Lords of Time #4: Doctor Who Vs Quantum Leap

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Guest contributor Matthew Dixon continues the series pitting Doctor Who against some of the biggest time travel fiction.


“It’s not like you’re lost in a mall – you’re lost in time!” – Al

Three down so far! We’ve had Doctor Who Americanized, Life in the Future and Timey-Wimey Phones. It gets even weirder from here because today we look at mental time travel!

About the Challenger!

Country of Origin: United States

Dr. Sam Beckett, a leading physicist at a top secret government facility in the United States, born 1953 in Elk Ridge Indiana, is a genius with an IQ of 267, photographic memory, middle child of three from a farming family who grew up to go to MIT where he earned seven doctorates, one of which was in Quantum Physics. It was here that he was mentored by a professor and together they came up with the String Theory to time travel which would later lead Sam to design the Quantum Accelerator. During his late twenties, he attended the Starbright Project and met someone who would later become his slightly rude but most trusted cigar-smoking friend, Al Calavicci. Both Sam and Al went on to head up the Quantum Leap program with the aim of sending people back through time within their own lifetime, but with costs to completion becoming unsustainable and the government threatening to pull the plug, Sam took it upon himself to test the machine too early in order to prove his theory. The project worked, but shortly after stepping into the accelerator chamber and vanishing, he awakes to find himself in 1956, in somebody else’s life.

The Lure!

At first, Sam finds himself confused from the effects of the leap, a term that would later become used throughout the show as having a ‘Swiss-cheesed mind’. Using a Holographic Projection Chamber in the future, Al is soon able to tune himself into Sam’s brainwaves so that only he can see and hear him. This allows Sam a form of guidance in the past which enables him to correct mistakes in the original history and cause the machine to leap him out. Much like Doctor Who, we see the lead character – the hero – inserted into a situation along with a secondary character. This works for both the story and viewers as not only does Al help Sam throughout the episodes, but he contributes further by supplying information that would normally not be apparent to the viewer. We see this in Doctor Who with companions all the time, a means to ask questions we would all like to be asking. With Sam leaping out but not home due to an unknown force (later to be suggested to be God), which seems to be holding him within the past, his only options are to continue leaping from one life to another, correcting mistakes until he can leap back home.

Dynamics and Differences!

Quantum Leap was always one of those shows that you either loved or hated. It was a vastly deep platform to tell many different stories about revenge, love, betrayal or loss. In all honesty though, it never stretched far enough into the more commonly used time travel aspect that Doctor Who employs. It utilized mental time travel instead, a less than popular time travel type these days. Similar to Doctor Who, Quantum Leap utilizes a ripple-effect proof memory which allows the characters to remember how the original history played out after the alteration to the timeline has been made.

Doctor-Who-The-Beast-Below-(1)Comparisons stem from the nature of the characters and the situations, similar to Doctor Who which also didn’t use time travel as we observe it in the new series today. What I believe to be the most recognizable aspect that binds these two shows together is the fact that both try and set things right that started out wrong and fix the broken, all without so as much as a thank you. Where the Doctor saves the day from near destruction before walking right back to his TARDIS, Sam uncontrollably leaps out of the time zone he’s occupying and into another the moment his task is complete. The soft and caring nature towards others in need is clearly visible in both characters,  despite the setting that they occasionally find themselves in and sometimes, even pushing through painful and personal emotional moments that have a deep connection to their own characters.

“It came because it couldn’t stand to watch your children cry. What if you were really old, and really kind and alone? Your whole race dead. No future. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.” – Amy Pond

Compared to:

“There was a girl named Trudy. She was retarded, Sam. Her IQ was lower than Jimmy’s. And all the kids in the neighborhood used to tease her. Kids can be cruel. Call her names like dummy and monkey face and I hated it and I used to get in fights all the time over this, but that’s what big brothers are for right? My mother couldn’t handle it-that’s probably why she ran off with this stupid encyclopedia salesman. But my dad tried to keep us all together. He was a construction worker, he went from job to job, and when it took him to the Middle East, I wound up in an orphanage, and she wound up in an institution. When I was old enough I went back there for her, but it was too late. She was gone Sam. Pneumonia they said. How does a 16-year-old girl die from pneumonia in 1953?” – Al talking about his sister.

reapers-doctor-who-fathers-dayIn both cases, our time travelers have to deal with altering historical events and in both shows, this can be a very dangerous thing indeed. These characters do find themselves faced with making changes for the better without disrupting things too much and causing problems such as paradoxes – a difficult thing to do when they are so involved in the circumstances they are hurled into. With Father’s Day – I won’t go into the details as I’m sure we all know the damaging effect that occurred during those events – but needless to say, it really pulled on at the heart strings. In Quantum Leap’s The Leap Home, Sam arrives during the Vietnam War alongside his older brother (Tom Beckett), whose team has been sent to rescue a group of POWs. Originally, Tom Beckett was meant to be killed, so Sam opts to go against the rules and Al’s advice, choosing to save Tom’s life. He succeeds, but at a cost as the alteration caused Al (unbeknownst to Sam at the time) to stay a prisoner in a POW camp for an extra five years.

These personal and emotional moments throughout the show have been something I have always believed to be a way of finding someone who acts well compared to someone who really sells the role and both Quantum Leap and Doctor Who have managed to do this this massively with fantastic casting. Time Travel is a genre, but it isn’t a formula that needs to be followed to the T. True classics often fuse contrasting ideas together to form something wonderful. Words will only ever do so much, but a true artesian will have you bawling with tears just with a simple expression. I find both shows have very much in common. They reach out to the good nature inside us all and secures the viewer with a moral compass that will always prevail and aim for want of a better phrase: A simple message to always help those in need and above all – enjoy what you have each and every day, whether it be family or friends and no matter what time period or world you may hail from.

In conclusion, I find Quantum Leap may not stand out as heavy on the time travel aspects of science, but just like Doctor Who, it’s the heart and soul that makes it such a successful time travel story that will have you smiling and crying throughout five wonderful seasons.


  • Plot – 4/5
  • Characters – 4/5
  • Character Development – 2/5
  • Tearjerkers – 5/5
  • Timey-Wimey ball – 2/5
  • Plot Point – 3/5

Based on these criteria, Quantum Leap scored…

20 out of a possible 30.

This means that the rankings look like this now:

  1. Back to the Future24/30
  2. Future Diary 22/30
  3. Quantum Leap -- 20/30
  4. The Time Machine16.5/30

Join us next time when we rake up another challenger. Clue for next article: Rothenburg ob der Tauber

In memory of Brett Tearne 1977 -- 2013