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TV Genre Smackdown: Quantum Leap vs. Doctor Who

It’s time…time to settle, once and for all, which genre shows rule and which ones drool. Talk to the fans and you will always run into people who feel one show with a premise of x is so much better than that other show based on x.

To that end, here’s today’s Smackdown: Quantum Leap vs. Doctor Who

The Premise: Traveling through time, fixing little moments in history.

Quantum Leap (1989 -1993)

Theorizing that one could time travel within his own lifetime, Doctor Sam Beckett stepped into the quantum leap accelerator, and vanished… 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. 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. And so Doctor Beckett finds himself leaping from life to life, striving to put right what once went wrong, and hoping that each time his next leap will be the leap home…

Doctor Who (1963 – Present)

When it became time for him to settle down and accept responsibility on his home-world, the Doctor, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey, chose to run for his life. Stealing one of his people’s spaceships, a marvelous piece of technology known as a T.A.R.D.I.S. (Time and Relative Dimensions In Space), that was set to be decommissioned due to age, the Doctor fled all the way to a small blue planet called ‘Earth’. There was something about the humans who live on this planet that appealed to him, so much so that he began inviting them to travel with him as he explored not only space, but time, having adventures, thwarting plots and changing little bits of history.


Quantum Leap was created by prolific television writer/producer Donald P. Bellisario (Magnum, P.I., Airwolf, Tales of the Gold Monkey, JAG & NCIS). He has been quoted as saying that movies like Heaven Can Wait (1978), and Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941) were inspirations for the series. In the movie Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty plays a quarterback who is in a car accident. A guardian angel thinks he is dead, so he mistakenly takes him to heaven (he wasn’t supposed to die just yet). When Heaven realizes their mistake, it’s too late to send Beatty back to earth because his body has been cremated, so they offer to send him back to earth in a ‘new’ body – that of recently murdered millionaire Leo Farnsworth. (Good flick, btw – you should check it out)

So we can see where Bellisario got the inspiration for the body swapping element of QL. In the movie, Beatty’s character also tries to change Farnsworth’s life so that he can become a Superbowl champion quarterback, which he’d been on track to do before he was in the accident, so you can also see a little of the ‘change history’ element – or at least the idea that one might change a life or the lives of those around you once you’re inside someone else’s skin.

Quantum Leap debuted on March 26, 1989 and despite a lukewarm first season, was renewed and continued on til the series finale aired on May 5, 1993.

The story of Doctor Who as I remember it, having watched a lot of interviews through the years, is that the original Doctor William Hartnell, was offered the lead role in a new children’s science fiction program. At the age of 55, he thought it would be fun to do and make him a little money to help him in his retirement, but didn’t think it would last very long.

He was wrong.

The longer story involves a lot of people including Eric Maschwitz, Donald Wilson, Alice Frick, Donald Bull, Donald Baverstock, John Braybon, Sydney Newman, C. E. ‘Bunny’ Webber, Verity Lambert, David Whitaker, Rex Tucker, Mervyn Pinfield and Anthony Coburn all having a hand at one point or another, in bringing a new ‘science fiction/education program for kids’ to the air. I don’t think any of them knew quite what they were starting.

After a rocky beginning on November 23rd, 1963 (due to the Kennedy assassination capturing the world’s attention), it was a little while before the Doctor caught on, but when he did – he never looked back. Today, the show is listed in Guinness World Records as the longest-running science fiction television show in the world.

Unfortunately, William Hartnell was not able to carry-on his duties as The Doctor; at the age of 55 when he began, his health declined steadily and eventually he was having difficulties with the long hours and with remembering his lines, so the idea to replace him was bandied about. After all, the BBC had a hit on their hands. They didn’t want to see the show end, so a novel idea was concocted – what if a Time Lord, when faced with an aged or injured body, could ‘regenerate’? Now they could retire Hartnell and bring in a new actor, Patrick Troughton, then Jon Pertwee, Tom Baker, Peter Davison, Colin Baker, Sylvester McCoy, Paul McGann, Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant & Matt Smith to all play the part.

Time Travel

Although both shows are about time travel in one form or another, neither focuses on time travel as the main story element. Instead, time travel is more often the vehicle by which a story begins. In the classic tv show Fantasy Island, people are brought to an island where they are allowed to experience some fantasy they have always dreamt of – usually it doesn’t turn out the way they intended and they learn some life lesson that changes them positively. An airplane brings them to the island, but the story is never about that airplane. For Quantum Leap and Doctor Who, Time Travel tends to be the plane.

Sam Beckett is a genius. He built an Artificial Intelligence named Ziggy and a time machine, the Quantum Leap Accelerator, along with who knows what else. His theory is that the Quantum Leap Accelerator will allow a person to travel through time but with a caveat – you can only travel within your own lifetime. So if you were born in 1950, you can’t travel to 1949.

In the beginning, it seemed as if only Sam’s consciousness was traveling through time, swapping bodies with the people he leaps into. In later episodes, it was explained that Sam’s entire body does, in fact, travel through time. When he leaps into a new time period, he swaps ‘auras’ with someone from that time. To everyone who sees him, the aura projects the image of the original person, so he can appear shorter than normal, or taller, or as an animal (he once leaped into a chimp) or even as a woman (which happened several times). Consequently, the person he ‘leaped into’ is transported to the future where they appear to be Sam Beckett to everyone who sees them (I guess -they- can travel outside their own lifetime).

A side effect of this mode of time travel is affectionately termed ‘the swiss cheese effect’ – the person who is ‘leaping’, has no memory of the leap once it’s over. As far as they’re concerned, it never happened. For Sam Beckett, this means that although he is aware of who he is – his name, for example, everything else is vague. Al, the observer from the future, is a sort of ‘life-line’ for Sam. At times he has to remind Sam of who he his, guide him through the mission, and help him ‘leap’ again. One thing that Al does not remind Sam is that he is married. His wife, also a part of Project Quantum Leap, feels that Sam would hold back on his little missions if he remembered her because he would want to be faithful to their vows.

For the Doctor, time travel is a bit different. Like Sam, he is a genius – probably off the scale as human’s measure such things. He’s an alien, a Time Lord from the planet Gallifrey. He has two hearts beating in his chest and a mind that can see all of time and space.

The Time Lord’s were once the self-appointed guardians of time. From a young age, they are exposed to the time vortex, a schism in reality that allows them to see directly into the heart of space and time. It forever changes them. They can see not only what was and what will be, but what might be. It’s this tantalizing bit of knowledge that gives the Doctor his true power. He can see what might be and that means he can change things.

When the Time Lord’s harnessed the power of time and space, they saw the dangers inherent in changing too much, how it could unravel everything. They built ships called TARDIS’s, capable of not only traveling through space but through time and, with the clever use of a chameleon circuit, they could hide in plain site, observing events as they unfolded. A TARDIS could be a pillar in ancient Greece, for example – or a blue police box in 1960’s London.

The Mission

Whenever Sam leaps into a new body, Ziggy goes to work in the future, analyzing data from the time period, looking into the person Sam has traded places with and coming up with a scenario. Al, appearing as a hologram, puts Sam on the path, letting him know what needs to be fixed or changed in order for him to leap again. Sometimes its little things, sometimes its big things – like saving lives.

For Sam, the missions are being driven by something else. He believes it’s God leaping him around through time but he doesn’t really have any proof of that – it’s just a feeling, but a strong one for him. It helps to give him a sense of purpose and ease his mind that he isn’t just bouncing around without rhyme or reason. He does not learn the true reason for his leaping through time until the series finale.

The Doctor has said that when he travels through time to a specific moment, he and all who are with him, become part of any events unfolding in that time. So if they travel to ancient Rome, to Pompeii, on Volcano Day – they are now part of those events and have to stick it out til the end, so to speak. Any changes they make will reverberate throughout time, but some things can’t be changed – some things are fated to happen and must be allowed to unfold as destined or terrible things will result.

The criteria for what can and can’t be changed seems to rest solely at the Doctor’s discretion (more so in the new series than in the past. In the new series, he is the Last Time Lord – all the other’s are gone. They took it upon themselves to guard time, to fix anomalies, ensure that everything flowed correctly. Without them, there doesn’t seem to be anyone concerned with such things – not even The Doctor himself. Oddly enough, he doesn’t appear to be more cautious about what he can or can’t change now that there is no one policing time – or maybe there is someone policing time and we just haven’t seem them yet? Saving the earth from an invasion by hostile aliens, for example, is completely acceptable. Save the lives of a crew of astronauts destined to die on Mars, a crew who inspires generations of humans into exploring space, not so much).


Wherever Sam leaps, Al shows up. Sometimes it takes him a little while, but he does show up. ‘Al’ is Admiral Al Calavicci, played brilliantly by actor Dean Stockwell. Al is a former astronaut, Sam’s best friend, and a notorious ladies man, but he is not really Sam’s only companion. There’s also Ziggy, Gooshie (sometimes spelled ‘Gushie’) and Tina.

Ziggy is the Artificial Intelligence, designed and created by Sam, who runs Project Quantum Leap, analyzing all the data and historical information from Sam’s life. Gooshie is the main computer programmer for the project and even stands in for Al once in a while when Al is away. Tina is the medical officer for Project Quantum Leap and for most of the show, she is Al’s girlfriend. All interact with Sam at some point.

The Doctor, on the other hand, changes out companions almost as often as he change his face. From Susan (his granddaughter) to the current married team of Rory and Amy, the Doctor has had dozens of companions throughout his 900 years. Possibly more that we’ve never seen. Some speculate that the life of a Time Lord, being so very long (Matt Smith’s Doctor said they are immortal when he appeared on The Sarah Jane Adventures recently), is also very lonely. The Time Lord’s themselves don’t seem to appeal to the Doctor insofar as companionship is concerned (Romana being the exception – a Time Lord in her own right and a companion of the Doctor for several years), and so he turns (mostly) to humans.

Another theory is that the Doctor enjoys seeing the universe through the eyes of his companions. After all, it’s all new to them. Add to that the fact they tend to get into trouble, which starts the Doctor off on an adventure trying to figure out what’s going on, help save his companions and anyone else who needs saving. It’s fun for him.


I felt it was noteworthy to point out that both Sam Beckett and The Doctor had daughters during the course of their series.

In an episode of Quantum Leap (Trilogy, Part II), Sam falls in love with Abigail Fuller, a woman he has to save not once, but three different times (first as her father, second as her fiance and third as her lawyer – Trilogy part 1, 2 & 3 respectively). When he leaps into the man she is set to marry, he falls in love with her and fathers a daughter, “Sammy Jo” Fuller. Sammy Jo has a high IQ and a photographic memory, just like Sam. Later, Al reveals that Sammy Jo is a part of Project Quantum Leap.

In the Series 4 episode ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’, the Doctor’s genetic material is stolen and a daughter created from it. The planet he, Donna and Martha find themselves on, is in the middle of a war that’s been going on for generations between the human and Hath inhabitants. ‘Jenny’ is born with all the knowledge of a soldier, but she is also part Time Lord. But she cannot regenerate or at least, she doesn’t regenerate the way a full Time Lord does. At the end of her episode, Jenny dies and the Doctor demands that she regenerate, but she doesn’t. After he leaves, though, she revives, steals a ship and goes off to explore the universe on her own. It’s unclear if she did or didn’t die (The Doctor certainly thinks that she did – see ‘Journey’s End’ if you don’t believe me). Maybe her version of regeneration, being only a ‘generated anomaly’, is to simply come back to life with the same old face.

A bit of trivia – Georgia Moffett, the actress who portrayed Jenny, is the daughter of Peter Davison, who played the Fifth Doctor. She also married David Tennant which creates a Whovian family tree that’ll make your head spin. A little.

It’s also necessary to mention that the First Doctor, Hartnell’s Doctor, traveled with Susan – his granddaughter. This implies that the Doctor did, in fact, have a daughter or son previously.


Both shows had a bit of controversy in their histories.

For Doctor Who, some parents groups felt that things like Leela’s leather outfits, Amy’s skirt and the way Jon Pertwee’s & Tom Baker’s Doctors would throw a punch (or a karate chop) was too intense for children. But perhaps the most famous controversy wasn’t actually in the show, but about the show. From 1964 til 1973, the BBC destroyed, wiped or lost many of the original recordings from the first three Doctor’s, Hartnell, Troughton and Pertwee. Some have been recovered but at last count, there were still 108 episodes from those early years that are still ‘lost’.

Quantum Leap‘s controversy came in the form of music and DVD releases. Many television shows moving to the DVD format when it was still young, ran afoul of licensing rights when it came to the music featured in the episodes – something that is now negotiated before the music is inserted into an episode. Perhaps one of the better known and longest running battles over music rights was the David E. Kelly show, Ally McBeal, which did not appear on DVD in Region 1 (United States, Canada, Bermuda, U.S. territories) until 2009 even though the show itself ended it’s television run in 2002.

Like Ally McBeal, the rights to the music in certain episodes of Quantum Leap were mixed up in licensing rights, but unlike McBeal, the owners of the Quantum Leap catalog of shows chose to simply replace the songs in question with others rather than negotiate for the original songs. So for example, they replaced ‘Georgia on my Mind’ as sung by Ray Charles for the episode ‘M.I.A.’, with another song. Many fans felt that this destroyed the tone of the scene and the emotional impact created by the combination of that song with Al, as a hologram, dancing with his wife who could not see him, and who thought he was dead in that timeline, completely unaware that he was being held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam.


Quantum Leap has had a lasting impact on pop culture. Say ‘Oh Boy’ and it tends to conjure memories of the show in most people’s minds. It was a fun show that sometimes touched issues and topics that other shows might not, and they did it well. I remember being upset that the show was ending without Sam ‘making the leap home’, but with a little distance I gain some perspective – the show works very well as is. I’m glad now that they didn’t outstay their welcome. Could they have done more? Absolutely. Would it have been the same? There’s no way to know. All we know for sure is that Sam never made the leap home.

Doctor Who has, perhaps, had a larger and wider impact on pop culture. How many times has the 4th Doctor appeared on The Simpsons? But I feel like Doctor Who‘s impact was within a specific segment of the population once you get outside of the UK. Inside the UK, the impact is massive, a cultural icon – outside, only within the genre community. I would be willing to bet that the majority of the people in the office where I work (some 150 strong), have never even heard of the Doctor, and that they represent the general population fairly well.

That being said, I am a Who fan to my core and I have to give this one over to the Doctor despite the fact that, as Stephen Moffat’s Doctor takes to the airwaves again, I find myself looking forward to the show less than I have in the past couple of years. The Davies/Tennant years were full of fun and energy that I have not found in the Moffat/Smith show thus far. I still watch, but not as passionately as I have. It’s not destination tv for me any more, which is sad.

Your turn: What’s your favorite?

About Patrick Hester (527 Articles)
Patrick Hester is a writer, blogger, podcasting dude, Denver transplant and all around Functional Nerd. Don't hate him cuz he has a cool hat.

5 Comments on TV Genre Smackdown: Quantum Leap vs. Doctor Who

  1. Doctor Who, of course! Doesn’t even compare with Quantum Leap, and QL was my favorite show when it was on the air. My favorite Doctor is also Tennant, with Eccleston a close second. Matt Smith does a fine job, but I don’t think the writing is as good in fifth season. One notable exception though, my entire family loved the one about the Doctor and Picasso.

  2. QUANTUM LEAP had a lot going for it including Scott Bakula– a hunk of a thousand talents.  Who can forget him singing and playing “Great Balls of Fire” wearing a Carmen Miranda fruit hat?  And Dean Stockwell!  What a talent and his character was so interesting.

    One big problem I had with the series, though, was that Sam drops into characters to change their lives, but the character doesn’t remember he has done it so the character remains the same emotionally.  

    I lost interest in the series, though, several years in, and the finale was such a downer that I’ve never had any interest in rewatching the series.  

    I’ve never lost interest in DOCTOR WHO although I had to struggle through much of the Sylvester McCoy episodes.  The return of the series has never been dull although it hasn’t been perfect either.  

    So, it’s definitely DOCTOR WHO for the win. 

  3. Doctor Who, without question.

    It has longevity (the show Regenerated. Twice). Although most stories take place on Earth, the sheer variety of where the TARDIS can go puts Sam Beckett to shame.

    And I was disappointed in the QL finale–it was sour, at best.  I enjoyed individual episodes of the series, and some of the “Evil Leaper” stuff is good…but I’d put the best DW up against the best QL and its no contest. DW, by a unanimous decision.

  4. I’ve seen every Quantum Leap episode, and I use the phrase “hoping his next jump would take him home” after fortune cookies the way normal people use the phrase “in my pants”.


    but I’m sorry, hands down, no questions, no contest, Doctor Who is the winner.





  5. Quantum Leap is the winner in my book. I can show a person almost any Quantum Leap episode and have them engaged with the story of either the main character or who he leaps into. You can’t say that about Dr. Poo. The story of Dr. Who is complicated and always becoming more so. If I could sit down and either watch or learn all the aspects of the show from the beginning, sure I can see being a fan, but otherwise, hell no. Quantum Leap even explains the premise at the beginning of every episode. I equate Dr. Who with Star Trek, wildly popular, but if you just try to jump in, you have no fracking idea what they’re talking about. Sam Beckett is part of the reason I’m a scientist now.

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