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Quantum Leap | Making Sense of the Notorious Final Episode

Quantum Leap’s ‘Mirror Image’ brought the saga of Dr. Sam Beckett to a crushing close, but the alternate ending hints at a bigger story.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for the Quantum Leap episodes ‘M.I.A. - April 1, 1969’ (S2, Ep22), ‘The Leap Home Part 1 and 2 - November 25, 1969’ (S3, Ep1-2), and ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22). Proceed with caution.
“Sometimes, that’s the way it is, is the best explanation.”

In May 1993, the adventures of science fiction’s second most famous time-traveling doctor finally came to an end. After five seasons and 97 episodes, time ran out for TV’s Quantum Leap.

For four years, viewers followed the show’s hero, time-traveling physicist, Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) as his personality was transferred from the body of one person to another usually somewhere in the USA and usually somewhere between the 1950s to the 1980s, as the result of a time travel experiment gone wrong.

Arriving and departing amidst a blinding explosion of light and sound which bookended each episode, Sam faced an unusual challenge: he was unable to move on to his next host body until he had resolved the central dilemma of whichever character he was inhabiting that week. In other words, as the show’s opening narration put it during the later seasons, he “finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping each time that the next leap will be the leap home.”

Quantum Leap first arrived on US TV screens in March 1989. The opening episode ‘Genesis: Part 1 - September 13, 1956’ (S1, Ep1), saw Sam leaping into a US Air Force test pilot in California in 1956. It was literally a pilot episode.

Right from the start, Sam didn’t know who he was, where he was, when he was, or what was going on, and didn’t recognize his own face in the mirror. Not since the days of The Prisoner had a central character of a TV series been so confused by his surroundings. This disorientation was to a lesser extent repeated week on week as Sam’s ‘soul’ was hurled from one new bodily vessel to another. One week he would be a trapeze artist, the next a college professor, a male stripper, a photographer, a brothel keeper, a blind pianist, a second-rate horror writer, a skateboarding Viking-obsessed orthodontist (at least, in theory), or something else entirely.

Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell) in his tropical navy whites.
Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), Sam’s constant companion, in the Quantum Leap episode ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22). | NBC, 1993.

His only source of external information is Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell), a likable, cigar-chomping human observer from Sam’s own time, the then futuristic late 1990s, who appears in hologram form, providing Sam with his best guess as to Sam’s most likely mission objectives based on data from the computer apparently running the whole thing dubbed ‘Ziggy’.

The Evolution of Quantum Leap

The premise of Quantum Leap raised many questions. For one thing, if the experiment had indeed gone “a little caca” (that is to say, been a complete balls-up) what exactly was actually supposed to have happened if it had gone right? Had Sam himself launched the whole experiment and is this why he looked so exultant as he stepped into the quantum leap accelerator during the show’s title sequence? Why was Sam’s leaping fuelled by endlessly completing historical good deeds? Wouldn’t all this tinkering with history have some knock-on effect concerning the overall fate of the world? Was Ziggy the unseen computer really running things or, as was sometimes suggested within the series, was some higher power in control, perhaps ‘God’ or even Sam himself? Furthermore, where did the personalities of the people Sam occupied go when he took them over? And how did these temporarily displaced souls adjust to life when Sam was finally ejected and they returned to pick up from where he had left off? Presumably, it was very disorientating for them.

Despite these issues, by the end of the fifth season, most viewers had a good handle on what to expect from Quantum Leap. The series was basically an excellent vehicle for Sam to enjoy a different adventure somewhere different every week. Viewers had grown accustomed to seeing the limits of the formula pushed to its extremes. Sometimes Sam would be a woman, on one occasion (‘8½ Months - November 15, 1955’ – S3, Ep12), a heavily pregnant one. On another occasion, (‘The Wrong Stuff - January 24, 1961’ – S4, Ep7) he actually found himself in the body of a chimpanzee being used in the Cold War space programme. Real historical characters were playing an increasingly major role too notably Marilyn Monroe (Susan Griffiths) in ‘Goodbye Norma Jean - April 4, 1960’ (S5, Ep18) while the Season 5 opener saw Sam occupying the body of presidential assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

Quantum Leap | The Fight for ‘What Price Gloria?’
The Quantum Leap episode ‘What Price Gloria?’ could have been played for laughs, instead it became a lesson on privilege that still resonates.

One of the final episodes, ‘The Leap Between the States - September 20, 1862’ (S5, Ep20), saw Sam, for once, jumping outside the parameters of his own late 20th century lifespan completely, finding himself in one of his ancestors at the time of the 1860s American Civil War. The final season also saw the introduction of Alia (Renée Coleman) and the Evil Leapers, revealing an alternative programme dedicated to doing the exact opposite of what Sam was doing, essentially putting wrong what once went right.

But outlandish as these examples were, the final episode was something else again.

Quantum Leap | The Evil Leapers and the Plan for Season 6
Co-creator Deborah M. Pratt and writer Robin Bernheim reveal the plan for Quantum Leap Season 6 – the return of the Evil Leapers.

Through the Looking Glass of ‘Mirror Image’

From the outset of the final episode, ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22), it is clear to viewers that, even by Quantum Leap standards, something very unusual was happening. A familiar motif of the series is that while we the viewer always see Sam as the actor Scott Bakula, there would always be a moment when Sam would spot himself in the mirror and see whoever was playing host to him reflected back. Here, Sam actually sees himself in the mirror staring back at himself, exactly as we normally see him ourselves, for the first time ever.

Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula)'s reflection is visible at the back of the bar.
Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) catches sight of his own reflection in the back of the bar in the Quantum Leap episode ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22). | NBC, 1993.

Furthermore, while Sam’s adventures have only very occasionally taken him outside the period of his own lifeline, here he has arrived on August 8th 1953, at what was apparently the exact moment of his own birth.

Another strange thing is that Sam finds himself in a bar populated with characters who all seem vaguely familiar. The bartender is called ‘Al,’ for example and is played by Bruce McGill who appeared as U.S. Air Force squadron commander Dr. ‘Weird Ernie’ Ernst, in the series pilot, ‘Genesis: Part 1 - September 13, 1956’. The other Al (Dean Stockwell) is conspicuous by his absence. Another character is called ‘Gooshie’ (William Morgan Sheppard) the name of the programmer of Ziggy, the all-controlling computer. Another character is actually called ‘Ziggy’ (Richard Herd). Even more strange, he soon witnesses another character ‘leaping’: something we, the viewers, see twice every episode but which he (as he experiences leaping from his own perspective) has never seen before. What exactly is going on?

Al (Bruce McGill) listens to Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) who sits at the bar.
Al (Bruce McGill), but not as we know him, listens to Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) in the Quantum Leap episode ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22). McGill was then best known as MacGyver’s Jack Dalton. | NBC, 1993.

Sam has experienced disconcerting episodes like this before, of course. In Season 3’s opening two parter, ‘The Leap Home Part 1 and 2 - November 25, 1969’ (S3, Ep1-2), Sam leapt into his teenage self (Adam Logan) before going onto save his older brother’s (David Newsom) life in the Vietnam War. Even more dramatically, Season 4 saw Al and Sam temporarily switching places after Sam’s leaping was disrupted by a lightning strike. In the Season 2 finale ‘M.I.A. - April 1, 1969’ (S2, Ep22), meanwhile, we learn a sad truth behind Al’s notoriously eventful marital history: that his first marriage to his first love Beth (Susan Diol) only ended because Al was reported missing in action in Vietnam. Beth remarried. Had Beth known Al was alive, it is suggested Al would have enjoyed the enduring stable relationship he had sought unsuccessfully ever since.

This last incident turns out to be especially relevant as in ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’, Sam soon finds himself at a sort of cosmic crossroads. To cut a long story short, for the first time ever, Sam is given the opportunity to return home. Surprisingly, he elects not to do so, feeling that there is still something important left which he needs to do. Sam completes another mission, getting the opportunity to leap to the Vietnam War era to tell Beth that Al is still alive and will return to her one day.

Beth Calavicci (Susan Diol) brings her hand to her mouth.
Beth Calavicci (Susan Diol) learns that Al is still out there somewhere in the Quantum Leap episode ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ (S5, Ep22). Diol recently reprised her role for three episodes of the new Quantum Leap. | NBC, 1993.

A caption then appears on the screen at the end of the episode informing us that Al’s wife now never remarried, they had four daughters together and presumably enjoyed a life of eternal contentment and domestic bliss.

We are then told, crushingly in the next caption, that Sam Beckett never returned home. This is how Quantum Leap ended.

Reflecting on the Final Episode

Is this ending satisfactory or not? Nearly 30 years on, opinion remains sharply divided on the subject.

On the one hand, at the very least, the episode fulfils the bare minimum requirement of a satisfactory series ending. It does at least acknowledge the show is ending and brings it to some sort of conclusion. It was not unexpectedly cut off abruptly in mid-flow as so many series are. The ending also has an agreeably thought-provoking component to it in common, with St Elsewhere, the 1980s non-sci-fi medical series which ended in 1988 with the mind-boggling revelation that all the characters and storylines in the previous six seasons and 137 episodes had all been a fantasy constructed within the mind of a young autistic boy as he stared at a snow globe. To be fair, the ending of Quantum Leap is not as impressive a finale as that was, but it is interesting enough for us to be discussing it now, in the year 2021.

On the other hand, ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’ undeniably disappointed many. The happy ending enjoyed by Al was not shared by many Quantum Leap viewers. For one thing, as with many time travel storylines, there is a whiff of paradox about it. Throughout the series, we have come to know Al, as a man married five times with a history of womanizing and alcoholism. Surely if Al’s past personal life had been changed to the extent that he was happily married with four children, it is less likely he would have been able to devote as much time to helping Sam develop the Quantum Leap accelerator in the first place?

At another level, it is certainly not a very spectacular ending and finishing with a caption is something of an anti-climax. It is fair to say a number of previous episodes had been more dramatic.

It’s also fundamentally disappointing to learn Sam never gets home, something viewers would have to some extent been rooting for since watching the opening episode in 1989. The entire premise of the series had been based around the idea that Sam would get home someday. And he never does.

The Story Behind the Quantum Leap Finale

There was a specific reason why Quantum Leap ended the way it did. Although generally critically well received, the show had never received massive ratings and by the time Season 5 began, its future was in serious doubt.

With this in mind, series creator Donald P. Bellisario had been given an arguably impossible mission: being asked to write a series finale which could serve equally well as a set-up for Season 6 or as a definitive end to the series.

In the end, it was indeed decided to pull the plug on Quantum Leap during the broadcast of Season 5. The concluding bit of text was added afterwards in a perhaps not entirely satisfactory bid to wrap things up.

In Britain, the broadcast of the finale was delayed by one week to June 21st 1993 following the death of playwright Dennis Potter. Potter’s own final dramas, Karaoke and Cold Lazarus in which his main character Daniel Feeld (clearly heavily based on Potter himself) jumps around through time within his own life span was broadcast in the same year.

The End... or Not?

But the story doesn’t end there. In 2022, Quantum Leap returned with the show’s original creators Donald P. Bellisario and Deborah M. Pratt deeply involved. What’s more, this tale of all-new leaper Dr. Ben Song (Raymond Lee) kept the mystery of Sam Beckett’s fate firmly at its heart.

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Ahead of the new show, Quantum Leap co-creator and voice of Ziggy, Deborah M. Pratt reflects on her career in this video interview.

Even ignoring this, unfinished business remains concerning the final episode. In 2019, rough footage emerged of an alternative ending which had been made in which Al himself was encouraged to become a leaper by his wife Beth in order to save Sam. Scott Bakula has confirmed several alternative endings were shot.

Luck, Admiral Calavicci, had nothing to do with it. The two of you are so close, it makes me envious… You’ll find him.”

Ultimately, as with ‘Mirror Image - August 8, 1953’, the story of the original series can only end on a note of ambiguity, technically over but with the suggestion of more to follow in the future.

As with Sam Beckett’s own journeys through time and space, speculation about the ending of Quantum Leap seems to be destined to echo throughout eternity forever.

As Sam himself might put it: “Oh boy.”

This article was first published on January 24th, 2021, on the original Companion website. It has been updated with reference to the new series.

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