3 years, 7 months ago
Before I began Vaka Rangi, I was toying with the idea of doing projects of similar size and scope for other pop culture phenomena. I posted most of these "pilots" to this blog's sister site Soda Pop Art, if anyone's interested in some of the things I write about outside of Star Trek. One of the projects I've considered doing off and on for the past three or four years is a comprehensive critical history of the Scooby-Doo franchise, which, in my opinion, is one of the most frequently misread things in pop culture. And, when I was planning the between-season material for the gap between the end of the Original Series and the beginning of the Animated Series, there was one show from 1969 I knew was an absolute no-brainer for me to cover. Unfortunately, I'd already written about it.So yes,
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is getting a Sensor Scan post sometime after "Turnabout Intruder". But as it's part of a larger project I'd still like to write someday and as its sociopolitical and ethical roots really date back to 1968, the production history of the show has its own post, which you can read below.This essay then, as well as the planned one on the show-as-aired, is a revised, remixed, expanded and otherwise tweaked version of a piece I already posted to Soda Pop Art about a year ago. Because of that, I'm not comfortable making this an "official" Monday/Wednesday/Friday post (even though it's certainly long enough to be one) and you're free to skip ahead and go read up on Scooby-Doo over there if you like. Or if you'd prefer to wait to see the strangled way I try to connect this all back to Star Trek, you can certainly do that as well.
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 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.
This is all, however, sadly, mostly business as usual for US children's animation. More concerning 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 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. The show's biggest problem 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. 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. 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 affront to quality and taste.
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. As I'm playing the role of an amateur animation historian here, it's my job 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 on the table, 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. 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 (a small piece of trivia it might be worth holding on to) 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: Despite being frequently compared to them, our new gang are about as far away from the Riverdale kids 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 maddeningly 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. 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: In brief, German Expressionism was 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. But at the same time there was an overwhelming sense of revolutionary solidarity and hope, and their art reflects this bizarre, paradoxical, dreamlike world.
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 in my view is The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari
, taking place in a haunting dreamscape 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. 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. While it's best to save precisely why until next time, some background about the state of youth culture in 1968 is perhaps in order.
Although arguably beginning with the dual assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy on April 4 and June 5, 1968, the shockwaves of collapse reverberated most strongly later that year in 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.
The truly astonishing thing about Mysteries Five
is that all of these wildly disparate and gravely serious themes ultimately wound up influencing the finished product. That Ruby and Spears honestly thought they could write all of this into their new show aimed at seven-to-ten year olds and actually get away with it is a frankly stupefying amount of confidence and courage matched only by the even more unreal fact they almost did. 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 damning of accusations: “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
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.
A little-known fact about The Cabinet of Dr. 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.
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...
Share on Facebook