Anyone that pays any kind of attention knows that pop culture properties remain ripe for reinvention. It’s obvious that Hollywood has gone remake crazy (even more so than in the past), and TV has gotten into the act in recent years, reviving and repurposing series as they see fit. Vaguely unique in much of this sphere is the Scooby-Doo animated franchise. For decades, you could almost perceive the string of various Scooby-Doo series as existing in a loose framework of continuity (forgetting, for our purposes, the live action versions). Last month, a new Scooby series, Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, debuted on Cartoon Network. The series has a lot of positives, but it also appears to present something new: the first definitive hard reboot in the Scooby animated chronology.
Let’s go back for a bit and look at the basic history of animation’s greatest Dane. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You> hit in 1970. Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy and Scooby were introduced, and many of the familiar elements that fans and casual viewers alike recall were there almost from the word “go”. Over time, various series would unspool, and though there would occasionally be rotations of the cast (Fred and Velma sat out for a few seasons while Scrappy-Doo stepped in, etc.), you got the sense that things were essentially progressing in a timeline that began with the original series. Of course, designs were upgraded on the run to remain contemporary with the concurrent years of broadcast, but you could basically tell that this was an ongoing story of sorts.
In the mid ‘80s, after oddity The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo had run its course, the gang was dormant on Saturday morning TV for a bit. Shaggy, Scooby, and Scrappy popped up in a small cluster of movies made for TV syndication that are now available on DVD (“Reluctant Werewolf”, “Boo Brothers”, “Ghoul School”). My wife, a Scooby fan from waaay back, absolutely hates these particular iterations. You could dimly perceive that they could have taken place after “13 Ghosts”, even if they’re fairly bad.
The Scooby Gang rejoined Saturday mornings on ABC in 1988 with A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. This was actually a flashback show, featuring younger versions of the gang and, obviously, young Scooby. It performed fairly well at the network, lasting three years.
Scooby-Doo enjoyed rerun success on the various Turner networks for a few years before getting a relaunch via direct-market home video. In 1998, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island arrived. It amped up the suspense, added actual monsters, and showcased an older, updated gang. The direct-to-video movies became very successful, and actually continue to this day (with a new installment hitting next month). Their positive reception paved the way for a brand new show to launch on Cartoon Network in 2002; that became What’s New, Scooby-Doo?.
“What’s New” stuck with the updated look and age frame that the films gave the cast, but went back to the crook-in-suit formula for threats (as did the direct-to-video films, though they would frequently alternate between real supernatural threats, as in “The Goblin King” and fake ones, as in “Legend of the Vampire”). In fact, the look of the characters in the films merged with the slightly differentiated wardrobe of the continuing series, giving you the idea that the movies that were being released were simply longer adventures happening more or less between episodes.
That series ended in 2005, and the rather unfortunate Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue! began after. It had lower production values and broke from tradition with a tale of Shaggy getting rich and protecting an invention and . . . yeah, you don’t want to know. On the upside, the animated films continued without the influence of this show intruding.
And now, we arrive at Scooby-Doo: Mystery Incorporated, which basically breaks continuity by moving the kids back to a younger framework. They’re high-schoolers (a fact nailed down by Fred in the second episode), and their outfits echo the original look with a couple of tweaks. The setting is clearly modern, but there’s also a museum in their new hometown of Crystal Cove (it had previously always been Coolsville) that showcases their early cases.
I find the new series to be quite enjoyable. It’s clearly made for kids and adults to view together, with a number of jokes embedded for the adults (centering on things like low teacher pay, politics, the girls’ frustration with the oblivious boys, and even the Colt .45 ads of Billy Dee Williams). There’s also an overarching season-long mystery, as elements in each episode and the help of an unseen Mr. E (voiced by Lewis Black) guide the group toward a much bigger case to solve. My wife likes it, my kids LOVE it (despite the fact that it’s obviously scarier than earlier efforts), and I like it. It’s definitely a hit here.
Though the parents of the gang have been glimpsed over time in various films and shows, they’ve all been given a complete redesign here. Most notable is Fred’s dad, looking completely different than “Fred’s Dad” did in the Pirates Ahoy! DVD. It would seem that the movies (like the recent Abracadabra-Doo, which introduced Velma’s sister, unseen here, and the upcoming Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare) now inhabit a separate continuity. That doesn’t mean that elements of the films will be completely absent; fan-favorites The Hex Girls are set to appear in 7th episode, due August 23rd.
At this point in pop culture history, I don’t think that it’s that strange for a popular franchise like Scooby-Doo to split into multiple series and/or continuities. Clearly, it happens frequently in comics, with everyone from DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes to Dynamite’s Green Hornet. It’s too early to tell if one will begin to supplant the other (though obviously, the animation continues to peacefully co-exist with the much different live-action interpretation, another installment of which is due to air on Cartoon Network soon). Regardless, the sturdiest properties are flexible and open to refreshing and reinterpretation. Like label-mate Batman, Scooby-Doo might actually have become, right under our noses, one of the sturdiest of all.