Ghosts and goblins and ghouls, like Zoinks! This sounds like a case for our favorite gang of mystery-solving teens: Fred, Daphne, Velma and Shaggy, and their talking Great Dane Scooby-Doo. On September 13th 1969 the first episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, created by Joe Ruby and Ken Spears, was released as a Saturday morning cartoon, introducing the world to the newest addition to the Hanna-Barbera collection. The ‘Mystery Incorporated’ gang first graced our screens in the episode “What a Night for a Knight”. Driving around in their hippy van, the Mystery Machine, the gang finds an abandoned antique suit of armor and tries to return it to the nearby museum. There, they meet the squirrelly museum curator Mr. Wickles, who tells them about the curse of The Black Knight – which brings the armor to life every full moon (“like, wow, the moon was full last night”). Curiosities peaked, the gang splits up to look for clues and stumble upon a secret room used for art forgery. Hijinks ensue until finally they trap the knight, who is revealed to be Mr. Wickles (the only suspect) using the guise of The Black Knight to cover for his crimes. The pilot episode saw the birth of several long-lasting Scooby-Doo staples such as Scooby Snacks and Velma losing her glasses. Thus, the magic formula was born, and fifty years on the gang continues to solve mysteries and unmask monsters.
From the very first episode, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? established its campy, light-hearted tone. The haunted settings and creepy villains set up the supernatural aesthetic, but the silly humor make it so that the show is not scary for kids. At the time, television animation was lacking in time and funding, so the early Scooby-Doo animation was crude and simplistic. However, the character designs were colorful and unique, and have varied little over the past five decades of the franchise. The show’s design captures the moody, spooky atmosphere while leaving room for slapstick style humor. Unlike the more action-adventure heavy shows of the era, Scooby-Doo was created to be a gentler, more comedic cartoon hero. Instead of being hypermasculine, Scooby-Doo and his best friend Shaggy are the ‘scaredy cats’: running away from the monsters. Scooby is an honest reflection of childhood fears, and to watch him inadvertently trap the monster and save the day provides a sense of catharsis.
Following its debut, Scooby-Doo was immensely popular among Saturday morning audiences. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? aired for two seasons from 1969 to 1976. Due to the success of the original series, Hanna-Barbera (and later Warner Bros. Animation) continued to produce many different incarnations of the Scooby-Doo cartoon. Scooby-Doo has been reimagined and rebooted countless times over its 50-year history, maintaining the formula while changing in style and tone. The Scooby-Doo formula is simplistic and timeless. There’s a team of four teens and their talking dog that travel to haunted locations and solve mysteries. Within the bounds of this basic structure, the tone of the show can take many different forms. Scooby-Doo joins the likes of fictional characters such as Sherlock Holmes in adapting to different frameworks unbound by the constraints of a specific setting. The world of Scooby-Doo is an interesting landscape for adventure and the archetypes of the original series are ripe for reinvention.
Over the 50-year run, through thirteen incarnations, Scooby-Doo has changed in tone and format. The first major change in style came with the series A Pup Named Scooby-Doo. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo followed the trend of many 80’s cartoons of reimagining younger versions of popular characters. The show had a more irreverent sense of humor and notably gave Fred, Velma, and Daphne more distinct personalities. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo was a success, lasting four seasons and adding new things to the Scooby-Doo canon such as the gang’s hometown of Coolsville. The first direct-to-video film, Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island, has a very dark tone and scarier imagery than any previous Scooby-Doo show. Zombie Island features the supernatural, death, and has the gang deal with their own mortality. The 2002 live-action film, Scooby-Doo, takes the source material and brings it into the 21st century. It takes a more comedic tone with its supernatural elements, while bringing self-awareness to the source material. The film plays on fan responses to the original series, even making Scrappy the villain.
In 2010, Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated became the eleventh incarnation of Scooby-Doo and proved how even this deep into the lifespan of the franchise, new and exciting things could be done with the Scooby-Doo formula. Mystery Incorporated was a reboot which features darker themes than previous incarnations and introduced an overarching mystery about town conspiracies and an earlier version of Mystery Inc. Mystery Incorporated reintroduced the gang, diving deeper into their backgrounds and relationships. The latest iteration – Be Cool, Scooby-Doo – de-emphasizes the spooky elements while focusing on sarcastic, self-aware humor. Be Cool followed the trend of Cartoon Network rebooting a series in a sillier, more cartoony fashion ala Teen Titans Go! and the bad Powerpuff Girls reboot. While more simplistic, Be Cool is a genuinely funny and smart adaptation of the original series.
Over the past 50 years, Scooby-Doo has managed to not only stay in the public consciousness but delight generation after generation of children. For a property to exist with the fortitude that Scooby-Doo has had for five decades, it’s because it must capture something innately universal. Scooby-Doo has changed very little aesthetically over its fifty-year run, encapsulating the show forever in the 1970s. Watching Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! today presents a window to a different time, finding sincerity in corny dialogue, laugh tracks, and chase scenes set to bubblegum pop. Like many cartoons of that era, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is formulaic, yet the show is still captivating, and the monsters are memorable. The early Hanna-Barbera cartoons were limited in their animation, but there’s a certain appeal to seeing that what you’re watching was made by human beings. Scooby-Doo teaches children to be skeptical of the corrupt adult world; the real monsters are humans corrupted by greed. Scooby-Doo provides an outlet for young people to act against the systems that have failed them. For adults watching Scooby-Doo, they are reminded of childhood when they could suspend their disbelief to count on a group of teens and their talking dog to solve the mystery.
The key to the longevity of the Scooby-Doo franchise has been the fluidity of the structure. The formula is simple, and it lends itself to adapt to changes in popular culture. A Pup Named Scooby-Doo capitalized on the babyfication of the ’80s and ’90s. The live-action films introduced the franchise to parody and self-awareness. Mystery Incorporated handled darker themes, adding depth to the characters and expanding the world of the gang. The new 2019 series Scooby-Doo and Guess Who? is inspired by nostalgia returning to old character designs and a classic format. Scooby-Doo still works because even 50 years on we hope that our deepest, most haunting fears can be unmasked to reveal something benign. The Scooby-Doo machine won’t stop anytime soon. In 2020, Warner Bros. Animation has plans for a new theatrically released animated film entitled Scoob!, meant to be the start of a proposed Hanna-Barbera Cinematic Universe.
Animation has come a long way since 1969, not only in technology but in the care given to media made for children. Today there are so many great cartoons that are innovative and handle complex themes, shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender and Gravity Falls, but sometimes you just need that show that’s like a warm hug. That chicken noodle soup when you’re sick. That show that accepts you just as you are.
Scooby-Doo has always been my comfort food. I can’t pinpoint my first entry into the Scooby-Doo franchise, but it’s always been a part of my life. I can remember sitting on the hardwood floor of my grandparents’ living room on a Saturday morning, absolutely transfixed. At the time, it didn’t matter that the animation was old or that I couldn’t understand some of the jokes, I was drawn in by the energy of the show. Going to Blockbuster to bring home a new Scooby-Doo DVD was the highlight of my week, and to this day I anticipate the release of the annual direct-to-video film. Scooby-Doo has been a very important part of my life and to think that Scooby-Doo has played a part in the childhoods of generations of children feels like a very special phenomenon: a shared cultural experience that transcends time. As long as Scooby-Doo continues to reinvent itself while staying true to the heart of the original, children will continue to discover and love Scooby-Doo for years to come.