, portrayed by Chad Allen
, is a minor character from the television series St. Elsewhere
. Chad Allen's character, who is an autistic child, took on major significance in St. Elsewhere
's final episode, "The Last One", where the common interpretation of that finale was 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 appears on more shows, a "Tommy Westphall Universe" hypothesis was developed where much of fictional episodic television exists within Tommy Westphall's imagined fictional universe
"The Last One"
The final episode of St. Elsewhere
, known as "The Last One", 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 it is clear that he works in construction from the clothes he wears. "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.
One of the more common interpretations of this scene is that as Tommy shakes the snow globe in the apartment, he also makes it snow at the "fictional" St. Eligius. His father and grandfather also seem to work at this hospital even though neither man has ever experienced such a role. By implication this interpretation suggests the total series of events in the series St. Elsewhere had been a product of Tommy Westphall's imagination.
The Tommy Westphall Universe hypothesis
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 a 2003 article published on BBC News Online, St. Elsewhere creator 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.
An example of crossover
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). 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 one element 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. However, there is also the possibility that Westphall has included real life figures and places within his imagination.
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.
- Wold Newton Universe - many characters prevalent in Tommy Westphall's mind/universe are also relevant and existing in the expanded and adapted Wold Newtonverse of Philip José Farmer.
- "Normal Again", episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, possibly "revealing" the entire series/Buffyverse to be a hallucination of a hospital-bound Buffy Summers.
- Newhart, the final episode of which revealed the entire series to be a dream of Robert Hartley, Bob Newhart's character on the previous Bob Newhart Show.
- "Far Beyond the Stars", episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, possibly "revealing" the entire series/Star Trek universe to be a hallucination of a 1950s African American science fiction writer Benny Russell (Benjamin Sisko).
- In Season 3, Episode 7 of Newsradio, "Daydream", the ending is a spoof of the Tommy Westphall sequence, with Jimmy, Dave, and Lisa reprising the roles of Tommy, his father, and his mother, respectively.
- The BBC series Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes both feature the premise that their main characters are dreaming the events of the series in the aftermath of a fatal or near-fatal incident.
- Likewise, the video game series Twisted Metal has had several allusions to the possibility that the events of the games are a series of hallucinations on the part of a schizophrenic homeless man (Marcus Kane) after being in an automobile accident.
- Hofstede, David (2004). What Were They Thinking? The 100 Dumbest Events in Television History. New York: Back Stage Books. ISBN 0-8230-8441-8.