So I was looking through some of my TV show threads recently and the subject came up, what genre shows are ripe for a reboot? These threads happen sooner than I can respond, and not having anything immediately come to mind I closed the tab and went on in my ramblings. But going through my collection this morning, I came across my archive of Quantum Leap... and paused. Could it be done? Is it a thing that SHOULD be done? And would I watch it if someone did?
Quantum Leap was always an odd one for me. The conceit was that some ‘greater power’ had taken control of the Ziggy supercomputer to on-the-surface-randomly fling the haplessly unstuck Sam Beckett through our timestream to right wrongs and give a little nudge to history where history needed it most to preserve the timeline; in some instances, improving matters for everyone. Sam was often tasked with direct or ancillary tasks that influenced the outcome of events on a personal level with the people he interacted with. As a result, he was directly responsible for major carriages of justice, or directly influencing people who would have major positive impacts on the world in later years.
The show enjoyed a 5 year run and ended on a bit of an allegorical note that not everyone got. I never saw the end. I missed for the most part the whole bit about an opposing leaper working in the interests of a ‘lower power’. The whole theme of ‘God did it.’ made me somewhat uncomfortable. That discomfort was only mostly offset by the hopeful tone of the whole show. Being something of an atheist, it struck a raw nerve with me. That whole Highway to Heaven vibe that suggested mankind was unable to do good without divine intervention was frankly insulting. But I LOVE a tightly knit time travel show. And as offputting as the theist concept is, it really is a good show with some gargantuan acting and writing from all concerned.
And many who love the show would ask, very rightfully, “Why would you mess with that? What more could you do?”
So glad you asked.
The rationale for limiting the how far Sam could be sent back into the past is that he could only go back as far as he’d ever existed. Which is great if you’ve got a low budget and you have to make due with the sets you have in the studio and the props therein for more modern period pieces. I can dig that. Even if the guts of that rationale sit on the show like all the ‘greebles’ on the outside of the Millennium Falcon. But honestly, in a modern remake that wouldn’t work unless your leaper was in his 60’s or 70’s. If you needed em to be able to go as far back as 1945, that’s further back than any modern protagonist will have lived.
Now in a modern remake, you’d surely get to mine modern issues in ways the show never was able to address fully with the standards and practices departments at NBC in 1989. (And they pushed those standards pretty hard as it was.) You’d get to hit all the resonant issues of today that your viewers can understand more fully. The tumbling of the Berlin Wall. The fight for the recognition of AIDS as a threat to humanity. The Rodney King Riots. The Rise of the 1% at the expense of the 99%. The 9/11 Incident. And so on and so on, etc... But the further we go into the future, the more we lose in the past of what we can mine for good stories if your leaper is limited to their lifespan.
But if you’re not limited to the lifespan of the leaper, you can go as far back as you like. The dust bowl of the 30’s. The Roaring 20’s. The Birth of Flight. The Robber Barons of the late 19th Century. The Civil War. The Industrial Revolution. The Inception of The United States.
You could go even further still. You could go back to the signing of the Magna Carta. The Council of Nicaea. The Voyage of Eric the Red. The fall of the Library of Alexandria. But that’s not all you could do.
One thing the leaps also never really did was to range outside of the United States. There was very much a feeling of Americana to the show because the leaps therein seemed to limit themselves to our borders. Imagine if Sam had leapt to Cuba during the Missile Crisis? Nazi Germany? 21st century Baghdad? London in the 60’s? One of the Apollo Missions in Mid-Flight?
There was much to do with the leaps that was never really addressed. There may have been reasons. Budget concerns for location shoots or mattes that really no longer play a part now that you can CGI in wherever you like. Language barriers could really just be a case of handwavium. (Wait, I don’t speak German! Relax, Sam. Ziggy does.) The point is that there is more that could be done that wasn’t. And we’re in a better place to do more with the idea than was done before.
And then we get to the idea of God taking up residence in the Ziggy Supercomputer and guiding Sam throughout history. They did a good enough job at times with Sam’s being too practical minded a scientist to accept that. But eventually they seemed to roll over and start ‘having faith’ when it came to those decisions. So much so that they introduced Sam’s opposite number to represent diabolical interests.
Which is an interesting idea, but it robs us of mankind’s nobility. We’re not improving the world anymore at this point. We’re not taking a proactive hand in ‘righting what once was wrong’ in our own history, owning our mistakes and fixing them, and learning from them when we can’t. The moment the war between heaven and hell is introduced, we become mere pieces on a chessboard.
Well, it doesn’t have to be like that.
As any viewer of a show like ‘Person of Interest’ will tell you, AI doesn’t just have to be Skynet out to destroy us all. It can have its own agenda that doesn’t really stick to the idea of good or bad. And it shouldn’t have to. Television morality has grown up a LOT in the last 26 years. We as an audience know that Good Guys and Bad Guys are increasingly things of the past. Unrelatable ideals that even utopian shows like Star Trek eventually abandoned for characters more like Sisko and Janeway. The same could go for a new Quantum Leap.
What if the Ziggy AI weren’t acting on behalf of an implied supreme being, but had its own altruistic ideas it was pursuing? An AI operating today in an altruistic capacity may be thinking on a more global scale and decide to address major crises like climate change, neverending war, corruption of the political process by megacorporations, massive disinformation on the part of the press, etc, etc. It may decide that Man’s creativity is being stifled by rampant injustice and slave-like indenture to debt and spur its leaper to inspire and help people who lift mankind’s spirit and inspire mankind to loftier and more far reaching goals.
In short, if the world’s problems can be traced to mankind’s faults, then the solution isn’t destruction of mankind. (The Skynet Solution) But instead, improvement of humankind through benevolent pre-emptive temporal action.
However. Mankind has always been the most fractious and disobedient organism. (And good for them really.) It’s an ongoing trope in our fiction that we prefer to make our own destiny, and not be spoon-fed or led about by the nostrils. At what point does our leaper disagree and do his own thing? At what point does he disobey the AI that put him there for whatever reason? Is the AI capable of lying to manipulate the leaper into achieving its set goals? If he refuses, what consequences are there? And if those consequences are unacceptable, can they be fixed? (Butterfly effect?) Could the theme of a new show embrace the idea that not only does man need to learn to work with the AI, but also that the AI needs to learn to work with man?
If an antagonist is eventually needed in the form of an opposing AI, what would its goals be if not altruism? A completely self-serving one? One that carries out the will of its flawed masters? What would their goals be? Would you even want to introduce such a thing? Once an antagonist is introduced, you reduce the lofty altruistic goals of the premise to neverending damage control to prevent the fallout of the opposing faction’s temporal meddling. A time war. And we only need look at Enterprise to see how that went. (Oddly, with the same actor as the protagonist here in Quantum Leap.)
And in this regard, the leaps to far flung pasts might be relatively few. The further back you go, the more you stand a chance of annihilating your own timeline. You can’t save the Library of Alexandria or prevent the Dark Ages from happening, cos the change is too big. Your future never comes about. You’re never born and Project: Quantum Leap never happens.
The closer to the present you stay, the less chance you have of changing everything. You might go pretty far back in some regards. But honestly, you can also really only go as far back as the AI has records on to try and effect a reliable change of events. Ya can’t go back to the Battle of Troy cos no one knows what happened there. But you could go back that far for smaller more personal changes. And here’s where things get really interesting.
Some episodes may not be about fixing a point in history at all. It may be that the AI brought our Leaper to a point to learn a lesson and effect positive change in the leaper himself. Or to bring the leaper into a different frame of mind. Or to gradually bring the leaper into a new set of mores that would prepare him or her to make the decisions that LARGER changes in history could require?
(IE: Could you shoot John F. Kennedy? Could you choose to let Pearl Harbor be bombed if that’s what it takes to bring the US into WW2 and prevent Nazi Germany conquering the world? Or allow an infant Adolph Hitler/Donald Trump to live? How would you have to change so that you could do any of these things to preserve the timeline?)
And this could also meaningfully explore the idea of the bootstrap paradox, which was so recently explained so well in this season’s Doctor Who. Are you already a part of history? Have you always intervened at this point in history, or did you just begin intervening? If you are the cause of your own intervention in history, when did you first intervene if you have always intervened? When was the inception of the paradox? Could the paradox be broken in some cases? Should it? It’s up to you now. You’re the one that’s here. Is the future set? Or is there no fate? Would you have still broken the cookie dish if the Oracle hadn’t said something that caused you to spaz and break it? Whoa...
And here’s where we can go even further with the idea. Does the AI realize that it needs to change its own outlook, or have an agent in the timestream that is able to act independently? If you’re leaping from year to year in your own history, does your observer’s observation change you? Especially given that your observer is being changed by what they’re observing? Could the purpose of some episodes be to bring about necessary changes in the AI’s outlook that it could not effect itself? For that matter, would a trip to Silicon Valley in the 80’s be necessary to improve technology that went into building the AI in the first place as it approaches its operating limits?
So while these little self-improvement/evolution trips for the leaper and the AI are a little besides the point, they’re not too far astray of the hopeful, altruistic and positive tone of the show. The difference being that not only are we improving history, we’re improving ourselves as well. And there’s just enough uncertainty about what the AI may want for the world and humanity that we get dramatic interplay between it and the leaper. They may agree wholeheartedly. They may disagree violently. But they have to trust one another to get through this and become better people and make it a better world. The dramatic satisfaction of seeing the characters evolve over time and come into their own ability and maturity on such a grand scale would be amazing.
Dramatically, thematically, con temporally, technologically, the idea of a rebooted Quantum Leap is kind of a gimme, but it’s a tricky gimme. Stray but an inch from the positive thrust of the show, and the quest will fail.
But we’ve arrived in respect to the ability to redo a show like this. The audience is a more mature and savvy bunch for such a heady concept nowadays. They’ll get it in all the ways they never quite did in 1989. We can do so much more than we ever could. We can explore aspects of humanity, its cultures, philosophies, flaws and exemplars that we never could before. We don’t have to be coy. We can go at it full-on and ask the questions that drove the show. “How can we improve? What would we have done differently? With the ability to make changes, would you, or should you? And if you should or shouldn’t, whose decision is that to make?”
I could get behind a reboot of this done right. If done right, it could be a powerhouse for new and old talent to appear in. With the proper budget, it could be the new show that EVERYONE wants to guest star in. (See: Star Trek, Hannibal, Etc...) You’d have to make sure you got the right leading man or woman for your leaper. And for the person speaking for the AI. Or the person playing the AI’s interface in the holographic chamber themselves. The acting ability of our lead to assume any role they’re literally thrust into from episode to episode will make or break the show just as much as Scott Bakula’s did back in the day. But just as important nowadays would be the ability of those he or she is working with in an ongoing capacity to build and evolve their screen presence and relationships meaningfully.
Because the show, ultimately, is about us. And our desire to be better than we are. It’s about what we think and feel when we imagine what we could be, and what could’ve been. If only we could make the leap.