In contemporary popular culture, where the television reboot, the musical remix, and the film franchise hold sway to a greater degree than ever before, I’m fairly confident in declaring one creative property immune to the magic of studio necromancy.
The irreverent quasi-autobiography written by Richard Hornberger (a.k.a. Richard Hooker) about his stint as a surgeon with the 8055th in Korea produced two memorable screen adaptations. First came the 1970 feature film directed by the then-obscure Robert Altman, one of the most potent anti-Vietnam allegories ever produced. Ring Lardner Jr.’s script adhered closely to the spirit of Hooker’s novel, although it does leave out some of the more memorable anti-religious episodes that would have killed a film that already had a short studio leash.
(I won’t spoil these in-text if want to read the book yourself. If you want to know without reading the book, consult the attached footnote.)
Most of the book’s vignettes did make it into the final version, giving audiences a taste of war life outside of the front lines. Dedicated surgeons who persevere by flaunting army regulation at every turn and carrying on outside of the surgical tent like devil-may-care assholes. The three main characters – Hawkeye Pierce, Trapper John McIntyre, and Duke Forrest – carried a tangible countercultural resonance that helped launch the careers of their respective portrayers (Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Tom Skerritt), as well as director Altman. It also happens to be one of my favorite movies ever made.
The film was far enough outside of the Hollywood box for 1970 that it must have seemed odd when Larry Gelbart approached Twentieth Century Fox about a television adaptation the next year. Certainly, no one could have foreseen it becoming on of the most beloved and longest running (1972-83) comedies of the era. The proof is in the numbers, too: number three in the Nielsen ratings during its eleventh season, and a Dimaggio-esque record of 125 million viewers for the series finale “Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen.” This longevity was partly due to the commitment to character and tonal development over the course of the show. What started out as a screwball comedy with a laugh track under Gelbart had turned into a family-centric dramedy by the early-1980s as Alan Alda (Hawkeye Pierce) took on a greater share of the writer/director duties. This tonal shift was so profound that it inspired a fantastic parody over twenty years later on the Futurama episode “War is the H Word,” where a robot surgeon named iHawk had a switch that changed his mood between “irreverent” and “maudlin.”
As popular as the film and television adaptation were during their respective eras, it’s hard to imagine a M*A*S*H reboot finding much of a contemporary following. Reboots most often come about when a property has a certain audience that can be counted on to prop up the newcomer as it finds footing with newer audiences. Boomers with fond memories of the series would likely scoff at newer incarnations of Hawkeye, Trapper John, and Radar O’Reilly. Millennials weaned in a post-9/11 era filled with two wars have already shown that they don’t take to the idea of addressing the topic of war through the lens of humor. This is perhaps evident in the failure of critical darling Fox sitcom Enlisted, a show that also sought to lightly satirize military life.
M*A*S*H, for all of its cultural importance, lacks the needed status of a sure thing for a studio to take a chance on it. But, if there are to be no more adventures for the men and women of the 4077th as I suspect, then be comforted in the knowledge that M*A*S*H holds one more unique distinction amongst the franchises scores of accolades.
It harkens back to the golden age of the television spinoff, an effective way for networks to maximize the value of popular programs by creating new shows starring side characters. All In The Family creating The Jeffersons and Maude. The Mary Tyler Moore Show spawning Rhoda and Lou Grant. A series as popular as M*A*S*H became during the late 1970s would have been a tempting target for spinoff possibilities. Sure enough, an opportunity presented itself after Wayne Rogers (Trapper John) left the show following the third season in a dispute over money and screen time. Veteran television writers Don Brinkley and Frank Glicksman approached Twentieth Century Fox with an idea for a series based on the Trapper John character, taking place twenty-five years after the end of the Korean War. The producers’ first choice for the title role of Rogers, thereby making the new show a direct spinoff of the M*A*S*H series but he turned it down by stating he didn’t want to play another doctor on television. The role instead went to Bonanza alum Pernell Roberts.
Trapper John, M.D. premiered on CBS in 1979, and in every respect resembled a typical period hospital drama like Medical Center – the previous series that Brinkley and Glicksman had developed for television – or Quincy, M.E. By all accounts, the spinoff was quite successful, running for seven seasons and garnering six Primetime Emmy nominations during that time. However, there were almost no in-series connections to M*A*S*H whatsoever. McIntyre’s time in Korea went unacknowledged outside of the pilot, and no characters from the sister series made guest appearances.
There was little doubt in the minds of M*A*S*H producers, though, that Trapper John, M.D. was a direct spinoff of their own show, and they sought to claim a piece of the action. And here’s where things get really interesting.
The producers of M*A*S*H sued the producers of Trapper John, M.D. for a share of royalties, claiming the spinoff was based on a character inspired by the 1972 M*A*S*H television show. This argument seems fairly straightforward, considering the original choice for the role of Trapper John was Rogers. The defense lawyers, however, came up with a creative solution to this problem. Trapper John, M.D. was not a spinoff of the M*A*S*H television show, they argued, but in fact a spinoff of the 1970 M*A*S*H film, and therefore the character was developed directly from that property. The argument, semantic to a fault, worked. A California judge ruled in favor of the defense, and to this day, Trapper John, M.D. is legally considered a spinoff of M*A*S*H (1970), and not M*A*S*H (1972).
For various incarnations of M*A*S*H and the people who still watch them, the implications of this case matter very little. For people like me who gravitate toward obscure interpretations of cultural objects, this case opens up an entire universe of possibility.
The court’s decision essentially means that M*A*S*H (1972) is not directly related to M*A*S*H (1970). This canonical separation from the film was clearly not intended by the creators of the series, since they offered Skerritt the chance to reprise his role as Duke Forrest and brought back Gary Burghoff as Radar. But it exists nonetheless. It can therefore be assumed that the film and series take place in different universes while utilizing the same characters. Trapper John, M.D., as a spinoff of the film, would therefore take place in that universe, as opposed to the one established by the series. Taken to its logical conclusion, you can essentially argue that from 1979 to 1984, shows based on the same creative property but set in different and unrelated universes aired simultaneously on the same television network.
Seems like we have ourselves an honest-to-god multiverse on our hands.
I can think of no other example in contemporary mass media that comes close to resembling the M*A*S*H phenomenon, where a multiverse existed via two different programs solely within a single medium. Utilizing parallel or alternate universes for storytelling purposes was nothing new in popular culture by 1979, having been well-trodden territory in television shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, not to mention countless films and novels. But these were almost always internarrative plot devices existing within the framework of a single show or movie. Most often, extra narrative multiverses were established across an entire stream of media that encompasses a popular series. J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, for example, established a different film universe from that previously established by other Trek properties dating back to the original series, but the prime universe still exists in the books and continues to grow through the work of new authors.
To find a conceptual cousin to the M*A*S*H multiverse, one must move far afield from television, into the realm of comic books – DC Comics, in particular. Multiversal logic was employed by DC starting in the Silver Age of the 1950s as a way to address the problem of divergent continuity and origins when updating popular Golden Age characters like Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman. By the 1960s, crossover events between the Golden Age (named Earth-One) and Silver Age (Earth-Two) universes were common, and multiverse logic became a convenient way to create unique stories featuring established characters. Later, the multiverse also became a convenient means to pull in characters from other comic book companies (like Blue Beetle from Charlton Comics) when their rights were acquired and absorbed into DC. By 1985, this multiverse had become convoluted beyond repair and required an epic event – the twelve issue Crisis on Infinite Earths, to winnow the multiverse into a single, streamlined continuity.
I’m not holding my breath for a Crisis on Infinite M*A*S*H event anytime in the near future. But finding a way to bridge the two universes together via a single narrative would be a fun little exercise in pop culture quirk. Is it too much to ask for a comic book where TV Hawkeye, movie Trapper John, and both Radars go on some kind of fun adventure? I’ll be on the phone with DC to hammer out the details.
 In order to raise money, Hawkeye hatches a plan to have Trapper John grow out his hair/beard and go on a roadshow of the Korean countryside selling villagers autographed pictures of Jesus Christ for $1 a piece. There’s also an episode where they tie the Protestant chaplain, known as Shaking Sammy, to a cross and intimate that he will be burned alive for sending letters to the families of fatally wounded soldiers lying about their conditions.
 The time span listed also includes the M*A*S*H series spinoff After M*A*S*H, which followed the homefront adventures of Colonel Potter, Corporal Klinger, and Father Mulcahy for a brief season and half run.