This is the 35th post in a daily series. Read about it here and see the list of previous posts here. A new post about “Star Wars” will be posted every day for 40 days leading up to the franchise’s 40th birthday on May 25th.
This upcoming week marks two pop culture anniversaries. One is the 40th anniversary of the release of the first “Star Wars” movie in 1977. That is no surprise to you, or at least it shouldn’t be, as you are reading at this moment a series dedicated to that anniversary.
The other anniversary is probably one that’s not on your radar. It was 29 years ago this week that the NBC drama “St. Elsewhere” aired its final episode. The series, set at a fictional hospital in Boston called St. Eligius, ran for six seasons and included Ed Begley, Jr., Denzel Washington, Alfre Woodard, Howie Mandel, and Mark Harmon.
It had a loyal fanbase while it was on the air, but it wasn’t a runaway hit. The show could have been remembered as just another medical drama set in a hospital if it weren’t for its series finale. That episode changed not only the way to view all of “St. Elsewhere,” but also hundreds of other TV shows.
The final scene of the last episode showed snow falling in front of St. Eligius hospital. The camera then panned, revealing the hospital was actually in a snow globe. Holding the snow globe was Tommy Westphall, a minor character whose father Donald was one of the doctors at St. Eligius. A few seconds later, Donald arrived home from work, but his attire suggested he was a construction worker. In that scene, another doctor from the series was revealed to be Donald’s father and Tommy’s grandfather. Donald then delivered the lines that turned the series on its head:
I don’t understand this autism thing, Pop. He’s my son, I talk to him. I don’t even know if he can hear me. He sits there all day long, in his own world, staring at that toy. What’s he thinkin’ about?
The series then ended, leading viewers to believe that the entirety of “St. Elsewhere” had been a fantasy in the mind of an autistic child. That ending was one of a few conclusions that producer Tom Fontana had pitched. One idea had been to end the series with a mushroom cloud, and another was that one doctor would admit to being the second gunman in the Kennedy assassination in Dallas. Those were rejected, and because the snow globe idea was “not the worst one,” Fontana was given the OK to proceed. That ending is heavy and interesting on its own, but the last three decades, the ending has had implications for several shows, from “I Love Lucy” to “Arrested Development.”
In 2002, Dwayne McDuffie wrote an essay called “Six Degrees of St. Elsewhere.” In it, he took the end of “St. Elsewhere” to its natural conclusion: if that series was all inside Tommy Westphall’s head, then so was every series with which it ever had a crossover. That meant “Cheers” was inside Tommy’s head, and by extension, its spinoff “Frasier.” Years after the end of “St. Elsewhere,” Begley and Woodard reprised their characters on “Homicide: Life on the Street,” thus drawing that show into the Tommy Westphall universe. And if “Homicide: Life on the Street,” was in Tommy’s head, so was every show on which Richard Belzer appeared as Detective John Munch. And so was every series that had crossed over with one of those shows, and so on.
The rabbit hole goes far enough that by the logic of the Tommy Westphall hypothesis, the “Star Wars” universe might also exist in Tommy’s head. I say “might” because some fans might not think it fair to bring movies into the theory.
The logic is as follows: Some doctors from “St. Elsewhere” appeared on an episode of “Cheers” as patrons of the bar.
The “Cheers” character Frasier got his own TV show. On that show, he was a TV radio show host. John Hemingway, the lead character on “The John Larroquette Show,” spoke to Frasier on his radio show.
“The John Larroquette Show” referenced Yoyodyne, a fictional tech company that was also referenced on “Star Trek: The Next Generation.” And finally, connecting it together is the 2009 movie reboot of “Star Trek,” in which R2-D2 was shown among the wreckage of ships.
The Tommy Westphall Universe blog managed by Gow and his friends has a list of more than 400 TV shows, but doesn’t mention any movies. That seems to be by design, according to a comment by Crowe. But there seems to be no reason why movies can’t be included, given that the “Star Wars” movies are in the same universe as the “Star Wars” TV shows and the “Star Trek” movies operated in the same universe as the franchises TV shows. So, if movies are fair game — and I think they should — then “Star Wars” indeed is in the Tommy Westphall universe.
There are some fans who vehemently disagree with the overall premise of the Tommy Westphall Universe theory. But according to Mike Rugnetta of “PBS Idea Channel,” the merits or flaws of the theory aren’t important.
The real strength of fan theories like the Tommy Westphall Universe theories, Rugnetta says, is that these theories give fans new ways to think about elements of pop culture. And that makes sense. The idea that “The John Larroquette Show” existed in the same universe as “Star Trek” might seem silly, but we “Star Wars” fans have no right to dismiss theories. After all, there are multiple message boards where fans debate who Supreme Leader Snoke really is, who Finn might be related to, and whether or not Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord.
Mock the Yoyodyne reference all you want, but if you think you can dismiss that theory and yet also argue there’s a chance that Snoke is Jar Jar, then meesa think yousa is crazy.