I was feeling a bit poorly (or perhaps I should say pawly) the other week, and as is often the case at such times I ended up sprawled in front of the TV mindlessly watching whatever was on for two days. It happened to coincide with half-term, and children’s satellite/cable channel Boomerang seemed to be obsessed for the week with Scooby-Doo! cartoons.
Now I admit, Scooby-Doo! was one of my first big favourites shows as a kid, when I was about four or five. Its blend of mystery solving and horror/monsters pretty much still to this day sums up my genre preferences, after all. As far as being under the weather is concerned, this was perfect – a golden opportunity to revisit my childhood.
I hadn’t realised that there had been so many iterations of the show over the years: the one I remember with the most nostalgia is the original 1969 series Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? which ran eternally in the BBC early evening children’s slot even though there were only ever 25 episodes. This set up the basic format of the show and its main characters: Scooby the great Dane, his cowardly owner Shaggy, and the rest of the Mystery, Inc. team – Fred, Daphne and Velma. However these episodes do now show their age, especially with painful 60s and 70s hippyish references, and the stories can best be described as ‘basic’ with the culprit unmasked at the end sometimes never having been seen in the episode till then.
During half term week Boomerang were also showing episodes of the next series, The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which were double-length hour-long episodes I remember very well from my childhood because they each featured a guest star – either real-life celebrities such as Dick van Dyke and the Harlem Globetrotters, fictional characters like Batman and the Addams Family, or recreations under licence of famous comedy acts like Laurel and Hardy or the Three Stooges.
Also included in the Boomerang Scooby-fest were episodes of the next Scooby series revival, The Scooby-Doo Show which ran for 40 episodes from 1976 to 1978 and which displays arguably the best quality of the original episodes, since after this the show was plagued by the arrival of the insufferable puppy Scrappy-Doo whom I hated with a passion (it’s of the level of loathing that fans of the original Star Wars films have for Jar Jar Binks) and the wholesale dropping of the Mystery, Inc. gang. It was a dark time for the Scooby-Doo alliance and I’m grateful to Boomerang for scrupulously keeping those episodes away from me while I was already so unwell. Also best glossed over are 90s efforts The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (in which depressingly the ghosts were real rather than impostors waiting to be unmasked) and A Pup Named Scooby-Doo which featured a ‘babyfied’ cast.
What I hadn’t realised is that by around the turn of the millennium, Warner Bros studios had effectively bought out Hanna-Barbera and was setting about updating Scooby-Doo for the 21st century, beginning with a number of TV movies and then the three-season What’s New, Scooby-Doo? which ran to 42 episodes and is actually rather good. Gone are some of the most obviously dated aspects of the original shows, while new touches such as TVs, computers and mobile phones are evident. The stories are better written and the animation is much more stylish than the original basic, much-repeated sequences ever had been. Scrappy was history, and better yet the original gang was all back – although the passing of time meant that almost all the voice cast had since retired with the exception of Casey Kasem as Shaggy and Frank Welker as Fred, who also took over as Scooby from the late, great Don Messick.
Around the time of that series the live action movies came along (a different subject entirely – they didn’t work for me) but recently Warner Bros has been at work again with a new animated series still in production in the US by the name of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. Sadly this takes quite a dramatically revisionist approach: it’s a prequel with the gang still living at home with their parents in Crystal Cove. It’s an ongoing serial, a mystery with cliffhangers and a series arc, but most of all it’s very arch and modern with Fred being poked fun at as a lunkhead with an obsession for traps and engaged to Daphne, Velma now with an unrequited crush on Shaggy, and plots that riff off films like Saw and literary influences such as HP Lovecraft that are over the heads of the target audience, making it feel like this is a show trying to do that Pixar trick of engaging the parents at the same time – and failing badly. Add to that an angular, over-stylised animation style and this is not a version of the show that I found myself warming to at all. There’s even a recurrent character (supposedly from a previous incarnation of Mystery, Inc.) called Professor Pericles who is a talking parrot and is almost as irritating as Scrappy-Doo. Frank Welker continues to voice Fred and Scooby, but Casey Kasem – now 81 – has retired and handed over Shaggy to the actor who played the role in the live action motion pictures, Matthew Lillard.
Given all these different incarnations of Scooby-Doo! then where to start for a newcomer? I’d say that for old-time purists there’s still little to beat the definitive nostalgic appeal of Scooby-Doo, Where are you? no matter how dated and technically deficient they are; but the surprise of the bunch has to be the What’s New, Scooby-Doo? series from 2002-2005 which genuinely has to rate as the best made of the bunch while still closest to the spirit of the original without too much tinkering.
There’s also some good feature movies made around the same time by Warner Bros’ animation studios that are worth putting in front of the kids. Scooby-Doo! in Where’s My Mummy?, Scooby-Doo! Pirates Ahoy! and Chill Out, Scooby-Doo! were all shown on Boomerang during the half term week and will doubtless cycle through again, but the one that most impressed me was the 2010 Scooby-Doo! Camp Scare outing which was both very well written (seriously, a plot that would easily benefit many a mainstream live action family thriller) and also lovely to look at with some top-notch animation that wouldn’t shame even the top anime studios of Japan.
All in all, it was very nice to be re-acquainted with an old childhood friend in Scooby-Doo, and to find that – while the originals might be creaking with age – there were some surprisingly much newer instalments that had passed me by but which kept the spirit alive and well and if anything in even better health after an impressive 44 years of screen adventures, and enough incarnations to do credit to a Time Lord.
Boomerang shows Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, The Scooby-Doo Show, What’s New Scooby-Doo? and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated stripped through weekdays at various times during the day. The various series and feature films are also available on DVD from retailers.