iStock
iStock

The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

iStock
iStock

When NBC’s hour-long hospital drama St. Elsewhere signed off after six seasons on May 25, 1988, more than a few viewers were saddened. Not necessarily because the series—which had earned 13 Emmy Awards during its run—was ending, but because producers opted for a highly unconventional finale. In the closing moments of the episode, a boy named Tommy Westphall (Chad Allen), the son of medical director Dr. Donald Westphall, was seen peering into a snow globe. Inside the globe was a tiny mock-up of St. Eligius, the medical center that was featured in the series. Behind him stood his father, who was sporting a construction worker’s wardrobe.

The implication was that Tommy—a character on the autism spectrum—had imagined the entire show, a fiction-within-the-fiction conceit that had angered viewers during the infamous “dream season” arc on Dallas five years earlier. (On that series, Bobby Ewing was brought back to life after his "death" turned out to be just a bad dream.)

“I expect a very mixed reaction,” Bruce Paltrow, one of the show's executive producers, told the Chicago Tribune in 1988. “I think some people will think it's extraordinary and existential and quintessential St. Elsewhere. I think other people will find it puzzling, odd, maybe unfulfilling in some way.”

More than puzzling, some people found it to be an actual puzzle. If the universe of St. Elsewhere was a figment of Tommy Westphall’s elaborate imagination, then wouldn’t other television characters who appeared in the show’s continuity exist only within Tommy's mind, as well? The doctors had visited the bar on Cheers in one St. Elsewhere episode; Cheers spawned Frasier, a character who appeared on Wings; John Munch, the detective from Homicide, had mingled with the St. Eligius crew, and he has appeared on shows ranging from The X-Files to The Wire, effectively making him the Patient Zero of what's become known as The Tommy Westphall Universe theory.

As of this writing, 441 shows can be tied to St. Elsewhere with varying degrees of separation, ranging from I Love Lucy to The Flash. If the theory holds, then a large chunk of television is the direct result of one child’s formidable imagination.

Chad Allen in 'St. Elsewhere'

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

Erasing the fiction of an entire medium is not what Tom Fontana had planned. One of the producers on St. Elsewhere, he was openly hostile toward any idea of a reunion special down the line and insisted that the series finale should be definitive.

Fontana’s favored conclusion was a literal apocalypse, where the staff of St. Eligius would be standing by in the year 2013 while a toxic gas cloud passed over, the result of a corporate war between foreign factions. When NBC refused to finance their ambitious plan, the idea for the snow globe was hatched. (Quizzed by IndieWire in 2012 as to who exactly came up with the idea, neither Fontana nor co-writers Channing Gibson or John Tinker could remember.)

Fontana did, however, recall that half of the viewer mail retrieved after the finale was positive, while the other half made loose reference to a desire to “burn [the studio lot] to the ground."

Fontana went on to create Homicide: Life on the Street and HBO’s groundbreaking prison drama Oz. Those two impressive achievements would have likely relegated the bizarre ending of St. Elsewhere to a trivial mention in Fontana’s biography, if not for the curiosity of a playwright named Keith Gow.

Gow, a resident of Melbourne, Australia, spent time in pubs and online wondering what Tommy’s scene meant for every show connected to St. Elsewhere's characters. "The discussion began on alt.tv.homicide, a newsgroup that discussed Homicide: Life on the Street," Gow tells Mental Floss. "[Fontana] was fond of putting in references to previous shows he worked on, including bringing characters from St. Elsewhere into Homicide."

Along with U.S.-based fan Ash Crowe, Gow began to develop a chart linking the series to other shows on television. Over time, it began to look something like the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game.

Here’s how St. Elsewhere links to Doctor Who [PDF], hypothetically rendering the TARDIS a figment of Tommy’s imagination:

Donald Westphall and two other doctors visited Sam Malone’s bar from Cheers;

Cheers introduced Frasier Crane, of Frasier;

John Hemingway of The John Larroquette Show once called into Frasier’s talk show;

The John Larroquette Show once mentioned Yoyodyne, a manufacturing client of law firm Wolfram and Hart;

Wolfram and Hart had another client, Weyland-Yutani, that made a weapons display screen for Firefly;

A Weyland-Yutani ship is seen in the BBC series Red Dwarf, which also depicted The Doctor’s TARDIS.

The Westphall grid
A sampling of the Westphall grid.
Courtesy of Keith Gow

These strings go on across multiple decades of television, with I Love Lucy being the earliest example. Often, characters crossing over on the same network can ignite a connection, with shared brands or locations providing the connective tissue for others. The fictional Morley cigarettes are particularly pervasive, as is Hudson University, an institution of higher learning mentioned on The Cosby Show, Law & Order, and Murder, She Wrote.

"I prefer character connections, myself," Gow says. "That really solidifies things. And most of the connections on the grid are characters, even though something like Morley cigarettes (a fictional brand) has a lot of individual connections, they just add to the connective tissue in certain ways. The fictional brand or company thing is also Fontana's fault. The corporation that bought St. Elsewhere in its final season owned the prison hospital in his series Oz."

Over time and with the help of reader contributions, The Tommy Westphall Universe grew to include shows as diverse as ALF, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Knight Rider, Melrose Place, Seinfeld, and dozens of others, much of it helped along by the character of Munch appearing in more than 10 series, and those series making reference to other characters and brands.

As Gow and Crowe assembled their chart, comics writer Dwayne McDuffie (Static Shock) wrote a blog entry for Slush.com in 2002 that made a similar observation. "St. Elsewhere also shared characters with The White Shadow and It’s Garry Shandling’s Show,” McDuffie wrote. “Garry Shandling crossed over with The Andy Griffith Show (no, really!). So Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., Mayberry R.F.D., and Make Room for Daddy/The Danny Thomas Show are gone. Make Room For Daddy takes out I Love Lucy.”

All of it, McDuffie said, proved his own Grand Unification Theory that everyone and everything seen on TV—except for the few minutes viewers spent with Tommy Westphall in May 1988—is just a daydream.

St. Eligius in a snow globe

St Elsewhere Full Episodes, YouTube

As one of the co-authors of the scene that ignited the entire premise, Fontana said he was “stunned” to discover the aftershocks and that the theory “basically means that Tommy Westphall is the mind of God.”

Fontana was being facetious (we think), but not everyone was as enthused with the premise. Observers of the theory take issue with the idea out of what they deem is a misunderstanding of an author’s intent. While the doctors of St. Elsewhere visited the Cheers bar, the creators of Cheers offered no consent to have their series thought of as imaginary. There’s also nothing standing in the way of the belief that perhaps the Tommy Westphall end sequence was itself a dream, negating the snow globe conceit. And what about the real people who have appeared on the included shows, like Alex Trebek on Cheers? If Cheers is not “real,” then is Trebek?

But the notion isn't necessarily dependent on Tommy imagining anything: The connections still exist, whether they're considered a dream within fiction or just an interconnected television universe. "The theory doesn't really depend on Tommy Westphall, but he's a good hook," Gow says.

Gow and Crowe, who still periodically update the grid, assert that episodes with real people playing themselves—like Trebek did on Cheers—are exempt, as are cartoons and feature films. That would surely lead to spreadsheets the size of walls: Weyland-Yutani is the company behind the machinations of the Alien franchise.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Marvel Entertainment
10 Facts About Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian
Marvel Entertainment
Marvel Entertainment

Nearly every sword-wielding fantasy hero from the 20th century owes a tip of their horned helmet to Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian. Set in the fictional Hyborian Age, after the destruction of Atlantis but before our general recorded history, Conan's stories have depicted him as everything from a cunning thief to a noble king and all types of scoundrel in between. But beneath that blood-soaked sword and shield is a character that struck a nerve with generations of fantasy fans, spawning adaptations in comics, video games, movies, TV shows, and cartoons in the eight decades since he first appeared in the December 1932 issue of Weird Tales. So thank Crom, because here are 10 facts about Conan the Barbarian.

1. THE FIRST OFFICIAL CONAN STORY WAS A KULL REWRITE.

Conan wasn’t the only barbarian on Robert E. Howard’s resume. In 1929, the writer created Kull the Conqueror, a more “introspective” brand of savage that gained enough interest to eventually find his way onto the big screen in 1997. The two characters share more than just a common creator and a general disdain for shirts, though: the first Conan story to get published, “The Phoenix on the Sword,” was actually a rewrite of an earlier rejected Kull tale titled “By This Axe I Rule!” For this new take on the plot, Howard introduced supernatural elements and more action. The end result was more suited to what Weird Tales wanted, and it became the foundation for future Conan tales.

2. BUT A “PROTO-CONAN” STORY PRECEDED IT.

A few months before Conan made his debut in Weird Tales, Howard wrote a story called "People of the Dark" for Strange Tales of Mystery and Terror about a man named John O’Brien who seemed to relive his past life as a brutish, black-haired warrior named … Conan of the reavers. Reave is a word from Old English meaning to raid or plunder, which is obviously in the same ballpark as barbarian. And in the story, there is also a reference to Crom, the fictional god of the Hyborian age that later became a staple of the Conan mythology. This isn't the barbarian as we know him, and it's certainly not an official Conan tale, but the early ideas were there.

3. ROBERT E. HOWARD NEVER INTENDED TO WRITE THESE STORIES IN ORDER.

Howard was meticulous in his world-building for Conan, which was highlighted by his 8600-word history on the Hyborian Age the character lived in. But the one area the creator had no interest in was linearity. Conan’s first story depicted him already as a king; subsequent stories, though, would shift back and forth, chronicling his early days as both a thief and a youthful adventurer.

There’s good reason for that, as Howard himself once explained: “In writing these yarns I've always felt less as creating them than as if I were simply chronicling his adventures as he told them to me. That's why they skip about so much, without following a regular order. The average adventurer, telling tales of a wild life at random, seldom follows any ordered plan, but narrates episodes widely separated by space and years, as they occur to him.”

4. THERE ARE NUMEROUS CONNECTIONS TO THE H.P. LOVECRAFT MYTHOS.

For fans of the pulp magazines of the early 20th century, one of the only names bigger than Robert E. Howard was H.P. Lovecraft. The two weren’t competitors, though—rather, they were close friends and correspondents. They’d often mail each other drafts of their stories, discuss the themes of their work, and generally talk shop. And as Lovecraft’s own mythology was growing, it seems like their work began to bleed together.

In “The Phoenix on the Sword,” Howard made reference to “vast shadowy outlines of the Nameless Old Ones,” which could be seen as a reference to the ancient, godlike “Old Ones” from the Lovecraft mythos. In the book The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian, editor Patrice Louinet even wrote that Howard’s earlier draft for the story name-dropped Lovecraft’s actual Old Ones, most notably Cthulhu.

In Lovecraft’s “The Shadow of Time,” he describes a character named Crom-Ya as a “Cimmerian chieftain,” which is a reference to Conan's homeland and god. These examples just scratch the surface of names, places, and concepts that the duo’s work share. Whether you want to read it all as a fun homage or an early attempt at a shared universe is up to you.

5. SEVERAL OF HOWARD’S STORIES WERE REWRITTEN AS CONAN STORIES POSTHUMOUSLY.

Howard was only 30 when he died, so there aren’t as many completed Conan stories out in the world as you’d imagine—and there are even less that were finished and officially printed. Despite that, the character’s popularity has only grown since the 1930s, and publishers looked for a way to print more of Howard’s Conan decades after his death. Over the years, writers and editors have gone back into Howard’s manuscripts for unfinished tales to doctor up and rewrite for publication, like "The Snout in the Dark," which was a fragment that was reworked by writers Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp. There were also times when Howard’s non-Conan drafts were repurposed as Conan stories by publishers, including all of the stories in 1955's Tales of Conan collection from Gnome Press.

6. FRANK FRAZETTA’S CONAN PAINTINGS REGULARLY SELL FOR SEVEN FIGURES.

Chances are, the image of Conan you have in your head right now owes a lot to artist Frank Frazetta: His version of the famous barbarian—complete with rippling muscles, pulsating veins, and copious amounts of sword swinging—would come to define the character for generations. But the look that people most associate with Conan didn’t come about until the character’s stories were reprinted decades after Robert E. Howard’s death.

“In 1966, Lancer Books published new paperbacks of Robert E. Howard's Conan series and hired my grandfather to do the cover art,” Sara Frazetta, Frazetta's granddaughter owner and operator of Frazetta Girls, tells Mental Floss. You could argue that Frazetta’s powerful covers were what drew most people to Conan during the '60s and '70s, and in recent years the collector’s market seems to validate that opinion. In 2012, the original painting for his Lancer version of Conan the Conqueror sold at auction for $1,000,000. Later, his Conan the Destroyer went for $1.5 million.

Still, despite all of Frazetta’s accomplishments, his granddaughter said there was one thing he always wanted: “His only regret was that he wished Robert E. Howard was alive so he could have seen what he did with his character.”

7. CONAN’S FIRST MARVEL COMIC WAS ALMOST CANCELED AFTER SEVEN ISSUES.

The cover to Marvel's Conan the Barbarian #21
Marvel Entertainment

Conan’s origins as a pulp magazine hero made him a natural fit for the medium’s logical evolution: the comic book. And in 1970, the character got his first high-profile comic launch when Marvel’s Conan The Barbarian hit shelves, courtesy of writer Roy Thomas and artist Barry Windsor-Smith.

Though now it’s hailed as one of the company’s highlights from the ‘70s, the book was nearly canceled after a mere seven issues. The problem is that while the debut issue sold well, each of the next six dropped in sales, leading Marvel’s then editor-in-chief, Stan Lee, to pull the book from production after the seventh issue hit stands.

Thomas pled his case, and Lee agreed to give Conan one last shot. But this time instead of the book coming out every month, it would be every two months. The plan worked, and soon sales were again on the rise and the book would stay in publication until 1993, again as a monthly. This success gave way to the Savage Sword of Conan, an oversized black-and-white spinoff magazine from Marvel that was aimed at adult audiences. It, too, was met with immense success, lasting from 1974 to 1995.

8. OLIVER STONE WROTE A FOUR-HOUR, POST-APOCALYPTIC CONAN MOVIE.

John Milius’s 1982 Conan movie is a classic of the sword and sorcery genre, but its original script from Oliver Stone didn’t resemble the final product at all. In fact, it barely resembled anything related to Conan. Stone’s Conan would have been set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, where the barbarian would do battle against a host of mutant pigs, insects, and hyenas. Not only that, but it would have also been just one part of a 12-film saga that would be modeled on the release schedule of the James Bond series.

The original producers were set to move ahead with Stone’s script with Stone co-directing alongside an up-and-coming special effects expert named Ridley Scott, but they were turned down by all of their prospects. With no co-director and a movie that would likely be too ambitious to ever actually get finished, they sold the rights to producer Dino De Laurentiis, who helped bring in Milius.

9. BARACK OBAMA IS A FAN (AND WAS TURNED INTO A BARBARIAN HIMSELF).

When President Barack Obama sent out a mass email in 2015 to the members of Organizing for Action, he was looking to get people to offer up stories about how they got involved within their community—their origin stories, if you will. In this mass email, the former Commander-in-Chief detailed his own origin, with a shout out to a certain barbarian:

“I grew up loving comic books. Back in the day, I was pretty into Conan the Barbarian and Spiderman.

Anyone who reads comics can tell you, every main character has an origin story—the fateful and usually unexpected sequence of events that made them who they are.”

This bit of trivia was first made public in 2008 in a Daily Telegraph article on 50 facts about the president. That led to Devil’s Due Publishing immortalizing the POTUS in the 2009 comic series Barack the Barbarian, which had him decked out in his signature loincloth doing battle against everyone from Sarah Palin to Dick Cheney.

10. J.R.R. TOLKIEN WAS ALSO A CONAN DEVOTEE.

The father of 20th century fantasy may always be J.R.R. Tolkien, but Howard is a close second in many fans' eyes. Though Tolkien’s work has found its way into more scholarly literary circles, Howard’s can sometimes get categorized as low-brow. Quality recognizes quality, however, and during a conversation with Tolkien, writer L. Sprague de Camp—who himself edited and touched-up numerous Conan stories—said The Lord of the Rings author admitted that he “rather liked” Howard’s Conan stories during a conversation with him. He didn’t expand upon it, nor was de Camp sure which Conan tale he actually read (though it was likely “Shadows in the Moonlight”), but the seal of approval from Tolkien himself goes a long way toward validation.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Ben Leuner, AMC
You Can Cook (Food) With Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in the Original Breaking Bad RV
Ben Leuner, AMC
Ben Leuner, AMC

A new contest is giving Breaking Bad fans the chance to cook a meal with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. A new charity fundraising campaign is sending one lucky fan and a friend out to Los Angeles to celebrate the 10th anniversary of Breaking Bad’s premiere with the stars themselves—Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and that beat-up RV.

“That’s right, the real Walter White and Jesse Pinkman will join you in The Krystal Ship to whip up some delicious food, take tons of pictures, and bond over the most addicting show ever made,” the contest’s page on the charity fundraising site Omaze trumpets.

All you have to do to throw your (porkpie) hat in the ring is break out your wallet and donate to a good cause. Every dollar you donate to the contest through Omaze is basically a raffle ticket. And the more you donate, the better your odds are of winning. Each dollar donated equals 10 entries, so if you donate $10, you have 100 chances, if you donate $25, 250 chances, etc. At higher donation levels, you’ll also get guaranteed swag, including T-shirts, signed set photos by Cranston and Paul, props and scripts from the show, and more.

Technically, you can enter without donating, but don’t be a jerk—it’s for the kids. The proceeds from the contest will go to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Kind Campaign, an anti-bullying charity.

The contest winner will be announced around September 12, and the big event will take place on September 15.

Donate to win here. The contest ends at 11:59 p.m. PT on August 30.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios