illustration by Brianna Ashby

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

“What if you could go back in time?” asked anyone who ever regretted anything. Do the one thing you always wished you had done. Unmake your biggest mistake. It’s a soothing fantasy, and Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula in his prime) believes it is possible. His study in string theory supports a lifetime that can be tangled up in itself, so when he steps into the Quantum Leap accelerator, he can leap into any year in his own lived past. (Try not to worry about the science too much.) The possibilities for change are endless, or would be, if Sam had any control over when and where he ended up. Instead of landing in his own life, in his own form, he “leaps” into the lives and bodies of others. And so, Dr. Sam Beckett sets off on a metaphysical journey of reinvention, not for himself, but for strangers in time.

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.

Quantum Leap ran on NBC for five seasons, during which Dr. Sam Beckett inhabited almost 100 lives, each episode a new face in the mirror, and each face a new set of problems to solve. Some of the faces are famous (Lee Harvey OswaldElvisDr. Ruth), or at least fame-adjacent (Jack Kerouac’s friend, Marilyn Monroe’s chauffeur, Stephen King’s creepy neighbor). Most of them are regular Americans, representative of the historical and pop cultural standards of their time: a 1960’s girl group; a 1970’s mafia apprentice; a 1980’s beauty pageant contestant; a reluctant inductee to the Ku Klux Klan; a college student protesting the Vietnam war; a housewife at the height of women’s lib. Sam’s leaping takes us on a tour of the second half of the 20th century, hitting every major historical event, political movement, and social justice issue along the way. Wherever he ends up, Sam’s main motivation is to save lives, whether that means preventing an unnecessary death or stopping someone from making a bad mistake. The show hits hard on the idea that human history is made up of individual moments, decisions, and lives. Sam leaps in to fix one person’s life, and once it’s fixed, he can leap out.

Unfortunately, Sam’s leaps through time leave him with a “swiss-cheesed brain” — he retains his abilities but can barely remember who he is. And whois Dr. Sam Beckett? A Nobel Prize winning physicist. A talented musician skilled in several martial arts. A sensitive Midwesterner who respects women and always tries to do the right thing. Sam is a capital-H Hero, with the brains, brawn, and skill-set to survive any situation, but he barely recalls his own life, his own adult experiences, and the friends and lovers who may or may not be waiting for him at home. This hero’s journey renders him a cipher, a man with no memories or past. To an outside observer, planted firmly in the present, Sam’s plight is tragic.

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.

Al (Dean Stockwell) is the wisecracking, womanizing, cigar-smoking voice of reality inQuantum Leap. Where Sam is stuck in corporeal form—with all the limitations that entails—Al functions as a ghost, walking through walls, projecting his holographic form from place to place (again, don’t let the science of it bog you down). Al is the angel and devil on Sam’s shoulder, more often devil, encouraging him to linger with beautiful women he encounters, or to stay out of harm’s way at the expense of another living soul. Because Al lives in the present, brain un-swiss-cheesed, he retains the benefit of accumulated experience, leaving him far more cynical than Sam could ever be. Al becomes a stand-in for the audience, armed with the full knowledge of history, beginning to suspect Sam’s mission is futile, but too devoted to abandon him in time.

When Sam’s leaps intersect with an important historical event, like the Watts race riots or the Vietnam War, Al reminds him, “You can’t stop this.” Sam can change history, but only by changing one life at a time. His med student in South Central Los Angeles can’t stop the riots, but he can survive and help the neighborhood rebuild. His soldier in Vietnam is powerless to change the course of the war, but he can save Sam Beckett’s own brother, and, in turn, an entire platoon. In episodes of the show driven by real, specific historical events, Sam’s swiss-cheesed brain may be his greatest asset. He is unburdened by what Al (and those of us watching at home) can clearly see: that repercussions of the riots and the war will reverberate for generations to come, and that history will repeat itself, again and again. His inherent optimism about human nature, and a belief that the right choice at the right time can change history for the better, remain untainted by accumulated experience. As observers, we see the dark side of humanity every time Sam leaps, of the oppressive systems and cycles of violence that rarely seem to change. But Sam sees only the person whose life he is there to save—and it’s this tunnel vision that allows him to do his job. Without it, and without the “unknown force” that keeps him stuck in time (what the show calls “God or fate or whatever”), our Hero would have to give up.

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.

If we believe in a soul, then we believe in some intrinsic self, one that resides in our physical body while we live, and goes somewhere else when we die. Sam’s soul sticks with him from decade to decade, life to life, so that even when he forgets his own name and occupation, he maintains his capacity for good. Each leap out is a death: Sam dies so that others may live. Each leap in is a birth: Sam is reborn to serve again.

Oh, let’s just say it: Dr. Sam Beckett is Jesus Christ.

And it’s this Christlike perfection that makes Sam a little hard to stomach as an adult.Quantum Leap was one of my favorite shows when I was a kid (and Scott Bakula one of my formative crushes), but re-watching it now, I struggle to relate. Sam helps one person, and maybe that person helps a few others, and maybe the butterfly effect kicks in and many lives are saved, but surely, history will repeat itself with or without his intervention. If Sam Beckett is still out there leaping, and lands in 2014, what will he see? Another hate crime gone unpunished, another discriminatory law passed, another senseless war about to start. Sam, fueled by his do-good spirit and a conveniently spotty memory, can maintain hope in the face of certain defeat. Hope is hard-fought for the rest of us, hard-imagined for some of us who are struggling to make it through another day. Maybe it’s just me, growing increasingly cynical and scared as I age. Maybe you’re capable of a more positive outlook. Maybe it depends on your mood, on your bank account, on your most recent interaction with a stranger. Maybe it’s just a TV show, and real life is far more complex, and our dystopian future has been with us all along.

In the final episode of Quantum Leap, we learn that somehow, subconsciously, Dr. Sam Beckett has been controlling his own leaps all along. He is his own God, and He never does make the leap home. It’s a dark, divisive ending to a sci-fi adventure series about a time-traveling, super-genius savior, but in it lies a message of what real heroism and humanity might look like. Sam’s mission is in some ways as futile as we’ve feared, his own hopes left unfulfilled, his journey through time doomed to repeat. But still, he leaps on.

Perhaps a true hero is one who throws himself again and again into the breach, knowing he can never save himself, but is devoted to saving others, one mirror image at a time. The ultimate message of Quantum Leap is as paradoxical as time travel. It’s a message of optimism and despair, victory and defeat: helping just one person is a heroic act, even as history loops itself over and over, leaving us doomed from the start, tangled in each other’s timelines, grasping for hold and hoping hard.