The times have changed.
Long about 1993 or 94, I decided I wanted a Scooby Doo t-shirt. For the last several years, Scooby and the gang had kept a low profile. After the debacle that was The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby Doo (a great idea for a series that didn't work out so well), the gang had last been seen in the self-deprecating Pup Named Scooby Doo, which I never quite warmed to. Since then, there'd been a couple of bad movies, with no sign of Daphne, Fred or Velma. The gang had lost its way. The Mystery Machine was gone.
But I still wanted a shirt.
(behind the jump: a long analysis of the phenomenon that is Scooby Doo and latest series, which I love)
At its best, Scooby Doo was one thing that every other cartoon seemed afraid to be: spooky. Though the monsters got less creepy in most episodes after the second season (with a few notable exception, such as that blond witch and the headless horseman), the Scooby Doo shows I loved were high on atmosphere, mystery, and general creepiness. By the 80s, though, they were ignoring the mystery and going for the humor.
Can I just say right here that no one ever really watched Scooby Doo for the jokes?
Anyway, you could hardly ever even find the old Scooby shows on TV in the mid 90s, let alone any merchandise beyond the odd coloring book here and there. USA would air them now and then, and eventually they'd land on Cartoon Network, but we didn't have that channel in my town. I looked at every mall in Iowa, not to mention a few in Chicago and the massive Mall of America near Minneapolis. Scooby Doo t-shirts were simply not made.
But around that time, as the internet made everything old new again, it became popular to deconstruct Scooby Doo - usually to the conclusion that the kids were all on drugs. This always bugged me - of COURSE Shaggy and Scooby have the munchies. Dogs are ALWAYS hungry, and Shaggy never got to eat in those old episodes - Scooby always ate all of his food. Another popular point to make was that we were never given any idea of why these kids were traveling around - were they deadheads? Actually, they almost always say where they're going - it's usually either to see a rock concert or visit a relative.
But, of course, all of this probably helped bring Scooby Doo Revival that began with a pair of pretty-good straight to video movies, Scooby Doo on Zombie Island and Scooby Doo and the Witch's Ghost. The gang was back. The mystery machine was back. The monsters were spooky again. And the shirts were everywhere.
But few long series have been as inconsistent, quality-wise, as Scooby Doo. The show has some great episodes, and a lot of crap in between them. The live action movies failed to move me (though I kinda sorta liked The Mystery Begins last year), most of the more recent direct-to-video releases haven't done much for me, and the recent series, What's New Scooby Doo didn't really interest me much. I couldn't make myself get excited about Scooby and Shaggy Get a Clue, either.
But, hey - I didn't hang around on message boards bad-mouthing these shows or talking about how Hannah Barbera was "raping my childhood." Those old episodes that pushed me into my life as a traveling mystery solver (well, sorta) are still out there - and easy to find on DVD if I want to reminisce.
So I just waited - sooner or later, new writers were bound to be in charge and were bound to talk the execs into letting them do something decent.
The new series, Mystery Incorporated, shakes things up a bit. In something of a retcon, the gang is now officially teenagers (instead of hovering around an undefined sort of late teens / early 20s vibe), all living in a town called Crystal Cove, which actively promotes itself as the most haunted place in the world. The gang occasionally gets missives from a "Mr. E" who is gradually getting them through the mystery of the curse of Crystal Cove (and the mystery of whatever happened to the ORIGINAL Mystery Inc, a group who vanished some time ago). So far, I'm digging it. These underlying plots occasionally tend to take over the series (as they did in X-Files, but so far it hasn't really gotten in the way of the monster-of-the-week plots). While most of the classic villains were pretending to be ghosts to scare people away, the world has changed: having a ghost doesn't lower your property values or keep tourists away. Now, the gang is at odds with the townspeople who rely on people thinking the ghosts are real for tourist revenue.
Velma is now a ghost tour guide who gets in trouble for telling people that certain ghosts in the town's haunted weren't REALLY ghosts (a show after my own heart, clearly!). She's been modernized a bit (and why not - who in the world still acts like Velma did in 1969?). Rather than simply seeming like she forgot to take the hanger out of her sweater all the time, she's sort of a hipster - a science geek who listens to indie rock. I think it's a very good way of doing Velma, really. I always liked Velma.
The biggest - and most controversial - new development is that Velma and Shaggy have a thing going on - she and Shaggy treat each other terribly. She's always on him to straighten up and stop spending all his time with Scooby (she lays down the "it's him or me - choose!" ultimatum all the time), and Shaggy tends to treat her quite dismissively. The issue is clear: she's mature, and he isn't. It happens. Honestly, it's probably the most realistic teenage relationship I've ever seen in a cartoon. Not the kind of thing I'd expect to see in Scooby Doo, but maybe that's part of what's been wrong with the show in most of its post-1970 incarnations.
Fred is also a bit changed - he comes off as kind of an idiot (though really he's just emotionally stunted) and obsessed with buildings traps. I like the traps angle. "Fred sees things different," Daphne tells her dad. "And he wants to catch those different things in his traps!" He reminds me more than anything else of the version of Fred from A Pup Named Scooby Doo. As with Velma and Shaggy, one gets the impression that he'll grow over the course of the series.
Daphne is still pretty much Daphne, but she's not an airhead (as she's sometimes been portrayed). They leave most of the vapid-ness to her mom.
All of these changes would be for nought, though, if it weren't for two things: they're not afraid to be spooky again, and, for once, the humor is done well. There's never been a Scooby show where the jokes were quite as funny as they are in this season.
And the references to earlier series are fun - there have been many references to Vincent Van Ghoul, Don Knotts and Cass Elliot were visible in a crowd scene lately, etc. Most "Scooby" series have been self-referential and self-deprecating since A Pup Named Scooby Doo, but rarely do they do it entertainingly and without seeming too much like they were just going for self-parody.
The writers have created one heck of a set-up for themselves here. They've got a cool bunch of characters with room to grow emotionally (very rare for any cartoon, and certainly not something I've seen in Scooby Doo) and a dynamite premise in a world that lets them be both funny and scary without coming off as dumb. There hasn't been a Scooby Doo season I found so consistently good since season 2. They've even made me HOPE they find a way to bring in Flim Flam, Scooby Dumb, and maybe even Scrappy. If they can make me WANT to see Scrappy Doo, they must be doing something fantastic (you never meet anyone over the age of five who likes Scrappy much, but our tendency in the internet age to act like Scrappy is the anti-christ is over-the-top - maybe they can finally ret-con him into a sympathetic character! As much as I disliked him as a kid, hating Scrappy has been a running joke long enough that we should really throw the poor puppy a bone).
Now, I'm a guy who tends to dig ret-cons. I think they're inevitable in any series that goes on for decades. Sure, the way they went about undoing the last 20 years of Spider-Man was lame, but those first several issues after Peter Parker went back to being a single guy trying to make ends meet were my favorite Spidey issues in years. And, though message board commenters seem to act like this has never happened before, they've ret-conned the Scooby gang many times.
Now, for perhaps the first time, they've done it in a way that's going to allow them to grow, instead of just heading into a corner and falling back into focusing on the comedy. Rather than a plain "make it relevant to the kids of today" ret-con, they make it feel like they're simply cooking in the kitchen they've built over the last four decades. For the first time since I was about 14, I really, really want to get a van and paint it up like the Mystery Machine. And for the first time in my life, I'm actually making a point of seeing every episode of a new Scooby Doo series.
I'll bet Mr. E turns out to be Red Herring.
(edit to add: last night's episode, with Harlan Ellison playing himself as the gang battles a Lovecraft parody, was like geek nirvana)