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Need to know the ‘Quantum Leap’ canon? Watch these 5 critical episodes

The whole show is great, but this watch list makes for a nice crash course.

Quantum Leap 2

The original Quantum Leap series became such a fan favorite because of its slice of life approach to storytelling, following Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) as he walked a day in someone’s else’s life — aiming to right a wrong and set them on a better path.

He jumped into dozens upon dozens of eras and stories across five seasons and 97 episodes — and though the basic concept is an easy one to follow — the show did have its own bit of sci-fi canon to keep straight, including a few key leaps (including some key leaps that tie into Sam’s life) and the series finale that asked just as many questions as it answered.

So with the original early-1990s series airing start-to-finish Fridays on SYFY as part of SYFY Rewind, we’re looking back at the key episodes new (and old) that fans need to catch up on before the upcoming revival series coming to NBC this fall. The new series coming to NBC is set 30 years after the original series, and picks up with a new team led by Dr. Ben Seong (Raymond Lee) as the new leaper, supported by a future team with Ernie Hudson’s Herbert “Magic” Williams and Caitlin Bassett’s Addison. The new show is set within the same canon as the original series, so it stands to reason Sam Beckett might still be out there — somewhere — still leaping around. 

But in the meantime, here are the key episodes to dig into while we wait for some new adventures.

“Genesis” - Season 1, Episode 1

If you want to know the nuts and bolts of Quantum Leap, there’s no better place to start than the beginning. The extended, two-episode premiere “Genesis” introduces viewers to the basic concept and players who will power the series for the next five years. After testing his time travel machine in the future, Sam wakes up with a blurry memory in the body of a man in the 1950s. He’s soon greeted by Al (Dean Stockwell), a friend who is a hologram projection from the future who helps guide him on his weekly leaps. The bones of the show are there from the jump, and the pilot remains the perfect primer.

“M.I.A.” - Season 2, Episode 22

This is one of the first episodes that truly connects to the lives of Sam and Al — and this one also comes back to play in the series finale, which makes it doubly important. The episode finds Sam jumping into a man in 1969, who just so happens to be in the same town as Al’s former wife, who was left alone while Al was a prisoner of war overseas, presumed dead. While Al was missing, the love of his life, Beth (Susan Diol), moved on and remarried someone else. The timing of the jump gives Sam a chance to alter her life and tell her that Al is alive — and though Al tries to guide him on that personal mission — it’s not the actual reason they’re there (Sam is really in the late-1960s to save the life of a detective). Sam decides not to interfere in Beth’s life, for fear of changing their own timelines. 

The episode ends with hologram Al slow-dancing with Beth as she dreams of her missing husband, in one of the most tear-jerking moments in the entire series, before Sam leaps off to a new adventure.

“The Leap Home (Parts 1 & 2) - Season 3, Episodes 1-2

In this season-opening two-parter, Sam leaps into himself as a 16-year-old, getting to see his late father and brother when he’s still just a teenager. Much like Al in “M.I.A.,” Sam is also tempted to alter his own timeline to make changes he views for the better. He tries to push his father to eat better and stop smoking to save him from a future heart attack, but only causes them to argue. He also tries to warn his brother that he will die in Vietnam a year later after shipping out, but everyone thinks he’s lost his mind. Sam’s mission is to win a basketball game he originally lost, setting some of his teammates on a better life trajectory. As he hits the game-winning hook shot, he leaps

and leaps right into the Vietnam War, embedded in the same unit as his brother Tom (David Newsom). Sam takes over a soldier named Herbert “Magic” Williams, and tries to figure out how to walk the tightrope to make sure their mysterious mission is a success, while also saving his brother. It comes at the cost of an embedded photographer who joins the mission, but Sam is able to save his brother’s life and help him survive the day. The two-parter is one of the best stories in the Quantum Leap canon, and one of the most personal for Sam, digging into his personal life and family.

“The Leap Back” - Season 4, Episode 1

The fourth season kicked off with a wild twist — Sam and Al swap places, thanks to a well-timed lightning strike. Sam is bounced into a soldier who returns home to try and reunite with his lost love (a story very personal to Al), while Sam is bounced back into the hologram imaging chamber in the future. Yep, he’s finally returned home to the Quantum Leap control center in the far-flung future of (ahem) 1999. When Sam returns home, his memory also comes back (the leap process causes a “Swiss cheese” effect on memories), and he reunites with his wife Donna whom he’d left behind — someone he had forgotten while leaping, and Al never told him about. 

Sam spends the day back in his old life, spending time with his wife and working a the control center to support Al. But he is forced to leap into Al when his life hangs in the balance, as Al is seconds away from being killed while trying to complete his mission. It’s a short reprieve, but peels back more of the curtain on Project Quantum Leap and the life Sam leaped away from.

“Mirror Image” - Season 5, Episode 22

The end, though it wasn’t technically supposed to be. The episode “Mirror Image” is a slow affair, with Sam somehow leaping into his own body at the moment of his birth. He finds himself in a Pennsylvania bar in 1953, interacting with a bartender who knows way too much and running into patrons who are familiar from his former leaps. It’s implied the bartender could be the one pulling the strings behind these leaps (God? Some other being?), though he tells Sam that Sam is actually behind it all along. He could leap home if he wanted, but he’s more driven to right wrongs throughout history, so he keeps going subconsciously.

With the realization that he can control his leaps, Sam decides to go back and fix his one looming regret: never telling Beth that Al was still alive back in “M.I.A.” The episode ends with Sam leaping back to 1969 to see Beth — in his own body, leaping as himself this time around — and telling her that Al is out there and will be coming back. We learn in a closing title card that Al and Beth do reunite and live happily ever after. The series’ final message reveals that Sam never returns home, seemingly choosing to keep leaping and making the timeline better for the rest of his days.

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