Jan 29, 2018
The Star Trek: The Next Generation/Webster crossover is totally real
Dig deep enough into the history of any TV series, and you’ll find at least one crossover with another show, generally set up for shameless cross-network or cross-studio promotional purposes: COPS following around Mulder and Scully? Steve Urkel dropping by Full House? The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles meeting the Power Rangers? All of those happened, and all for obvious reasons.
And so it is with Star Trek, even though most fans are totally unaware of it. No, I’m not talking about the tie-in comics. And no, I’m not talking about those few instances of vague UPN synergy (like The Rock guest starring on Voyager because something something Smackdown). I’m talking specifically about the time Star Trek: The Next Generation officially had an in-universe crossover with another TV show, and that TV show was the ‘80s family sitcom Webster.
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You’re probably thinking I’m making this up, and I myself believed the crossover to be a hoax for many years, particularly because I first learned of it from the IMDb back in the days when they posted pretty much every random bit of hearsay and speculation their users submitted. For the longest time, I was certain the notion of a Webster episode that crossed over with Star Trek: The Next Generation was simply the product of some Trekkie’s fevered imagination. But then I actually found a copy of the episode, and I was like:
The episode of Webster in question, allegedly titled “Webtrek”, really exists and originally aired on March 10, 1989. I’ll get to the recap of the episode itself soon enough, but first, I’ll address the obvious questions on the minds of those unfamiliar with Webster.
What the fuck is Webster?
Webster is a family sitcom that aired from 1983-87 on ABC, and then from 1987-89 in first-run syndication. The show was originally developed by ABC as a romantic comedy titled Another Ballgame starring real-life couple Alex Karras and Susan Clark. Karras was to star as former NFL player George Papadapolis (before becoming an actor, Karras had played 12 seasons for the Detroit Lions) who meets and immediately marries a rich socialite named Katherine, played by Clark.
During development, ABC spotted a young actor named Emmanuel Lewis in a Burger King commercial and wanted to get him into a sitcom vehicle as quickly as possible. So Another Ballgame was retooled as Then Came You, and in the revamped pilot, ex-NFL player George finds out one of his old teammates died in a car crash, leaving behind a seven-year-old son named Webster, played by Lewis. Being the child’s godfather, George has to become Webster’s legal guardian (that’s how that works, right?) and Webster quickly bonds with his adoptive parents, whom he calls “George” and “Ma’am”.
The network soon decided they wanted the show’s focus to be more on its young star than the parents, even changing the title to Webster at the last minute (which is why the theme song still retains the original title of “Then Came You”) over the objections of Karras and Clark.
With the central premise of a white couple adopting a black child, the show was basically ABC’s answer to Diff’rent Strokes, only not nearly as sharp or clever, if you can imagine that. The two shows shared a lot of similar storylines—including infamous Very Special child molestation episodes—and for a few months in 1985, both shows even occupied timeslots on ABC Friday nights.
And in an odd twist of fate, both Emmanuel Lewis and Diff’rent Strokes star Gary Coleman had conditions that left them looking like young children well into adulthood: Coleman had a congenital kidney disorder and dealt with serious health issues for most of his life, while Lewis was simply genetically predisposed to being very short. Due to all the commonalities, to this day the vast majority of the public views the two actors as basically interchangeable. I mean, just look at the main image I get back when I google “Emmanuel Lewis”.
But while Diff’rent Strokes at least originally attempted to be a socially relevant Norman Lear-type sitcom, Webster was one of those sitcoms made expressly for families with very young children, complete with gentle, mostly saccharine humor and plenty of simple morals at the end of each episode. The series was of course despised by critics, but nevertheless became a top 25 show, making Emmanuel Lewis a star. Which ultimately led to a friendship with Michael Jackson where he would take the (then-teenaged) Lewis to various award shows and carry him around like a toddler, but the less said about that bit of weirdness, the better.
So, why did Webster cross over with Star Trek?
That is, of course, the million dollar question; and unlike the various Star Trek shows, I can’t simply grab my copy of The Webster Companion to find out the behind-the-scenes motivations for this episode existing in the first place. But here’s what I know: both Webster and Star Trek: The Next Generation were syndicated shows produced by Paramount, and in 1989, they were both being filmed on the same studio lot.
So, I would guess the impetus for this episode was nothing more complex than having Emmanuel Lewis walk over to the TNG soundstage to make use of some downtime Michael Dorn had while sitting around in the Klingon makeup.
Yes, to those of you who had hoped to see Webster in the Enterprise’s conference room personally advising Captain Picard, Data, Riker, Troi, or Geordi, I’m sorry to say that Worf is the only Next Generation cast member who appears in this crossover episode. It really does feel like there just happened to be a day where Dorn had nothing better to do, the TNG crew didn’t need the bridge set, so everybody involved figured, what the hell?
We open in the suburban home of Webster. He’s playing a video game called “Galaxy Man” on his bedroom PC, and making lots of dumb comments to himself which all get huge laughs, because on ‘80s sitcoms, the laugh track was relentless. Suddenly, lightning strikes the outside of the house, and bad sparkly video effects envelop Webster.
We hear the transporter sound effect as Webster materializes on the bridge of the Enterprise-D, still holding his joystick. The red alert sound is heard as a random Starfleet person runs over and scans him.
Worf is standing at his usual station, and he calls Webster an “intruder” and asks in a rather laidback tone how he got aboard the ship. Webster blames it on his joystick, and another Starfleet extra takes it away.
Worf recognizes Webster as an “Earthling”, but finds his “style of dress” peculiar. Webster insists that this is what all the cool kids will be wearing in 1990, and Worf tells him, “That was more than 300 years ago! You’re in the 24th Century!”
Over at a side console, another Starfleet extra pulls up animation of Webster rotating around like he’s the Genesis Device, and soon declares him to be “unarmed”. Webster thinks the bridge of the Enterprise is “cool”, and Worf replies, “The temperature on the Enterprise never varies!” Cue laugh track.
But now Worf is suddenly the expert on all things 1989, saying he doesn’t understand the customs of Webster’s time, which according to him are entirely limited to “mud wrestling”, “Groundhog Day”, and “dancing for fun”. Well, he’s totally pegged 1989 Earth culture, that’s for sure. Worf says that in some parts of the galaxy, dancing is “considered a prelude to violence!” Unless he recently saw West Side Story, I have no idea what he’s babbling about.
Webster starts to show off his dancing skills, which causes one of those Starfleet extras to run over and jam a phaser into his ribcage. Worf growls, “Told you!”
So Webster starts talking about his “Uncle Phil”, who’s a good dancer. Then we fade to a shot of Webster’s Uncle Phil, who previously appeared on the show, played by special guest star Ben Vereen. And by that I mean, we’re just watching a clip of one of Vereen’s previous appearances on the show.
Guess what? This isn’t really a special crossover episode of Webster. It’s actually a Webster clip show, with the Worf/Enterprise stuff serving as the flimsiest of framing devices around random clips from previous seasons.
Allow me to say that, after spending the better part of a decade tracking down this episode, only to discover it’s almost entirely recycled material with perhaps 7 or 8 minutes of Star Trek-related footage tacked on, “letdown” doesn’t even begin to describe it.
Of course, Webster, like most ‘80s sitcoms, had its fair share of clip shows throughout its run. Actually, I think it had a few more than the norm, to take advantage of how its target audience was likely too young to have seen the episodes they’re flashing back to. In fact, I’d guess object permanence was probably a new concept for many of them, as well.
After the clip of Uncle Phil, we return to the Enterprise, where Worf apparently sat for several minutes listening to a child talk about that time he tap danced with his uncle. Worf doesn’t think this sounds like “fun” at all, and declares, “On some planets, that would have started a war.” And at this point, I have to assume Dorn was told to tone down his performance so as not to scare the little kids watching this, because I’ve never seen Worf this subdued. He’s practically comatose.
Webster asks to be beamed back to Earth, and Worf says that as soon as they “clear the gravitational pull of Antares”, they can send him back. Webster responds, “Great! The thought of being in junior high for the next eighteen hundred milleniums [sic] didn’t sound too good!” Which makes no sense whatsoever, but they punch up the laugh track on that line anyway.
Webster wonders why there are so few people on the bridge, and Worf explains that everyone else is taking breaks to “rejuvenate”, primarily by “going to the Holodeck to pursue their most stimulating fantasies!” And they weirdly punch up the laugh track on this line too, perhaps to cover up the sleazy undertones. Or maybe they just wanted to keep kids from visualizing whatever Reg Barclay is currently doing down there.
And I should point out that hearing a constant laugh track on the Enterprise-D bridge is distinctly surreal. Someone really should take season two of TNG and add a laugh track just to see if it improves things; you know there are enough deadly pauses in those episodes to accommodate plenty of canned laughter.
Webster says that in his time, people instead go on “vacations” which are “fun”. Worf grumbles, “Isn’t ‘fun’ a waste of time?” And you can see why he and Dax made such a great couple.
Webster assures him that “fun’s fun!” We then get a clip of Webster and family visiting a dude ranch from another episode. The only notable thing about this clip is it features prolific character actor Jack Elam as a cowboy who teaches Webster how to “mosey”. And that’s it. That’s the whole clip. It’s less than a minute long.
Back on the Enterprise, Worf is struggling to understand the concepts of “vacations” and “dude ranches” and “fun”, so now Webster starts talking about another fun adventure, when his family went to San Francisco and took a helicopter tour.
And then we see the helicopter tour, which is almost entirely represented by Webster and family voicing over aerial stock footage of San Francisco landmarks, all scored with a sultry sax for some reason. But the oddest part happens just before they take off, when Webster randomly yells out, “Beam me up, Scotty!” Wait. That means in Webster continuity, Star Trek exists as both a fictional universe and the actual, future reality. Great job, episode, you just destroyed the very fabric of space-time.
The pointless clip ends with Katherine passed out in the helicopter due to being doped up on Dramamine, and back on the Enterprise, Worf says, “Your ma’am’s reaction was appropriate for such a primitive form of transportation!” Holy crap, Worf is really just sitting here listening to a child talk about flying around in a helicopter. Bridge duty on the Enterprise must be more boring than anyone ever imagined.
Just then, the ship goes on red alert again, and Worf declares they’re “having trouble escaping Antares’ gravitational pull”. He says, “If we do not enter the time continuum at the appropriate moment, you will arrive home 85 years too late!” Webster jokes that he wishes he had seen Roger Rabbit when he had the chance. Hilarious. And I know what you’re thinking: What’s the “time continuum”? Is that how Webster ended up in the future? How did he get caught in the “time continuum” in the first place? Well, never fear: it won’t get mentioned again.
Some random voice calls up from Engineering (it’s clearly not Geordi) to say they’re “clear of Antares”. And now that the crisis has passed, Worf starts talking about other things from Webster’s time that he finds strange. Such as: sports! Sports are strange. But not football, for some reason, even though Worf finds it “tame”.
Naturally, all this talk about football causes Webster to reminisce about the time he pitched for his Little League team. I know, but just go with it. In the flashback clip, Webster sucks as a pitcher. Kids are scoring hits on him left and right. Somebody hits a home run, and Webster throws down his mitt in frustration. End flashback. No, really.
This allows Worf to triumphantly say it sounded like Webster was “humiliated”, and thus not having “fun”. But Webster says there are other things to enjoy about baseball, like “the challenge”. Worf recognizes “challenges” as part of Klingon “courtship rituals”. Hah. They’re calling them “courtship” rituals here. That’s adorable.
Webster then recalls his “first 6k race”, and the flashback clip shows Webster still running the race hours after everyone has already finished. George comes to pick him up, but Webster is determined to prove he can finish the race. George says, “I know one thing: you sure got your father’s heart!” (his father didn’t die from a stroke while driving, did he?) and the clip ends.
Worf says, “If we Klingons were not such a fierce race, that would bring a tear to my eye!” He may not grasp the concept of “fun”, but he sure seems to have “sarcasm” down. Finally, Webster gets his joystick back, and Worf says he can return home now. Webster asks how he’s supposed to do that.
Which leads to the only genuinely funny moment in this entire worthless episode when Worf replies, “Just click your heels together three times and repeat, ‘there’s no place like home’!” After a moment, he smiles and calls this “Klingon humor”, and tells Webster to just push the button on his joystick.
As he beams out, Webster says, “I sure had a lot of…” He fades away, and Worf solemnly completes the thought: “I know. Fun.” And then Worf presumably returns to the crushing tedium of his meaningless existence on the Enterprise.
Webster wakes up in his bed. It was all a dream! Or… was it? He throws back the covers to reveal he’s still got his joystick in his hand (and yes, I know how filthy that sounds) and it now has a tag attached which reads, “Repaired and Inspected by No. 6 – The Starship Enterprise”. Webster then gives an “ain’t I the dickens?” look into the camera and the episode ends.
Nearly every Webster episode had a really obvious moral, so what did we learn from this one, kids? Fun is… fun. There are many things that can be fun. Dancing is fun. Moseying is fun. Helicopter tours are fun. Sometimes, even unpleasant and humiliating things can be fun. But working the graveyard shift on the Enterprise-D is boring as fuck.
Actually, there’s one final detail about this episode that I haven’t revealed yet, because it’s so mind-blowing. Are you ready?
“Webtrek” is not just a clip show, and it’s not just a crossover episode: It’s the very last episode of Webster, ever.
Yes, to close out six long seasons of this crap, we got an episode that featured clips of other episodes that weren’t the slightest bit memorable, no other regular characters besides Webster, and a half-assed wraparound that was probably shot in a day.
I’m convinced “Webtrek” only exists because the producers needed an additional episode to meet their contractual obligations, and so Emmanuel Lewis and a crew of maybe five people walked across the Paramount lot and knocked something out in the space of an afternoon. My theory is bolstered by how this episode brings the total number of Webster episodes to exactly 150, which can’t be a coincidence.
In all fairness, the prior week’s episode (which was also a clip show, because of course it was) seems like it was meant as the real finale, because it actually features George and Katherine and Papa Papadopolis and this random dude Jerry who was on the show a lot, and it actually flashes back to the pilot and a couple of other memorable moments from the series. But without looking it up, you’d never know it was one of the very last episodes, either.
And that’s “Webtrek”. Alas, I liked it a lot better when I thought it was a figment of somebody’s imagination. But before I wrap this up, I should address the most important question of all:
Is it canon?
At the time this episode aired, Gene Roddenberry’s office had just released an infamous memo that decreed that anything that appears in a live-action episode is Star Trek canon. And considering pretty much nothing in this Webster episode contradicts previously established Star Trek facts, one could make a case that it’s 100% canon that a kid named Webster from 1989 got struck by lightning and was instantly teleported 300 years into the future and appeared on the Enterprise bridge where he hung out for a few minutes talking about fun.
Or one could look at it another way: the ending of the episode strongly suggests Webster’s time on the Enterprise was a dream. Therefore, it’s very possible that this means that Star Trek: The Next Generation, and by extension the entire Star Trek universe, is all just a dream that exists only in Webster’s subconscious. Suck on that, Tommy Westphall!
If you liked this article, you may also enjoy: When Reading Rainbow went behind the scenes of Star Trek: The Next Generation