Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis

Addendum to the Tommy Westphall Universe by Dave Dyment

Tommy Westphall is a minor character from the drama television series ‘St. Elsewhere,’ which ran on NBC from 1982 to 1988. Westphall, who is autistic, took on major significance in the show’s final episode, where the common interpretation of that finale is that the entire St. Elsewhere storyline exists only within Westphall’s imagination. As characters from St. Elsewhere have appeared on other television shows and those shows’ characters appeared on more shows, a ‘Tommy Westphall Universe’ hypothesis was developed where a significant amount of fictional episodic television exists within Tommy Westphall’s imagined fictional universe.

The Tommy Westphall universe hypothesis, an idea discussed among some television fans, makes the claim that not only does ‘St. Elsewhere’ take place within Tommy’s mind, but so do numerous other television series which are directly and indirectly connected to ‘St. Elsewhere’ through fictional crossovers and spin-offs, resulting in a large fictional universe taking place entirely within Tommy’s mind. In 2002 writer Dwayne McDuffie wrote ‘Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere’ for the Slush Factory website, the earliest version of the hypothesis to be found online. In a 2003 article published on BBC News Online, ‘St. Elsewhere’ writer Tom Fontana was quoted as saying, ‘Someone did the math once… and something like 90 percent of all television took place in Tommy Westphall’s mind. God love him.’

The finale ended in a context very different from every other episode of the series. As the camera pans away from the snow beginning to fall at St. Eligius hospital, the scene changes to Donald Westphall’s autistic son Tommy, along with Daniel Auschlander in an apartment building. Westphall arrives home from a day’s work, and wears clothes suggesting that he is a construction worker. ‘Auschlander’ is revealed to be Donald’s father, and thus Tommy’s grandfather. Donald laments to his father, ‘I don’t understand this autism. I talk to my boy, but…I’m not even sure if he ever hears me…Tommy’s locked inside his own world. Staring at that toy all day long. What does he think about?’ The toy is revealed to be a snow globe with a replica of St. Eligius hospital inside. Tommy shakes the snow globe, and is told by his father to come and wash his hands, after having left the snow globe on the family’s television set.

The ‘St. Elsewhere’ characters of Dr. Roxanne Turner (Alfre Woodard) and Dr. Victor Ehrlich (Ed Begley, Jr.) appeared on ‘Homicide: Life on the Street.’ Fontana was the executive producer and showrunner for ‘Homicide’ for its entire seven years. The argument of the Tommy Westphall Universe is that because of this fictional crossover, the two series arguably exist within the same fictional universe, and within Tommy Westphall’s mind because of the final episode of ‘St. Elsewhere’; by extension this hypothesis can therefore be extended to series ranging from the science fiction program ‘The X-Files’ to the entire ‘Law & Order’ franchise (due to various crossovers with characters from the ‘Homicide’ series, in particular Det. John Munch). The theory and its continued discussion—including adding more series to that universe—is arguably an Internet meme.

There are other possible interpretations of Tommy’s ‘vision’ which may suggest something other than the entire series being his dream. For instance, it may be the other way around, and the snow globe scene may itself be the dream. Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at Cornell University, wrote a piece, ‘Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis,’ which challenges the logical, factual, and philosophical basis for existence of the ‘universe.’ Weatherson’s fifth objection holds that the appearance of a person or event in a dream does not mean the person or event cannot exist in real life. If a person dreams about visiting London and meeting Gordon Brown, it does not follow that because the city of London and Gordon Brown appeared in a dream, they do not exist in real life. Specific to the Westphall Hypothesis, even if we accept that St. Elsewhere is Westphall’s dream, it does not imply that all of the characters on the show exist only in his mind. Therefore, appearances from ‘St. Elsewhere’ characters on other shows are not sufficient to indicate that those shows exist only in Westphall’s dream.

The notion that appearances by the same character in two or more series tie those series together in the same fictional universe is also problematic. Weatherson, in his sixth objection, offers the example of Michael Bloomberg’s playing the role of New York City Mayor both on ‘Law & Order’ and in real life, which, if one accepts the logic of the hypothesis, indicates that real life is in the head of Tommy Westphall. Thus, it does not follow that because one person, place, or thing is present in two or more works of fiction that those works are necessarily related. If two shows are set in New York City and both display certain key landmarks, that alone does not imply that they share a storyline. Setting and characters are just two elements of fiction; crossovers and coincidences, critics of the hypothesis say, are not sufficient to link separate stories in such a fundamental way. The Westphall Hypothesis does not itself explain why this technique is indeed sufficient, nor does it provide positive evidence suggesting that the writers and producers of each show purported to be in the Westphall Universe actually intended for their shows to exist only in the dream of an autistic child.

Other objections have centered on the idea of intertextuality. These argue that as both the main continuity of ‘St. Elsewhere’ and the Westphall continuity are both fictional, there is little to no point in attempting to determine logically which is the ‘real’ universe of the show. More abstract theories of metafiction, such as those expressed in Patricia Waugh’s book ‘Metafiction,’ would argue that fiction simply has the capacity to represent that which is not real at all (i.e., both ‘St. Elsewhere’ and Westphall are as real as each other). Much like an abstract painting does not have to match any three-dimensional object, fiction, drama, film, television, and novels can be constructed such that they do not resemble any actual situation in the real world. Thus, attempting to rein such narratives into the confines of reality, or even of simple logic, is an essentially misguided effort. They do not function according to reality and logic unless their creators, or indeed their audiences, impose it.

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