Science Fiction as Metaphor: Unpacking QUANTUM LEAP



November 3, 2022



By Larry Brenner, faculty, writing for TV, screen, and stage



I’m often struck by how the best science fiction is elevated by an underlying metaphor, the Aristotelian thought that provides insight into how a new technology or phenomenon comments on the human condition.


As I was preparing for the new Quantum Leap series, I started to reflect on the original series and how the finale always impacted me. If you never saw it, every episode begins with a narration:


Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Dr. Sam Beckett stepped into the Quantum Leap accelerator, and vanished. He woke 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.


That’s the basic plot. But is that what the show is actually ABOUT?


I’ve always seen the original show as a Buddhist reincarnation parable. One of the tenets of Buddhism (as I understand it! apologies if I’m wrong!) is that you keep going around until you perfect yourself—every mistake comes with a karmic debt that needs to be paid. By using the Quantum Leap technology, Sam gets to have the experience of finding moments that created karmic debt and correcting them. In the process, he is learning more about himself and growing as a person. The final leap will only happen when he has perfected himself.


Sam Beckett is likely named for the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, who famously was an atheist, and certainly THIS Sam Beckett begins the series by placing his faith in science. Over the course of the series, he comes to reevaluate his core beliefs. I recall one episode of QL where Sam was a prisoner on death row and ended up praying for the first time in his life. There’s a reading here that he’s a man of science who develops faith in a higher power.


In the final episode (SPOILERS), Sam has a conversation with G-d where he’s given the opportunity to go home but he decides he can’t because there are too many other people he needs to help. Sam may have perfected himself, and he is now acting truly unselfishly—it’s no longer about the next leap home. He cast aside his corrupt motivations and is now on the journey purely to help others. I don’t know that I’ve ever gotten over the finale—it is filled with so many emotionally truthful scenes that still resonate with me as clearly today as the first time I watched them. Sam’s journey to better himself is my journey, his ultimate end a seemingly unattainable goal to strive for.


All too often in our science fiction writing, we come up with a great concept to explore: What if we could travel in time? What if we could visit other planets? What if we built a robot? But we also need to spend time on the metaphor. What do we learn about the human condition through an exploration propelled by fantastic elements?


 

Brenner's screenplay Bethlehem was a winner of Final Draft’s Big Break Contest. He has also written Labyrinth for Walt Disney Pictures and Angelology for SONY/Columbia Pictures. He is a co-host of Once Upon a Disney, a podcast that analyzes Disney movies from a screenwriter’s perspective. His play Saving Throw Versus Love was produced as part of the 2010 New York International Fringe Festival and was selected for the Fringe Encore Series. He is a member of the Dramatists Guild of America and WGA East. Brenner earned his MFA at Spalding and has a PhD in educational theatre from NYU.