Friday, March 20, 2009

Tommy Westphall's Universe

Are your favorite television shows merely the dream of an autistic boy?
Listening to the Rick Emerson show this morning, I learned of a show from the 80's that I had not heard of before, called St. Elsewhere. I checked out the pilot episode on Hulu, and it turned out to be pretty descent. It's basically an early hospital drama who's cast includes up and coming actors such as Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, and David Morse of The Green Mile and Twelve Monkeys.

One thing they mentioned on the Rick Emmerson show, was the series finale, which ended with the implication that the entire series was merely the daydream of a boy with autism named Tommy Westphall. By implication, this could mean that other shows which have tied into St. Elsewhere are also part of this dream. For example, the bar and characters from Cheers not only appeared in an episode of St. Elsewhere, but St. Elsewhere characters also appeared in Cheers. But it goes further; the show, Homicide: Life on the Street included characters from St. Elsewhere, and Law and Order has included characters from Homicide. So, according to this hypothesis, that would make the Law and Order series a part of Tommy Westphall's dream.

But it doesn't stop there. Researchers of the "Westphall Hypothesis" have dug around and created grids, charting all the shows which tie into St. Elsewhere, either directly or indirectly. This grid includes almost every show you've ever heard of, from Buffy to Boston Legal to Dr. Who. There is also a key which explains each crossover. Even if you don't buy the hypothesis, it's interesting to see how each show links to another with crossovers.

Some of the crossovers are a bit sketchy, however. For instance, one episode of the whimsical British sci-fi show, Red Dwarf, featured a spaceship graveyard which included the Firefly ship and a Klingon ship from the Star Trek series. I take something like this to be more of a humorous reference, rather than a canonical crossover. Besides, Firefly and Star Trek can't exist in the same universe anyway; the entire premises of the two shows conflict. Also, if two characters from two shows smoke the same fictitious brand of cigarettes, is that a crossover which ties them into the same universe? Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Wouldn't it be the same to say that all shows that use the telephone prefix, 555, part of the same universe?

It's important to distinguish a crossover from a reference, for instance, a character from one show appearing in another is a crossover. A spinoff, such as Frasier is a crossover. A character on a show mentioning another show, such as a character from Heroes watching Seinfeld would be a reference, not a crossover. Mentioning a name as a tribute to another show, such as the hospital from House having a Doogie Howser wing, would be a reference, not a crossover. On the other hand, if House were intentionally set in the same hospital as Doogie Howser, or if a character made a mention of having worked with Doogie Howser, those would be a crossovers.

There are a lot of arguments against this hypothesis. I haven't found most of them to be conclusive. For instance, one argument is; saying that the appearance of a character in two shows means that those shows take place in the same universe is like saying that two shows set in the same city take place in the same universe. I disagree in that a writer whose show is set in Chicago may not intend for their show to exist in the same world and another show in Chicago, however, if two writers decide to include the same character in both of their shows, that pretty much implies the intent that their shows exist in the same world.

On that note however, say that the writers of Heroes intends for their show to exist in the same world as Las Vegas, but they never intended to be a part of Tommy Westphall's dream? Do they have to be a part of Tommy Westphall's dream for continuity? And if all these shows are related, how come I never see people with super powers on Boston Legal? (Denny Crane's grandeur doesn't count.)

I suppose the main thing is; it's fiction and involves multiple disjointed writers, therefore each show is dependent on the canon of that specific writer. From the St. Elsewhere canon, perhaps Heroes is a part of Tommy Westphall's dream, but from the Heroes canon it isn't. Hell, from the Seinfeld canon, Seinfeld happens in real life, however many other shows reference it as a television show. So it really depends on the point of view of the show; if you watch Seinfeld it's real life. If you watch Bones, and somebody is watching Seinfeld on TV, now it's a TV show. That's how fiction works. Christ, Tommy Westphall could be having different dreams with crossover characters. But then on that note, isn't that really what we're doing when we watch these shows?

So in conclusion, I guess my stance is that it depends on:

1. the specific canon of the show: do the writers want it to be a dream or real?
2. where no specific canon is established by the writer, it becomes dependent on the viewer.

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