Marvel, DC and now Spider-Man are looking at potential big and small screen multiverses – but there’s a lesson in whether continuity matters from an older TV show.

A spoiler lies ahead for the TV show St Elsewhere.

After Marvel Studios made a massive success from its big, market-shifting plot of creating a comics-like ‘shared universe’ for its characters, the movie studios fell in love with this deceptively simple trick. How could these corporations refuse the promotional benefits of sequels without actually necessarily needing the same, incrementally more expensive actors for every production?

Warner Bros. infamously nose-dived with its attempts to create a DC comics universe, but nobody splatted quite as spectacularly as Universal with its so-called Dark Universe of horror characters. This would-be epic series officially amounts to precisely one release, an expensive, star-addled shrine to Hollywood hubris.

The new trend is multiverses, and we’re about to be swamped with them.

Had Katie Dippold’s original plans for Ghostbusters 2016 been followed to the letter, that film might have played like a pioneer in multiverse moviemaking, with its third act time-warping rift revealing just a few hints of the original films’ New York as a parallel reality, wobbling on the verge of spilling in.

The parallel worlds concept was central to the superb Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, but despite that film featuring numerous alternative realities, none of them pre-existed precisely as-is in other movies. It took TV’s Arrow family of shows and its ‘manyverse’ to really run at the target head-on, recruiting various legacy Batmen, Supermen and other assorted characters for a multi-episode storyline, ostensibly inspired by DC Comics’ Crisis On Infinite Earths series from the 1980s.

In some fashion, this sets the agenda for what’s happening with the upcoming (albeit delayed again) Flash movie.

Ezra Miller, the incumbent big screen Flash appeared in Arrow, to all intents and purposes playing the same character. When his own feature goes into production next year, parallel universes are part of the plan, with a plot seemingly derived from the Flashpoint series of comics. We already know that Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck have each agreed to appear in the film, reprising their roles as the Bruce Waynes and Batmen of different realities.

And similar things seem to be happening in the Marvel universe. Word is out that Jaime Foxx will reprise the role of Electro in the next Spider-Man film, resurrecting the villain he played in The Amazing Spider-Man 2. The internet jumped as one, with both feet, into assuming this means the film will feature a multiverse plot.

The groundwork will definitely be done by then. Going into production imminently is Sam Raimi’s new Doctor Strange movie, subtitled In The Multiverse Of Madness. This, we’re told, will tie into the Jac Shaeffer’s Wandavision TV show that’s heading to Disney+.

So fans of superhero TV and movies are on the cusp of a multiverse explosion, their doors of perception about to get the mother of all cleansings.

But what if this is old news? What if almost all TV exists in the same interlinked series of universes already, and maybe not many universes at that?

Infamously, the final episode of St Elsewhere – a cracking, albeit sometimes very soapy hospital drama that you can catch in its entirety on All 4 – wraps up with a curious, and poignant sequence that it might be easy to misinterpret.

The crux of the scene is that the hospital’s director of medicine, Donald Westphall, is grieving his colleague, Dr Auschlander, in Auschlander’s office. Westphall’s autistic son Tommy is present, and he goes to the office window and looks outside at falling snow. We’re shown a long shot of the hospital surrounded by a flurry.

Then comes a cut to young Tommy in another room, looking at a snowglobe. His father comes in, but his grandfather is there too. The really weird thing is that the actor playing his previously-unseen grandfather is Norman Lloyd, who played the late Dr Auschlander throughout the series. Furthermore, his father’s dialogue and clothing are not those of a medical professional – he seems to be a construction worker, most likely.

Tommy’s dad takes the snowglobe from Tommy, puts in on the mantel and as the camera pushes in, we see in model form a composition quite similar to the earlier long-shot of the hospital amid snowfall.

What does it mean? I know what I’m inclined to believe – and, as an autist who was diagnosed later in life, I also have hybrid curiosity and scepticism about the portrayal of Tommy. But whatever any individual viewer takes away, there is one dominant, popular theory about these final scenes, and it implies that all of St Elsewhere has actually been just a fantasy inside Tommy Westphall’s mind.

Beyond this ‘it was all a dream’ punchline, the witty article Six Degrees of St Elsewhere by the much-missed writer Dwayne McDuffie stretches the implications further. St Elsewhere is one of a few Dick Wolf-produced TV shows, alongside Homicide: Life On The Street and the Law & Order shows, that have regularly had their characters crossover. This, McDuffie, suggested, creates a shared reality between those shows – and all of them are part of Tommy’s dream.

Keep tracing the links outwards and the amount of programs tied into St Elsewhere is massive.

John Munch, as played by Richard Belzer in Homicide, seems to be one of the key connectors – he appeared in The X-Files, Arrested Development, The Wire and is name-checked in Luther, almost certainly as a deliberate in-joke. Cheers is an interesting meeting point too, with St Elsewhere‘s Westphall and Auschlander being sometime patrons of the Boston bar, Frasier spinning off into his own show, another side-sitcom called The Tortellis about Carla’s ex-husband, and Norm and Cliff appearing in Wings. Doctor Who ties in, Sesame Street ties in, Veronica Mars ties in, Scooby-Doo ties in.

I’m not going to go on listing connections. There’s too many, and literally hundreds of them are extremely tenuous. I will point out, however, that some generous and limber theorists have already connected the Marvel Cinematic Universe to the central Dick Wolf hub.

All of this misses McDuffie’s original point, however. He wasn’t seriously positing a meaningful connection between almost all television that has ever made. His intent was to skewer such over-reaching fan theories, and to reveal them as the endlessly cycling, self-devouring fractal map of daftness that they are. The obsession with canon is missing the point, said McDuffie. He was absolutely right.

And even that misses the point about the original St Elsewhere scenes, I think. Because whatever the intent, the way the sequence plays, it seems much less to me like the whole series was a dream, and more that Tommy drifted into a short, series-capping fantasy while he was looking through the window. That’s also the far more poignant idea: this is Tommy’s retreat from the painful mourning and loss going on around him, into a world where Auschlander in some way lived on, and his own father was reinvented as a different man.

I’m looking forward to seeing Michael Keaton in The Flash as much as anybody else but, really, I don’t think I’ll have to care one jot about continuity to get real pleasure from it.

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