(art by Aireen Arellano / to view larger version, click here)
SHOW: Quantum Leap
EPISODE: “8 1/2 Months”
FIRST AIRED: Mar. 06, 1991
It’s as durable and tested as a law of physics: think about time travel long enough, and your head will start to hurt.
Quantum Leap is as smart and beloved as American time-travel franchises come, second only to maybe Back to the Future in terms of warm-hearted cult appeal, but its implied mysteries are as uncontrollable as those of any time-travel story when you start to track the plot’s implications into endless chains of “if, then.” Given the added dimensions of body switching and the cloudy idea of revising history “for the better,” more questions than answers are not only inevitable for a show like Quantum Leap, they’re tantalizing and expected and enjoyed… if you’re into that sort of thing.
Season Three’s “8 ½ Months” takes the show’s cans of worms to new echelons of weirdness, as the writers dealt themselves the tangled subject of a pregnant male time traveler deciding the fate of a teenage mother and her kid in 1950s Oklahoma. (Right?)
For anyone rusty on the elaborate-but-elegant premise of the show, a quick refresher on the show’s iconic opening narration should suffice:
Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator and vanished. He awoke to find himself trapped in the past, facing mirror images that were not his own, and driven by an unknown force to change history for the better. His only guide on this journey is Al, an observer from his own time, who appears in the form of a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. And so, Dr. Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.
In “8 ½ Months,” Sam finds himself on a stretcher being wheeled into the delivery room – he’s about to have a baby. (Oh, boy!) Turns out it’s just a false alarm, and her confused mother figure, a hairdresser named Dotty, takes her back home to her salon.
Exposition bearer Al shows up and fills in the rest: It’s 1955, and Sam is 16-year-old Billie Jean. With the boy’s father unwilling to step forward and her own father having disowned her, Billie Jean has decided to give the baby up for adoption. According to Ziggy, Al’s know-it-all palm device that exclaims in blips and coos like the love-child of an iPhone and a Tamagotchi, Billie Jean will spend the rest of her future regretting the decision and searching for her child, a quest that will leave her unfulfilled and in ruin.
Sam refuses to sign the adoption papers, to the shock of Dotty, Dotty’s adolescent assistant Effy, and even Al. They express the obvious chorus to Sam: maybe it’s not the best idea for an unwed teenage mother with no family to try to raise a child. Trying to rearrange Billie Jean’s life in order to make it viable for her to keep the baby, he asks for help from Dotty, Billie Jean’s father Bob, and one of Bob’s employees named Willis, a meek teenage boy revealed to be the baby’s father. They all refuse to support Billie Jean due to claims of helplessness, frustration, and shame.
Though neither Sam nor Al can be sure whether Sam is actually pregnant, he exhibits all the symptoms of going into labor. The magic bullet of the plot comes in the form of Effy, who asks Bob to help, relating to him how her sister died in childbirth. It’s enough to do the trick: Bob relents and pledges to support his daughter. As a pained and bewildered Sam seems as if he’s about to give birth, Al reports that in the new and revised history, Bob and Dotty get married and help Billie Jean raise her child. It ends with Sam leaping out of Billie Jean just as the doctor commands him to push.
Watching “8 ½ Months” from the safe distance of enjoying a weekly help-the-helpless procedural like Touched by an Angel or the short-lived cult fave Wonderfalls, the episode is satisfying enough. It has all the earmarks of a solid installment of Quantum Leap. Foremost, there’s the endless and vicarious thrill of watching an actor muddle through a wildly different world and lifestyle and character each week.
Scott Bakula made the whole Quantum Leap project sing, and one needn’t look any further than the montage of opening credits for evidence that he was one of television’s most generous performers: through five seasons, he leapt into an elderly man, a pre-teen, Lee Harvey Oswald, a vampire, a magician, a housewife, a trapeze artist, Elvis Presley, and a chimp. The role was essentially ripe for embarrassment and humiliation, and watching a less skilled actor in the Sam Beckett role might have been a weekly dose of excruciating awkwardness akin to watching a game show contestant who buzzes in and doesn’t know the answer.
Bakula had to play across gender a handful of times throughout the show, and the stories range from the campy (he’s Dr. Ruth, lol-cats!) to the solemn (when he leaps into a rape victim, the “man is a woman” jokes are thankfully on mute). “8 ½ Months” errs mostly toward the fun side of the spectrum. Of course, the writers must have had a field day in concocting a plot in which a male succumbs to the mystifying symptoms of pregnancy. Watch the clueless Y-chromosome-haver struggle through morning sickness! And cravings! And contractions! Yet Bakula strikes all the right chords, playing broad in those inevitably wacky scenes, yearning though restrained when he pleads with Billie Jean’s uncooperative social circle, and committing 110% percent, screaming and all, when he goes into labor.
In addition to watching another terrific Scott Bakula performance (seriously, no Emmys for this guy?), the story of “8 ½ Months” is clean and dramatic and moving in all the right places, like a smooth and easy viewing of Forrest Gump. You can accept that you’ve seen a well-produced and imaginative hour of television. But then… the questions arise:
- So, hold on. Who is controlling his leaps? God? Time? Fate?
- Why didn’t God, time, or fate just right the wrong the first time around?
- If Billie Jean’s baby leapt with her into the Imaging Chamber, then why does Sam experience all those symptoms of pregnancy?
- As Sam goes into labor, Al reports that the baby has disappeared from Billie Jean’s womb. We’re meant to infer that it’s now with Sam. But since it’s an established premise on the show that Sam’s body travels in time, and that everyone perceives him as the host is a mere trick of the eye, then ……………………………… HOW CAN SAM BE GIVING BIRTH TO A BABY IF HE HAS NO UTERUS?
- Also, that premise where Sam’s body travels through time, and that everyone perceives him as the host is a mere trick of the eye… how does that make any sense even in the realm of speculative physics?
- And what makes a version of history “wrong” and the other one “right”?
- Surely, Billie Jean raising the baby with her father and Dotty won’t be a life completely without hardship. What makes that timeline better than the one in which the baby ends up with the adoptive parents?
- Do Sam, Al, or the other members of Project Quantum Leap remember the original histories?
- Does Ziggy?
- How does Ziggy, a manmade computer invented in a certain timeline, account for and collect data from multiple divergent timelines, i.e., the original histories and the changed histories?
- And if Al is a hologram, why does he cast shadows?
The show doesn’t exactly leave these questions unaddressed. As far as the pregnancy issues loaded into “8 ½ Months,” the story could have easily delved into blunt missteps. Certainly, given the recent rash of political discourse that arguably aims to limit women’s reproductive rights, watching this episode in 2012 might have carried an inadvertent sting of sexism, or it might have ended with the unfortunate conclusion that keeping the baby is bar none the best option for an unwed and pregnant teenager. But the writers, creator Don Bellisario and his wife Deborah Pratt, explore the material with as much thoroughness as 42 minutes allow.
Sam and Al might be two men deciding what a woman will do with her baby, but they use only the future Billie Jean’s intentions, hopes, and regrets as their guide in deciding how to proceed. The pros and cons of adoption are also given generous consideration before Sam rejects it on Billie Jean’s behalf. Given that one could only imagine NBC executives frantically marking up the script pages, it’s a surprise that abortion gets any mention at all, though only in the mysterious context of “Well, it was an option, but now it’s not.”
For any would-be teenage parents in the audience, Sam and Al go through lengthy discussions on the consequences and responsibilities that await both the mother and father. It’s not so much that Quantum Leap or any work of fiction should have the prescriptive function of saying, “If you’re in this situation, do this and don’t do that.” But while telling the story of a handful of specific characters – this girl gives birth and then grows up to regret giving her baby away – Bellisario and Pratt do give wise credence to the options and implications inherent in the premise.
And throughout five seasons, the show does occasionally address the crazier issues of the show that bend and curve the laws of time and physics to their most extreme breaking points. But the concept of the show necessarily limits our perspective. We never do get to revisit a host post-leap to see if Sam really did change history for the better. And we never pull back to see who’s pulling the puppet strings, though in the series finale, Sam meets a bartender who may just be God, who may just have all the answers for Sam but may just not believe he’s ready for them quite yet.
But instead of being maddening, like the now infamous audience-insulting resolutions that doomed the legacy of Lost, the questions of Quantum Leap are entertaining to entertain because they are questions about the intangible: the nature of time, consequence, right, wrong, science, theism, and what it means to make choices that change lives. These questions might find their beginnings in fiction, but they have no ends, certainly not ones that can be found in an NBC television show.
Quantum Leap is a fitting title for the whole show, more than its makers probably realized. The show required several satisfying leaps in the imagination to create and enjoy. And while it worked as an hour-long procedural on a basic molecular level, on a micro-microscopic quantum level the show became a twisty and frenetic network of existential insinuations that are still fun to meditate upon and follow into infinity. Oh boy, indeed.
~ C.J. Arellano
About the Art: This episode was about Sam guiding scared Billie Jean amidst a rough and lonely road: teenage pregnancy (in 1955, no less!). The long, rough road and eerie skies and colors reflect the dark plight of one in a desperate and lonely situation such as Billie Jean’s. Despite the daunting journey ahead, Sam is the glowing hope for the souls he helps as he leaps from life to life. ~ Aireen Arellano