The Westphall Theory of a Unified TV Universe, Explained

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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.

Netflix's Stranger Things Season 3 Video Is Full of Easter Eggs You Might Have Missed

Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Joe Keery, Maya Hawke, Priah Ferguson, and Gaten Matarazzo in Stranger Things.
Netflix

Stranger Things's third season was full of many surprising twists and turns, not to mention some awkward teen romances. While the gruesome Mind Flayer and the evil Russians were no doubt terrifying, the show kept its sweet touch of nostalgia due mainly to the fact that the Hawkins gang is now smack-dab in the middle of the 1980s.

It doesn’t take a keen eye to see many of the series's '80s references, particularly in the latest season. With scenes taking place at the new mall, references from the decade—including Hot Dog on a Stick, Sam Goody, and Back to the Future—are all part of the setting. However, creators Ross and Matt Duffer wanted to pay true homage to the decade, and thus left Easter eggs throughout the season that you likely missed.

Luckily for us, as BGR reports, Netflix has just released a video explaining the hidden references (with the New Coke debate, Mrs. Wheeler’s erotica novel, and Hopper’s Tom Selleck-inspired Hawaiian shirt among some of our favorites).

Check out the full video above and see what you missed!

[h/t BGR]

10 Out of This World Facts About Area 51

Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Nevada's Groom Lake Road, near Area 51.
Robert Heinst/iStock via Getty Images

Though it's officially a a flight testing facility, the Nevada-based Area 51 has been associated with alien sightings and secret government studies for decades, and accounts of extraterrestrial sightings have sparked public imagination and conspiracy theories worldwide. Here are a few facts you might not already know about Area 51.

1. Area 51's existence wasn't officially acknowledged by the U.S. government until 2013.

Although it was chosen as a site to test aircraft in 1955, the government did not acknowledge that Area 51 even existed until 2013. According to CNN, maps and other documents created by the CIA were released thanks to Jeffrey T. Richelson, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives, who was granted access to the documents under the Freedom of Information Act. Unfortunately, the papers made no mention of little green men running around the facility.

2. We still don't really know why it's called Area 51.

Out of all the things we don't know about Area 51, Encyclopedia Britannica says that the one for-certain uncertainty about the zone is its name. Like everything else involving the site, the theories are out there: A video published by Business Insider suggests the name stems from the location's proximity to nuclear test sites that were divided into numerically-designated areas.

3. Area 51 is still expanding.

Area 51 has been growing, something which true believers may attribute to the need for more UFO parking spaces. Business Insider points out that satellite imagery of Area 51 displays significant construction within the area between 1984 and 2016, including new runways and hangars. BI posits that this could mean the B-21 Raider stealth bomber is being tested at the site—"or this is what they want us to believe."

4. The Moon landings were supposedly faked at Area 51.

One of the bigger conspiracy theories out there not only questions the authenticity of the 1969 moon landing, but claims it was staged at Area 51. Bill Kaysing—author of We Never Went to the Moon: America’s Thirty Billion Dollar Swindle—believes NASA officials filmed the fake landing within the base, brainwashed the astronauts, and used lunar meteorites picked up in Antarctica as a stand-in for moon rocks.

5. The first UFO "sightings" in Area 51 were easily explained.

Unidentified Flying Object UFO
ktsimage/istock via getty images plus

In its early years, Area 51 was used to test U-2 planes—which flew at altitudes higher than 60,000 feet—in an area far from civilians and spies. During these tests, pilots flying commercial aircraft at 10,000 to 20,000 feet would detect the planes far above them, completely in the dark about the government’s project. Hence sightings of unidentified objects were reported when in reality it was a military plane ... unless that’s what they want you to think.

6. Area 51 employees might travel to work via plane.

Those who work at Area 51 appear to have a pretty sweet commuter transportation program. According to USA Today, employees board unmarked aircraft at the McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas which ferries them to and from an undisclosed location. Referred to as “Janet” due to its call sign—which some say stands for “Just Another Non-Existent Terminal”—the exact destination of the Boeing 737-600s is officially unknown, though some speculate that the planes go to Area 51 and other top-secret locations. A former posting for an open flight attendant position stated applicants “must be level-headed and clear thinking while handling unusual incidents and situations,” but didn't mention any encounters of the third kind.

7. Former Area 51 employees who were sworn to secrecy are opening up about their work there.

Some former employees who were once sworn to secrecy about what happened at Area 51 are now free to share their stories. One Area 51 veteran, James Noce, recalled handling various mishaps that were accidentally exposed to the public eye—for example, the crash of a secret aircraft that was witnessed by a police officer and a vacationing family. The family had taken photos; Noce confiscated the film from their camera and told the family and the deputy not to mention the crash to anyone.

Noce recounted how there was no official documentation stating he worked at Area 51, and that his salary was paid in cash. He also confirmed that he never saw any alien activity at the site.

8. Area 51 employees once took the facility to court over hazardous working conditions.

In the 1990s, Jonathan Turley—a lawyer and professor at George Washington University—was approached by workers from Area 51 who claimed exposure to the site’s hazardous materials and waste was making them sick. In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Turley wrote that the workers "described how the government had placed discarded equipment and hazardous waste in open trenches the length of football fields, then doused them with jet fuel and set them on fire. The highly toxic smoke blowing through the desert base was known as 'London fog' by workers. Many came down with classic skin and respiratory illnesses associated with exposure to burning hazardous waste. A chief aim of the lawsuits was to discover exactly what the workers had been exposed to so they could get appropriate medical care."

According to Turley, "we prevailed in demonstrating that the government had acted in violation of federal law. However, the government refused to declassify information about what it had burned in the trenches, which meant that workers (and their doctors) still didn’t know what they had been exposed to. The government also refused to acknowledge the name of the base. The burning at Area 51 was in all likelihood a federal crime. But the government escaped responsibility by hiding behind secrecy[.]"

9. The best place for UFO-spotting near Area 51 is supposedly by a mailbox.

According to one person who claims to have worked in Area 51 and to have seen alien technology there (whose "claims about his education and employment could not be verified," according to How Stuff Works, which raises doubts about his credibility), there's one spot in particular where he would bring people to see scheduled UFO flights: The Black Mailbox, an unassuming pair of mailboxes which is apparently a hotspot for alien action (they're located about 12 miles from Area 51). It was originally a single black box for owner Steve Medlin's mail, but as people who wanted to believe began to tamper with and destroy that mail (and pop in letters to aliens), Medlin was forced to put another mailbox labeled “Alien” beneath it to appease visitors and to preserve his own post.

10. It's impossible to sneak into Area 51 without being spotted—and use of deadly force is authorized if anyone tries to evade security.

Given the intense nature of its secrecy, it comes as no surprise that Area 51 is heavily guarded. Pilots who purposefully fly into the restricted air zone can face court-martial, dishonorable discharge, and a stint in the can. The land is patrolled by “cammo dudes,” men wearing camouflage that have been seen driving around the area keeping an eye out for pesky civilians looking to break into the area. But truth-seekers, beware: Signs placed outside the area warn that Area 51 security is authorized to use deadly force on anyone looking to sneak onto the property.

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