Six Objections to the Westphall Hypothesis

by Brian on October 4, 2004

“Atrios”: linked to “this discussion”: of the rather odd claim that in 164 different TV shows, what we’re seeing is not what is really happening in the fiction, but what happens in the mind of a small character from _St. Elsewhere_ called Tommy Westphall.

The argument for this claim, what I’ll call the Westphall Hypothesis, is based around a rather impressive bit of research about “crossovers in TV-land”: (The site seems to be based in Victoria, so I have some natural fondness for it.) The reasoning is as follows. The last episode of _St. Elsewhere_ revealed that the entire storyline of that show hadn’t really (i.e. really in the fiction) happened but had all been a dream of Tommy Westphall. So by extension any story involving a character from St. Elsewhere is really (in the fiction) part of Tommy’s dream. And any story involving a character from one of those shows is also part of Tommy’s dream, etc. So all 164 shows that are connected to _St. Elsewhere_ in virtue of character sharing are part of Tommy’s dream.

It’s a nice little idea, but there are half a dozen things wrong with it.

To categorise these, let’s formalise the argument.

bq. P1. All of _St. Elsewhere_ (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
P2. If all of _St. Elsewhere_ (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind, then any show that bears the ancestral of the _sharing a character_ relation with _St. Elsewhere_ takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.
C. So all shows on “this grid”: take place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.

As mentioned in the title, I have six objections to this little argument. (Overkill, I know, but there are some moderately interesting questions about truth in fiction that come up.) Two to P1, two to the overall argument, and two to P2.

_Objection One – Dreaming Never Works_
I’m generally suspicious of the effectiveness of the “It was all a dream” move. I think it was true in the _Wizard of Oz_ movie that the scarecrow didn’t have a brain and the tinman didn’t have a heart. It wasn’t true that the scarecrow didn’t have a heart and the tinman didn’t have a brain. If we take the movie seriously to the end then neither of these are really true, they are only true in Dorothy’s dream. So we should, for purposes of working out what is true in the story, not take the final scenes too seriously.

I don’t want to rest too much weight on this, since it is possible that our inclination to say that the scarecrow didn’t have a brain and the tinman didn’t have a heart is because we couldn’t be bothered always prefixing “According to Dorothy’s dream…”

_Objection Two – This Dream Sequence Doesn’t Work_
I know the _St. Elsewhere_ characters intended the “final scene”: to make it true in the fiction that the entire storyline took place in Tommy Westphall’s head. But I’m not sure they succeeded. There are _way_ too many alternative interpretations of the final scene to bed down that interpretation. For one thing, we could interpret it as a dream of the real Tommy Westphall, the child of Dr Westphall. Maybe he wishes his father really was a construction worker. As people on numerous comment boards have argued, it would be very implausible a child his age could imagine everything that happened in the show’s run. So these alternative explanations are somewhat to be preferred, especially given the show’s preference for realism.

_Objection Three – The One from Moore_
I reckon nobody will believe this argument, but I thought it was worth making.

bq. P3. Some of the things that (fictionally) happen in _Friends_ happen in a different city to some of the things that (fictionally) happen in _Joey_.
P4. If the Westphall hypothesis is true, then all of the things that (fictionally) happen in _Friends_ happen in the same city as all of the things that (fictionally) happen in _Joey_, namely the city that Tommy lives in.
C2. The Westphall hypothesis is not true.

Obviously anyone who believes the Westphall Hypothesis will not believe P3. But I think most of us have better reason to believe P3 than we have to believe any complicated argument to the contrary. Indeed, I think we know P3 to be true, so we can use it in arguments. (What else could we need in order to use a premise in an argument?)

_Objection Four – Charity_
Maybe you don’t think the previous argument is conclusive. (I do, but contemporary philosophers are specially trained to let known facts override complicated arguments.) Still, that kind of consideration should be an important part of our overall interpretation. We get an interpretation of TV-land generally that is simpler, more realistic, and more in keeping with the authors’ wishes if we don’t include the Westphall hypothesis than if we do. It would be very odd to override all of those points on the strengths of a few ambiguous minutes at the end of _St Elsewhere_.

Put another way, even if we accept that the story writers for, say, _Cheers_ wanted their show to be set in the same world as the world of _St Elsewhere_, it doesn’t follow that they wanted their show to be set in a child’s dream. In fact it is clear they didn’t. Now since _St Elsewhere_ is set in a child’s dream, it follows the writers for _Cheers_ had inconsistent intentions. But from that nothing much follows. It may be (indeed it is) true that the best way to resolve the inconsistency is by denying that _Cheers_ really takes place in the same world as _St Elsewhere_.

All that is basically skirmishing to clear the ground. The next two objections are the really decisive ones.

_Objection Five – De Re Dreams_
The argument for P2 seems rather weak to me. It seems to involve the following inference.

bq. P5. Show X included character Y.
P6. Character Y is part of Tommy Westphall’s dream.
C3. So show X is part of Tommy Westphall’s dream.

But this inference is clearly bad. Tommy could be dreaming about people who really (or really in the fiction) exist.

For instance, I could have a dream where I’m spending a lazy Sunday strolling along St Kilda esplanade. That Sunday and St Kilda esplanade are in my dream doesn’t prevent them being real.

Or I could have a dream where I’m catching Pedro Martinez as he strikes out 22 Yankees to clinch the ALCS. Again, that wouldn’t mean Pedro Martinez, or the New York Yankees, or the American League are not real.

The same thing is going on here. Just because Tommy Westphall had a dream in which some character from _St Elsewhere_ appears, it doesn’t mean that character doesn’t really exist in Tommy’s world. Indeed, most of the characters that appear in our dreams are real people. So the inference that gets the argument off the ground fails.

_Objection Six – De Re Fictions_
This is related to the previous objection. From the fact that a character appears in two different TV shows, it doesn’t follow automatically that those shows take place in the same fictional world.

We can see the logical point here by simply noting that the fact that a _city_ appears in two different fictions doesn’t mean those fictions take place in the same world. For instance, recently I saw two romantic comedies set in London, one with tennis (Wimbledon) and one with zombies (Shaun of the Dead). The presence of London in both movies doesn’t mean they take place in the same fictional world. And if cities can be cross-fictional so, logically, can people.

To make the point more vivid, note that the “massive list of crossovers”: misses one very important crossover. (They do mention crossovers like this one, but don’t note its logical significance) Michael Bloomberg plays the Mayor of New York both in _Law and Order_ and in the real world. So by the logic used here, the real world (taken to be either what we’re in or the MTV show of the same name) is part of the giant _St Elsewhere_ fiction. This is clearly false. (Or at least it was last I checked.) Similarly it is possible that the same character can appear in two different fictional worlds. That doesn’t mean that every time a character appears on two different shows they are different fictional worlds. _Cheers_ and _Frasier_ clearly are part of the same world, as are _Friends_ and _Joey_. But it doesn’t mean that interpretation is forced on us by the common appearance of a character. So the Westphall Hypothesis is not forced on us by the existence of crossovers. And since it is a crashingly bad interpretative hypothesis as applied to any show except _St Elsewhere_, we shouldn’t accept it.



Dan Goodman 10.04.04 at 8:42 am

Another alternative: The one Ira Levin used in Son of Rosemary. Rosemary wakes up, and realizes it’s all been a dream — all the events of Rosemary’s Baby, everything so far in the sequel.

And then it turns out to have been a totally accurate PROPHETIC dream.


djw 10.04.04 at 9:09 am

Maybe I’m dense, but I have no idea what you’re getting at with objection 3. The rest, particularly 5 and 6, seem quite correct.


Nick Simmonds 10.04.04 at 10:03 am

Well, I , for one, don’t think that we can assume that imaginary persons, in a fictional reality, don’t have a physical presence. Once we establish something as meta-fictive, we can no longer make assumptions as to the ways in which it interacts with the merely fictive.

Therefore, let me propose the alternate hypothesis that all these shows are taking place in real (fictional) places, while the connecting characters are all physical manifestations of figments of Tommy Westphall’s imagination.


John 10.04.04 at 10:15 am

re objection four – a defender of the Westphall Hypothesis does not need to attribute to the writers of Cheers inconsistent intentions; it just seems false that if a fictional world has a certain feature, the creator (e.g. writer) of that world intended it to have that feature. In fact, there is a good story about just why the 164 shows that take place in Tommy’s dream do so, and it has nothing to do with writer’s intentions for them to do so.

Of course, this does not directly attack your broader point about ‘simplicity’ in interpretation, but does make it less persuasive.


nick 10.04.04 at 10:29 am

Actually, your citation of The Wizard of Oz also enforces objection five. Remember that the actors playing the tin man, scarecrow and cowardly lion are also part of the Kansas scenario as farm workers.

Imagination is transformative and metaphorical. Especially in dreams.

There’s a fairly interesting Wikipedia article on the reinvention of backstories (or ‘retconning‘) in the realm of comic books. So you can argue that this particular thesis is a rather huge attempt at amateur, subversive retcon.

Not that it doesn’t have parallels: for instance in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, where ascribing or removing authorship leads to reappraisals of the canon. (Foucault would probably have something to say about this.) But there’s a difference between seeking out authorial continuities and narrative ones, of course.


Dr. Victor Ehrlich 10.04.04 at 10:46 am

How are objections five and six “really decisive”? They only state that there are other possible explanations – “Tommy could be dreaming about people who really exist…” and “…it doesn’t follow automatically that those shows take place in the same fictional world.” True enough, but that doesn’t refute the hypothesis. And is the idea that Tommy is dreaming about people who really exist, though perhaps in another fictional world, simpler and more realistic than the Westphall Hypothesis?


john b 10.04.04 at 11:34 am

I’m interpreting objection 3 as:

1) Friends fictionally happens in New York
2) Joey fictionally happens in LA
3) If the WH is true, then both programmes fictionally happen in whichever city Tommy has his dream, and they only fictionally fictionally happen in NYC and LA.
4) Either the WH is false, or Friends and Joey fictionally happen in the same city.

I’m not sure you can really make this claim – applying deductive logic to things that exist at different levels of fictionality is problematic at best.


abb1 10.04.04 at 11:49 am

So all 164 shows that are connected to St. Elsewhere in virtue of character sharing are part of Tommy’s dream.

All 164 shows and all the rest of it is a dream. Only it’s not Tommy’s dream, it’s abb1’s dream.

Please try to be more entertaining, folks.


Erik 10.04.04 at 11:57 am

As I think the first three objections are hardly decisive, and the fourth is more normative than descriptive, it seems right to jump to the last objections.

Objection 5 is, I think, enough to get us out of the logical necessity of the Westphall hypothesis, but not enough to convince me that it isn’t probably true. While it’s logically possible that the same character who wholly a creation of an autistic child’s mind (though an obvious alternative exists, it could be that Tommy is dreaming about a person who exists in the St. Elsewhere world. However, it would follow that their worlds, and all the worlds which are Westphall descendants of those worlds, are identical with the St. Elsewhere world. Which is really screwy.) exists in another world, it’s pretty damn unlikely. At least a good number of these worlds must exist in Tommy Westphall’s mind.

Michael Bloomberg isn’t actually an objection to the Westphall hypothesis, because Bloomberg originates in this world and exists in the Law and Order world. But the Westphall world relation is not symmetrical. It’s not like we’re really claiming that a world is the SAME world as its Westphall ancestor (though, of course, it could be and often is, since the Westphall world relation is symmetrical). Just that it must depend on the existence of its ancestor (for there is nothing strange with a real person appearing in a work of fiction, but there is something strange about a fictional character appearing in real life), and if its ancestor exists only in a dream, it must exist only in a dream (assuming, of course, the privacy of dreams).

Of course, Bloomberg does imply that the St. Elsewhere world has to be such that it is a Westphall descendant of our world as of at least the present time.

For the same reason that Michael Bloomberg doesn’t invalidate the Westphall Hypothesis, neither do London and Objection 6. In both Wimbledon and Shaun of the Dead, London exists because the world is derived from ours (it might be a bit sloppy to suggest that they are Westphall descendents of our world, but it’s not too misleading, I hope), but this is, again, not an identity relation.

However, suppose we are introduced to Metropolis in Superman. Before Superman, Metropolis does not exist. But then Bruce Wayne travels to Metropolis and does a deal with Luthercorp. We no longer want to say the same things about Metropolis as we did about London. Batman’s Metropolis is in some way dependent on Superman’s Metropolis. We would feel there was a mistake if there was no Daily Planet in Batman’s Metropolis.


KCinDC 10.04.04 at 1:51 pm

Do people really believe that the world of Lou Grant is the same as the world of The Mary Tyler Moore Show? They seem pretty different to me.


Keith 10.04.04 at 2:37 pm

From the ‘Pataphysical perspective, it’s possible that all of these characters in all of these shows are the product of tangentially related dreams, i.e. that each show exists in a soap bubble universe, Cheers next to St. Elsewhere and so on and so forth, and that their membranes are semipermiable, and thus characters unknowingly slip bewteen one bubble reality and the next and never realise it because the adjacent bubble worlds have enough surface details in common (including setting) to give the sense of continuity. Thus, each related show with common characters is a purmutation of each other. But all the soap bubbles are in Tony Westphall’s mind, which is also his bathtub.


digamma 10.04.04 at 3:13 pm

So by the logic used here, the real world (taken to be either what we’re in or the MTV show of the same name) is part of the giant St Elsewhere fiction. This is clearly false.

But not provably so. I could wake up one minute from now in my 1954 bed and say “Damn, that was a weird dream about what the world will be like in 50 years.”


John Davies 10.04.04 at 4:51 pm

Something else is interesting to me. There is no overlap between St. Elsewhere and the two other famous dream TV shows, Dallas and The Bob Newhart Show.

Maybe all shows can boil down to three dreams.


Hamilton Lovecraft 10.04.04 at 5:07 pm

If I remember rightly, the finale of “Newhart” also posited that all of “Newhart” was just a dream of the Bob Newhart character from “The Bob Newhart Show”. How does this impact the Westphall Hypothesis?


HP 10.04.04 at 8:11 pm

John, Hamilton: IIRC, in the Bob Newhart reunion show, Howard Borden reveals that he had a dream that he was an astronaut, and his best friend kept a genie in a bottle. I read that on the key that goes with the grid, and yes, it’s all tied to the Westphall Hypothesis. (The key is much more impressive than the grid, IMO.)

In a more literary vein, has anyone here read Joseph Heller’s Closing Time? It follows the characters from Catch-22 in their old age. One chapter introduces a friend (IIRC) of Yossarian’s, who spent the war in a Schlachthof in Dresden with a writer named Vonnegut and a chaplain’s assistant named Pilgrim. His daughters tell him that Vonnegut wrote some sort of story about Dresden, but he doesn’t like books.


phil 10.04.04 at 9:09 pm

All sitcoms are fictional. It stands to reason that they’re all a dream.


bryan 10.04.04 at 9:55 pm

1 and 2 are crap. that you don’t care for the westphall argument does not make it invalid, which is basically what they boil down to.

3 is the kind of argument that makes me groan when made in a big enough auditorium.

4 is not logical. against the argument that Westphall has created the worlds of all these tv shows you suggest that because the creators of these shows would not want westphall to have created them, he did not create them. Actually i think this is the kind of argument that would cause me to hit someone if I heard it in a large auditorium.

However all is not lost.
I’ve never seen a full St. elsewhere, and all I know about the last episode is what you wrote “P1. All of St. Elsewhere (except the last scene) takes place in Tommy Westphall’s mind.”

now if the last scene does not take place in Tommy Westphall’s mind then there is still a world of St. Elsewhere’s, the question then become is how far does that world deviate from world of Tommy’s imagination, I would suggest a principle of least required deviation, i.e. that it only deviates as far as necessary to take into account the last scene. Once that last scene is taken into account is there any possibility of the worlds of other sitcoms that we’ve been arguing are within Tommy’s mind could be brought into agreement with the view of reality presented when Tommy wakes up? In cases where they can I propose that we suppose those worlds are existent outside of Tommy, although they may be existent within him as well.


Dnash 10.04.04 at 10:48 pm

all of “Newhart” was just a dream of the Bob Newhart character from “The Bob Newhart Show”. How does this impact the Westphall Hypothesis?

According to the list, Elliott from the “Bob Newhart Show” checked into the psych ward of St. Eligius on “St. Elsewhere.” Hence, presumably TBNS is also part of the Westphall dream, just like SE. Which would make both the second “Newhart” show and “I Dream of Jeannie” dreams-within-a-dream.


Bruce from Missouri 10.04.04 at 10:55 pm

And I thought *I* had to much time on my hands…


Jacob T. Levy 10.05.04 at 3:16 am

Erik said:
“We would feel there was a mistake if there was no Daily Planet in Batman’s Metropolis.”

Or else we’d feel that Batman’s Metropolis was in a different fictional universe. (Earth-B was the standard pre-Crisis location for all the otherwise-screwy-continuity Batman crossovers from _Brave and the Bold_.)

Superman is a fictional character. Superman existed on Earth-1 and Earth-2 and showed up on Earth-prime a few times and also existed in the Superfriends universe, the Christopher Reeve movie universe, and the Kingdom-Come-verse. Yet these are all demonstrably not the same fictional universe. Objections 5 and 6 are part of the comics-reader’s intepretive toolkit from the moment he or she becomes literate…


Simon 10.05.04 at 2:00 pm

I’m also having problems with objections 3-5. My dreams can have many locations, and sometimes can even have me as a 3rd party observer rather than a participant- a camera, if you will. With that in mind, why do Joey and Friends have to be in the same city? I can dream I’ve visited New York and spent time with the friends even without leaving London. Why does Tommy have to leave his hospital bed?


Ray Davis 10.05.04 at 7:09 pm

Much more believable than a single dream — dangerously believable and nervously backed away from — was the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” episode which explained the show’s wobbly plotline as the junk-culture-sodden megalomaniacal fantasy of a nearly catatonic young woman who’d been institutionalized since 1996. But “Buffy” was always great on metafiction.


dsquared 10.05.04 at 7:54 pm

So by the logic used here, the real world (taken to be either what we’re in or the MTV show of the same name) is part of the giant St Elsewhere fiction. This is clearly false. (Or at least it was last I checked.)

When did you check? How? Can I have a go?

It strikes me that the truth conditions of this sentence (the claim that Weatherson has at some point in the past checked whether or not the world of St Elsewhere was the same as the real world) strongly implies that the “real world” is a construct of Brian’s imagination. Which would explain much if true.


Greg 10.05.04 at 10:52 pm

It is fairly easy to accept that all of the shows are a product of T.W.’s imagination if we accept that imagination doesn’t rely on the same sort of logic as “reality”. Furthermore, given that T.W. is established as being autistic (and given that autism can be profoundly weird, insofar as the best and the brightest have a hard time determining what, precisely, it is) he has the potential for a super imagination (we have no reason to doubt that a fictional autistic boy can have a wild inner life).

In othe words, I don’t see how the Westphal Hypothesis can be logically disproven unless we can first establish the rules under which a fictional autistic boy’s inner reality operates.


russell bates 10.06.04 at 5:49 am

Hello, I am a TV writer and have a few qualifications therefrom (the only creative Emmy any STAR TREK series ever won, for the episode “How Sharper Than A Serpent’s Tooth”) to make one small comment. What most all of you have forgotten is that the focus of Tommy Westphall’s ‘dreaming’ was the glass snowfall globe with a miniature St. Elygius Hospital inside. The symbolism therefore, which almost everyone overlooked is that, within a finite universe, only a certain number of possibilities can be attained and the series was being ended by its creators because they believed they had achieved the very best of those finite possibilities. End of series, no great mystery, but a nicely symbolic syllogism all the same. Try it, you’ll like it!
—Russell Bates

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