Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Sensor Scan Bonus: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

This is the second part of my reading of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! in the context of Star Trek and the larger pop culture landscape of the late 1960s and early 1970s. You may wish to check out part one (covering the period of the show when it was actually known as Mysteries Five) first if you haven't done so already, or even if you have just for a bit of a refresher. This part goes into more detail about the actual show and what I think the main characters represent. And, like the previous part, it's a revised, remixed, expanded and otherwise tweaked version of a piece I wrote a year ago on one of my other blogs.

I'm not going to pull what Gene Roddenberry did with “Assignment: Earth” and pretend this isn't a backdoor pilot for another project I'd really like to write someday. This is manifestly why it's an overstuffed two-parter: I'm trying to condense my entire reading and thesis into one blog post when covering Scooby-Doo could well be a project of comparable size and scope to Vaka Rangi. However, the original
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is still one of the biggest cultural signifiers of 1969, so I've really no choice but to put this here. My apologies in advance. That being said, if you're at all interested in hearing me talk more about Scooby-Doo (as if for some reason this ridiculous spiel wasn't enough for you) or just want to discuss it further, please do let me know in the comments or anywhere else you're able to get ahold of me. I'd love to hear your thoughts.

If there's another pop culture franchise that's meant as much to me and about which I have as many complex, conflicting emotions as Star Trek, I'm not at all ashamed to admit it has to be Scooby-Doo.

You find yourself on a dirt path. It's an avenue lined with leafless trees on either side. The Moon is full, and the moonlight shining through the trees gives the gnarled landscape a transfixing, grotesque otherworldly beauty. In the distance there's an old Victorian estate. Through the evening dusk, you can just make out that it seems completely abandoned, all save for one window that remains eerily lit. There's a crack of thunder, and a flock of bats comes flying at you. There's an almost legibly thick haze in the air, blurring the boundaries between night and day, between our world and the others. How far across the expanse does the dream extend? How long have you been here? Difficult to say. All you know is that you need to get to your next gig and your dog's hungry in the backseat.

When last we left Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, we dubbed it the reanimated shell of a dead show we didn't get to see forever haunted by the potential its predecessor hinted at. While in many ways this remains true, one of the most fascinating things about Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is not so much what it *lost* from Mysteries Five, but how much it actually managed to *retain*. Because Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is one of the most brilliantly subversive and inspirational television programmes ever made, hardly anybody recognises it as such, and it manages this all through imagery and symbolism alone.

Which is quite fitting for a show so consciously invested in reviving German Expressionism for 1960s children's television. Still the boldest and most intriguing decision Joe Ruby and Ken Spears made when given the dictum to create a modern, hip supernatural-themed mystery show for kids was to deliberately invoke the films of Weimar cinema. It would have been very easy, and indeed expected, to just do a tongue-in-cheek monster romp full of Lon Cheney, Jr. Werewolves, Boris Karloff Frankenstein monsters and Bela Lugosi Draculas, paying lip-service to the ubiquity of Universal Horror (it's telling that when Scooby-Doo does eventually do this, it does it with far more style, cleverness and layered meaning than really ought to be expected of it). This is just what people who pastiche horror films do: Pick one of the above and do a fun runaround full of family-friendly scares. This is also explicitly not what Joe Ruby and Ken Spears do, and that choice has tremendous ramifications.

If there's any remaining doubt in your minds that Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is nothing short of unfiltered Expressionism, think back for a moment to The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari: That film is defined by its use of distorted perspective, unnatural-looking light and colour and painted shadows to emphasize the unearthly, dreamlike setting. Furthermore Caligari, just like many Expressionist works, showcased a warped and contorted version of an otherwise relatively modern and urban environment, sometimes contrasted with a similarly ethereal pastoral setting. Many prints of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari I've seen give the film an eery blueish tint that I think really accentuates it. Well, The very first shot in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! opens on a deserted rural highway that looks painted onto the background (I mean, even more so than one would expect to see in a cartoon) surrounded by disquietingly bent leafless trees with the moonlight streaming through them.

Furthermore, the antagonist of the second episode, “A Clue for Scooby-Doo”, is disguised as a ghostly diver: A haunted, vacuous shell of an otherwise recognisable everyday object (in this case a diving suit) glowing an unsettling greenish-yellow. Likewise, the Phantom Shadow from “A Night of Fright is No Delight” and Ghost of Hyde from “Nowhere to Hyde” are bathed in an unearthly blue-green aura. This even extends to real people, like the occult sculptor in “Don't Fool with a Phantom”. But one of my very favourite moments comes from the opening of episode “The Backstage Rage”, where Shaggy and Scooby-Doo are walking through a suburb: The show makes that neighbourhood look as vast and unreal as anything in “serious” horror. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! takes an environment any of its viewers would be familiar with (not to mention its own creators too: The show is obviously set in Southern California) and transforms it into something that feels alien and inhospitable, a trick you might recognise as something only the most potent of horror movies can pull off. It's a style utterly unique to this show and that I've somewhat cheekily dubbed “California Gothic”.

The undiluted Expressionism of the show's art style is just the half of it, of course: In a juxtaposition worthy of Weimar Berlin itself, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! stars four cheerfully groovy youths and a goofy dog who travel around together with no immediately clear motivation beyond trying to have a good time and to enjoy being young, seemingly oblivious to the shambling disarray and general disorder that apparently surrounds them. Except they're not. In fact, the real genius at work here is how Ruby and Spears quietly made the cast of their show some of the most blatantly radical and progressive characters to ever appear on US television, and it's in truth their revolutionary interaction with the world around them that's the entire point of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. Perhaps we should finally meet them, then.

One thing should be made perfectly clear from the outset: The gang are not Hippies. They are in no way, shape or form designed to resemble Hippies, nor does anything about their appearance, mannerisms or general look invoke the Hippie subculture of the late-1960s United States at all. For a supposedly-timely shout-out to the youth this might at first seem puzzling, though I have a theory as to why this may be the case I'll outline later. The bottom line for the moment is that no-one in the core five is meant to represent Hippie culture: In fact, really the only thing in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that remotely calls to mind the Hippies or psychedelic street performance is the Mystery Machine itself, with its flower-power paint job.

Actually, speaking of the Mystery Machine, let's talk about that first. We know from looking at production documents that Mysteries Five would have seen the gang as a five-piece musical band who had a knack for stumbling into mysteries on tour, hence their name. This also explains the Mystery Machine-It was obviously supposed to be the band's tour bus. Without the band motif though it now looks weird and out of place. Why are four random kids driving around in a van called the Mystery Machine? The gang are clearly not a group of private investigators in this show (all the evidence for that reading comes from subsequent series), they're just ordinary youths. So what's with the van? Well, even though its initial purpose was lost with Mysteries Five, it serves an important new role in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: It's the gang's home. While it's never explicitly stated in any of the shows that the gang are nomads (there are even a few episodes far in the future that try to give the gang actual houses, with mixed results in my view), it's pretty strongly implied, especially later on. This was probably the most important thing about this franchise to me as a kid: The idea of travelling around the world with three close friends, a dog and nothing more than what we could fit into our modified van is pretty much my definition of utopia. To this day my dream is to live in either a boat or a van, and I credit Scooby-Doo with being my primary inspiration.

But that's the van-What about the actual gang? If they're not Hippies, than who are they? Comics and animation veteran Mark Evanier is on record saying the gang was based on the main cast of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, with Fred as Dobie, Daphne as Thalia, Velma as Zelda and Shaggy as Maynard. This would of course fit with the information we have from Ruby's and Spears' earliest brainstorming sessions with Fred Silverman. However, and with all due respect to Mark Evanier, who knows more about Hollywood and the cartoon business than I could ever hope to and who actually wrote for the show and ran its comic adaptation for a time, if this was the intention than, the way I see it Ruby and Spears pretty decisively missed the boat: The gang no more resemble the teens-by-committee of Dobie Gillis than they do the Hippies. No, the gang are something far different and far more interesting than either of those.

Let's take them one at a time, starting with our new star. Scooby-Doo (and this is his name, not Scoobert of the House of Doo or whatever, at least right now), as we know, was from the beginning written as a large, silly, cowardly Great Dane. However, as easily spooked as he is, the core of his character is that he'll always summon up the courage to do the right thing and help save the day in the end. He was, as it happens, modeled off of Bob Hope's various comedy performances in the “Road To...” films in which he starred alongside Bing Crosby. So Bob Hope then: Not other cartoon dogs or a calculated metaphor for drug culture or whatever, Bob Hope. Not exactly radical youth movement material there, but let's remember he was supposed to be a comedy relief supporting character and what we see now is what happens whenever comedy relief supporting characters are suddenly thrust into the spotlight and given the responsibility of carrying the whole show. Not much good, in other words.

Actually, even though he's supposed to be based on Bob Hope, in practice, Scooby-Doo's narrative role seems to be more comparable to Lou Costello's in the Abbott and Costello movies: As of this writing I'd recently rewatched Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and I was struck by how much Costello's character reminded me of Scooby-Doo. In fact, I'd go so far as to say the show would have handled its comedy a lot better and would have just been more effective overall if it had emphasized this more prominently. This is the biggest problem with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and the thing that regularly gets in the way of people taking it as seriously as I think it deserves to be taken: The comedy all too often feels every bit as shoehorned in and as forced as it actually was. Although Scooby-Doo was always meant to be funny, he was obviously only originally supposed to be a minor background character and his shtick has a tendency to wear very thin. Furthermore, the show's panicky need to shove humour at us all the time to appease its moral watchdogs has more destructive effects on the other characters. But Scooby's charming enough and because much of his initial characterization carries through he works (for now at any rate), so let's move on.

Perhaps more interesting is Scooby-Doo's evergreen companion and now second half of a shared double act, Shaggy. Shaggy is the first character who shows off the extent of the damage the show's last-minute tonal shift did. More than any other character, Shaggy is the one who is the most Flanderized and stereotyped over the course of the franchise as every single showrunner tries to take one minor quirk (the fact he has a big appetite and has a tendency to be jumpy) and squeeze far, far more material out of it than is physically possible. Really, by the second season it was all over for Shaggy until Tom Ruegger came along in 1983 and gave him some much-needed reconstruction. But, If we look at Shaggy in the earliest episodes of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! we might be surprised to find that his defining character trait is not, as we perhaps might expect, cowardice, but rather a world-weary and tired cynicism and a dry, jaded sense of humour. In fact, he's often the one who is tasked, to his exasperation, with coaxing the nerve-wracked Scooby into action.

What this means is that what Shaggy is, as can best be determined by the larger social climate in which Ruby and Spears could reasonably be expected to have been working, is a Beat. Crucially however, Shaggy is not a “beatnik”, that hegemonic parody designed to marginalize and belittle Beats who is exemplified by Maynard G. Krebbs; Shaggy is closer to the actual spirit and ethos of the Beat Generation than really anything seen on US television before, and arguably since. Shaggy's role in the show is to appeal to caution and try to prevent his friends from making any rash decisions. He's proven wrong as often as he's proven right of course, though this doesn't take away from what he seems to be doing. Furthermore, he freely goes along with whatever the rest of the gang comes up with and is just as useful and willing part of the team as anyone else.

This makes sense, as the Beats were arguably the oldest of the youth movements that came to define the 1960s counterculture landscape, and much of their guiding ethos is reflected in the way Shaggy behaves: “Beat” is literally a reference to a feeling of being “beaten down” by society. In fact, Shaggy isn't just a Beat, he sometimes feels like a specific stand-in for someone like Jack Kerouac: The older, more weathered person who can speak from a position of age and experience. Another thing that makes Shaggy such a strong character is that his disheveled appearance is just universal enough he can be co-opted and championed as an icon of any number of subcultures that have cropped up over the years in the wake of the Beat Generation. Just compare him with, for example, the likes of John Carmack or Thurston Moore.

However, the character with hands-down the most blatant broadness of appeal has to be Shaggy's one-time sister Velma. Unlike Shaggy, Velma doesn't seem to represent any specific youth movement or philosophy, instead going for generically and cheerfully bookish (though it is worth mentioning she wears a miniskirt, which ought to, in 1969, make her allegiances clear). Her looks, unorthodox for a woman on US television, paired with her unabashed nerdiness and cool competence has rightly made her a hero for generations of feminists and other academics, and that alone makes her an iconic character. In Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! Velma is often cast as the third wheel to Shaggy's and Scooby-Doo's buddy comedy act, to her detriment. At the very least this isn't done in the manner of the trite and sexist disparaging (and arguably repressed Freudian) female straight man: More often than not she gets wound up in the shenanigans as often as her friends do and contributes her fair share to them as well (cheap nearsightedness gags are her specialty, naturally, as are gratuitous technobabble and comedic miscalculations). This is no mistake-Ruby, Spears and Silverman felt Shaggy, Scooby and Velma were the most inherently funny characters in the cast and took every opportunity to put the spotlight on them as often as possible.

The biggest myth surrounding Velma is that she's the only really productive member of the cast, finding all the clues, putting them together and solving the mystery. This does in fact become the case in later incarnations (largely because Hanna-Barbera stopped caring after the original show), but it's important to stress that in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! every character has a dedicated role to play: If Scooby is the comic relief and Shaggy is the voice of reason, Velma is the analyst. She makes observations and inferences and helps to formulate deductions. She's also the primary expositor, using her wealth of book smarts to help the gang in situations involving science and engineering. She's not, it should be stressed, chief investigator, at least not yet: She doesn't tend to find clues as much as she does put the pieces together once she has them. She's more James Bond's Q than The Avengers' Emma Peel, if you will. That role falls to someone else.

Then there's Daphne. The character everyone says is objectively useless; a piece of late-1960s eye candy with no sense of self preservation or spatial awareness who exists solely to hang off of Fred's arm, fret about her clothes and hair and get stupidly kidnapped every episode to drag the plot out a little longer. Or, as I like to say, a triumph of both feminism and youth utopianism and quite possibly the best idea Scooby-Doo ever had. First of all, Daphne's job is manifestly not to get kidnapped to give the gang something to rescue at the halfway mark of every episode: In the original series she doesn't get abducted any more frequently than Shaggy or Fred (her nickname “Danger-Prone Daphne” comes from the fact she's sometimes a bit clumsy, though please do note it's only Fred, and on rare occasions Velma, who refers to her by this name). What Daphne actually does is find the clues. All of them. She seems to be able to notice hidden subtleties the other characters overlook all the time and frequently asks the questions that cause the others to re-think a deduction or leads them to suddenly realise something they hadn't before.

Even aside from that, Daphne is very probably the least understood character in Scooby-Doo, and this is a real shame, because she is also possibly one of the greatest. Part of this might be due to the passage of time and countless reboots distancing us from the cultural context into which she was originally introduced, so parsing out exactly who and what Daphne is requires us, even more than in the case of her friends, to start from critical square one, ignore the 40+ years of cultural conditioning that weigh down the franchise and flex our media studies skills a bit. But the groovy miniskirt with the scandalously short hemline, fabulous riding scarf and flip hairstyle tell it all: Daphne is a Mod.

In a famous quote that's still the best descriptor of the movement I've yet seen, Peter Meaden, the manager of legendary Mod rockers The Who, described the lifestyle as “clean living under difficult circumstances”. The origins of the first Mods is the subject of a lot of academic disagreement, but the consensus seems to be that they were a group of working class dandies who emerged out of the 1950s Beat Generation and were inspired by the work of Jean-Paul Sartre, Modern jazz and soul music and a fascination with consumerist culture as a deliberate act of rebellion against British traditionalism and the old-fashioned, classist social structure that went along with it. Fashion and style were, in and of themselves, extremely important elements of the scene, though not in the stereotypical sense of an unscrupulous one percenter whittling vast fortunes away on trivialities. Because they were working class, the Mods were very conscientious about which products to purchase and show off and the way in which they would be displayed. The goal was to take symbols of consumerist culture and reappropriate them in unique, “Mod” ways as a kind of Pop Art (not Soda) statement.

(Also note that Daphne's original voice actor was the US-Icelandic Indira Stefianna Christopherson, i.e. the only person not immediately recognisable as Southern Californian. The birthplace of the Mod movement was the UK.)

So no, Daphne is not prissy heiress who can afford to live in luxury because of her amazingly wealthy family. She's a working class dandy performance artist. If you need further evidence, consider the fact her signature colour is purple: Traditionally, purple was seen as an exclusive symbol of the aristocracy because it's an extremely rare colour in nature and the dye could only be derived by harvesting thousands upon thousands of mollusks whose shells contained the necessary pigment. That changed in the Victorian age with the advent of artificial dyes which made purple a colour available to everybody. So, by wearing purple, Daphne is using her wardrobe to make a public statement about how she reappropriates symbols and tools of the ruling class for her own radical purposes and as a symbol of herself and her personal ideals, which is pure Mod. And really, this reading does seem to make more sense: After all, why would a stupidly wealthy young woman obsessed with status bomb around in a beat-up Volkswagen van with a grungy Beat, a bookish nerd, a dog and a guy obsessed with poking his nose into other people's business?

But this also means Daphne is the character most hurt by the transition from Mysteries Five to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: As the Mod, she is very clearly meant to have some kind of relationship with Shaggy, the Beat, because her subculture is an evolution of his. She's the more hopeful, optimistic yin to his cynical and jaded yang. However, because Daphne wasn't considered to be as funny as Shaggy and Velma, she was pushed offscreen at every opportunity so the clown troupe leads could be in the spotlight as much as possible and as a result she's barely in the show (this, by the way, not an implication that she's sleeping with Fred, is the reason the gang has an irrationally programmatic instinct to split up all the time). Just as with Shaggy, Daphne's role doesn't truly become clear until the two of them get the entire show to themselves in the mid-1980s under Tom Ruegger. However, even in the original series if you notice, whenever the gang is just making casual conversation, it's usually Shaggy and Daphne talking to each other.

Which brings me to Fred who is, I'll be honest, difficult to read. He's the character who poses the greatest challenge to my redemptive interpretation of the series, but let's see what I can do with him anyway. For one it would seem like Fred was meant to be the protagonist before he was usurped by Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, which makes sense if we take Mark Evanier's word and posit he was based on Dobie Gillis. It's just too easy to claim this when looking at his design: youth subculture? Well, I suppose we could say he looks vaguely Mod; He's certainly got the ascot for it and the colours are right, but I'm pretty sure we're meant to read that top as a white sweater over a polo shirt and those look suspiciously like blue jeans to me. Not quite a slick Italian suit, then. No, what Fred looks the most like is a generically clean all-American prep school jock or university Ivy Leaguer which, annoyingly, he'd most likely have to be if he was created as the protagonist of a series meant, at least in part, to appease fanatical moral guardians.

However, this reading runs into issues once we realise that Mysteries Five always seemed like it was intended as an ensemble show with no one main character, focusing instead on the dynamic interaction of the gang as a whole. There's certainly enough of that in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! that it seems like it renders this take on Fred's role too problematic to hold. So what does Fred do in the show as broadcast? Mostly he just makes decisions and issues orders when it comes time to inevitably split the gang up. He's usually credited as the one who designs the traps used to catch the villain, but Velma has just as much input and on many occasions its implied the entire gang works together on them. He exposits the plot, but not as much as Velma, he finds clues, but not as many as Daphne and he works with Scooby and comments on the situation, but not as well or as frequently as Shaggy. Really, he seems just like a balanced, well-rounded member of the team with no real specialty, symbolism or particular purpose. Puzzlingly, still just like a generic leader would be.

This may very well be the underlying point of Fred though, that he plays the role of leader even when it's not required. After all, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! absolutely needed to not arouse the ire of the media watchdogs again, so what better way to do that than have a token character designed to look as white bread as they come to contrast with the manic antics of our loveable clown troupe leads? Looking more carefully however, and it could be assured media watchdogs absolutely would not, it becomes clear Fred's leadership is redundant, but he doesn't really care because he's only playing the role halfheartedly. After all, he's hanging around with three overt symbols of 1960s subculture, so he must not mind them all that much. What Fred does then is, through his superficial displays of blandness, textually and metatextually allow his friends to be as wild, crazy and countercultural as they can get (it's telling when Fred eventually gets his one major character revision he is overtly assigned a subculture: Conspiracy theorists).

The way Fred seems to play with his narrative role segues nicely into the other major thing Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is known for: A formulaic style of storytelling and characterization that is not just a major aspect of the way it tells stories but fundamentally imbued into the very core of how the show works and what it does. Among the many things that could be said about this approach, included among these the minor fact Scooby-Doo seems to have introduced Glam-style characterization several years ahead of the curve, the really interesting thing from my perspective is what ramifications this holds for the show's basic themes and values. For one thing, Fred, Velma, Daphne and Shaggy are not characters in the sense we now understand them. As I've argued, they're really representatives of specific youth movements and crucially, youth movements from the late-1950s to mid-1960s: Several years before the show's actual airdate. They're caricatured for television animation, of course, but it's very clear who these characters are meant to be. What we have is, far from the original brief of a show overtly about everyday teen issues against the backdrop of a detective story or, for that matter, a modern character-driven drama, a show about programmatic characters who represent ideals tossed into a nightmare-scape of German Expressionism.

Recall the fact this show was being worked on in 1968, the year that marked the final collapse of youth counterculture in the United States. And then think back on which youth movements in particular the individual members of the gang represent: Beat, Geek, Mod and, arguably, Glam. Two of these date from long before the rise of the Hippies and Yippies, let alone their collapse and public shunning, one is timeless and the other hasn't even really coalesced into a visible movement as of this point. Although part of this is most likely due to the creators' need to distance their hip, young modern sleuths from the antiwar activists who had just been jackbooted by the Chicago police force for the benefit of the moral guardians, there's another side to this. The gang not only embody youth movements, they overtly hearken back to a time when youth movements were more accepted. The wisdom behind this choice becomes apparent when factoring in the other great programmatic aspect of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!: “And I would have gotten away with too, it if it wasn't for those Meddling Kids”.

People like Richard Dawkins tend to love pointing out how Scooby-Doo is essentially a show for arch-rationalists: The ghosts and monsters always turn out to be criminals in disguise, ergo the show is teaching us that the supernatural is all make-believe and mass hallucinations. I would humbly suggest Dawkins and his ilk are completely wrong in this assertion. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! I argue, not only has nothing to do with arch-rationalism or the supernatural, in point of fact the supernatural exists within the series to such an extent it's taken for granted. Later series canonize this by doing stories overtly about a physical supernatural world, but this is really a strong undercurrent that dates back to the show's origin. It's the favourite tool of the New Atheists themselves, Occam's Razor: How many paranormal-themed mysteries have the gang solved in their time? How many turn out to be a dude in a rubber mask in the midst of a land-grab job? How often are they surprised by this revelation?

The answer is always. Every single time the gang, and not just Shaggy and Scooby-Doo, treat the situation as incredibly grave and do nothing that would suggest they think something suspicious or earthly is going on until the clues start piling up. They remain convinced, or at least very open to the possibility of a paranormal explanation up 'till the very end, and are usually frightened to the point of despair as a result. If the gang were truly arch-rationalist skeptics why wouldn’t they go into every case with the presupposition that it's going to be a guy in disguise from the get-go? Are they really that thick? The answer, it turns out, is very clear and very simple: The gang are not arch-rationalists because pretending to be an otherworldly manifestation to hide your unethical tracks is an extremely effective criminal plan. The reason? The realm of the supernatural is very real and something to respect and fear.

Now, look at how the show treats adults in general: They're either criminals (and always criminals motivated by some kind of financial or otherwise personal gain), victims or, in the case of the police, hopelessly incompetent. In any world that subscribes to our model of logic, lawmakers and lawkeepers who are regularly and embarrassingly upstaged by a group of inexperienced young adults who can do their job better than them and effortlessly so would be sacked in a heartbeat, but, in the world of Scooby-Doo, these are the only kinds that exist. The gang are the only proactive characters in the entire show. Authority figures are not to be trusted because they're either evil and corrupt or weak and apathetic. The whole point of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! then, is that the world is full of manipulative, unscrupulous people who will callously play on people's fears to increase their lot in life at the expense of everyone else's. The only way to live justly and freely in it is to jump in with the spirit of the youth, live our life according to our terms damn what anyone else thinks of us, and expose the wrongdoers for what they are. Perhaps most importantly, we have to take up arms ourselves, because no-one will do it for us.

This then at last is when we can finally see the true genius behind juxtaposing the show's visual aesthetic and its narrative structure: The chaotic and surreal nightmare world of Weimar Germany related by the German Expressionists and that Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! so consciously invokes now reflects the traumatic disarray brought upon the United States in the late 1960s by the hegemonic revolution that left the utopian ideals of youth movements in tatters. Those same lost ideals embodied by our main characters, who at the same time express a nostalgic regret for an age long since past even as they seem to subconsciously create an alternate universe around them where the 1960s not only never died, but in fact won by bringing down the same forces that sought to crush them. And this is where it suddenly becomes clear why it's so important for Daphne, the chief clue-finder and question-asker, to be a Mod: Daphne's purpose is to facilitate and engender revolutionary change in the show's world, which makes her basically a microcosm for the entire series.

There's a peculiarly timeless, static and unchanging feel to Scooby-Doo, most notable in future iterations but still clear here to an extent: The gang never really shed their mid-60s fashions (dated even here, at the series' beginning) and continue to frequent Malt Shops well into the 1970s and 1980s, even when they're revealed as the official in-universe calendar dates. In postulating a dream-world alternate reality where the 1960s never needed to end, what Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is saying is that Daphne's starry-eyed Mod utopianism has won the culture war. Our groovy heroes always triumph; the forces of hegemony, bullying and calculating dehumanization always fail. Of course it's a crook in disguise all the time: After all, there will always be someone cleverly hidden just out of plain sight who will use power, fear and intimidation to harm others, and that person will always be stopped by the young and young-at-heart rising up to point out the injustice of it all. Daphne and her friends don't have to be made to change by a shifting cultural zeitgeist: Rather, the world changes around them, the only strong and reliable things within it. That dream-atmosphere surrounding all the great German Expressionist works is plainly on display here to remind us it is all, in fact a dream, but it's a dream worth striving for despite, no, because of its twisted and macabre beauty. The best dreams, we know, are always made of a beguiling mix of light and dark; that's what makes them so memorably haunting.

Like all great children's television, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! doesn't talk down to its audience and manages to effortlessly convey themes that “grown-up”, “adult” shows stumble over constantly. Joe Ruby and Ken Spears respected their viewers of course, but they also respected themselves and the culture their show was going out into: They tried to make the most intelligent and mature show they could, and, because it was a cartoon, they were able to use imagery and visual symbolic logic that would have been impossible on a live-action series. Don't you see what this means, Star Trek friends? This is a show about wayfinding. The gang are travellers making their way through the ruins of modernity, bound together by only their sense of social justice, their desire to help others and their loyalty to and love for each other. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is purely and utterly Vaka Rangi. It perfectly encapsulates all the themes I wanted to highlight on this blog, and that I frequently wish were clearer in Star Trek itself. In fact, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! may well be the most Vaka Rangi work I'm ever going to cover.


  1. A post of this length and depth deserves a bigger response than what I'm about to do, but nonetheless, allow me to go on record saying that this:

    "a show about programmatic characters who represent ideals tossed into a nightmare-scape of German Expressionism."

    is just about the greatest description of a show ever. That it happens to accurately encapsulate Scooby Doo is an excellent bonus.

    1. Well, thank you for that. I will confess I was rather proud of that thesis myself. :-)

      The moment I realsied what the show's eery atmosphere was actually trying to tell me I knew I had to write something praising it up and down. This is pretty much my idea of great television.

  2. I sort of thought of Daphne and Fred as the Mom and Dad of the group, with Fred as sort of the Zeppo Marx of the group: he's a bit of a lox, but there's a spirit and completeness when he's there than if he wasn't. As "crazy" as the others might act, Fred was always the grounded white male who was the responsible one.

  3. "who was the responsible one to the authorities" I should have said. (Though it's been decades since I last saw Scooby-Doo!)

  4. Ruby and Spears did interviews for the web radio show Stu's Show (you can find their two episodes on the show's Archives page), where they discuss how the original version of "Mysteries Five" was based almost directly on The Archies of "The Archie Show", and the second version (the one that became "Scooby-Doo, Where are You!") was based on "Dobie Gillis".

    The character similarities between "Scooby" and "Dobie" more or less begin and end with each character being the same "type" and the "Scooby" characters being designed to vaguely resemble the Dobie characters (with Velma and Shaggy far more resembling Zelda Gilroy and Maynard G. Krebs than Fred and Daphne resemble Dobie and Thalia. Velma wears Zelda's oversized sweater, Shaggy Maynard's baggy sweatshirt, and Fred Dobie's sweater-collard shirt combos, albeit with the addition of an ascot). However, I think the intent of Ruby, Spears, and Silverman was to stray this far from the source material (after all, I'm sure H-B didn't want the problems that they had with "The Flintstones" with Jackie Gleason strongly contemplating a lawsuit). The "Dobie Gillis" gang was never seen as a four-person unit as it was, only a three-person unit (Dobie, Thalia, and Maynard or, more commonly, Dobie, Zelda, and Maynard). The relationships are also highly different, of course. with Zelda being madly in love with a disinterested Dobie, Dobie madly in love with an only mildly interested Thalia, and Maynard being far more of a close friend to Dobie than Shaggy is to Fred.

  5. Part of this might be due to the passage of time and countless reboots distancing us from the cultural context into which she was originally introduced

    I initially read "countless reboots" as "countless robots." It almost made sense....

  6. 1968, the year that marked the final collapse of youth counterculture in the United States

    Growing up in southern California in the early 70s, I can testify that the counterculture was alive and well for quite a while after its "final collapse."

    1. Once again, I'm speaking in terms of generalizations here. Certainly there were enclaves that kept up the spirit, but in terms of *mainstream acceptance* 1968 was pretty much it. Phil made much the same argument in his own article on the year.

    2. I know that's a widespread view, but I'm not convinced. In the early 70s the imagery and motifs of the counterculture were everywhere, eagerly being co-opted in advertisements and so on. It pervaded the mainstream, not just "enclaves."

    3. Well, if nothing else, Hunter S. Thompson would probably disagree with you :-)

      Perhaps we could make an argument about the co-opting of countercultural imagery and motifs by corporations and government agencies trying to appeal to the youth combined and contrasted with an actual decline in the ethos of the counterculture?

  7. In any world that subscribes to our model of logic, lawmakers and lawkeepers who are regularly and embarrassingly upstaged by a group of inexperienced young adults who can do their job better than them and effortlessly so would be sacked in a heartbeat

    Of course the real world we live in just is a world in which lawmakers and lawkeepers are regularly and embarrassingly upstaged by inexperienced young adults. And only a few of us are trying to sack the lawmakers and lawkeepers, whereas most people instead respond by trying to arrest the upstagers. So I'm not sure who the "our" in "our model of logic" is.

    1. This was, of course, a joke. However, the "upstaging" I was referring to was "doing their job better than them" whereas what (thankfully) happens in real life is the youth point out the injustices of organised and institutionalised oppression.

      Which, incidentally, is what the rest of the essay is about :-)

  8. I loved this as a kid and have kind of undervalued it as an adult. I really do have to admit that nowadays I would find it hard to get past the overwrought humour that feels shoved down my neck. BUT I you have honestly opened my eyes to what the show holds, especially this earlier incarnation. With all of the ideas you have proposed in your essay I will enjoy some of these episodes in a new light, I definitely feel it would be rewarding to see it through your ideas.

    I will never watch anything with Scrappy Doo in it though.

    1. Prophets, I'm going to be defending the Scrappy-Doo era to absolutely *everyone*, aren't I?

      Regardless, I'm happy I was able to change your mind even a little bit about the original show. I'd suggest paying the closest attention to the first season, and in particular the first half of the first season, if you're interested in giving it another look.


    1. Well, this is certainly fun, isn't it? I doubt it's ever going to get WB's attention, but I'm of course all for more Scooby shows that go against accepted fan dynamics, especially if they play around with Daphne and Shaggy's relationship.

      The petition doesn't bring it up, but going along with a revival of the mid-80s dynamic, I'd also like to see a revival (and honed maturation) of the mid-80s style of postmodern humour.