Editor’s Note: TV moves on, but we haven’t. In our feature series It Still Stings, we relive emotional TV moments that we just can’t get over. You know the ones, where months, years, or even decades later, it still provokes a reaction? We’re here for you. We rant because we love. Or, once loved. And obviously, when discussing finales in particular, there will be spoilers:
Though its long-tail cultural legacy might lead you to believe NBC’s 1990s sci-fi drama Quantum Leap was a breakout hit, the truth is a bit more complicated. The show, which starred Scott Bakula as a time traveling scientist and Dean Stockwell as his trusty holographic best friend, was modestly successful during its five season run—but never an outright smash.
It’s that precarious position that led to one of the most controversial, debated, beloved, and hated series finales in TV history, as the creators scrambled to wrap up the story following an abrupt cancellation decision, which then led to an infamous typo that has become the stuff of classic TV lore in the decades since.
With NBC reviving the concept with a legacy sequel series set 30 years after the end of the original, it felt like a good time to look back on Quantum Leap (1989) and how it came to an end.
Quantum Leap ran for 93 episodes, telling largely self-contained stories across history with Dr. Sam Beckett (Bakula) jumping into the body of another person to make a change, and leaving history in better shape than he found it. The relatively simple concept proved to be the show’s greatest appeal, and the lens of science fiction allowed it to tell some truly progressive stories for the early 90s, with a “fish out of water” hero built right into the fabric of the concept. Science fiction was the jumping off point, but Quantum Leap told human stories that (despite being a sci-fi show) were almost always rooted in the past. A sci-fi period piece, if you will.
Though the show’s bread and butter was its stories of the week, it did have some longer narrative lore it built up over the years, most notably the lingering question of exactly who (or what) is leading Sam to do all this leaping across the time stream in the first place. Those questions came to a head in the final episode of the show’s fifth season, “Mirror Image,” which would also serve as the show’s series finale. The story found Sam leaping into a mysterious mining town at the exact moment of his own birth on August 8, 1953.
It’s an episode loaded with Easter eggs from prior leaps and experiences, as well as personal anecdotes from series creator Donald P. Bellisario, drawing references to memories and places from Bellisario’s own childhood. Sam walks into a bar and meets a mysterious bartender named Al (played by Bruce McGill), who may or may not be God himself. He even crosses paths with other strangers who might also be leaping through history themselves, though like most lore-heavy Quantum Leap episodes, it’s much heavier on questions than answers.
After Sam explored this mysterious coal town and chatted with the bartender, Sam comes to realize that he is controlling the leaps himself, supposedly subconsciously. So the reason he’s never been able to leap home is presumably because he’s been subconsciously choosing to stay lost in the time stream, setting right the wrongs of history. He may want to come home, but the good intentions inside of him know there’s still work to be done and will not let him end the adventure yet.
Sam also gains some invaluable new abilities in the finale, learning how to control his leaps by choosing where to go, and also leaping as himself (instead of into the bodies of other people). He uses this new skill to set right one of his greatest regrets, intervening in Al’s past to change history, letting Al’s wife Beth know that her husband will eventually return home from war, and urges her to not give up hope and wait for him. We’re told in a final title card that Sam’s change worked, and Al and Beth reunite and live out their days together with a large family.
But it’s the final, final title card that makes for the snow’s abrupt ending coda, where we’re told “Dr. Sam Becket never returned home.” Yes, the rushed card spelled Sam’s last name wrong, but it’s the message that’s clear: Sam can control his leaps, and decides to keep leaping through time and helping people, instead of leaping his way back home. It’s a sad note to end the show, with Sam seemingly never fixing enough history—or who knows, possibly dying or becoming lost in time(!?)—to where he could feel he’d earned that final leap home.
But it’s since been well-reported that wasn’t how it was supposed to end. Leaked rough cut footage from an alternate ending to Season 5, which matched with rumored script leaks from over the years, would’ve teed up a sixth season where Al possibly steps into the imaging chamber himself to physically search for Sam in time—not as a hologram, but as a leaper. Since Sam is leaping as himself, that makes sense, as it’d have required Al physically searching to find him and reach him.
Now, would Sam and Al have reconnected and managed to find their way home had Season 6 actually happened? Who knows. It’s clear they had more story to tell, but we don’t actually know if having Sam lost to time was always the show’s endgame, or simply the only believable end they could pull together on short notice that could bring some finality to the story—while still staying true to its spirit. Regardless, the rushed typo in the card makes it clear that the show’s ending was a slapdash one born of necessity to not leave fans completely hanging.
One thing the open ending did do was leave enough story all these decades later for NBC’s Quantum Leap revival to pick up the threads, as the story is steeped into the lore of Sam and Al, with Sam still (you guessed it) having never returned home. Original star Scott Bakula hasn’t expressed much interest in reprising his role in the new show, though, so it seems Sam really might stay lost forever. Revival series or not.
Fans to this day revere and debate the Quantum Leap ending, as it’s one of the bravest and darkest finales to any sci-fi show out there. An entire series set up trying to get its hero home, only to tell us in the closing moment he’ll never actually get that reward. But were the lessons he learned along the way more important? That growth to realize his mission is what mattered, his own life and happiness be damned?
Or are we just thinking way too hard about a typo-filled title card the creators threw together to at least have some type of ending, even if it wasn’t the one they wanted?
That’s the real question. That’s Quantum Leap.
Trent Moore is a recovering print journalist, and freelance editor and writer with bylines at lots of places. He likes to find the sweet spot where pop culture crosses over with everything else. Follow him at @trentlmoore on Twitter.
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