"Shock Theater" Canon-wise, there's not much to remember in "Shock Theater." We are given no new details of Sam's back story, or of Al's. Al doesn't even use the setting -- a psychiatric hospital in the 1950s -- to give a few memories of his sister, who died in similar hospital. It didn't even have a lot of bearing on future episodes (except the immediate successor, "The Leap Back," and then only as the mechanism that allowed Sam and Al to switch places). And yet "Shock Theater" is clearly one of the most vividly remembered episodes in all of Quantum Leap. It is also the episode that makes television's critics -- you know, the ones who think of it as an artistic vacuum, or, as Harlan Ellison put it, "the glass teat," a mind-numbing -- either stand up and take notice, or go off to a dark corner to lick their wounds. The Leap should have been easy -- Sam is there to help a young man with mild Down's syndrome learn to make it in the outside world. Teaching him his alphabet turns out to be enough. But there is a complication: as he Leaps in, he is subjected to electro-shock therapy, and the machine is jacked up to a dangerous level by a cruel orderly who is trying to get revenge on the patient Sam has Leaped into. Sam's ego is pushed away, and, when the initial terror of the situation leaves him, the void is filled by the personalities of the various people he has Leaped into. The script is strong, though it hedges on why this sort of reaction would occur (is it some kind of neural transfer that Sam has had over the years? or are these personalities learned from having played them convincingly?). Deborah Pratt takes us deftly from Samantha Stormer to Jesse Tyler to Magic to Kid Cody to Jimmy, making each change of personality integral to the scene it occurs in (eg.: Sam becomes illiterate Jesse Tyler when he finds out that he has to teach Tibby to read, fighter Kid Cody when he is fighting to keep Al in touch, and pilot Tom Stratton -- obsessed with breaking Mach 3 -- exactly when he needs to concentrate on what Al is telling him). The script does exactly what the best scripts do (which is why a lot of writers dislike scripts!): it disappears, and lets the world it has created stand on its own. And what a world! Havenwell Hospital is a dark, dreary cavern, lit (when lit at all) with harsh fluorescents that distort colors and make everything false and ugly. The constant storm outside completes the picture of grey hopelessness. It is against this setting that Scott Bakula gives the performance of a lifetime (Dean Stockwell's part as Al was wonderfully performed, and the concerned father-figure part of his character was explored, but the role was not as challenging, and Mr. Stockwell had the sense to know that this was the episode for his co-star to shine.) Mr. Bakula has said, in various places, that there will never be another part like Sam Beckett, and it is easy to see his point: after all, how many times do you get to play a totally new role every week, while still carrying enough elements of a known role to keep your audience? And for this very versatile character, there could never be another script like "Shock Theater." For the first time, the added characters are not once removed (Scott Bakula playing Sam Beckett playing Samantha or Jimmy or...); they are direct, and Mr. Bakula plays a young woman, an elderly black man, a soldier in Vietnam, a fighter, a pilot, and a man with Down's syndrome... all in the space of an hour. I'm hard pressed to think of a more artistically or intellectually challenging role than this one, in any medium of performance, and Mr. Bakula rose to the challenge with the grace of a master. Not bad for "the glass teat."
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