Monday, July 30, 2012

“I'm the cream/Of the great utopia dream”: Daphne and Mod Futurism in Scooby-Doo

The kids are alright
Every once in awhile when doing these analytical re-evaluations of pop culture detritus I've inexplicably latched onto, I stumble upon an opportunity to find praise for someone or something hitherto passed over or looked at with derision. If the one thing I can contribute to the larger discourse about these works is to reveal some facets others might not have picked up on that allows people to view the more underrated aspects of Soda Pop Art with a bit more warmth in such a way as they might be even a little redeemed in the court of public opinion, then so be it. This is one such case: Before we progress with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its descendents, please allow me this space to gush about one of my favourite cartoon characters of all time and a person I think deserves a little more love.

Daphne is very probably the least understood character in Scooby-Doo, and this is a real shame, because she is also possibly the one character who provides the most solid evidence that my reading of the franchise as inherently about the triumph of youthful idealism over corruption and hegemony isn't completely off-base. 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, but a lot of it I feel is also due to the vagueness and subtleties that have surrounded her character almost from the very beginning. Parsing out who and what Daphne is then 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.

Like each of her friends, Daphne is explicitly modeled off of a youth subculture that would have appeared curiously dated even for the time. What makes her different from Beat Shaggy and Geek Velma, however, is that I'm unsure her subculture, or at least the way she presents it, has been as easy for Scooby-Doo's target demographic (US children) to pick up on as there's has. Even Shaggy, who is all-too-often misread as a hippie, is at least bombastic enough that his core character traits are self-evident and is, at the very least, called a beatnik almost as frequently as he is a hippie. There's an inherent subtlety and understatement to Daphne that's not present in either Shaggy or Velma, and I have a feeling that's caused more than a few people to read her as dull and pointless instead of quietly subversive.

But take a good, close look at Daphne (no, no, not that way! Seriously, you people, give a girl some respect) and it becomes clear what she's meant to be, at least to those of us with a working knowledge of early-1960s British youth movements. That's right, the groovy miniskirt with the scandalously short hemline, fabulous riding scarf and flip hairstyle tell it all: Daphne is a Mod. Just like the others she's a stylized and caricatured version of a Mod and seems to take her fashion cues from the waning Carnaby Street days of the movement in the mid-1960s rather than the androgynous Teddy Girl stylings of earlier in the decade, but Daphne is unmistakably, fantastically Mod nevertheless. Which is actually rather tellingly appropriate, because Scooby-Doo is very, very Mod.

In order to figure out exactly why, it might be worth the time to give a brief overview of what the Mod subculture was and what it stood for. 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 Satre, 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. The Mods were also deeply inspired by continental Europe, particularly Italy, and Italian art house films, scooters and flashy suits became important symbols of the movement. 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. More often than not, 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.

Fashion then, being so important to the Mods, is the first area in which Daphne reveals hidden depths. A popular interpretation of her is that she's a vain, prissy heiress who can afford to live in luxury because of her amazingly wealthy family. I'm not entirely sure where this conception came from because, well, there's absolutely no support for that reading anywhere in the original show. That pretty much describes the Tex Avery-inspired Daphne of Tom Ruegger's A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, but that's 20 years in the future from where we are now, is meant to be a self-referential parody based as much on people's memories of the show as it is the show itself and is built entirely around ideas Ruegger himself had, not anything that was in Mysteries Five or Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!.

If we look at the latter series, which I am positing as the original work here, then what we see is yes, Daphne is the best-dressed thing on camera, though Fred's got more than a few fans as well. She also mentions her hair a grand total of twice in the entire series (both times as a set-up to a self-deprecating joke it must be noted) which is still twice as many times as anyone else on the show. However, if Daphne is meant to be a Mod this suddenly takes on a new meaning: She's not a wealthy heiress at all, but instead a dandy trying to live well above her means (that she is later cast as a wealthy heiress in the late-1980s could be read as a case of spectacularly missing the point, were it not for my niggling feeling there's more to it than that given this is Tom Ruegger). 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?

Daphne is arguably the character hurt the most by the transition from Mysteries Five to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. Shifting from an ensemble setup to a showcase for a half-assed and shoehorned in comedy act leaves Daphne little room to showcase what makes her so special (this secondarily affects Fred, of course, but I'm still not entirely convinced there was anything particularly noteworthy about him to begin with). Indeed it's not really even until the mid-80s when she and Shaggy have the show all to themselves (Daphne returning, prophetically, as an investigative reporter) that the potential she seemed to have within her from the show's onset really begins to shine through. It also doesn't help that the intricacies of the Mod movement may or may not have been readily apparent to those who grew up on Scooby-Doo in the United States, or indeed those who wound up writing for its many reboots. This does seem to have been the intent with her though, further supported by the fact Daphne's original voice actor was Icelandic-American Indira Stefianna Christopherson. Christopherson may not have sounded particularly Scouse, but it is perhaps telling hers was the only voice in the original cast not immediately recognisable as Southern Californian (not to mention the birthplace of Mod being Britain, i.e. “overseas” and Hanna-Barbera's usual track record of creating ambiguously “foreign” characters. It's not much, but it's something).

Now that we've established Daphne is not, in fact, a greedy and vapid one percenter, we're presented with the slightly more difficult task of explaining exactly what it is she contributes to the narrative structure. Except that's a lie because it's not difficult at all: She contributes everything. Another popular misconception about Daphne is that she's useless because all she does is get kidnapped every episode to force some hollow simulacrum of drama while Velma sets about getting things done. This could not be further from the truth of the actual programme. Daphne does get captured once or twice (in a particularly uncomfortable instance it serves as the crux of the entire plot of one episode), but this is actually rare all things considered and she doesn't get abducted any more frequently than, say Shaggy and Fred (which is surprisingly a lot at this stage).

If any pejorative can be attributed to Daphne in Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! it's that she's unlucky: If someone is meant to trip over a switch or fall onto something or pull the wrong lever or screw up a trap she'll probably be the one to do it (a role that, interestingly, will increasingly be taken up by Shaggy and later, Scrappy-Doo). This, not being a capture monkey (which she isn't) is what earns her the nickname “Danger-Prone Daphne”. That said, it's perhaps revealing that it's usually, if not exclusively, Fred who calls her by this name in the original series and Fred doesn't always actually seem to like her very much. I think there's actually some deeper symbolism to Daphne's chronic bad luck that can be teased out of this, and I'll return to it a little further on. However, Daphne's not merely a Bad News Bear either and this is far from the primary thing she contributes to the show. If her role isn't peril monkey though, what is it?

What Daphne actually spends the majority of her time on the show doing is not, in fact, getting kidnapped or falling down mine shafts, but finding clues and asking questions. She seems keenly observant in a way nobody else on the show is, not even Scooby-Doo, whose discovery of a clue usually leads to much excitement, jubilation and applause. Daphne seems to find clues and hidden subtleties the other characters overlook all the time which, far from rendering her disposable, makes her damn near irreplaceable. The other big thing Daphne does is to frequently ask the questions that cause the others to re-think a deduction or leads them to suddenly realise something they hadn't before. In other words, Daphne questions the status quo and uncovers evidence that blows puzzling cases wide open. Her mere existence at once facilitates and engenders revolutionary change in the show's world. Daphne is the most unabashedly radical and refreshingly youthful character in this entire show; Forget embodying the Mod spirit and style, she's every youth subculture past, present and future.

Oh yes, the Mods. The thing about Mod culture is that is was by definition forward-looking. An obsession with everything that was new, slick and current led Mod philosophy to eventually be defined by a troublingly teleological utopian futurism. The Mods were the future, they'd arrived and everything old-fashioned needed only to step aside (one of the less flattering traits the hippies inherited from them). Of course, we all know the Mods eventually gave way to the doomed psychedelic street theatre and the old guard were not quite so eager to go quietly into that dark night as it were, as 1968 aptly showed us. This bears some interesting ramifications for Scooby-Doo: First, it sets up a fascinating tension between Daphne and Shaggy, her pure Mod optimism contrasting with his jaded, cynical, Beat outlook and deeply ironically so given the shared history that links the two movements. Secondly, it might go a way towards explaining Daphne's bad luck-Idealism not tempered with experience and practicality is set up from the beginning for problems and can easily be taken advantage of. That doesn't even touch on the gruesome fact we know what really happened to the 60s youth, an entire culture that could easily be dubbed “unlucky”.

But Scooby-Doo isn't quite as despondent as all that. Though the central tension remains, as does his validity, Shaggy's immovable cynicism winds up being the butt of many, many more jokes than Daphne's runaway idealism. Our groovy heroes always win; the forces of hegemony and calculating dehumanization always fail. 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. The franchise, after all, postulates a dream-world alternate reality where the 1960s never needed to end. What this surprisingly seems to reveal, however, is that Daphne's starry-eyed Mod Utopianism is the philosophy that eventually wins out. She 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. And really, who better than to embody the dream of a world where oppression and corruption always fall to youth and righteousness then a Mod Utopian? The gang need never go into hiding or reinvent themselves because Daphne is not only the philosophical glue that holds them together, but the very spirit and ethos of the show given human form within the narrative.

Clean living under difficult circumstances” indeed. What better description of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is that? The world is falling to pieces, sure, but that doesn't mean we have to sacrifice our livelihoods, our values and our fun because of that. We can do something about it. We can channel our energy in constructive, positive ways that will bring justice to those who have wronged us and make good out of a desperate situation. And we will prevail. It's a simple sentiment, a powerful one, and one that's just as valid now as it was then. Daphne may be a hopeless, chronically unlucky idealist stuck in a phantasmagorical dream world consciously disconnected from reality at a fundamental level, but she shows us what's so worthwhile about that dream and, more to the point, why it's so important to hold onto it and keep it close to our hearts. Even in times of insurmountable hardship, especially in such times, there's goodness and hope worth striving for. Even if we can't always see it, let alone reach it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

American Gothic: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!

Well, that's actually a very good question.

“Scooby-Doo” is a denotative phrase that has multiple levels of reference. It is at once the name of the dog belonging to the group of four young adults once known as the Mysteries Five and also that of the larger franchise of television series, movies and merchandising they are all a part of. Even though right now this phenomenon consists only of one TV show, by sharing his name with it Scooby-Doo (and that is his name, not Scoobert of the House of Doo, at least at this point) is also, in a sense, being labeled from the very outset as sole element of it worthy of note. We of course know it wasn't originally meant to be like this, the dog in question originally intended only as a comedy relief supporting character, but that is the artefact of a show that no longer exists: Too Much may have been a supporting character, but Scooby-Doo is the focal point of his series and who Hanna-Barbera wants us to pay the most attention to.

If this is to be the case however, then it's fitting Scooby-Doo should also come to represent the core values and themes of his show. If he's meant to be the most important innovation this series has, then it's fair to expect him to in some sense embody its textual heart and soul. Whether or not the rather charming dog onscreen is actually capable of bearing this kind of metafictional weight (and I posit a very convincing argument could be made he isn't) his name is the one indelibly linked with whatever this show does from now 'till eternity: He's the one and only irreducible part of the series now, for better or for worse.

The title, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, as is probably obvious, is a question. More to the point, it is a locational question: The questioner does not know where Scooby-Doo is and needs to find him. Given the classic horror motif that permeates the series, no matter how toothless it at times becomes, one could easily come to the conclusion this question carries a twinge of urgency, as if the situation has grown somewhat desperate and the dog's absence is a matter of some stress. Does this mean Scooby-Doo is meant to come in and save his friends from disaster, as his new-found centrality to the narrative might now suggest? Not necessarily-they could just as easily be trying to find him in order to protect him from something. The only thing we can discern for certain without context is that there is, at the moment, a pressing need to find Scooby-Doo.

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is a question, but it is also, thanks to the inexplicable grammatical error, a poorly phrased one. For want of the traditional question mark, those in charge of the show's branding made the puzzling decision, almost certainly a mistake, of inserting an exclamation point at the end of the sentence instead. This hinders reading; the formerly easily understandable question now carrying muddying associations with excitement and certainty. Are the gang meant to be shouting the question, an act of abject despair? Are they subtly unnerved, half-giggling the question because they're unsure what to make of an eerily disquieting, though not necessarily despondent, situation? Or is the show trying to tell us Scooby's disappearance isn't really an issue worthy of much concern and that he'll be found soon, everything is going to be alright and we should all just move along with our lives?

Earlier I stated that invoking Scooby-Doo's earlier role as Too Much was digging up the remains of a dead show and implied it probably bears little relevance on reading the show as it exists now. However, there's a sense in which this is unavoidable-Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! brings enough with it from its previous life as Mysteries Five that comparisons between the two are almost a required starting point for discussion, especially when the two things it does bring with it are probably the two most important ideas either show ever had: The characters and the visual iconography, both conveyed through Iwao Takamoto's hauntingly beautiful art design and both used as the halves of the fundamental juxtaposition that, in my view, just about defines Scooby-Doo as a work of fiction. Both are also the very first things viewers are hit with as the original theme song begins, although it's the world we see first of the two. It's pretty clear where I have to start then.

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 was to, through the setting, deliberately invoke the Expressionist 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 should be expected of it). If they were feeling a bit more adventurous, we might've expected Ruby and Spears to bring in some Hammer influences, a tack employed even by Phillip Hinchcliffe and Robert Holmes in their horror-movie-for-kids interpretation of Doctor Who. 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.

The history of German Expressionism and the meaning behind its distinctive and incalculably influential look is inexorably bound up with the environment into which it was born. GreenCine has an outstanding two-part introduction to the genre, and it really ought to be required reading for anyone who has a passing interest in teasing out what Scooby-Doo the work of fiction is really about. In brief, German Expressionism is a reaction to the devastation The Great War wrought across Europe and the ensuing runaway societal breakdown that it left in its wake. This was particularly gruesomely noticeable in Germany, the country deemed wholly responsible for the war by a world sociopolitical order left shell-shocked by the scale of the meltdown it had just lived through, bringing it face-to-face with the limitations of Modernism for the first time and desperate for someone, anyone, to hold accountable.

Though certainly not blameless during the war, the resulting effect on German culture and morale was frankly horrific and it's a hard person indeed who'd wish it on any people: In the lead-up to the Treaty of Versailles approximately 700,000 German citizens died of hunger partly as a result of a draconian military blockade that surrounded the country. Thousands more died in the revolutions that sprung up from both sides when protestors were shot dead in the streets even as the new Weimar republic struggled to maintain some semblance of legitimacy. Interwar Germany was defined by systemic and catastrophic social collapse the likes of which it's hard for a contemporary viewer to actually conceive of, let alone get a hold on. In a bizarre mirror image of the bloodshed surrounding it, Berlin became a cosmopolitan centre and served as a meeting ground for artists, poets, philosophers and radical thinkers of all sorts, the blend of music from the jazz clubs and the gunfire in the streets providing an unnervingly constant background. For many of these intellectuals, this nightmarish juxtaposition symbolized that the world had ceased to make sense, instead revealing itself as a warped, grotesque truism where abject horror was everyday reality, and they felt their art had to reflect this.

And reflect it they did: Films of the German Expressionism school had an extremely unique look, utilising light and shadow to create stark visual contrast, everyday objects warped and distorted almost beyond the point of recognition and unorthodox set design techniques to make utterly singular cinematic worlds that turned familiar settings into threateningly alien and unearthly landscapes that instilled a constant sense of foreboding. Nosferatu, for example, adapts Bram Stoker's Dracula in a way that would be unfamiliar to those only acquainted with the Bela Lugosi film; overtly playing up the concept of the vampire as a diseased undead neither of one world or the other in a permanent state of decay. The best, most vivid example of German Expressionism's link to the everyday life of Weimar Berlin is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, taking place in a haunting dream world comprised of unnatural shadow that refuses to return to normalcy even after the protagonist awakes and it's revealed to be a dream (because, of course, the grotesque dream is normality) and that concerns a silent killer who stalks the night. A little-known fact about Caligari is that the original ending would have revealed the titular doctor, after having been revealed as the source of the murders, to be in truth a raving inconsolable lunatic who is literally an escaped inmate running the asylum. The ending was changed, at the behest of the studio, to make the protagonist the mental patient and the obvious toothy commentary about the state of authority and social structure in interwar Europe was lost. How fitting then that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is the work of German Expressionism that the visual aesthetic of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! seems the most inspired by.

So, you know, that sounds like the perfect thing to base a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show aimed at 7-12 year olds off of.

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. If not hippies though, who are our protagonists and what are they supposed to symbolize?

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, 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, in truth, 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. But Scooby's charming enough and because much of his initial characterization carries through he works (at this point at any rate), so let's move on.

More interesting is Scooby-Doo's evergreen companion and now second half of a shared double act, Shaggy-The character subject most frequently to lazy readings that write him off as a mere hippie, or, more recently, a representative of cannabis culture. It should be clear by now none of these were actually intended by Ruby and Spears (the fact that it's become easy to read him this way is another story). No, 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 Beats and render them irrelevant 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 TV before, and arguably since.

If we look at Shaggy in the earliest episodes of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! (later developments move the character, like everything else, further and further away from the original ideals) 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. Shaggy's role here is to appeal to caution and try to prevent his friends from making any rash decisions, shockingly speaking as if from a position of age and experience. 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, and 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. In other words, Shaggy isn't just a token Beat, he seems to be a deliberate, if caricatured for animation, stand-in for, say Jack Kerouac.

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, but not in the sense 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. While this may be true in later incarnations, 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 main character 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'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, the most abjectly brilliant character on the whole show, a triumph of both feminism and youth utopianism and quite possibly the best idea Scooby-Doo ever had. I could write an entire essay on how criminally misinterpreted Daphne is and how she's the one thing in the entire franchise who consistently embodies its core ideals with unwavering elegance but oh look, it appears that I am. Lets table Daphne for now then and come back to her when we can really give her the justice and redemption that she's long overdue.

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 seems clear 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 (not to mention I think trying to read Fred as the most cheekily Mod thing about Scooby-Doo is frankly insane). 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 he 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 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 here the minor fact Scooby-Doo seems to have introduced programmatic Glam-style spectacle television 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 (or will argue in the case of one), 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 what these characters are meant to stand for. 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 characters who represent ideals tossed into the world of a supernatural thriller.

What of that world again? Having our 1960s ideals wander through a nightmarish Expressionistic alien wasteland is an essential decision and may just be the central pillar of the entire philosophy of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!. In terms of explaining why, the critical year is 1968-The year Joe Ruby and Ken Spears spent creating Mysteries Five and, by association, the fundamental themes this show inherits from it. The year that also, by any measure of argument, marked the death knell for any kind of hope the countercultures of 1960s United States had for mainstream acceptance. Although arguably beginning with Robert Kennedy's assassination in Los Angeles, the shockwaves of collapse reverberated most strongly throughout Chicago where brutal riots sprung from attempts to do psychedelic street theatre at the Democratic National Convention. Mayor Richard Daley proceeded to order the Chicago police force to use whatever means necessary to clamp down on the rapidly deteriorating situation after already issuing a “shoot-to-kill” order on Martin Luther King, Jr. As a result of the ensuing bloodbath, which Daley was able to pin on the protestors despite it being entirely his fault and that of the riot squad, the tide of public opinion was swayed irrevocably away from youth groups leading centrist Vice President Hubert Humphrey (seen by the young left as too close to then-President Lyndon Johnson, whose actions during the Vietnam War made him an enemy of the progressives) to easily secure the Democratic ticket over antiwar favourite Eugene McCarthy and, eventually, to lose spectacularly in the general election to Richard Nixon due in no small part to the young left bailing out of mainstream politics entirely in the aftermath of 1968, retreating in equal parts to third party candidates and cold bitterness.

Behind the scenes the climate was even more dire: All throughout his campaign Nixon, it has since been revealed, was working clandestinely with the Saigon government to sabotage peace talks initiated by the Johnson administration in an effort to use the worsening state of the Vietnam War as political leverage. The information was relayed to Christian Science Monitor reporter Beverly Deepe in October, 1968 by her contacts in South Vietnam. Although the story was heavily edited, then buried by Deepe's editors, it eventually reached as far as Johnson himself who threatened to go public with the story before it was decided by his aides that it would be too destabilizing on the morale of the country to publish it and that it was now too late to make a difference in the outcome of the election anyway. Consortium News' Robert Parry outlines the full timeline of events here. While it may not have been a matter of public knowledge at the time, Nixon's unabashed acts of treason fit into the general zeitgeist of 1968 chillingly well.

What we have in 1968 then is the youth subcultures of the United States in just about as bad a shape as they possibly could be. Suffering a very public fall from grace bolstered by very powerful political forces who had it in their best interests to silence them, the youth were once again forced underground and, seemingly, forever. Here though, fascinatingly, is where the ethos of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! reasserts itself and finally becomes cohesive enough to read; Its fundamentals laid down during the darkest days of youth utopianism in the US, threatened by hegemonic forces both overtly and implicitly and finally making it to television in a tamed, though still vibrant, form long after the youth had died and faded away. And the thing that makes it such a powerful work given all this context is the very repetitiveness it's so often criticized for.

I've already mentioned how the gang are basically programmatic representations of youth subcultures: Not only are they, but the specific choices of movements to assign the characters are very telling-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: “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, I argue, not only has nothing to do with arch-rationalism or the supernatural, in point of fact the supernatural exists teleologically 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? (I'm mostly looking at the original series here; Anything post-A Pup Named Scooby-Doo is a different matter).

The answer is always-Every single time the gang, and not just Shaggy and Scooby, 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. This ties into a thread I really ought to cover more regarding how Scooby-Doo overtly operates according to and within the parameters of horror movie logic, but that's for another day (oh, let's say, round about “Hassle in the Castle” at the earliest, though most likely in more detail during “A Gaggle of Galloping Ghosts”?).

For another example that also shows off this series' bewildering half-failure to launch, consider the fact that video at the top of the page is not the original intro sequence to Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!-This was. Notice how the jazz and funk melodies (beloved, of course, by the Mods) are superimposed on top of a darker, moodier refrain. Notice also the lingering emphasis on Velma's gasp, the unearthly moans of the monsters and Shaggy's repeated invocation of the title question. Additionally, when paired with the identical video reel, the music does seem to cause us to pay more attention to the fact the gang are constantly running back and forth in fear. The effect is muted, of course, by the later iconic bubblegum pop theme song (good bubblegum though it may be), of which I will surely have more to say in the future.

Look also 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. And this became CBS' tentpole series for its Saturday Morning Cartoon lineup.

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. 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 youth rising up to point out the injustice of it all. 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. The best dreams, we know, are always made of a beguiling mix of light and dark; that's what makes them so memorably haunting.

A very strong case could be made Joe Ruby, Ken Spears and Fred Silverman had none of this in mind when they first set about creating Mysteries Five, but given the context of 1968, the way the show works at a very basic level and the plethora of evidence on display I find it very difficult to argue they had no idea what they were doing. Even if they didn't though, the fact remains: Ruby, Spears and Silverman have made, almost by complete accident, one of the most enduringly triumphant symbols of the youth and the promises of a better life they can stand for ever created. This is Candide by way of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari reimagined for the downtrodden youth of the 1960s and anyone with a fixation on the macabre and a desire to see the world become a better place. All that and a box of Scooby Snacks.

Friday, July 13, 2012

“Don't tell me you're scared!”: The Show That Could Have Been

You know I think I remember you from somewhere before..
There's a kind of elephant in the room, from my perspective: A sort of thick cloud of qualifiers and caveats that will forever hang over any kind of discussion I will ever try to have about Scooby-Doo. At the risk of sounding unnecessarily alarmist and hyperbolic, there's a sort of original sin the show commits that permanently alters what Scooby-Doo is and represents at a fundamental level and makes my job just a little more difficult than I oftentimes feel it really ought to be. It's something we absolutely need to address right away before we can even begin to look at the show as televised from any kind of critical perspective, so let's deal with it right off the bat.

In many ways, it could be argued Scooby-Doo, and even the original incarnation Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, is the reanimated shell of a dead show we never got to see. No matter how good the show as broadcast will eventually get and how much of genuine interest it truly boasts to talk about (a lot, and it does), one simple fact remains: Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is not Mysteries Five. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! exists. Mysteries Five does not.

The year was 1968. Hanna-Barbera, long having proven itself one of the major pillars of the children's television animation genre they helped create, was under fire from Parental Rights and moral guardian activist groups who were complaining that their Saturday Morning Cartoon market, at the time dominated by sci-fi action serial inspired offerings such as Space Ghost and Jonny Quest, were too violent and scary for children and demanding their programming be changed to reflect more “suitable” content and topics. Despite being Exhibit A, Hanna-Barbera were far from the only studio targeted by this campaign, and one of the earliest, and most influential, responses was Filmation's The Archie Show, which reconceptualized the Riverdale high kids from the popular evergreen comics as a teen pop band and centered around themes of teenage relationship and parent drama.

With the complaints by parental watchdogs echoing in their ears, Hanna-Barbera set to work trying to come up with a show that would both please the activists and serve as a tentpole series for their upcoming season. While all this was going on, Fred Silverman, then head of CBS' children's television department, contacted producers Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, then fresh off of creating the well-loved (well, I suppose it had to be loved by somebody) The Perils of Penelope Pitstop with an idea he had for a new show that combined elements from I Love A Mystery and Armchair Detectives, two popular radio serials from decades past. The twist would be this new show would star characters overtly meant to represent contemporary youth, perhaps modeled off of The Archie Show or the sitcom The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis.

This is frankly already not off to a terribly promising start. Anyone with a passing interest in the aesthetic value of fiction, especially children's television, knows that no good ever comes from making a fuss that things are “too scary” for kids or demanding anything be “toned down”, especially when so many of these arguments are built around the presupposition that children are televisually illiterate and naive to the point of being unable to distinguish fiction from reality, as indeed these were. It doesn't help that the arguments of the activists are patently ludicrous at face value, as anyone who actually watched Space Ghost or Jonny Quest can attest to. Those shows were about as frightening as one would expect a mid-60s Hanna-Barbera cartoon to be, probably even from the perspective of those watching at the time, and had some particularly risible issues with visual narrative coherence and production quality. A famous case that is often brought up, and rightly so, is that of Doctor Who in 1977, where the BBC unceremoniously and unjustly fired incumbent producer Phillip Hinchcliffe as a result of bowing to complaints from a quack named Mary Whitehouse who seriously claimed cliffhangers traumatized kids because they thought The Doctor was in trouble and frozen in time for an entire week and, paradoxically, would cause them to try and mimic the scenario in real life. In an over-circulated, and with good reason, quote, Whitehouse makes the abjectly hilarious pronouncement Doctor Who under Hinchcliffe had devolved to “teatime brutality for tots”.

The inimitable Phil Sandifer has a wonderful takedown of Whitehouse's insanity here, and it's well worth a read as it explains exactly what is so dangerous and wrongheaded about this kind of cavalier moral crusading. Thing is though, despite the massive hit it took in 1977, Doctor Who eventually recovered. The next producer, Graham Williams, took the show in an entirely new direction despite overwhelming odds, opposition and a staggering lack of cooperation from both the higher-ups and his own staff and managed to make his vision more or less work. In the years since, Doctor Who has been intermittently brilliant and is as of this writing currently at the pinnacle of a massive and much-deserved resurgence. The situation at Hanna-Barbera in 1968 was much more dire and has a more complicated ending. What happens next is the animated equivalent of the BBC custom-tailoring a new science fiction serial to Mary Whitehouse's express instructions, then going back and redoing it because she didn't like what they brought her the first time.

That aside, this would all be, sadly, business as usual for US children's animation were it not for that second part of Ruby and Spears' prompt. More interestingly, and annoyingly, is Silverman's apparently sincere belief that the The Archie Show (based as it was on notoriously static and, at the time, conservative-leaning comics) or, God Forbid, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was a legitimate and even-handed representation of late-1960s youth. For those unfamiliar with the latter series, it was a CBS sitcom that ran from 1959-1963 and chronicled the misadventures of the titular teenage lead Dobie Gillis. Most of the plots of the series' episodes related Dobie's frequent, and just as frequently failed, attempts to attain money, popularity and the admiration of women. More problematic was Dobie's best friend Maynard G. Krebbs, the first character overtly coded as a representation of the Beat Culture on United States television and who would perhaps be more of a historical milestone were he not an appallingly crass, inaccurate and offensive stereotype created solely for the purpose of derision. Maynard's defining character trait was sloppiness and his adamant aversion to any kind of work, often played up for comedic effect. It's about as ugly and transparent an attempt at bullying and marginalization as exists, and is almost singlehandedly responsible for the rise of the “beatnik” stereotype Jack Kerouac went to his grave vehemently protesting.

There were two other main characters worth mentioning. One was Thalia Menninger, an enterprising young lady Dobie was always hopelessly infatuated with. Thalia was cold, calculating and cynically manipulative and often abused Dobie's trust in and admiration for her in order to use him in her many and varied get-rich-quick schemes. So, perhaps not the most favorable portrayal of femininity then. Finally there was Zelda Gilroy, a brilliant academic and star athlete who was as smitten with Dobie as he was with Thalia, but who always spurned her advances because she wasn't as conventionally attractive as Thalia. In terms of reaching out to the blossoming contemporaneous youth counterculture and giving them a charitable reading and fair podium, The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis was pretty much, well naught-for-naught; at least as far as I can tell. Turning to it for inspiration for a youth-centric show in the much more turbulent years of 1968-1969 then, would seem to be not heading for trouble so much as careening headfirst towards it in a blind rage, an altered state of consciousness and with a broken accelerator pedal.

The prognosis for Ruby's and Spears' new cartoon show is already not looking good and they haven't even started pre-production yet: We have a show that was a network mandate, brought about as a result of pressure from draconian moral guardians and that is turning to hegemonic artefacts as influences in how to reach the contemporary youth. Surely there's no hope of this ending in anything other than immediate and catastrophic failure; there's no way, with these guidelines, the show is destined to be anything other then a spectacular aesthetic disaster.

Then Ruby and Spears promptly ignored all of that and came up with Mysteries Five.

It's at this point I have to be careful with how I proceed in my analysis. Mysteries Five exists to me as two separate, though connected, television artefacts and neither of them is a physically extant cartoon show. The first is the Mysteries Five I can try and piece together from old concept art and written accounts left behind by the people directly involved in its creation. The second is the Mysteries Five whose potential the former show hints at; the show I desperately wish I could have seen and can only dream about. It's my duty as someone who fancies myself a proper critic and animation historian to do my best to describe the first show as best I can, but I'm not going to lie and pretend the second show isn't the one with the most tantalizing material for critique or the one I'm really the most interested in. With that bit of personal pathos dealt with, let's see what we can do to square away what Mysteries Five actually was, or at least could have been.

With Mysteries Five, Ruby and Spears seemed to take the most basic of their dicta and distilled them into the most cohesive form they could manage. Our young heroes were a teenage rock band, the titular Mysteries Five, who would travel around from gig to gig in their groovy van The Mystery Machine (yes, it is, keep reading). Along the way, they would have the uncanny knack of stumbling into a new baffling mystery every week, hence their band's name. Alongside solving mysteries, the gang would also be challenged by drama with relationships, elders and so on. Each episode would feature a mixture of all these interlinking plots, with the mystery as the omnipresent background. Eventually, however, most of the non-mystery aspects of the show were thrown out by Ruby and Spears, who felt it might make the show a bit too unfocused.

Ruby and Spears also gave the band a dog, at this point named Too Much, because they knew Fred Silverman liked dogs (in network television it's always wise to play to your boss's ego). Ruby and Spears were initially undecided as to whether or not Too Much would be better off as a large, cowardly and silly dog or a small, feisty and humourously pugnacious one (you would perhaps do well to remember this small piece of trivia) before finally settling on the former and giving him the position of bongo drummer in the band. Ruby and Spears always wanted Too Much to be a Great Dane, but first settled on a sheepdog because they felt it would attract confusion with the comic strip Marmaduke, before Silverman assured them this wasn't anything to worry about and changed him back.

Following some early refinements, the initial cast of five was reduced down to four well-defined leads, in addition to the dog Too Much: Kelly, Linda, W.W. (who was to be Linda's brother) and Geoff. After some further planning sessions, they were renamed Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Fred, respectively (in network television it's always wise to play to your boss's ego). At this stage, these characters are essentially the same ones we're familiar with from the later Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! save for one or two key differences. Because of this I'm going to reserve going into too much detail about exactly who these characters are and what they represent until I tackle the actual televised show (Teaser: They're about as far away from the Archie gang and Dobie Gillis as is actually conceivable of being). Also because what's really the most interesting aspect of Mysteries Five is what its underlying structure and philosophy seem to have been saying.

Mysteries Five was fundamentally created as a comedy/horror genre fusion piece, trending towards the horror. A quick glance at some of the concept art, aged, faded and scanned in irritating low resolution as they may be, reveals something positively stunning. This was no blockbuster Universal-style monster mash or cheesy 1950s B-movie pastiche: Mysteries Five was borrowing its horror iconography from the very roots of the genre-the German Expressionist masterpieces of the celebrated and long-departed Weimar cinema. As astonishing as it was that Mysteries Five was a targeted, deliberate return to the origins of horror, what's even more incredible about this early concept art, designed by legendary animator Iwao Takamoto, is how hauntingly lush and evocative it was-especially given Hanna-Barbera's reputation for cheapness. This series, were it produced, would in all honesty have not looked out-of-place if shown alongside The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu. The history of Expressionist film and its birth from a fascination with the grotesque that emerged out of interwar Europe is absolutely integral to understanding its legacy as an art form and the fact this genre was now being invoked to form the aesthetic backbone of a Saturday Morning Cartoon Show in 1968-9 aimed at the youth is...telling, to put it mildly. Exploring the full ramifications of this decision is best left saved for next time, however. That said, that Ruby and Spears honestly thought they could get away with this, have it pass CBS certification and end up on actual television in 1969 is a frankly stupefying amount of confidence and courage matched only by the even more unreal fact it almost was.

Fred Silverman loved the show, as did Bill Hanna and Joe Barbera themselves. After a last minute name-change to Who's Scared? at Silverman's request, the completed concept art was submitted to the CBS higher-ups for approval...and that's when it all fell apart. Ruby's and Spears' unbelievable good luck finally ran out when the CBS executives leveled at their show that most anti-intellectual and damning accusation: “It's too scary for the kids”. Here is where the fateful choices were made: Without an anchor programme for the upcoming season and desperately needing Who's Scared? to pass, Silverman, Ruby and Spears frantically went back to the drawing board to see what could safely be placed on the chopping block.

When the show reached it's final form it had been veritably gutted: Gone was the rock band motif (leaving the continued existence of The Mystery Machine a tremendous plot hole) and more distressingly, with it went the show's basic tone. While Mysteries Five/Who's Scared? was created from the beginning to be a comedy horror piece, the horror and drama aspects were apparently always intended as the primary ones (although to be fair expecting any Hanna-Barbera show to be a work of weighty pathos is a bit far-fetched). Now, the show's major focus was to be the comedy stylings of Shaggy and Too Much, (now renamed Scooby-Doo after Frank Sinatra's scat at the end of “Strangers in the Night”, a change that, if I'm honest, I can't really contest) with Velma as a third wheel, and this was to become the central thrust of every episode. This change was made partially because Fred Silverman, as expected, was absolutely in love with the dog, but mostly to divert the CBS censors' eyes away from the Expressionistic nightmare world the show took as its setting. Additionally, at some point during development Velma and Shaggy stopped being siblings, which opens up a whole special can of worms all unto itself. Ruby, Spears and Silverman resubmitted the retooled show, dubbed Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, where it was accepted without incident.

This, at last, is the original sin of Scooby-Doo. While the unforgettable visual style miraculously remained intact (which, to be fair, was always probably going to be the most important thing about Mysteries Five) and catapults Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! to classic status almost by its merits alone, it's been irreparably defanged. We have an ending that is, unfortunately coded with an awkward brand of poetic justice: The show born with the spirit to rebel against hegemonic anti-intellectualism from within is shot down by the very forces it carried the promise of overturning. Even though we'll never know exactly what Mysteries Five would have been and whether or not my conclusions have any sort of merit, the troubling fact remains that no matter how good Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! and its successors get, there will always be uncertainty hanging over the franchise as to what it could have really achieved had it been allowed to live up to its full potential. Given the achingly tantalizing clues we get in the various seasons of television to come, it's a maddening truism to come to terms with indeed.


Mysteries Five may be dead and gone, but that's not to say the simulacrum now wearing its visage doesn't bear some traces of its predecessor’s squandered potential. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is a show born out of aesthetic death and given life by forces of hegemony. It draws its visual style from the unnatural foreboding of German Expressionism, a genre created in response to a shattered continent trying to come to grips with the aftermath of a bloody, devastating war and widespread social collapse. And, perhaps most intriguing of all, it stars four avatars of 1960s youth culture.

This is going to be interesting.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Wherefore art thou Scooby-Doo?

Who, me?
I suppose the first question that crossed your mind upon stumbling upon this blog and reading about my intended thesis for its initial phase is “Why?”. Or perhaps it's more along the lines of “What...?” or “Come again now?”. Well, hypothetical reader, I rather suspected you'd ask that, and you have good reason to. This is why this post exists: To hopefully provide background and adequate justification for my most assuredly bewildering first choice of case studies.

Scooby-Doo is not an especially deep series, textually speaking. I do not intend to pretend that it is. On the surface it would seem there is very little here that is worthy of serious academic scrutiny, beyond perhaps the typical rote historical parsing, especially for someone with as esoteric and jumbled credentials as I. That said, and this is the thing that will ultimately come to define a lot of what we say about Scooby-Doo, what the show actually symbolizes and represents, and how people react to and interpret those symbols and representations, is an actually very telling and fascinating thing indeed and makes the phenomenon that the franchise is a part of a genuinely intriguing dynamically shifting and evolving cultural artefact.

It is not so much, perhaps, that any of the myriad cultural assemblages and associations that have become a part of Scooby-Doo were actual things that any of the writers working on the show's various incarnations had planned (though I have a sneaking suspicion at least some of them were), but more that confluences of place, time, people and experience have consistently allowed Scooby-Doo to be uniquely poised to fill a needed literary and cultural niche at various points throughout its existence and make it very easy to read it any number of different and equally intellectually rich ways. This is also helped, maybe ironically, maybe not, by the same strict adherence to a programmatic style of children's television that it is so often derided for.

Put most frankly, Scooby-Doo is old enough, imitated enough and so deeply entrenched in the collective pop culture consciousness of so many Westerners it's developed a unique set of cultural affiliations and meanings that are just as much about how people remember it as they are about the show itself. And, if I may be so bold, there are elements and inklings to be found within Scooby-Doo that date to its very earliest forms that hint at something much darker, much more sophisticated, much more defiant and much more mesmerizing than anything that overtly made it onscreen. The show's legacy and pop perception may very well have eclipsed whatever merits it may have once had as a standalone bit of TV (to the point the show as it exists now basically runs solely on playing with this) and Scooby-Doo the phenomenon is a very interesting tract I should and will explore, but Scooby-Doo the singular work is not without merit.

I'll make no secret my personal history and affinity for this series was a deciding factor in picking it as my first case study. I unabashedly love Scooby-Doo, far more than any grown adult probably ought to: I'm the sort of person who actually goes out and buys the DVDs of each of the series. It was most assuredly one of the first television shows I watched religiously as a child and I have absolutely adored it ever since. Scooby-Doo's crowning achievement, at least at first, has got to be its carefully-crafted look-and-feel; responsible for an utterly unique and evocative atmosphere about which I'll undoubtedly have more than a few choice words to say. It's the kind of thing that leaves a lasting lifelong impression, at least it did to me. Believe it or not I found the characters all immediately memorable and likable, contrary to the popular notion that the only things anybody remembers or cares about from the show are Shaggy and Scooby-Doo himself (a dangerous mentality in my opinion, and one that on more than one occasion has threatened to derail the whole franchise). Most of all, the image of close friends travelling around together forever is such an unbridled bit of upfront Utopianism it's hard not to like.

Being a lifelong Scooby-Doo fan has oftentimes been very difficult, especially as the show has an unfortunate history of making cataclysmically wrongheaded decisions and was for most of its history in the hands of a notoriously mismanaged animation studio, but I've typically found something to like, or at least worthy of note, in every one of the show's myriad iterations. The fact that it's managed to successfully weather all of this and still exists in some form to this day, and will in all likelihood continue to exist for some time, is frankly an impressive feat and one matched by little else on television. Clearly Scooby-Doo is doing something right and has more going for it than meets the eye. And, starting next time, we're going to begin to try and parse out what that something might actually be.

Monday, July 9, 2012

We got some work to do now


Regular followers of my other blog Forest of Illusions will probably already have a decent idea what this site is. In brief, it's an attempt at a critical reading of various aspects of (non-video game) pop culture from a literary and philosophical perspective, with a particular emphasis on tools gleaned from post-structuralism, media studies, sociocultual anthropology, postmodern third-wave feminism (and beyond), social studies of knowledge (SSK) and a healthy dose of subjectivity. My connection to television, music, comics and film is not on the whole as deeply personal and definitive as the one I have to video games, but it's there, important and I feel I have a not-insignificant amount to say about it.

My years of studying Western culture have lead me to theorize that art mass-produced on an industrial scale and disseminated via a uniquely hybrid capitalist media seems to serve the same purpose in societies influenced by the European tradition as myths, legends and oral history do in non-Western societies. This is where the name “Soda Pop Art” comes from: If “Pop Art” is art that incorporates elements of consumerist capitalism to make a subversive point, than “Soda Pop Art” must be the inverse-Art created on a grand scale and delivered from the top down. But not, it must be said, impossible of being subversive and worthwhile, even if sometimes this happens in spite of itself

To give a quick and rough outline of my plans for this web-space, this site will be divided into different sections, each dedicated to a specific work (or series of works or category of work). Within these primary delineations, there will likely be numerous subsections focusing on different related themes and issues in greater detail. Among the works I'm planning on taking a look at here are Doctor Who, the late-80s and early-90s incarnations of the Star Trek franchise under Rick Berman, Michael Piller, Ira Steven Behr and Ronald D. Moore, the music and culture of the late-1970s early-1980s Art House Punk scene in Europe and the UK and the European graphic novel (and subsequent Disney Saturday Morning cartoon chow) Marsupilami.

The main pillar of this site, at least for the time being, will be my attempt at a comprehensive re-evaluation and re-conceptualization of the Scooby-Doo franchise as a lasting symbol of youth subculture Utopianism that has evolved around dynamically interacting and oppositional forces of upheaval and permanence. To use it as an example of the site's structure, there will be a primary dedicated Scooby-Doo section, within which will be a separate sub-section for each of the various incarnations of the televised Scooby-Doo series, each containing an assortment of articles such as individual episode recaps and analyses, specialized thematic essays and a guiding introductory abstracts of sorts meant to summarise each show's core themes and unique place within the larger historical record.

I probably won't be covering any of these works in complete chronological order of production, focusing instead on organising pieces by common thematic trends: I'm not attempting to write a definitive social history of, say, Scooby-Doo with this project (at least not right at this moment), interested as I am more in the basic philosophical foundations and sociocultural intricacies that underlie many of these works and what their relevance and intellectual merit might be for the contemporary world.

Our pop culture is our shared mythology and oral history: It speaks to the Western world the same way legends did and do elsewhere around the globe. It deserves as rigorous, comprehensive and fair an analysis as the oldest and greatest works of literature and myth.