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The Tommy Westphall Hypothesis

I’m a sucker for meta-fiction – the idea of storytelling outside the story. One of the more fascinating notions suggested by Marvel’s recent spate of movies is the notion that all the individual stories in Iron Man, Thor and Captain America will be tied together to be revealed to be part of a larger canvas (in this case, The Avengers in 2012). I love it when television and films are shown to occupy the same fictional reality (for example, the Star Trek franchise, spread across five television shows (possibly six) and eleven feature films). So it goes without saying that I adore The Tommy Westphall Hypothesis.

And I thought I had an active imagination! (Click to enlarge)

For those unfamiliar with the hypothesis, it basically states that most television takes place within the head of an eleven-year-old autistic boy.

Still with me? Good. The hypothesis derives from the finale to hospital drama St. Elsewhere, which – in a mindscrew that Lost would be proud of – ended up as the idle fantasy of the young son of a construction worker (who the boy chose to model as the main character). However, this fantasy ending posed an immediate problem. St. Elsewhere had crossed over for several episodes with Homocide: Life on the Street, with the detectives investigating a crime at the hospital. Logically, does that mean that Homocide was part of the child’s fantasy as well? Assuming that you run with the assumption, the character John Munch singlehandedly takes the fantasy to a whole new level. Himself, he adds the entire Law & Order franchise, The X-Files, Arrested Development and even this year’s BBC drama Luther to the child’s wandering fantasies. And those characters have crossed over into dozens of other shows.

Even ignoring the “it’s all a dream” hokeyness of it all, it’s cool isn’t it? In theory, it’s entirely possible that all these series occur within the same fictional world. Homer Simpson, for example, lives in the same universe as Frank Black, the profiler from Millennium. In fairness, it’s a conceit that grounds the entire comic book worlds of Marvel and DC, where the vast majority of their series and characters co-exist (albeit in a far more overt and explicit way) – it’s similtaneously the most fascinating and the most infuriating aspect of these stories (in that it’s more than a little common for individual storytellers to have their work overwritten by the greater goings-on in the fictional universes, which undermines the narrative integrity of the stories).

Of course, the hypothesis isn’t exactly flawless. There are numerous little nitpicks that could be made. For example, the fact that Homer Simpson watches Law & Order would negate him sharing a fictional universe with it – and arguably that it’s also pointless to treat a comedy appearance of Mulder and Scully in The Simpsons as proof that they coexist when the creators most likely didn’t mean to make it explicit. Of course, the reflexiveness of Homer watching fictional shows about fictional characters that also share his own particular plane of existence is fun for an idle mind to play with – a meta-fictional joy to play with. of course, it works both directions – when celebrities appear as themselves, it adds another fun layour to proceedings.

Best. Crossover. Ever.

And therein lies another flaw with the hypothesis. If the fact that these fictional characters co-exist indicates that they share the same level of existence, then what of ‘real’ people who appear as themselves. Take, for example, the appearances of Mayor Bllomberg as himself in Law & Order. Mayor Bloomberg really exists, but he’s part of the fantasy, so our world must – logically – be part of the fantasy as well. The solution is that he’s playing a character with his own name, job, history and personality. However, this breaks the chain. Who is to say there was any continuity between the John Munch in Homocide, the John Munch in Special Victims’ Unit and the John Munch in The X-Files?

But that spoils the fun a bit, doesn’t it? Still, quite a joy to think about.

And then there’s the tenacity of some of the connections. For example, Angel features a law firm with a client named Weyland Yutani. Weyland Yutani are “the company” in the Alien films. Does that mean that Joss Whedon’s Angel co-exists with Alien? Probably not, it was just a fun reference – I certainly don’t see Angel as being set in the distant history of the Alien universe.. Being honest, it’s entirely personal what you consider to be a connection and what you dismiss as too tenuous.

In the end, I guess it’s just personal preference, which I suppose all of this is. I’ve always advocated a loose personal sense of continuity to things. Stories are always interpretted by the individual – and it’s up to them to make sense of it. I never understood the raging fanboy criticisms and arguments which occur on-line as to whether Star Trek: The Animated Series is a crucial part of the Star Trek mythos (or ‘canon’) or if Superman III or Superman IV ever took place. Sure, Gene Roddenberry or his successors and Richard Donner, Richard Lester or Bryan Singer may have their own opinion as to what is and isn’t a part of their fictional universe, but it’s really up to the individual viewer to decide what informs their viewing. Perhaps I’ll even christen my idea: “subjective continuity”.

So it’s fun to play with these big ideas, but I don’t get too caught up in it all – it just makes for a fun meta-textual thought experiment. Plus I just think it’s cool that Lost’s island probably still exists on the Earth of Star Trek. Not that it matters, I just smile a little bit when I think about it. I don’t know why.

2 Responses

  1. I love metafiction, I wrote a whole thing about it a few months ago (but it was mostly referencing Wikipedia). Fantastic article, I was in turmoil over this particular theory some time ago. Then I realized that Tommy might’ve just seen all these shows on TV and incorporated them into his fantasies, and I felt better.

    • Yep, that’s the only real logical explanation. It can make your head spin if you think too hard… but in a good way. Man, I love this stuff.

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