Imagine, for a moment, you and your teenaged friends are cruising down the streets, probably at night. You’re going about your business, when you stumble upon, say, an abandoned amusement park, or a creepy, decrepit mansion. What do you do? Probably just keep driving, right? But, what if you found out that there was, say, a pirate ghost hanging out in one of these places? What then? If you are the gang from any of the various Scooby-Doo programs, then you realize that there is a mystery to solve, and that there’s nothing to fear but crooked real estate developers.
Generally speaking, people only think of Scooby-Doo as a goofy little cartoon about a gang of mystery-solving teenagers. However, in many ways, it’s concept is akin to shows such as Kung Fu or Have Gun, Will Travel. The gang, known in some iterations as Mystery Incorporated, are a roving crew of problem solvers. They show up, they find out about some sort of haunting-related mystery, and then they solve it, usually with some humorous bits along the way. All the while, they drive around in the Mystery Machine, a psychedelic van that is a product of the time of its inception.
Since the original version of the show, Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?, which began in 1969, there have been several different versions of the show, on a handful of networks. Even now, there is a new iteration, Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! on Cartoon Network. The core of the show has always remained the same. Four teens, and their talking Great Dane Scooby-Doo, drive around in Fred’s van in hopes of finding a mystery to solve. Sure, they aren’t traveling around the country, but essentially every episode, especially the earlier episodes, shows Mystery Incorporated on the road, headed somewhere. Sometimes, they aren’t even looking for a mystery. The mystery comes to them.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? is probably, still, the most well-known version of the show. It’s your traditional kitschy Hanna-Barbara show, with its cheap animation and repetitious backgrounds. It only ran for 25 episodes, but those episodes have been repeated over and over, for decades now. It set the parameters for all future variations on this particular theme, which is why Shaggy has always looked like a ‘50s style beatnik. It established the roles of all the characters, and the fact that, in the end, basically the only other character from the episode turns out to be the bad guy.
This earliest version of the show wasn’t good. It was a cheap, chintzy cartoon churned out to entertain children, only really worth it for the camp value, and only, eventually, venerated for beginning such a major pop culture entity. Scooby-Doo, Where Are You? gave way to The New Scooby-Doo Movies, which was basically one-hour long episodes of the same show, but now, with the likes of the Harlem Globetrotters or Don Knotts getting involved. It was insane.
After this, the Scooby gang moved from CBS to ABC for The Scooby-Doo Show. This version of the show ran for 40 episodes, even though it is not remembered as well as Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?
The Scooby-Doo Universe would travel quite a ways before it reached its nadir, which would come with 1985’s The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo. It only ran for 13 episodes, and it’s straight-up ridiculous. For starters, there are actual ghosts in this show. The gang, who are mystery solvers, are instead turned into ghostbusters. While the series keeps the ethos of traveling around and looking for trouble, nothing else about it really feels like a Scooby-Doo show. This was followed by A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, which centered on the gang as junior high-aged children. Obviously, they aren’t driving around at all, which is problematic, given how important such movement is for the series.
Some time later, the series made the move to the Cartoon Network with Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated. And if we’re being honest, this entire piece is but a ruse to heap praise upon Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
This version of the ever-evolving Scooby gang is the best-looking iteration of the franchise, a genuinely well-animated show that leaves the old, repetitive backgrounds in the dust. This is particularly true for the many car chases and stunt driving scenes of the show. Part of the excitement comes from the fact that it makes the road a bigger part of this show than in others, earlier takes on these characters.
What this show really does best, though, is solidify the most notable, important theme of the Scooby-Doo universe. Even in its sillier iterations, Scooby-Doo is about critical thinking, and problem solving and the scientific method. In the beginning, we hear there is some sort of ghost, or monster, or haunting. The gang investigates, they look for clues, and in the end they figure out the truth with their meddling, exposing the criminal behind the monster or ghost. Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated focuses on this to a greater degree, particularly when it comes to Velma. She is an inveterate skeptic, who is always expounding upon the importance of not taking things at face value, and looking for further detail and information. More importantly, when the facts don’t line up with what her vision of the world is, she is willing to change said vision of the world in the face of overwhelming evidence. This is of great value in children’s programming, although Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated isn’t necessarily just for kids. It clearly has a potential adult audience in mind. Not only is there a character based on Vincent Price, but there are also some great jokes riffing on Playboy magazine.
As Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! is still in its early days, it’s harder to get a read on it, but some things are clear. The road remains a key piece of the show. Here, the gang has graduated high school, and they’ve decided to spend their final summer together, traveling around solving mysteries, the way they always have. It’s a less ambitious, more cartoony approach than Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated, with simpler animation and less intricate storytelling. It’s also a little funnier and more comedic minded. And there is no Scrappy-Doo, which is a good thing.
Clearly, taking the vague outline of five characters driving around solving mysteries allows you to generate all sorts of different stories. You can incorporate different styles of animation and storytelling. Of course, the cast hasn’t always remained the same, although Shaggy and Scooby have always been around no matter what. While “solving mysteries” and “debunking myths” and “eating a comically large amount of food” may be the primary staples of the Scooby-Doo universe, so much of its greatness comes down to the significance of the open road—though that open road may not, in terms of mileage, take our characters very far. The fact that it’s ultimately about a group of friends traveling around in their van makes it a road show, and a celebration of the wanderer spirit in all of us.
Not every version of Scooby-Doo is good, but, if nothing else, you can usually rely on seeing Fred, Daphne, Velma, Shaggy, and Scooby in the Mystery Machine, heading down some dark, foggy road en route to a haunted mansion or a spooky roller disco. Scooby Snacks might be involved.
Chris Morgan is not the author of THE book on Mystery Science Theater 3000, but he is the author of A book on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s also on Twitter.