Quantum Leap’s returning first season harnesses the best science fiction writing this year

Review by C.J. Bunce

With this week’s first season finale of the return of Quantum Leap, we can now add a third series to the list of Donald P. Bellisario series that have locked in successful reboots.  First Battlestar Galactica, then Magnum, p.i.  It should have been no surprise that a Quantum Leap sequel, even after nearly 30 years, could equal the original.  Although the first few episodes were focused on new viewers and getting them used to the rules of Leaping, after the first six the series was in full stride.  But those episodes didn’t compare to the back half of the season’s 18 episodes.  And it’s practically a miracle, considering the season had as many writers and directors as episodes.  You can do that when each episode gets a different setting, as Scott Bakula, Dean Stockwell & Co. already proved.  But more impressive than each week’s new wrong to make right was the throughline–giving us what the original series didn’t: a team of scientists back in the present trying to get the Leaper home.  If you watched the entire season, you witnessed the year’s best science fiction writing so far.

Fandoms get nervous with reboots.  It’s understandable.  But a good franchise with a good story foundation should be able to withstand changes.  If it’s done right, fans will follow, and you’ll pick up new fans.  Part of the the difficulty for this reboot was starting at the beginning of this new story instead of delving in at the middle, which may have sucked more old fans in quicker.  This Quantum Leap competes against Star Wars and Star Trek, which have movie level special effects.  Although the quantum accelerator has all the bells and whistles, most of the series’ window dressing is Bones meets Castle.  

Dean Stockwell passed away and Scott Bakula wouldn’t join the series, so what do you do?  They either skip it or give it the old college try.  So they dug into old episodes and found Magic, an original series “leap host,” played now by ex-Ghostbuster Ernie Hudson, who is the anchor for the show, bringing the necessary fandom credibility.  The other big hook is incorporating the daughter of Dean Stockwell’s Al Calavicci, played by Georgina Reilly (Murdoch Mysteries).  Janis Calavicci could have been just a gimmick.  Instead she’s integral to the long-play of the show.  Is she doing good or is she doing bad?

But the stars are Top Gun: Maverick and Prodigal Son actor Raymond Lee as Dr. Ben Song, and new TV actress Caitlin Bassett as the modern Chuck Yeager and former Army intelligence officer Addison Augustine, the woman who was supposed to be the next Leaper.  Lee is completely likeable as the Sam Beckett-like fish out of water trying to find his way back into the bowl each week.  Bassett’s real-life military background brings authenticity to her character.  They don’t have instant chemistry, and luckily the early episodes don’t require it.  But by the last episode, viewers will be believers.

The writers have been carefully crafting a story that isn’t merely a typical reboot.  Interwoven in the fabric of this science fiction story are all kinds of throwbacks to the 1989-1993 show, which is possibly the greatest time travel series ever to hit the small screen, and certainly a Top 10 series for the genre.  Set 30 years after Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett first stepped into the quantum accelerator and vanished, the new series begins with Ben arriving in the past, stuck just like Beckett, and ends with the possibility that the series may move beyond a repeat of the past cycle of storytelling.  It has some of the beats of Michael Piller’s The Dead Zone series–another great sci-fi show.

The series could have continued as an anthology of “leaps of the week” like the original.  But it doesn’t.  For half of each episode viewers at last get to learn the other side of the project, which was mostly veiled in the original.  The point of this series is the same: Help the leaper find his way home.  And that retrieval effort is often more compelling than the trademark body swap of the past.  Allison and Magic work with key members of the secret Quantum Leap project.  The technical brains behind the project is Dr. Ian Wright, played by Mason Alexander Park, who sci-fi fans already know from Cowboy Bebop as well as The Sandman.  Park plays Wright like a futuristic wizard–they have a unique style that evokes Michael Sheen’s suave and flashy showman in Tron: Legacy.  Also on the team is Nanrisa Lee (Star Trek: Picard) as ex-cyber con turned project security expert Jenn Chou.  Each member of the team has their own secrets, and unlike the original, more than one character gets to help the Leaper as the hologram.  And the writers didn’t forget Ziggy, the know-it-all computer from the original, we now know as “A.I.”  This series even made Ziggy bigger and better.

As I noted here at borg in my review after only six episodes, everything you’d expect from the original is here, and more.  The rules are the same, but they are interpreted differently.  And when they seem to be changing the rules, the writers use science to explain why the change is now required.  The transition from the first five seasons and the new sixth season–soon to be seventh–is practically seamless.  Sure, it would be incredible if Bakula returns for Season 7 next year, even for a cameo.  But even if he doesn’t this show proved already it can do just fine.  Plus, it boasts a strong Asian American lead and a strong woman lead, and the last two episodes should be on your “best of the year” list.  And unlike shows on streaming platforms, with their eight-episode seasons, this network gem boasts a full eighteen hours of entertainment.

Don’t let this series pass you by.  Catch up with all 18 episodes of the new Quantum Leap now, streaming on Peacock, as well as the original first five seasons.  It’s all great science fiction televison.

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