Some Issues Raised By Quantum Leap

In its attempts at predicting the future, sci-fi has generally tended to focus on the big things, rather than the smaller stuff. Writers imagined space travel but not mobile phones, far more influential at the individual level. It was all well and good envisioning life on other planets, but no one ever foresaw ordering a pizza online and following each step in the process. Many have pictured an authoritarian regime which suppresses dissent by means of all-pervasive entertainment, but no one ever guessed that visitors to the Pets at Home website would be leaving reviews of insects.

Much safer then, for those who don’t want to see their predictions embarrassed by the passing of time to go in the other direction. The past is all pretty much known, and barring late revelations (such as the feathered nature of dinosaurs not being discovered before a big-budget film about a dinosaur park), there is less scope for error. Rather than use potential technology to explore the world to come you can send today’s science back in time

Though technically set in the future – the impossibly futuristic-sounding 1999, with blinking lights and handheld computing devices – the series Quantum Leap took this safe approach to time travel. ‘Theorising that one could time travel within his own life time, Doctor Sam Becket stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator – and vanished’. Sam finds himself in various past times, leaping into the body of someone at a critical point in their life. With his hologram friend Al – and Al’s temperamental Lego device which acts like a very specific Google – Sam realises that the purpose of each leap is to correct a mistake made in the past, to allow his hosts to live the lives they should have led.

The seriousness of the situation was bound to be lost on the target viewer at times, specifically those times when Sam leaps into the body of an attractive young woman. As an adolescent boy watching this I knew I would have had a laxer work ethic than Sam. I would not have been in any hurry to sort out the problem, instead being much more likely to just spend the whole time sitting naked in front of a mirror. To be blunt, I would have been too busy wanking to even think about ‘putting right what once went wrong.’

“Sam, this thing’s about to happen.”

“Yeah, give me a minute, Al.”

This phenomenon of leaping into women’s bodies (as it were) raises an obvious question: how does Sam wee? When he looks in a mirror he sees the person whose life he is inhabiting, but does this apply also when he looks down at himself? If he were to use a urinal there are two possibilities which could play out. Would anyone standing nearby see an upright woman miraculously directing an arc of urine into the porcelain, or would Sam just be standing there confused as to why he’s dribbling onto his shoes?

This issue was clarified in the fifth episode of season one, known to fans as The Piss Episode. In a long and needlessly graphic scene Sam demonstrates this whole enigma to Al, who then puffs on his cigar, says “well that explains a lot”, and hits his Lego thing until it makes that noise. This episode was only screened once in Britain, and a power cut on that night meant that viewers in South East England missed the entire thing.

When not urinating, Sam has the task of applying social attitudes of the late 90s to various times from the preceding decades. Thus when confronted by racism, misogyny or homophobia he wisely points out everyone else’s errors, in the interests of promoting understanding. So as well as showing off his knowledge of the future – things he knows about by virtue of having been born decades later than all the people around him – he also smugly shows off his right-on attitudes, as if his liberal outlook didn’t come to him fully formed, inherited from the struggles of previous generations.

This pattern continued for a surprising five seasons, by which time they had long since exhausted all the possible years the programme could visit. In the final episode Sam finds himself in a mysterious mining town, populated by people he recognises from previous leaps. When he looks in the mirror, for the first time in years it is his own face he sees. The metaphysical allusions of the series are fortunately touched on lightly. Whatever force is propelling him through time to correct the little mistakes of history is never defined in any sense which could end up a cop-out. He is given the choice of going back to his old life, or to continue as he has been doing. Excessively good guy that he is, he chooses the latter.

This of course leads to a logical problem. Sam has been travelling for years now, and though for him time is a complicated subject, for the him who stays behind it continues to pass as before. Assuming he is still at the do-gooding business there is almost two decades’ worth of time which he knows nothing of. As a time traveller, he is surely aware that everything he knows is bound to be trumped by generations still to come, who might look back at the futuristic days of 1999 with a similarly forthright and paternalistic attitude. There is nothing to stop the quantum leap accelerator sending another traveller from the future back to meet Sam, to flesh out his incomplete knowledge and tell him where he’s gone wrong.

In one episode, for example, Sam travels back to the time of the Cuban missile crisis, and is accused of being a Communist sympathiser due to telling children that the Russians are just like them. ‘They’re not bad people,’ he says, ‘they don’t want war.’

At which point the traveller from 2017 could appear and say ‘Actually, Sam…’

In that same episode Sam reveals himself to a teenage girl (not in a bad way). ‘Wow! What’s the future like?’ she asks. ‘Are The Beatles still around?’

When Sam goes silent she gets upset. ‘Oh no – it’s John, isn’t it?’

‘Actually, it’s George as well now. Plus Ringo’s a bit of a cunt. That’s technically opinion rather than fact, but …’

And in another fifty years what’s to say that Sam’s dearly held liberal values won’t come to be viewed with squirming embarrassment by our degenerate grandchildren?

‘Sam, I know you’ve been spending days trying to save this black man from prejudice, but I’m from further in the future and I have to tell you that racism is actually good and correct. Sorry, but I’m going to have to take over from here.’

The programme clearly views time as a robust thing. No harm ever comes from Sam’s interference, no knock-on effects which change the future dramatically. But although he is presented as a force for hope, making the world (or America) a happier place one ordinary life at a time, there is still something gloomy about it. However much time Sam spends leaping through lives the task is never ending. And what is in the interests of one person might harm those of another. Years and years down the line, when he has sacrificed a substantial part of his own life, will he realise some mistakes should not go corrected? And wish he’d spent more of the time just sitting naked in front of a mirror?



Expenses Scandal Claims New Scalp

Optimus Prime is standing down as leader of the Autobots following a scandal over expenses. Leaked documents show he had been receiving up to three hundred energon cubes per year by claiming the articulated lorry he transforms into as his second home.

‘I was led to believe this was within the rules and that everyone else was doing it. I now realise I made a severe error of judgement. I have let you all down, and by the spires of Cybertron I beg for your forgiveness,’ he read from a prepared statement, as dramatic music played in the background.

Evil Decepticon leader Megatron said: ‘This is just the kind of moral bankruptcy we’ve come to expect from the puny Autobots. These cowardly hunks of scrap metal will be destroyed utterly by our demands for greater transparency and accountability.’

Prime’s replacement is expected to be Grimlock, whose youth, charisma and ability to transform into a dinosaur make him popular with robot voters.

A Spooky Tale

There are some tales which seem to defy the telling. It is as if they try to block the ears of the listener, to prevent the thoughts being heard, or as if a morbid sense of self-protection seeks to put barrier between tongue and air, to deny ideas a voice. Perhaps some stories are just too outlandish to be allowed to survive out in the chilly air, exposed to any number of cynical ears.

This location, The Black Lion, has heard any number of dubious tales in its time. These tobacco-darkened walls, tables scorched by misremembered matches and floors tacky with spilt ale have played silent host to all manner of stories over the years. And I thought I had heard them all, until that day that Gavin burst through the doors as if something nasty was biting at his heels.

‘Good lord,’ he muttered, banging the door open. He stood there in the entrance as snowflakes pattered around him. ‘Really, no, really?’

‘Please continue,’ I cried, ‘in your own time. Just as long as you close the infernal door!’

My intemperate suggestion cut no ice with him. He stood there yet, muttering towards his feet like one in the comfort of his own climate.

‘Just – there. Just – there. As bold as anything. As if it were nothing,’ he continued.

‘Gavin,’ I said, ‘outside are all the icicles of Siberia. Must we invite them all in?’

He recollected himself at this, and turned to me with an expression which suddenly made me wish I wasn’t alone.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘It is you, is it? Well, it is certain my mind is troubled, and it would be a kindness to bring whisky.’

Diligently I brought this over, if for no other purpose than to quell the air of disorder which clung to him. It took a second whisky to do this, and he had a third in his hand before he felt able to give voice to his feelings.

‘Yes,’ he said at last, ‘here we are, in a normal saloon, two normal people living out their lives as is perfectly normal.’ His collar stuck out at an angle which gave me severe pain.

‘But what could have rattled you so?’ I asked. ‘In all these years of knowing you I have never seen you in such a flap.’

He paused, took another swallow and took a deep breath.

‘I never thought I would hear myself say these words, but – I have a story to tell.’

Ever the dutiful friend, I kept the drink flowing as he revealed his tale.

‘You are aware of course that I routinely play the piano in the restaurant of The Brown Bear?’

I did know this. It was not a place suited to my pocket, but I saw it as a place I might one day aspire to frequenting.

‘The money’s good. Eight guineas thruppence ha’penny per hour, to entertain the city’s elite who no doubt pay as much attention to my tinkling as they do to the inflated prices of the glasses they knock back as if tomorrow will never come. If only that were the case.’

He gulped back the remainder of his glass, looking with surprise at the fresh one I had put in front of him. He picked it up, gazing into its amber deeps.

‘But tonight. Tonight something was different. I can’t even put it into words. Something in the way George the head waiter greeted me, maybe. “Not the usual crowd tonight,” he said, grinning at me. This put me on edge, for reasons I cannot articulate, even before I had entered that room. And I don’t know if I imagined it, but did I see him look at something over my shoulder? Some sight which, when I turned my head to look, melted into the air?

‘So I was rattled, before I even took to the keys. Just an ordinary Tuesday evening, but already I was on the back foot. Though I would rather die than label myself a ‘professional’, I approached the evening’s task as a job like any other. I put all thoughts of mystery out of my head and focused on the keys alone. The trusty old blacks and whites who, from a chaos of wood, formed a poem of sound.

‘I played them all, every scale from A to G, major to minor. Wherever the muse took me, there I went. 3/4 time, 4/4 time. It was a standard Tuesday evening, after all.

‘It was when I paused between tunes, though, that was when things changed. I happened to look up. Perhaps you know there’s a mirror behind the piano, one which gives a view onto the entire room. Though perhaps you’ve never noticed it, as I had never noticed it, until now. I looked, in that moment, and I saw – well, who knows what I saw. Nothing tangible. Only a reminder that I was a temporal being performing a role whose every motion was a short-lived note against a cold and silent universe! Some shape I convinced myself without difficulty I had never seen.

‘I shook the heaviness from my head and played on. I played some low notes, some stately funereal chords, and some high notes, some carefree arpeggios, and fairly soon I was lost in the playing. In the moment I forgot my nerves and the keys obeyed my whims.

‘But then, once I had forgotten myself, and had let the music take me with it, I looked up again, and this was my fatal error. I don’t know how to say it. There was something. Though the parameters of my vision didn’t change, all the same something had shifted. I felt that something, some terrible thing was watching me. It could see me wherever I went, and I couldn’t hide.

‘As you know, I have never been one to shirk from difficulties. I didn’t stick with the pedestrian tunes they wanted me to play. If I was being watched I wanted to be noticed for the right reasons. Over the next hour I gave it everything I had. Every bass foundation, every trill with the right hand, I attacked each staidest tune with the vigour of one whose very breath would not outlast his fingers. I hammered those chords, slamming my fingers against the ivories as if every demon in Hell was breathing down my neck. I squeezed out barcarolles, exuded sonatas and thundered fugues as if Lucifer himself had appeared demanding an invite. And with each note I unconsciously yelled ‘Begone! Begone!

‘And of course I forgot. I found myself playing whatever I felt like, my hands flying over those keys. I could not tell you what they did, it was as if I were in another place.’

He took another sip.

‘I felt good to leave there. It felt like I had been drained of any tension, like the piano had taken the worst of me and now I was free. I forgot all my fears.

‘As to the sequel, well… Hardest of all is the knowing that – G-D! – anyone would think me mad if I told them what I am about to tell you.’

And that was when it happened. Gavin’s face had alerted me to the momentousness of the situation, and now he leaned over and – good God – he told me the worst of it.

Calmed by the feeling of a job well done, he had left The Brown Bear, walking through the lobby towards the main doors as always. But in the lobby he had paused and spotted something he could not understand. It did not make sense. It was only late in the evening, several drinks to the good, that he could justify just what he had seen. He leaned over and whispered in my ear…

I sat in silence for who knows how long. The relief on Gavin’s face had been obvious, as he unburdened himself of this tale. And when he left to go out into the sleet it was not as one who feared the elements. It was as if some heaviness had passed from him to me. As if telling his story had freed him. But I was not free of the consequences.

On leaving the hotel Gavin had seen not just something but someone. They had appeared when he was least prepared. He saw them across the lobby, three teenage girls.



(‘…comin’ at ya…’?)