As stated previously, I went into the revival of Quantum Leap with cautious optimism. It started off good in a nostalgic sort of way, but by the second half of the season was legitimately the best show on television in my opinion and my favorite all over again.
In my experiment of stack ranking the first 18 episodes of each incarnation apples to apples, I mentioned the season finale was a ton of fun even though the time travel didn’t really make sense. After giving it some thought, it suddenly clicked that it actually makes a ton of sense in the context of how time travel has always worked at Project Quantum Leap circa both 1995 & 2022. I’m talking Primer level brilliance in making things work without spelling it out, riding that line between not over-explaining things to casual fans while still leaving the breadcrumbs for the hard core time travel nerds to put the pieces together.
Below is an attempt by this hard core time travel nerd to overexplain how it all works.
Obviously there are spoilers below for the first season of the Quantum Leap revival,
aka Season 6 for the die hards. Consider yourself warned…
In a nutshell, the resolution to the season-long mystery of why Ben leaped was a future version of Ian time traveled back to 2022 and told him to. In the finale, we learn the event Ben was trying to stop took place in 2018. The part I had a hard time reconciling initially was why a time traveler would travel from 2040ish to 2022 if they were trying to prevent something from happening in 2018. Time Travel 101 dictates you go back to BEFORE an event occurs if you want to stop it, right?
The facts as we know them:
- Martinez leaps from 2040ish, with a final destination of 2018 to kill Addison
- Ian leaps after Martinez, targeting 2022 to warn Ben
- Ben leaps 6 months later, with an apparent destination “in the future”
- We eventually learn “the future” is just a pit-stop en route to 2018
Expert fans speculated on a number of alternate timelines that changed the dates of key events as we went, but at worst these ended in hand-wavy paradox or at best were way more overcomplicated than necessary. There had to be a simpler explanation since this was too much of a mistake to just be an oversight or sloppy writing. A twice repeated quote from Janis Calavicci gave me the answer. “There’s an order to Ben’s leaps.”
As a leaper leaps from year to year, time ends up synchronized between the leaper and project headquarters. A 12 hour leap is 12 hours of project time: once the imaging chamber gets a lock, the clocks move together. We know from the original series that the time elapsed between leaps might be different for the leaper and the project (and it’s strongly implied here with HQ making it from 2022 to 2023 despite Ben rarely spending more than a full day on a leap) but the important part is time keeps moving forward for both.
Ben had a pre-programmed route of “at least 10, probably closer to 20” leaps to reach his destination and stop Addison’s death. Martinez (aka Leaper X) is also presumably on a pre-programmed route using the same technology 20 years later. That’s the key. Let’s flesh out some details.
Assume Ian still works at the project in 2040ish, which explains their knowledge of the government plan to send Martinez back to 2018 and easy access to the accelerator. At a minimum they were aware of the series of leaps Martinez would take to reach 2018. They might have even programmed it! I like to think they did, and intentionally sent Leaper X on a roundabout route to buy Ben time. (“Sorry, it’s the best I can do. At least 20, probably closer to 30 leaps to reach 2018…”)
Ian knows Martinez has X leaps before reaching 2018 and it should take about 6 months of project time. They leap directly to 2022 to warn Ben. (I’m assuming the government doesn’t know Ian can target a single destination and return, explaining Ian’s leaping career presumably being one and done.) This is where the order of leaps and the synchronized timeline explains things. Ian’s leap to 2022 synchronizes HQ time with Martinez’s leap time. If Martinez will kill Addison on his 30th leap and Ian goes to 2022 to warn Ben during Martinez’s 5th leap, there’s no paradox. Addison is alive in 2022 because Martinez hasn’t made it to 2018 to kill her yet. The plan is essentially a race to ensure Ben reaches 2018 before and/or around the same time as Martinez. It isn’t “Addison died, let’s undo it” but rather “we know of a plot to kill Addison, let’s head it off.”
A simpler way to think about this is to remove time travel from the equation. Pretend this is 24 instead of Quantum Leap. CTU has learned of a plot to assassinate a member of Congress. The prime suspect will travel from California to Washington DC to do this, will stop in 5 cities along the way, and arrive in DC on a specific date. Jack Bauer & company can either neutralize the subject at any of the 5 stops along the way, or get to DC before them. This is no different; just replace “stops in different cities” with “leaps in different years”
So Ian makes it to 2022. Per their leapee Dottie, we know Ian stays for a week, presumably spending some amount of time debriefing Ben—maybe even Ben & Janis together, explaining why Janis has Dottie’s name to give. This debrief includes a) how to slingshot to the future, b) Martinez’s route to 2018, c) how to conceptually target a year/leapee, d) a method to detect how far along Martinez is on his route. Ben & Janis need to do the coding, but Ian provides the core knowledge.
The goal is for Ben to plot a slingshot path to the future in a specific order, try to find places to overlap with Martinez to sabotage a leap along the way, and ultimately arrive in 2018 on the same day as Martinez so there’s no paradox. That’s where the ability to detect the progress of Martinez is important — if Leaper X reaches 2018 first and kills Addison/everyone the whole plan is foiled when the timeline changes instantly ripple. This also explains what Janis saw in the very first scene of Episode 1—Martinez has reached the point of no return where he might reach 2018 before Ben if he leaps again, so Ben has to leap ASAP or their plan won’t work. (Ian’s calculation may have been slightly off and Martinez is ahead of schedule, hence “that can’t be right!” and the frantic texts to Ben…)
Another aspect of the final plan that seemingly makes no sense at face value is Ian needing to enter the “cheat code” simultaneously in 2 (or maybe 3) timelines. How can there even be such a thing as doing things simultaneously in multiple timelines? Again, time being in sync between a leaper and HQ helps here.
- Ben leaps to 2051, aligning 2051 with HQ in 2023.
- Ben leaps to 2018, aligning both 2018 & 2051 with HQ time in 2023 and allowing the 3 Ians (Threeans?) to be entangled.
- Ben & Martinez fight in the 2018 accelerator, making multiple leaps
- The cheat code needs to be entered in both 2023 & 2018 simultaneously because different versions of the accelerator are controlling Ben’s leaps simultaneously.
Other open questions:
Why didn’t any of this change Martinez’s initial plan? Martinez is mildly confused to encounter leaper Ben instead of leaper Addison in Salvation, but Ziggy ran the probabilities in advance that someone would keep the project alive if he killed only Addison before he left so he’s not totally surprised. (It’s also how he knows all about Ben—just like he knows all about Addison & Ian & Jenn & Magic — his mission has always been to kill them all, but Ian wasn’t privy to that info.)
What happens to the 2051 timeline? Per Ian, “the future will figure itself out.” An oversimplified comment, but an interesting one. The brief glimpse of the future we see is handled in an ambiguous enough way there isn’t a clear cause and effect pair. Ian alludes to the country being at war and Project Quantum Leap being a scapegoat. Later we learn Martinez plans to implode the accelerator in 2018, taking out everything in a 3 mile radius. Was the 2051 HQ in shambles from the war, Martinez succeeding, or something else? You can legitimately argue for either/neither/both, hinting at the fact that future will figure itself out. Said differently, paradox can be avoided in the long term if two different causes can trigger the same outcome. Initially I thought it was unnecessarily confusing to have it both ways here, but in hindsight I really like it. As for the future, if the project was truly a blameless scapegoat, the war still happens. (At least for now…)
What’s the significance of Ben’s leaps that didn’t overlap with Martinez? They were all leaps Addison completed as the original leaper, and Ian wanted to make sure the good she did wasn’t undone. That might be the reason Ben has a disproportionate number of gender swapped leaps compared to Sam since he’s repeating some of Addison’s. (I have a different theory on what may happen in Season 7 based on the trailer that might void this last bit, but I’ll stick with it for now.)
It’s a perfect circle….