During the creation process of the original Scooby-Doo show (whose work-in-progress name was Mysteries Five) in the late 1960s, the creative team at Hanna-Barbera experienced rejection after rejection by the powers that be at CBS. Originally pitched as a show in the same vein as The Archie Show, Hanna-Barbera aimed at presenting the familiar cast of rebellious teenagers, this time with the formula of solving various mysteries involving supposed ghouls and monsters.
However, the pitches for each revised version of the show were consistently passed on, with executives worried that the show’s horror elements may be too much for children to handle (this was for daytime programming too, so keep that in mind). In order to ensure a spot in the programming, Hanna-Barbera once again revised the show to balance out the horror with a healthy dose of comedy, particularly between the cowardly Great Dane, Scooby-Doo, and his gluttonous, but lovable best friend, Shaggy.
This dynamic would carry the series well after its initial debut in 1969, with the tension from the various mysteries tackled by Mystery Incorporated gradually becoming less of a focus for the series. Scooby and Shaggy proved popular with kids for their silly antics, so as reboot after reboot occurred for the gang throughout the decades, this friendship was the core of the show. Even when the famed direct-to-video movies in the late 90s and early 2000s came along, Scooby and Shaggy took the spotlight over the perceived horror within the mysteries.
The movies provided a small glimpse into what the series could potentially look like in a darker, horror-centric light and to this day, they are considered among the best projects conceived for the franchise. Ambitious, but still light-hearted, the movies served as proof that Scooby-Doo could work well as a pure horror-comedy. But after the first four movies, the series would revert back to its lighter tone with What’s New Scooby-Doo? and the subsequent movies felt more like tours of different set pieces rather than tightly written stories.
The horror seemed lost for good.
But Scooby-Doo, Mystery Incorporated changed up the formula in a way nobody could’ve expected.
In 2010, the news spread of a brand new reincarnation of Scooby-Doo, reuniting the original gang in a new weekly format that saw them solve mysteries around their town, Crystal Cove (the “Most Hauntedest Place on Earth”). Like before, many of the so-called “ghouls” turned out to be normal humans way in over their heads. Each episode presented a brand new mystery for the kids to crack, neatly tying the mystery up and saving the day. Sounds familiar, right?
For the most part, it was familiar, as the show reintroduced the Mystery Incorporated Gang to a new generation of children. Fred, the self-proclaimed leader of the gang and trap aficionado (to the point of it being a borderline fetish), Velma, the brains of the group with the addition of a budding relationship with Shaggy, Daphne, the daughter of wealthy parents with an eye for fashion and detective work, and of course Scooby and Shaggy. With some twists and variations to their characterizations, the gang managed to embody the rebellious teens that were originally envisioned for them in the first incarnation.
But despite seemingly bringing everything back to the basics for the gang, Mystery Incorporated briefly tips its hand at the end of the first episode of the series by introducing…a cliffhanger. The series, known for its bite-sized watchability for each episode, introduced the format of the ongoing story through Mystery Incorporated by teasing a larger mystery in the form of a strange card with an “E” stamped on it, followed by a stranger calling himself Mr. E (voiced by Lewis Black) dialing the gang and warning them of some hidden truth about their town that they inadvertently came across.
From then on, the show’s hook became apparent. Despite the usual mysteries taking up a bulk of the episode runtime, there was an overarching story regarding the secret of Crystal Cove and the potentially disastrous implications brought along by the gang’s investigation of it. Each episode drip-fed the audience by gradually revealing more about the mystery and before long, this story shifts to the forefront of Mystery Incorporated, bringing with it a slew of unexpected story developments, character shifts, and practically everything one might not have expected from a Scooby-Doo show.
Mystery Incorporated and its creators knew that a new Scooby project wasn’t a guaranteed hit. The franchise had hit its fair share of lows in the past and it was unknown if a new show would even appeal to children. Judging by the show’s cap at only 2 seasons, it appears that the latter may have come true, as an overarching story format is harder for children and audiences to invest in unless the show has a strong following to support it.
But for Mystery Incorporated, two seasons was all it could manage during its run from 2010 to 2013. But those two seasons made the most of their time on the air by gradually transforming the familiar formula of a Scooby-Doo show into an ambitious cosmic horror-comedy that doubled as a love letter to the horror genre as a whole, flaws and strengths. For the first time since arguably Zombie Island, the mystery of the Crystal Cove plot was enough to carry the show with the antics of the Mystery Gang.
One of the most notable changes in Mystery Incorporated is the sheer volume of horror media references, working as both cute homages to earlier known works of horror and advancements in the show’s story itself. The show borrowed heavily from a number of artists, shows, books, and movies to create a beautiful mish-mash of a horror-comedy hybrid intent on both scaring and amusing the audience with its tongue-in-cheek presentation.
A prominent example of the show’s influences came during the gang’s visit to an empty hotel in a snowy region out of town. The episode quickly morphs into a bite-sized version of Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining, trapping the gang inside the hotel that is seemingly playing tricks on them by making them hallucinate strange visions of ghouls and even themselves.
Another example is a recurring character by the name of Vincent van Ghoul, a horror icon obviously modeled after real-life horror icon, Vincent Price, who helps out the gang with a few mysteries. First appearing in The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo (and being voiced by Price himself), he returns here as an actor who is quite fearful of the multiple horrific threats in the show, a far cry from the powerful warlock in 13 Ghosts. The show could’ve easily used this as a method in mocking Price, but it comes across more as a light-hearted jab, still showing respect to the icon by having Scooby and Shaggy worship the ground he walks on (a clear representation of the creators’ feelings towards him).
Even famed writer Harlan Ellison (author of the notoriously bleak I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream) makes a surprise appearance in two episodes, one in which he comically butts heads with another horror author, HP Hatecraft. Take a wild guess at who that refers to. The episode itself has a mystery involving a copycat from one of Hatecraft’s books, but the meat of the episode is Ellison hilariously calling Hatecraft a hack before it is revealed that the two are actually close friends, a knowing jab at overeager fans’ tendency to “pick sides” between two creatives.
Although Hatecraft is only a minor character in the series, the work of his real-life counterpart also helps in shaping the darker tone of Mystery Incorporated by borrowing heavily from his brand of cosmic horror to create a story that brings the gang into a conflict far more dangerous than anticipated. In the second season, the horror becomes the show’s primary focus by introducing concepts such as the event of Nibiru, Babylonian mythology and the works of Zecharia Sitchin, an author responsible for the theory of ancient astronauts being the origins of humanity.
Mystery Incorporated also explores the idea of fate and free will, even coming to question the core of the Mystery Gang’s friendship and whether it was a genuine act of free will or a plan orchestrated for greater purposes. Without spoiling this part of the mystery (because trust me, what I touched on is only the tip of the iceberg), the story comes to question the coincidence of the gang coming together to solve mysteries and what it could potentially mean in the grand scheme of things. Mixed with the influences of Lovecraft, David Lynch, Wes Craven, and even the Saw movies, Mystery Incorporated tackles this idea with the kind of depth that seemed to avoid the franchise in the past.
But don’t let these crazy implications give you the wrong idea about Mystery Incorporated. At its core, the show is still a kid’s comedy and the zaniness of Scooby and the gang is the beating heart of the series. Furthermore, the show’s comedic mileage isn’t placed solely on the shoulders of Scooby and Shaggy; the entire gang is saddled with their own respective personalities that mesh well with the mysteries.
Fred’s obsession with traps often plays a big role in the finale of each episode, with him trying his best to constantly outdo himself, much to the dismay of the rest of the gang. Velma is no longer just the “smart” one of the group, with added depth paired with her many insecurities, something shared with Daphne, a girl who can’t bring herself to follow in her parent’s footsteps and decides to follow her dream of detective work with the gang. Comedy often arises from these new traits, but the ongoing format allows for drama to ramp up in later episodes as character arcs come to a head.
It may sound strange to praise a show for character arcs and an ongoing storyline since that should feel like a given with most TV shows, but Mystery Incorporated stands out simply because of the standards of the franchise. As lovable as the short mini-mysteries that became a staple of the original series and the various reincarnations afterward are, a Scooby show with a balance of drama, comedy, and horror felt like a breath of fresh air for the franchise. Even the first four movies feel more like relics of their time in retrospect, but Mystery Incorporated is an instance of modernization without the need to feel “trendy.”
The show’s handling of the horror as a whole doesn’t just make for a fun show to rewatch and potentially pick up on Easter eggs, but as a loving homage and tribute to the genre that helped the original show stand out from the bunch. It could’ve been easy to place the gang in a number of generic settings to face off against bland “monsters,” but the creators took the time to experiment with the versatility of the horror genre and create new and unique situations for the gang to overcome.
Even by the show’s end, it doesn’t neatly tie everything into a bow and leave the audience with the impression that everything is okay. Mystery Incorporated suggests that even when things seem perfect, there’s a larger world out there with a variety of different problems to face. The ending implies that the gang may never truly retire from mystery solving, working as a pretty obvious metaphor about the shelf life of the franchise and the implication that there will always be something sinister lurking around the corner.
Yet the gang doesn’t fright from this realization. Rather, they revel in the possibilities of their future cases. Much like the series finale, the horror genre is always ready and willing to present us with something new and unforeseen and it’s up to us to willingly explore new areas of horror we might not be familiar with. Knowing the risks they’re taking, this is exactly what the Mystery Gang do and it’s quite touching to see a global franchise like Scooby-Doo acknowledge this.
Mystery Incorporated took a chance on a new format and previously unexplored subgenres of horror and the end result was a show that is easily one of the most underrated kids’ gems of the 2010s. Equal parts goofy and apocalyptic, the show wore its influences on its sleeves and crafted a bold take on the Scooby-Doo lore that doubled as a sly deconstruction of the franchise and a loving ode to the horror genre.
At this point, it’s unknown if Scooby-Doo will venture into the land of horror-comedy again and the newest Scoob! film looks to be more of a light kid’s comedy. For a franchise as surprisingly versatile as Scooby-Doo, it’s up to us to not gate-keep the franchise in one or the other direction, so the lighter route doesn’t have to be outright rejected. Scooby-Doo is still and will likely always be a property for children. But Mystery Incorporated will always be there as well, lurking in the back as a reminder of what the franchise is truly capable of.
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