The eleventh incarnation of Scooby-Doo ran from 2010-2013. When Mystery Incorporated fails, it reaches Scrappy-doo levels of badness. When it works, however-- surprisingly often-- it presents some of the best Scooby-doo adventures since the original. Along the way, Mystery Incorporated introduces the gang to Harlan Ellison, references everything from Saw to the Cthulhu Mythos, and explains why Scooby can talk.
Before we proceed, we must examine some history. Mine and the dog's.
I. What a long, strange trip it's been
Scooby-doo, Where are You? hit the airwaves in 1969, a Saturday morning cartoon that did not rely on the 'toon violence that had come under increasing attack. Archie had already brought teen adventures to Saturday morning, and his series had introduced a dog character to Riverdale. Fred Silverman took his premise from Enid Blyton, his teen types from The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, gave them a talking great dane and a hippie van, and had them solve spooky mysteries. The show's success led to numerous clone series (by both Hanna-Barbera and its rivals) and official spin-offs.
I was in kindergarten, and rather enjoyed the show. I followed it through its first two incarnations, and then dropped TV cartoons altogether.
In third year university, the seventh reiteration of the show, The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-doo aired Saturday at eleven-thirty, about the time we were dragging our butts out of bed. The three of us would have our coffee while watching Scooby fight real supernatural creatures, assisted by his annoying nephew Scrappy-doo and two of his original associates, Norville "Shaggy" Rogers and Daphne Blake.1 They also received assistance from a kid called Flim Flam and a sorcerer/con man named Vincent Van Ghoul2. Vincent Price, who'd found his way back into pop culture via his "rap" on Michael Jackson's Thriller, voiced Van Ghoul. Whereas Scooby's early adventures, talking dog notwithstanding, had some loose connection to reality, this limited animation spectacle threw itself full-tilt into 'toon mayhem, with post-modern self-referentiality, adult asides, and full frontal goofiness.
I lost track of the dog again, though I read the positive reviews accorded A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. The franchise, now owned by Warner Brothers, took an over-the-top Looney Tunes approach to the gang's early years. I caught bits and pieces of the 90s incarnations, here and there, and even watched a couple sequential episodes of What's New Scooby-doo?, a back-to-basics incarnation that brought Scooby and his pals into the current era as adults, still drawn to working the graveyard shift as Coolsville's most famous amateur detectives.
II. This is a long preamble of a tale!
Scooby-doo! Mystery Incorporated takes the gang back to their earlier years. We're sometime after the original series but before most of the spin-offs-- or, at least, whatever spin-offs any given viewer considers canonical.3
The teens live, not in Coolsville, as shown in other incarnations, but Crystal Cove. They still attend high school, and they've established themselves as mystery solvers. This does not always meet with the approval of Fred Jones's father, the mayor. Unlike most Scooby villains, he understands that a local monster or haunted place doesn't scare people away; it draws tourists. Crystal Cove uses its reputation as "the hauntedest place on earth" to generate income, and city officials don't especially like those meddling kids exposing local mysteries as the fronts for various scams and schemes.
The show's two seasons also bring to the Scoobyverse story arcs and bad relationship drama.
While exposing each week's mystery, the gang find clues indicating a greater enigma, often with the help of the mysterious "Mister E." Over two years, this will take them into the history of their town, and the first Mystery Incorporated, four teens and a sentient parrot, who disappeared, years earlier.4
As for the teen angst: Daphne likes Fred but he's initially clueless to her affections. Velma Dinkley likes Shaggy but he's terrified of relationships and they make his best pal, Scooby, jealous.
III. The Good
"Let's hide in that abandoned factory. We'll be safe among the dangerous machinery."
Mystery Incorporated works best when it gives into unbridled goofiness. In the episode, "The Shrieking Madness," the gang check out post-secondary education. Harlan Ellison turns up on campus, delivering hilarious and unmistakeably Harlan-like dialogue. It's funny if you're a kid; it's funnier if you're an adult familiar with Ellison. We also meet a professor-turned-popular-author, "H.P. Hatecraft," best known for Char Gar Gothakon: The Beast That Hath No Name. Unfortunately, this not-so-nameless beast, a cross between H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu and the Old Ones, appears to be stalking the campus. Meanwhile, Daphne visits the Blake Family Center for Self Named Buildings, and Scooby and Shag discover the on-campus burger joint only serves vegan food. Throughout, the action and solution rarely pretend to be anything but comical. Another episode has Scooby meeting-- in a dream-- the characters from various Scooby imitators from the 1970s.
Most of the time, the episode mysteries resolve with the standard Scooby-doo ending, overplayed. The villains rely on even more far-fetched machinations and arcane skills than in the past. This can be funny, but grows tiresome pretty quickly-- unless, I suppose, you are five years old.
And yet, Mystery Incorporated wants us to take its two-year arc seriously. This broader storyline actually touches on some serious themes, most notably the fact that adults often lie to their own children and their motives may be far from pure. We finally meet the gang's parents, but we don't, in every case, like what we see. The final episodes become a straightforward quest, presented seriously (by the standards of a cartoon aimed at kids, and starring a talking dog) and with high stakes.
We also get tensions among the members of Mystery Incorporated, the way we would among any group of friends, but especially one so disparate that it includes a jock, a
stoner hippie, a wealthy glamor girl, and a dumpy brainiac. It's great that we're finally seeing what would happen if the Breakfast Club decided to hang and solve mysteries with their talking dog.5 Some of the resulting scenes give the characters a bit of depth. These developments, unfortunately, often overreach themselves.
IV. The Bad
The Scooby gang always lacked many dimensions; that was a part of the broad appeal. That fact problematizes any attempt to deepen them. They simply can't support much depth. The writers do not always handle the new characterization well, especially in the earlier episodes. Fred, the jock/leader who can improvise plans for capture, has become a monomaniac obsessed with making traps. He studies traps, discusses traps, and fixates on traps. Daphne slips between her old danger-prone character and a complete airhead. Velma pursues Shaggy in a most un-Velma-like manner seemingly written to quash the ongoing fan debate about her sexual orientation.6
I don't mind the relationship angle, in and of itself. Here, however, we have a one-note joke that plays poorly. The girls chase after the guys and get disappointed. Teen girls are rapacious drama queens and teen guys are clueless idiots. Mystery Incorporated deserve better than this, and so do their young viewers. The show soon abandons this approach and emphasizes the group's friendship, to the relief of viewers of all ages.
The attempts to reach the show's diverse audiences do not consistently succeed. Mystery Incorporated can't decide if it wants to be The Simpsons Lite or an American Tintin. While cartoons, with their unrealistic stylizations, present the ideal format for such unlikely balances, Mystery Incorporated frequently falters.
V. The Scooby
The creators knew the viewers would include older nerds along with adults forced to watch the show with children, and they cater to that audience mainly through Easter Eggs and allusions. The writers raid the horror genre, giving us a Slasher episode, a kaiju encounter, a Saw knock-off, and a Carrie/Invasion of the Body Snatchers mash-up, along with the expected vampires and, uh, deadly killer gnomes. Episode #11, "The Secret Serum" manages to parody Friday the 13th, The Silence of the Lambs, Aliens, Terminator, and past episodes of Scooby-doo, and gives Yogi Bear a quick (don't blink!) cameo. In "The Midnight Zone," Tom and Tub from the 1960s' Moby Dick cartoon turn up as acquaintances of Daphne's (along with their pet seal, also named "Scooby"). Superhero Blue Falcon guest-stars in an episode that references Batman: Year One. Linda Cardellini, who played Velma in the live-action 2002 Scooby-doo movie, gives voice to an important recurring character, Marcie Fleach aka "Hot Dog Water." Hell, even Twin Peaks' Man from Another Place turns up, voiced by the original actor.
The show also addresses fan discussions, hence Fred and Daphne's relationship and Velma's aggressive heterosexuality. The long-absent parents of the characters regularly appear-- curiously, Velma's and Shaggy's previously-established kid sisters do not. And then there's the matter of Scooby-doo's intellect and voice.
Look, cartoons have long featured talking animals. However, the early Scooby-doo shows present the dog as an exception. Most animals in the 'toon couldn't talk. Occasionally, characters comment on the oddness of a talking dog. They don't find Scooby unbelievable, you understand, just unusual. The citizens of Crystal Cove occasionally have the same reaction. Despite the generally silly tone, this series actually provides an in-universe explanation for the presence of talking animals. Ludicrous, yes, but the show offers it in apparent seriousness.
It's no spoiler to say that Mystery Incorporated survive the final challenge. Once again they head out in the Mystery Machine, waved on by Mystery E (whose identity we finally learn). They will soon have survived a half century. I do not know if I shall watch future incarnations, but I'm betting there will be some.
Like, are you freakin' kidding me? Notes
1. Online resources inform me that Fred and Velma vanished for a protracted period during the late 70s and 80s, save for occasional guest spots. Shaggy and Daphne also got to change their outfits now and then. He wears a red shirt in 13 Ghosts; she has more than one costume.
2. Vincent Van Ghoul appears in this series, though as an actor associated with old horror movies, and not the half-sorcerer, half-con-man whom Shaggy, Scooby, and Daphne meet in 13 Ghosts. Despite this apparently being their first meeting, Daphne, in another episode, recalls knowing Flim Flam, Van Ghoul's assistant from 13 Ghosts (See next note).
3. Yes. I have encountered actual debates regarding what constitutes canon for Scooby-doo. Many viewers find The Thirteen Ghosts... particularly vexing, and others simply dismiss anything with "real" monsters or Scrappy-doo. However, some of these make an exception for Jeannie and The Addams Family, both of whom meet Scooby in The New Scooby-doo Movies. I have even read one online theory explaining that the late 70s/early 80s versions of the show take place in a dream or drug trip of Shaggy's.
Mystery Incorporated both helps and confuses those who want to establish a clear Scooby chronology. The big arc mystery concludes with a startling revelation regarding the gang's timeline and history.
4.The notion of the current characters of a spooky kid's show uncovering a mystery involving their hitherto-unmentioned predecessors appears in a multi-part final-season episode of the 90s series, Are You Afraid of the Dark?. I do not know if one influenced the other. Certainly, both shows aim at the same audience.
5. The made-for-television live-action movies from 2009 and 2010 actually develop the four characters as members of disparate cliques who comes together for the first time under very Breakfast Clubesque circumstances, and then join forces to solve a mystery. These movies aren't cinematic masterpieces, but they make fair family entertainment, and understand the characters better than the big-budget live-action adaptations.
6. The animated films have already given Velma heterosexual crushes and relationships, however. The character took her inspiration, of course, from Dobie Gillis's Zelda Gilroy, played by Sheila Kuehl. Zelda loved Dobie; Kuehl is gay.