Scooby-Doo at 50: how TV’s favourite Great Dane moved with the times

We examined the secret of the show's success, and we would have gotten away with it too if it weren't for you meddling kids...

As a result of the recent swell of Tarantino-piloted 60s nostalgia, there’s been a lot of discussion as to when this oft-revisited cultural era actually drew to a close. Whether it was the death of Sharon Tate, which irreparably shifted the tectonics of Hollywood, or the realigning election of Richard Nixon, or even the game-changing unbridled intimacy of Carole King’s 1971 album Tapestry, it’s very difficult to put a date to the end of the 60s, as much of an oxymoron as that is.

Yet, perhaps, there’s another cultural event we’ve forgotten about, one that deserves a fair amount of credit for its endurance to this very day…

Rorigins of the rystery-rolving

Once upon a time Shaggy Rogers and his dog, Scooby-Doo, were making their way home from the cinema when they discovered a sentient suit of armour. This was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!’s What A Night for A Knight, Mystery Inc’s maiden mystery and the first bottle of champagne cracked off the Mystery Machine’s chassis. Assessed on its own, What A Night… isn’t one of the gang’s most scintillating adventures but it’s got all the key ingredients Scooby-Doo has both matured away from and fine tuned – a repetitive setting, the grand total of one suspect, a trap gone haywire, Daphne being a klutz.

As someone who didn’t grow up with Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, I never quite understood the oft-repeated reading of the original series. Scooby Snacks were always a delicious incentive for Shaggy and Scoob, not edibles, and Scooby was just a talking dog, not the weed-addled hallucination of a teenage stoner. It’s a brilliantly weird interpretation of a children’s show birthed in the 60s and perhaps holds a certain degree of truth, even if I maintain that it’s an innocent show about some mystery-solving kids. However, as a retention of that groovy, easygoing 60s vibe (sans antiquated values), it’s as perfect as can be.

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Rot’s the rappeal?

So much of Mystery Inc’s appeal doesn’t actually appear on screen in its early days. The camaraderie between the quintet was non-existent and they were regularly broken down into Scooby and Shaggy, and Velma, Daphne and Fred. Even the queer-coded Velma was left in the middle most of the time, shuttled back and forth between being a brainy foil for the gang’s laziest members or a third wheel in Daphne and Fred’s borderline non-existent, dishwater-dull romance.

Breaking up Scooby-Doo’s chronology into each individual series, which are, contrary to popular belief, diverse in their structure, naturally ignores the bigger picture. Scooby-Doo is a cultural juggernaut more than it is a series of wildly successful cartoon series plus a few live-action movies. A real example of the gang’s chemistry is hard to pick out, save for those aforesaid big screen adaptations, in which Mystery Inc was so brilliantly brought to life by Matthew Lillard, Freddie Prinze Jr., Linda Cardellini and Sarah Michelle Gellar.

It’s the little, strangest details that make up Scooby-Doo as a franchise. It’s the catchphrases ‘jinkies!’ (an adlib by original Velma voice actor Nicole Jaffe) or ‘zoinks!’, it’s Velma’s habit of losing her glasses at the most inopportune moments, it’s Daphne somehow having over 25 uncles for the gang to visit when their cattle ranch/movie set/golf course (delete as appropriate) conveniently becomes haunted, it’s Daphne, over the course of 50 years, somehow having love interests in the form of celebrity guest stars Dick Van Dyke and also John Cena.

The righ points and row points

For any person who ever pays attention to the behind the scenes goings-on of Scooby-Doo, there’s been a lot of hemming and hawing about whether the show has actually changed. It’s far more marketable, oddly enough, for a 50-year-old show to sell the fact it hasn’t changed at all because of the ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ adage. But Scooby-Doo has become vastly more self-aware and enjoyable because of how cognisant it is of its own legacy, and that’s why it’s endured.

An example of this is 2002’s Scooby-Doo, the Raja Gosnell directed, James Gunn penned big screen transfer by the Great Dane and co. Whether this is a high point is debatable, but it took the franchise out of its element and, for once, tenderly poked fun at the repetitive framework we had grown to love. It’s a film that has aged surprisingly well despite the fart jokes. It was the first to laugh at Fred’s vanity, the first to see Daphne develop a more aggressively kickass side, and the first to finally address how annoying Scrappy Doo is. It was also the first to have Pamela Anderson cameo as the owner of a haunted toy factory (!). Whether 2002’s Scooby-Doo is your cup of tea or not – I was always more of a Monsters Unleashed guy – it’s difficult to argue the impact it made on the series that followed.

What’s New, Scooby-Doo? took everything that didn’t work from the live action movies and jettisoned it, retaining the real-life monsters (not every episode was a man in a mask), strong chemistry between the gang and a more refined personality for each member. The sizeable developments in animation also allowed What’s New, Scooby-Doo? to tour a diverse array of locations, a far cry from Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!’s limited locales. It’s the most successful straight run of the show since its debut outing.

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Fast forward to Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!, a widely derided yet terrifically funny and smart updated take on Scoob and the gang. It took self-awareness to the next level (in one episode the gang investigate a farm where they meet the daughter of the beleaguered, taciturn owner: “My father is a man of few words – three, specifically: nope, yeah, and meddling. Although I’m not sure in what context he’ll ever use that last one”. It goes almost exactly as you’d expect) and was written off because of its animation style, which hewed closer to Family Guy than anything we’d seen before. Yet the modern style fitted the innovative humour like a glove and it’s an absolute riot of a series. It should be the blueprint for the show going forward because Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! is exactly how the Great Dane can survive another 50 years.

Scooby-Doo will constantly reinvent itself until it one day – somehow – dies a death. But it has found increasingly inspired ways of updating itself over 50 years, which is no easy feat for an animation that plays fast and loose with chronology and continuity. So, happy fiftieth birthday, Scooby-Doo. In dog years, you’re 213 – let’s see you reach 426, old timer.

Read our pick of the 10 scariest Scooby-Doo episodes here.