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.

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