important science and that they shouldn't be shut down. That's all fascinating (to me, at least!) but it's one line of dialogue in the original.

The interesting nugget there is "the pioneers of time travel." Figuring out the rules, which in this universe are extremely idiosyncratic. This isn't Timeless (a time travel show I like), with a straightforward approach to time machines. Quantum Leap has body swaps, time traveling holograms, and a mysterious guiding force. That's trippy stuff. "Pioneers of trippy time travel."

And if one is going to take non-productive non-productivity and turn it into productive non-productive non-productivity, that's how you do it. You find the nugget of something specific and interesting amid all the daydreaming and you figure out how to turn it into something you can use for your own purposes.

I once got fairly far with a comic book pitch that started out as "How would I do Star Trek for an early 2000s CBS audience?" I have notes for a project that I might get to someday that's essentially the Last Days of Krypton, but Krypton is Earth. I'm not sure that I'll ever do anything with "Pioneers of Trippy Time Travel" but these ideas sometimes crop back up when you least expect them.

And if not, hey, at least something to think about right before I get hit by that car.