The Leaper and the Doctor

The two best long-running time travel shows are Doctor Who and Quantum Leap.

Quantum Leap is about a character who is profoundly empathetic; he cares truly and deeply about every person who crosses his path and devotes himself to helping their lives be better, helping them achieve their best. He has to. Or he doesn’t leap. Structurally, he must be endlessly empathetic, caring, and immediately, constantly available. He never gets to say when something happens or who he engages with. His situations are chosen for him by circumstance, and he must accept and deal with circumstance as it comes to him. If he’s surrounded by people, he often can’t even freely speak to the person he’s most connected to, his metaphorical spouse. He has to put the needs of the real people around him over his own needs or the needs he has for connecting with his hologram.

This is motherhood. Not realistic motherhood, but the Platonic godhood ideal of motherhood. Ideally, a mother should be infinitely empathetic, caring, and available with nothing of her own that’s more important than the needs — or even whims — of her children. This is how Sam and now Ben have to be in Quantum Leap. In every episode, he’s required by the plot to achieve this impossible ideal of motherhood that’s only truly achievable because he has no other job, no interests of his own, nothing he’s supposed to do instead of helping the people he leaps into, and a full-time hologram who exists just to support him emotionally, give him information, and feed him clever ideas for handling people.

This is in stark contrast to the Doctor in Doctor Who. The Doctor is also profoundly empathetic, deeply caring, and likes to go around fixing things for people. But there’s the difference — she chooses to help people. Each time she helps someone, she’s making that choice. She’s not compelled by the structural plot of her show. She could get into her TARDIS and fly away any time she wants.  Sometimes she does. Sometimes she leaves her companions behind and doesn’t come back. They exist in her life at her whim. She has agency.

This is fatherhood. Not every kind of fatherhood, because there are all different kinds of fathers. Because fatherhood is only part of a father’s life. He’s expected to have outside commitments, interests, and a whole life outside his children. The Doctor has a box that seems to have a whole world inside it, and she has long histories everywhere she goes. She exists away from her companions. She has freedom.

The two best longest-running time travel shows are fundamentally about the Platonic godhood ideals of motherhood and fatherhood. They’re about characters who are profoundly, strikingly similar — they’re both deeply kind, caring, empathetic, and desirous of going around fixing things for others, making things better for other people. But one of them, day by day and minute by minute, has a choice. The other one is compelled, and he takes his responsibilities gracefully, almost entirely without complaint, almost as if he’d choose exactly what’s happening to him… if he had a choice.

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