Dr. Sam Beckett time travels for the final time tonight, meets his maker, does one last good deed and reveals to the world the small, coal-town tavern in which his creator grew up. But he doesn't capture the one-armed man.
At least that's the way Donald P. Bellisario, the creator and executive producer of "Quantum Leap," sees it.
True, NBC has canned the series after 4 1/2 years of leaping through time and all over the network's schedule, and Bellisario knew he had to write a finale that at least made an attempt to wrap things up.
But "Quantum Leap," at least in his mind, is far from over. So unlike "The Fugitive," where the shooting of the one-armed man in 1967 closed the door on the story, the final chapter of "Quantum Leap" is deliberately ambiguous and open-ended.
"I wasn't going to write a this-is-it kind of episode because I don't think that 'Quantum Leap' is finished," Bellisario said. "So I wrote a show that gives some of the reasons that he's been leaping around. You find out who has been leaping him. It offers a philosophy for the series that I believe in: that we are all responsible for our own lives no matter how much we think fate or God or whatever imposes on us. Sam rights a wrong that has to do with his dearest friend, Al. That's all very satisfying, I think, but at the end it's wide open as to what he's going on to next."
While "Quantum Leap," which saw its ratings drop precipitously this season, is through on NBC, Bellisario said that he is shopping the series to the other networks. And while he admits that the chance of such a sale is minuscule, he is convinced that the show will live on either as a feature film or as occasional TV movies, a la "Star Trek" or "Columbo." Reruns of the show currently air to good cable ratings on USA.
But even for devotees of the show--who have seen Sam (played by Scott Bakula) leap into the bodies of women, chimps, Elvis, Marilyn Monroe's chauffeur, Lee Harvey Oswald, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, a vampire, a female rape victim, a gay naval cadet, a guy with multiple personalities and several African-Americans and other ethnic minorities--the finale will be unique.
Sam, for the first time, is actually his adult self trapped inexplicably on the day of his birth in 1953 in a bar in Cokeburg, Pa., which, as it happens, is Bellisario's hometown. Al, his holographic helper (played by Dean Stockwell), spends most of the episode trying to locate Sam.
The bar is a replica of a tavern once owned by Bellisario's father--right down to the personal photos that hung on the wall and the 15-cents-a-schooner Schlitz beer on tap. Behind the bar is a guy named Alberto Bellisario--played by Bruce McGill--who, Don Bellisario said, bears a remarkable resemblance to his late father, and who seems to know far more about Sam and his travels than any bartender should. At one point, Sam asks him if he's God.
The episode serves as an homage to Bellisario's father and his hometown, crediting his father-bartender and the characters of Cokeburg for providing the inspiration for "Quantum Leap" and all of Bellisario's TV creations, which include "Magnum, P.I." and "Airwolf."
"If you're going back to the roots of what created 'Quantum Leap,' it all comes out of that coal-mining town and my relationships with the people there, especially with my father," said Bellisario, who chose the date of his own 18th birthday--the last year he spent hanging around the bar--as the date of Sam's birth and his final time travel.
"The father-son relationship is very strong in my work. You have Magnum and Higgins, in 'Airwolf' you had Santini and Stringfellow Hawke, and here with Sam and Al. It's all based on that. So if I'm trying to go back to the roots of what created Sam's time traveling, why not go all the way back to where it really happened? All the characters I used and the names as well as the morals and ethics of this show came out of my background there."
"It's vintage Don," Bakula said, "a fascinating twist on what you might expect of a final episode. It would be easy to have Sam make it home and have a big party with hugs for everyone, and the last beat would be Sam, alone, thinking about going out leaping again. But this isn't anything close to that. Fans of the show will get to see characters from previous episodes and there are a lot of in-jokes that sort of tie up the show in traditional TV terms, but at the same time here you have Don using this to embark on a path of self-examination. He deals with his father's bar and his life as a kid and then throws in this big question: If we were to meet someone who is controlling our life, whatever that might be, how would we react?"
Bellisario contends that the show died on NBC because the network bounced it into five different time periods in four years. On Wednesdays at 10 p.m.--ironically, the time NBC has given for this final outing--the show fared well. On Tuesday at 8 p.m., where the show was put this season, it foundered badly against the kids' favorite "Full House."
"It's not a kids' show," Bellisario said.
The show's demographics indicate that it also wasn't a show for people over 50--although Bellisario believes that the ethics and heart-driven stories should have appealed to them. What put them off before they even sampled the show, he contended, was the time-traveling conceit. It made it easy to dismiss the series as some sci-fi thing that they were not interested in.
"Had we won that over-50 audience (as "Magnum" did), we would have been a huge hit," Bellisario said. "I remember when we started, Brandon Tartikoff (then chief NBC programmer) told me to name it anything but 'Quantum Leap'--'Travels With Sam' or 'Beckett's Folly'--'because you will turn off a big hunk of the audience that doesn't like sci-fi.' And I said, 'But I can turn on a big hunk that does.' In retrospect, maybe he was right. I think about it."
The series still has a slew of devoted fans around the world. About 3,000 people attended the second annual Quantum Leap Convention last February in Los Angeles, according to the show's fan club, which has also organized protests against the show's cancellation. And the Prodigy computer service recently turned over an entire section of its TV Bulletin Board to communications about "Quantum Leap."
Bellisario, who is busy developing two new television series under a multi-series deal at Paramount, said that the heartfelt letters he regularly receives from viewers whose lives were somehow changed or uplifted by the message of a particular episode have made "Quantum Leap" his most satisfying work. But also the most difficult to let go.
"You make a series and, like anything in life, it comes full circle and it's time for it to end. But that time is not even close for this show," he reflected. "It's too innovative, too different, and it really has a great following. This is especially sad for me because it feels like it is being cut off in its prime. Someone dies at 95, you say, 'OK, it was time.' But this show hasn't even reached middle age. It feels to me like watching someone young die. That's why I believe it will live on."