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?