The Worst Sci-Fi Series Finale of All Time
When it comes to series finales, especially for beloved shows, expectations are fairly high. After all, if audiences spend years following cherished characters, wading through gripping and complicated plots, and spending countless hours on message boards debating the show’s finer points, there better be a pay off. Alas that unfortunately is not always the case. For every “Cheers” or “Bob Newhart Show” there’s a “Seinfeld” or a “St. Elmo’s Fire.” This probably goes double for science fiction television programs. If you drop the lightsaber on a sci-fi program you better be ready for the Internet backlash. Let me put it this way, if you stood up right now, found a local nerd gathering, walked up to them and all you said was “LOST series finale” or “Battlestar Galactica series finale” a debate would ensue. Tempers may flare. Somebody could even pull a bat’leth.
As an avid fan of all things science fiction, I’ve had my fair share of disappointments over the years when it comes to TV. “The Incredible Hulk” just ended abruptly only to live on in a few made for TV movies. “ALF” ended on a cliffhanger where federal agents encircled Gordon Shumway before he could be rescued by his surviving friends from Melmac. “The X-Files” finale while not devastating, certainly was tepid at best.
But for my money, the most egregious series finale, the most cold-blooded ending, the most brutal “fuck you” in the history of science fiction television, the conclusion that still makes me wail and gnash my teeth twenty-one years later is….
For those of you not versed in this television show I’ll provide a brief synopsis:
“Quantum Leap” follows the adventures of Dr. Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula), a brilliant physicist who finally discovers the key to time travel. Using a quantum accelerator, Sam is able to transport himself back in time. However, rather than being a physical presence he “leaps” into the bodies of various people. Others see him as the person he leaped into. He also can only leap within his own lifetime. Unfortunately time travel carries with it several problems. First of all no one can figure out how to get Sam home. Consequently, he has to “fix” mistakes that happened in the past revolving around the person he leaps into. Furthermore, the effects of the leap cause Sam to have holes in his memory, what he calls a “Swiss cheese” effect. Consequently, he often can’t remember important people or events from his own life. (For example Sam didn’t realize he had a brother that died in Vietnam.) Aiding him are a supercomputer called Ziggy and his friend Admiral Al Calavicci (Dean Stockwell) who appears to Sam as a hologram that only Sam can see and hear. These are the only two links to Sam’s present. Fixing whatever particular problem allows Sam to leap again. As the intro to the show says Sam’s actions lead him to the next challenge “hoping each time that his next leap will be the leap home.”
Maybe not as brief as I thought but you get the idea.
“Quantum Leap” was one of those rare shows that makes time travel relatable to the public. I still love the show all these years later. Aside from some of the more ridiculous episodes that occurred in the final season (“Blood Moon” and the “Return of the Evil Leaper” spring to mind) “Quantum Leap” was a socially relevant, well acted, and well written show. I’ll never forget the powerful “The Color of Truth” the first time I saw it. For Dr. Sam Beckett to be thrust into the body of a black man in the Jim Crow south and endure all that entails, was nothing short of revelatory. Other episodes such as “Jimmy,” which tackled the stigma of the mentally challenged, or the aptly titled “Raped,” demonstrated a level of sophistication and social relevance not often seen in science fiction television shows.
And then came the series finale.
Strangely enough, the episode wasn’t originally meant to be the series finale. Writers were already developing ideas for season six when word came down the pipe that the show had been canceled due to poor ratings. With about three episodes to go, the show revealed that season five would be its last. I was devastated. “Quantum Leap” always seemed like a show that should have lasted ten years or more. However, I was at least confident that the writers would finally deliver an epic conclusion. I was curious to discover the events that would lead to Dr. Sam Beckett finally returning home. In retrospect, my thought process was the equivalent of saying, “I can’t wait to see how epic Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance as Mr. Freeze will be in Batman and Robin! I’m sure it’ll be everything fans are hoping for!”
“Mirror Image” was bizarre from the get go. Sam leaps into his own physical body on the exact date and time of his birth at 12:30 P.M. August 8, 1953 at a bar in ostensibly a mining town just outside of Pittsburgh. However, he soon finds out that many of the people of the town are actually people from his past leaps. Ultimately, Sam ends up saving a group of miners from a tunnel collapse with the aid of Al’s Uncle, who ends up being a leaper as well. In fact the dead are apparently leapers too and the bartender ends up being God, Fate, or Time who tells Sam his current leap is a sabbatical before he begins much tougher leaps. The bartender also tell Sam that Sam is actually in control of his own leaps and can choose to go home anytime he wants to. If none of this makes any sense you’re absolutely right. It was ridiculous on a grand scale. Yet in spite of the absurdity, the episode was morbidly fascinating. Going into the final commercial break I eagerly anticipated the resolution.
In the end, Sam ends up leaping to a time in the 1960s to tell Al’s wife Beth that Al is actually in a Vietnamese POW camp but that he will come home. (Previously, Beth’s wife believed Al died, divorced him, and remarried.) The screen then cuts to black. Text appears on the screen stating that Al and Beth had five daughters and are still married. And the final line…
Dr. Sam Beckett never returned home.
This was like pouring a bucket of pig’s blood over my head and believe me if I possessed pyrokinesis powers I would have set the room on fire. Seriously, I wanted to go Elvis and shoot the television. How the Hell could creator Donald P.Bellisario and the writing staff serve the public this steaming pile of swine feces?
I think the ending affected me so much because this was the first show I was fully invested in on all levels–mentally, emotionally, and believe it or not, spiritually. The series finale forever tainted my perception of the show unfortunately. I can’t think of “Quantum Leap” without thinking of its ignominious ending. It’s like hearing Huey Lewis and the News sing “The Power of Love” and your mind goes straight to Back to the Future.
Over the years I’ve reflected on why “Quantum Leap” had such a terrible conclusion. I think the answer is fairly simple: the writers didn’t know how to end it. One thing I respect about television shows nowadays is that the creators have an endgame in mind. For example FX’s “The Strain” plans to run for three to five seasons. They aren’t going to drag the show out forever. I think that was the problem with the “Quantum Leap” writers. They never had a game plan on how to effectively bring Sam home. Maybe they envisioned the show continuing for years and figured that they had time to formulate an appropriate ending. Ironic that for a show based on time-travel, the writers ran out of time.
To be fair I have no clue how I would have ended “Quantum Leap.” I’m a blogger not a script writer. However I’d like to believe that SOMEONE out there could have written a better ending. In fact I’m positive.
It’s my sincere hope that I’ll never have to go through this devastating of a series finale again.
I know my television hopes so.
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