This week in Sci-Fi Time Capsule, a poignant episode of Quantum Leap: “M.I.A,” from the Season 2 finale (Episode 20). A lot of Sam Beckett’s adventures involve deeply personal problems for the person he jumps into, but this time it hits a little closer to home than usual.
(WARNING: Spoilers begin below)
“Theorising that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished… He woke 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…”
“M.I.A.” starts when Sam finds himself in the body of a crossdressing undercover cop on a stakeout. Sam freezes up when two thugs draw guns, and has just enough presence of mind to dive for cover. His partner cautions him that: “If a man’s lucky, he gets to freeze up once in his life and live to talk about it. Not twice.” Then he goes on to tell an anecdote about freezing up in combat himself. But that’s not really important in this one.
Al tells Sam that he’s there to help a woman named Beth, who’s going to make a mistake that will ruin her life: giving up on her M.I.A. navy pilot husband and remarrying. Sam thinks something is fishy, but Al convinces him to go along with his plan to stop Beth from meeting the man she would marry.
Oh heck, anyone with an iota of dramatic sense has figured out by this point that it’s Al’s wife, and the M.I.A. navy pilot husband is Al. Sam doesn’t put the pieces together though until he sees a picture of Al on Beth’s mantle. Sam confronts Al and he confesses. They get back on the real reason for Sam’s leap: saving his partner’s life when he freezes up for the second time in his life.
When Sam doesn’t immediately leap, he suggests that perhaps Al should go see his ex wife. As a hologram, Al can’t talk to or touch her, but he finds her dancing alone, reminiscing, and dances beside her.
Why Is This a Classic?
“Physician, heal thyself.”
While Sam and Al devote all their efforts to taking care of other people’s problems, Al finally decides to try his hand at fixing his own life. It’s against their rules, but Al wants to at least take a shot at getting back the only woman he ever loved. His heartbreaking failure plays on a key element of fatalism that pervades Quantum Leap. If it’s not what Sam was there to fix, it can’t be changed.
There are two main schools of thought with time travel in sci-fi. One says that history is a river and a time traveler just a drop of water, unable to change the flow in any noticeable way. The other cautions that even the slightest change to the timeline can cause drastic changes to the present (future?), and worries about paradoxes that destroy the universe. Quantum Leap walks a line between them, where only certain specific events can be changed, which Sam was sent to put right.
“Oh Boy …” (Sam’s reaction to this leap…and just about every other one)
As mentioned above, Jake’s partner gave a nice quote about freezing up, which he then violates at the end.
How it Holds Up
Quantum Leap isn’t a show that relies heavily on special effects. The Al hologram stuff is a little hokey, but it’s not a major distraction. The themes and heart of the episode are timeless. Even if you don’t know who Al is, the pain of his loss would sucker punch you. Spending 8 years as a P.O.W. only to come home to find the only woman you ever loved had moved on? Ouch.