Series Review: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated

“SOUNDS LIKE WE’VE GOT ANOTHER MYSTERY ON OUR HANDS.”

When you think about the greatest, most enduring cartoon icons, Scooby-Doo probably isn’t the first thing to come to mind. Mostly because the long running cartoon franchise has been stuck in the realm of family friendly complacency for over four decades. So why has this series endured for so long? It’s no mystery. Because Scooby-Doo is fun. Despite being a mystery solving show, the appeal of Scooby-Doo was NEVER about the mysteries themselves. The monster chasing the gang ended up being a person committing crimes for their own selfish reasons using technology that’s never mentioned before and is never mentioned again. When you get down to it, kids love Scooby-Doo because the simplistic formula of these characters going to new locations, encountering new mysteries to solve them, and have some hijinks along the way encourages kids to think without feeling frustrated. To be scared without being traumatized. To laugh even if there’s a laugh track.

But the 52-episode run of Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated (SD:MI) is the best thing to ever happen to the franchise for one simple reason, the ability to evolve. While the Scooby Gang still solves mysteries in their home town of Coolsville Crystal Cove, this series introduces two elements that have never been used in a Scooby-Doo series before. The first element is a serial format with an overarching mystery. There have been “dark” plot elements in the history of the Scooby-Doo franchise but this series has a staggering amount of references to popular horror movies, Babylonian mythology, and the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, and David Lynch. The second new element to the franchise is relationship drama between each of the main characters. While previous series never strayed too far from the gangs archetypes of the Brave one, the Beatnik, the Beauty, the Brains, and the talking dog, Fred, Shaggy, Daphne, Velma, and Scooby all grow as characters. Each of them has their own backstories, motivations, secrets, and relationships which gives the melodrama some weight.

“JINKIES!”

The cast and crew of SD:MI is pretty much the dream team for a Scooby-Doo cartoon. The legendary writer/producer team of Spike Brandt and Tony Cervone (Duck Dodgers, The Looney Tunes Show) were the Supervising Producers on the series. Writer, producer, story editor, and series co-developer Mitch Watson (Beware the Batman, All Hail King Julien…both of which aired AFTER SD:MI but are absolutely worth your time) helped Cervone out with creating storylines and shaping the central über mystery. Watson worked with what seems like a revolving door of writers which included Michael F. Ryan (who would become story editor in Season 2), Jed Elinoff & Scott Thomas, Michelle & Robert Lamoreaux, Adam Beechen, Paul Rugg, Mark Banker, John P. McCann, Roger Eschbacher, Brat Jennett, Derrick J. Wyatt (who co-wrote the episode “When the Cicada Calls” with Watson), Bob White, Benjamin Townsend, Marly Halpern-Graser, Erin Maher & Kathryn Reindl, Joe Flaherty, Caroline Farah, and Jim Krieg.

Along with the large list of writers, a team of talented artists and animators under Spike Brandt’s stewardship helped create a cohesive world for these stories to take place in. Directors Victor Cook (The Spectacular Spider-Man), Curt Geda (Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker) and even special guest director Lauren Montgomery coordinated with the animation staff. I think  all did a great job defining the look of the series as it aims for the classic Hanna-Barbera style with some slight contemporary touches to keep things fresh. From the beaches of Crystal Cove to the neighboring town of Gatorsburg, each environment within this world is crafted with detail and distinguished with specific colors.
Derrick J. Wyatt did the designs for the the majority of the series and did a great job keeping the original 1969 designs of the gang intact. There are subtile changes like Velma’s trademark orange sweater has vertical stripes and she also wears purple bows in her hair. Other character designers like Irineo Maramba, Junpei Takayama, Brianne Drouhard, Danny Kimanyen, and even James Tucker filled in whenever a new character was needed and their work seamlessly fits with Wyatt’s initial offerings.

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“ZOINKS”

From the casting to the music, the sound design for SD:MI is as inspired as the rest of the show. Matthew Lillard reprises his role as Norville “Shaggy” Rogers from the live action Scooby-Doo movies. Say what you will of the 2002 and 2004 live action movies but I’ve always felt that Lillard delivered a dead on Shaggy and hearing his voice for the first time in animation proved I was right. Casey Kasem, the original voice of Shaggy who retired from the role in 2009, voices Shaggy’s father which is a nice touch and a fitting last performance for Kasem. Grey DeLisle Griffin reprises the role of Daphne Blake. Griffin’s great and this series really leverages the range of her voice. Not only does Griffin voice several additional characters, but she also gets to sing as Daphne and it’s amazing. Mindy Cohn reprises the role of Velma Dinkley. The legendary Frank Welker reprises both roles of Scooby-Doo and Fred Jones; the latter he’s voiced since Scooby-Doo, Where are You? all the way back from 1969. It’s uncanny that Welker’s voice hasn’t become weaker in four decades as he perfectly nails delivering Fred Jones’ lines just as he did when he breathed life into the character for the first time. Aside from voicing Scooby (which he does so well), Welker also voices several additional characters and does a lot of the vocal work for several monsters/animals that appear on the series.

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There’s an embarrassment of ruches when it comes to the guest stars for this series. You’ve got Lewis Black as Ricky “Mr. E.” Owens, Vivica A. Fox as Cassidy Williams aka Angel Dynamite, Tia Carrere and Tim Matheson as Judy Reeves and Brad Chiles, Linda Cardellini (who was Velma in the live action Scooby-Doo movies) as Marcie “Hot Dog Water” Fleach, Gary Cole as Mayor Fred Jones Sr., Maurice LaMarche (channelling Vincent Price) as Vincent Van Ghoul, and Patrick Warburton as the Sheriff Bronson Stone. They’re all great but the best guest actor is the German horror movie icon Udo Kier who played the series central antagonist, Professor Pericles. Kier relishes the role as every line he delivers with his native German accent feels menacing.

The theme song is done by Matthew Sweet (that guy who made a music video using footage from the anime Space Adventure Cobra) and it rules. The combination of synths, drums, and guitar riffs create a fun, yet ominous vibe to the cool 30 second intro.  Composer Robert J. Kral (Angel, Duck Dodgers, Superman: Doomsday) did the music for SD:MI and he does a lot of interesting takes with familiar tunes. The music for the end credits is superb with synths, theremin, and harpsichord creating a forbidding feeling of dread as the names on screen roll by.

“JEEPERS!”

The initial episodes of Season One have great mysteries sticking to the tried and true Scooby-Doo formula (monster, romp, trap, reveal, meddling kids, etc.) but the overarching mystery slowly build up. What’s impressive is the all the world building at play as characters, relationships, and locations set up in these initial episodes get paid off in later episodes. The relationship part is fascinating as we get a glimpse into the lives of these four meddling teenagers and their talking dog. Long standing questions like “who are the parents to these kids”, “where did they live”, and “do they attend high school like normal kids” are answered and flesh out each characters personalities. The big question of “why are there so many hauntings around these kids” is cleverly answered and woven into the history of Crystal Cove.

That gang’s home town of Crystal Cove is a tourist trap where authority figures like Mayor Fred Jones Sr. and Velma’s parents who run the Spook Museum/Tour claim that the town has “Strong history of paranormal activity” to attract tourists. Much to the chagrin of the adults, the gang’s case solving antics usually end up costing the town “tourist attractions” (the guys committing crimes in monster costumes and dangerous tech) which in turn, cost them potential revenue. It’s an effective set up that creates a sense of mistrust between the kids hunting for the truth and their parents who’re deliberately keeping secrets from their children.

The town’s secrets slowly reveal themselves with each mystery the gang solves leads them closer to finding out the truth of what happened to the previous incarnation of Mystery Incorporated and mystery surrounding pieces of the Planispheric Disc. Thankfully, the typical mystery solving provides a nice balance to the relationship drama, dark revelations, and Professor Pericles machinations. The most notable for Season One is the awesome stand alone episode “Mystery Solvers Club State Finals”. Classic Hanna-Barbera characters Captain Caveman, Jabberjaw, Speed Buggy, and The Funky Phantom join Scooby in solving a mystery all by themselves. It’s an awesome tribute to the golden age of Hanna-Barbera and anyone can watch it without any prior knowledge of this series. It’s pure genius.

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If you remember watching all of these cartoon characters as a kid, then you’re cool!

The rest of Season One builds towards a satisfying great pay off as the Season One finale is so poignant, I hesitate to spoil any of it. Like, don’t want to oversell it but I think it’s seriously right up there with major adult dramas in terms of pathos and performances. Suffice it to say, dark secrets are revealed that forces Mystery Incorporated to break up. Having built up the world, this dark ending feels well earned for the characters as everything that’s happening to them has actual meaning to them and to the viewer invested in the story.

“RUH ROH!”

Season Two picks up the pieces from the fallout of the Season One finale but the gang doesn’t immediately back together. I appreciated that the gang had to work through their differences and their ordeal and It’s interesting seeing the gang (Fred in particular) feel incomplete without Daphne on the team. Also, seeing Marcie “Hot Dog Water” Fleach briefly take Daphne’s place on the team was a brilliant move that placed the character into the spotlight after she was caught in “Menace of the Manticore”. Created specifically for this series, Hot Dog Water is a great friend for Velma (and shippers) to have. Both are intelligent but their goals conflict with their platonic friendship. Eventually, the gang does get back together and they solve more mysteries, discover more pieces of the Planispheric Disc, and uncover a conspiracy that threatens not just Crystal Cove but the entire world. This season is much darker than the previous one as the stakes get bigger and so do Professor Pericles’ schemes. Friendships are tested, trust between family is broken, and people get killed off(screen)!

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While Season Two didn’t have as many Hanna-Barbera references as Season One, it did give us a Frank Miller-esque Blue Falcon (Troy Baker) with Frank Welker reprising the role of Dynomutt in the episode “Heart of Evil”.

In one of their infamous program hiatus’, Cartoon Network stopped airing Season Two episodes after “Theater of Doom” which ended with an apocalyptic cliffhanger. The remaining 11 episodes were eventually burned off and it’s a shame considering how great these episodes are. Without spoiling too much, these episodes answer all kinds of mysteries like why can certain animals like Scooby and Professor Pericles talk when other animals can’t and that the hidden treasure beneath Crystal Cove is supernatural in nature.

I’m not a big fan of using supernatural elements or “REAL MONSTERS” in Scooby-Doo as it detracts from the mystery solving angle. I get why folks over the years would add in actual spooky threats as it adds excitement to the typical proceedings. There’s an unpredictability and a danger to the supernatural that you just don’t get from say…a 90’s ska band who dressed up as undead versions of themselves who used their hypnotically catchy music to enslave people. But like I said before, Scooby-Doo was never about the monsters or the mysteries, it is and shall always be about kids searching for the truth by looking past fear and superstition. Having them fight actual monsters flies in the face of that as it becomes less about “how do we use deductive reasoning to overcome fear?” and more about “how do we kill the monster using hocus pocus?” and it’s a terrible thing to teach kids.

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If you get understand this reference, we can be friends. I’ll see you in 25 years.

Having said all of that, I do like that the producers of SD:MI thought about this ahead of time and found a solution in the episode “Nightmare in Red”. Without giving to much away, the producers found a way to incorporate (no pun intended) the supernatural element back into every single mystery, the into the history of Crystal Cove in a way that makes sense within the internal logic of the world. 
There’s also some justification for the gang to continue finding out the truth as things are not what they seem… but I digress. The two-part finale “Through the Curtain/Come Undone” (which coincidently aired on April 5th, the same day the series premiered as a “sneak peek”) ends the series PERFECTLY in a fitting sendoff that pays tribute to the original series as well as wrapping up major plot threads in an incredibly satisfying way. I feel kind of bad for not being able to discuss how they brilliantly pulled all of this off but again, I wish to preserve the central mystery.

“All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”


In the end, the 52-episode run of Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is the best to have ever happened to the Scooby-Doo franchise. The show is moody without being dour, character-driven without sacrificing story, and terrifying without scaring the living daylights out of children. The producers wisely took amped up the silly and creepy aspects of the original cartoon to what I feel is their logical peaks. It’s not a kid’s show nor is it a cynical attempt to appeal to nostalgic adults. SD:MI was made for everyone who loves Scooby-Doo when they were kids but instead of feeling guilty about how embarrassing it is, we can all celebrate how great Scooby-Doo is because of all the effort put into this series. It’s a fitting tribute to Joe Ruby and Ken Spears’ cartoon canine creation and one of the better cartoons of the past 20 years. You can watch this cult classic series on iTunes or on DVD sets. The series has been regularly streaming on Netflix but considering WB’s shaky history with licensing its properties to partners, don’t expect it to be there forever. Nothing truly lasts forever.

 

…And with that, it gives me a heavy heart to announce that I’m leaving Periodical Media. This will be my last review for the website and it was my hardest one to write. I enjoyed writing these articles about cartoons that I love and criticizing video games but I can’t do this anymore. Not because I’m out of ideas. Far from it. I had so many things planned like an editorial detailing “Why is the Sonic Boom cartoon is the best thing to ever happen to the Sonic franchise?” and reviews for every Ben 10 incarnation. But an opportunity to be a screenwriter has presented itself to me and passing it up would be foolish. If I ever go back to blogging, it won’t be for free. I’ve enjoyed writing ad-free content pro-bono public since I started on August of 2015 but this is simply not sustainable for me in the long run. Big thanks to Jordan Hass, my editor and the creator of this site. Thank you for giving me this forum to pour my heart out. From the bottom of my heart, I’d like to thank everyone who’s ever read, shared, and given me feedback on my writing. You’ve made me become a better writer and a better person as a result.

Farewell.

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