Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

It was with great sadness last week that I read the news of Dean Stockwell’s passing. The actor had a long and varied career, but to me he will always be Admiral Al Calavicci, the holographic observer from the cult 80s/90s sci-fi show Quantum Leap. Only the other week I wrote about how I was such a big fan of this series as a teenager that my friend David Abbott and I made our own version of it.

With Scott Bakula’s time-travelling Doctor Sam Beckett very much the protagonist of the show, the intangible Al was often relegated to exposition and comic relief, both of which Stockwell handled expertly. But every now and then Al would come to the fore and really demonstrate the actor’s range and talent. In tribute to him, here are ten of Al’s best episodes across Quantum Leap‘s five seasons.

 

1. “Pilot”

When you’re familiar with Quantum Leap you know that Sam and Al’s friendship is one of the series’ few constants. No matter how “Swiss-cheesed” Sam’s memory gets, he always remembers his best buddy Al. So it’s quite strange when you go back and watch the pilot and Sam’s first leap has scrambled his memory so much that he doesn’t even recognise Al, let alone realise that he’s a holographic projection from the future. The uninitiated viewer is similarly in the dark to begin with, watching Al shouting at an unseen character named Gooshie (Project Quantum Leap’s head programmer) and then disappearing through an invisible door. Al would never be an enigma like this again, and it’s a fun way to start a classic buddy relationship.

 

2. “HoneyMoon Express”

Al and the team at Project Quantum Leap constantly monitor Sam’s time-travelling adventures from their top-secret Stallion Springs, New Mexico base in the future. For the most part this all happens off screen, but the Season Two opener “Honeymoon Express” is one of the few occasions when we get a glimpse behind the curtain. The US Senate is threatening to withdraw the Project’s funding, so Al must attend a hearing to justify the continued expense of staying in touch with Sam. Resplendent in his dress uniform, Admiral Calavicci argues passionately on behalf of his friend, though the funding is ultimately secured when Sam changes history and a new senator is suddenly in charge.

 

3. “Jimmy”

Prejudice versus tolerance is a recurring theme in Quantum Leap, appropriately enough for a show about walking a mile in another man’s shoes. The classic episode “Jimmy” tackles this theme head-on as Sam leaps into the body of a man with learning difficulties. Al pressures Sam not to screw up his mission, which is to ensure that Jimmy holds down a job so that he doesn’t die in a state home. Eventually it comes out that Al’s beloved younger sister Trudy had Down’s Syndrome and died in an institution at the age of 16, hence the hologram’s desperation to stop the same happening to Jimmy.

 

4. “M.I.A.”

Al’s most heart-wrenching episode is the Season Two finale. His first wife, Beth, remarried while Al was a missing, presumed dead POW in Vietnam. Al never got over losing the love of his life, and a string of failed marriages followed. In “M.I.A.” Sam meets Beth during the Vietnam War and has the chance to tell her that her husband is still alive – a chance he refuses to take, on the grounds that time travel should not be used for personal gain. Al is understandably upset with Sam, a rare case of serious friction between the two friends. The episode ends with an incredibly moving scene – very reminiscent of the movie Ghost, although Quantum Leap did it first – as the holographic Al dances to Ray Charles’ “Georgia” with the unknowing Beth.

 

5. “The Leap Home, Part II: Vietnam”

The hypocritical Sam spends the opening two-parter of Season Three trying to change his own family’s past for the better, first at his childhood home in Indiana, then in the jungles of Vietnam alongside his older brother Tom. Out of respect for his fellow soldiers, Al spends the episode in his dress uniform again, spotlessly white amidst the mud and greenery. At one point in the story, a war photographer snaps a band of American POWs being led away by the Viet Cong. The episode’s final scene shows us that photo, revealing that one of the prisoners is none other than a young Al. Stockwell was nominated for an Emmy for this episode (having won a Golden Globe for the series the previous year).

 

6. “The Leap Back”

This is my all-time favourite episode of Quantum Leap, because after three years we finally got to visit the Project in the future and meet Al’s colleagues who have been helping Sam behind the scenes all this time, including the supercomputer Ziggy. The reason is that Sam has been catapulted into the holographic imaging chamber in place of Al, who has quantum-leaped. The story is really about Sam and how he deals with being reunited with his wife Donna (whose existence Al has been keeping from his Swiss-cheesed friend), but that’s intercut with hilarious scenes in which Al gets to experience for himself how difficult it is to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – including having his own memory Swiss-cheesed. Perhaps a little cruelly, Sam revels in being a hologram and giving unhelpful advice while his buddy is floundering, but Dr Beckett soon sees the serious side of the Observer’s job when he must helplessly watch his friend in danger.

 

7. “Running for Honor”

Another episode that confronts prejudice, “Running for Honnor” was extremely controversial for American television at the time (1992) as it portrayed homosexuality in the military. In fact, some advertisers threatened to pull out when they learnt of the content. Their narrow-mindedness was shared by Al, who is openly homophobic until the ever-tolerant Sam teaches him the error of his ways. Quantum Leap‘s regulars rarely got to have their own character arcs, so it’s nice to see Al go through a process of change in this episode.

 

8. “A Leap for Lisa”

After dancing close to Al’s past life in both “M.I.A.” and “The Leap Home, Part II”, the Season Four finale goes all out and has Sam actually leap into his buddy in 1957. At this time, Al is a young ensign falsely accused of murder by a naval court, an accusation Al easily refuted before Sam accidentally changes history. Now the odds of Al being executed for the crime are rising, finally reaching 100%, at which point old Al is spontaneously replaced by a different hologram. Stuffy and English, Edward St John V couldn’t be more different from his cigar-chomping, womanising, wise-cracking counterpart. Needless to say, Sam saves the day and Al is restored. Elsewhere in the episode, Admiral Calavicci is forced to emotionally relive the death of his girlfriend Lisa Sherman.

 

9. “Killin’ Time”

By Season Five, scenes taking place in the future at Project Quantum Leap were more common, and this episode has them in spades. Sam has leapt into a serial killer, and like all of Sam’s “leapees”, the criminal is temporarily displaced into the Project’s Waiting Room. When he get holds of a gun and escapes to a nearby city, Al must track him down and bring him back. Apart from his brief experience as a leaper in “The Leap Back”, this is the only time we get to see Al in the role of action hero.

 

10. “Dr. Ruth”

The Waiting Room again plays a key role as it hosts Sam’s latest leapee, celebrity sex therapist Dr Ruth Westheimer. While Sam works to fix the tumultuous relationship of two of Ruth’s colleagues, Al takes advantage of the therapist’s presence in the future to get some advice on his own romantic woes. In fact, this turns out to be the real purpose of Sam’s leap. A highlight of Al’s therapy is when Ruth gets him to use the word “breasts”, but only after he’s hilariously avoided it with every euphemism under the sun.

Al’s 10 Best “Quantum Leap” Episodes

Mechanical TV: A Forgotten Format

Cathode ray tube televisions, those bulky, curve-screened devices we all used to have before the rise of LCD flat-screens, already seem like a distant memory. But did you know that they were not the first form of television, that John Logie Baird and his contemporaries first invented a mechanical TV system more akin to Victorian optical toys than the electronic screens that held sway for the greater part of the 20th century?

Mechanical television took several forms, but the most common type revolved, quite literally, around a German invention of 1884 called the Nipkow disc. This had a number of small holes around it, evenly spaced in a spiral pattern. In the Baird standard, developed by the Scottish inventor in the late 1920s, there were 30 holes corresponding to 30 lines of resolution in the resulting image, and the disc would revolve 12.5 times per second, which was the frame rate.

In a darkened studio, an arc light would be shone through the top portion of a spinning Nipkow disc onto the subject. The disc would create a flying spot – a spot of light that travelled horizontally across the scene (as one of the holes passed in front of the arc lamp) and then travelled horizontally across it again but now slightly lower down (as the next hole in the spiral pattern passed the lamp) and so on. For each revolution of the 30-hole disc, 30 horizontal lines of light would be scanned across the subject, one below the other.

A number of photocells would be positioned around the subject, continually converting the overall brightness of the light to a voltage. As the flying spot passed over light-coloured surfaces, more light would reflect off them and into the photocells, so a greater voltage would be produced. As the spot passed over darker objects, less light would reflect into the photocells and a smaller voltage would result. The voltage of the photocells, after amplification, would modulate a radio signal for transmission.

This picture from “Science and Invention”, November 1928, shows the radio receiver on the left and the Nipkow disc with its conical viewing shade on the right.

A viewer’s mechanical television set would consist of a radio receiver, a neon lamp and an upright Nipkow disc of a foot or two in diameter. The lamp – positioned behind the spinning disc – would fluctuate in brightness according to the radio signal.

The viewer would look through a rectangular mask fitted over the top portion of the disc. Each hole that passed in front of the neon lamp would draw a streak of horizontal (albeit slightly arcing) light across the frame, a streak varying in brightness along its length according to the continually varying brightness of the lamp. The next hole would draw a similar line just beneath it, and so on. Thanks to persistence of vision, all the lines would appear at once to the viewer, and it would be followed by 11.5 more sets of lines each second: a moving image.

A number of people were experimenting with this crude but magical technology at the same time, with Baird, the American Charles Francis Jenkins and the Japanese Kenjiro Takayanagi all giving historic public demonstrations in 1925.

The image quality was not great. For comparison, standard definition electronic TV has 576 lines and 25 frames per second in the UK, twice the temporal resolution and almost 20 times the spatial resolution of the Baird mechanical standard. The image was very dim, it was only an inch or two across, and it could only be viewed by a single person through a hood or shade extending from the rectangular mask.

The BBC began transmitting a regular mechanical TV service in 1929, by which time several stations were up and running in the USA. An early viewer, Ohio-based Murry Mercier Jr., who like many radio enthusiasts built his own mechanical TV from a kit, described one of the programmes he watched as “about 15 minutes long, consisting of block letters, from the upper left to the lower right of the screen. This was followed by a man’s head turning from left to right.” Hardly Breaking Bad.

John Logie Baird working on a mechanical TV set

Higher resolutions and larger images required larger Nipkow discs. A brighter image necessitated lenses in each of the disc’s holes to magnify the light. Baird once experimented with a disc of a staggering 8ft in diameter, fitted with lenses the size of bowling balls. One of the lenses came loose, unbalancing the whole disc and sending pieces flying across the workshop at lethal speeds.

Other methods of reproducing the image were developed, including the mirror screw, consisting of a stack of thin mirrors arranged like a spiral staircase, one “step” for each line of the image. The mirror screw produced much larger, brighter images than the Nipkow disc, but the writing was already on the wall for mechanical television.

By 1935, cathode ray tubes – still scanning their images line by line, but by magnetically deflecting an electron beam rather than with moving parts – had surpassed their mechanical counterparts in picture quality. The BBC shut down its mechanical service, pioneers like Baird focused their efforts on electronic imaging, and mechanical TV quietly disappeared.

Mechanical TV: A Forgotten Format