I've put my reviewer spotlight on many incarnations of the Scooby-Doo! universe. I've guided you through the ups and downs of the past five animated films in the series, I helped put the first two live-action films into perspective and I've considered episodes of the original series 40 years after they originally aired. The Joe Ruby and Ken Spears creation has survived multiple generations because there seems to be so many ways to mix the Scooby stew of mystery, comedy, horror and adventure. Slight changes in the mix of those ingredients have given us The New Scooby-Doo Movies with guests like Don Knotts and Batman and Robin or A Pup Named Scooby-Doo with young crime solvers as well as movies like Scooby-Doo and the Witches Ghost.
Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated is the eleventh series to feature characters from the Scooby-Doo universe. This disc contains the first four episodes of the 13 episode season (a 14th episode remains unaired). The previous series, Shaggy & Scooby-Doo Get a Clue!, ran for a couple seasons from 2006-2008. Those stories really failed to capture the imagination. The plots strayed far from the strengths of the show -- mostly it only featured Shaggy and Scooby (hence the title, I guess), so you lost the fun interaction of the whole cast. And the magical elements of the show were carried too far: the Mystery Machine could turn into other vehicles, the villain has more magical powers and (shudder) Shaggy and Scooby have a robot butler. The entries of the direct-to-video movies that have strayed into more mystical elements have typically been the worst entries of the series. The more traditional mystery-based stories have really allowed the characters to shine.
This series is a complete reboot of the franchise. The characters find themselves back in the outfits from the original series, hinting that this series is a throwback to the original mysteries. The animation style is very modern with the same Anime influence that I noticed in a show like The Batman. What really strikes me more than anything else with this series is the great detail taken with the art direction. The backgrounds are very stylized. The characters interact in front of static backgrounds like the Hanna-Barbera series of the '60s but these utilize a full pallette of colors that we rarely see in made-for-TV cartoons. In The Creeping Creatures, the gang stay in a hotel that's full of brilliant greens and blues that pop like a 1960s jazz experiment. I've seen this design in some of the title sequences of the past couple of made-for-TV animated films but it's great to see it put to use within the plot of an actual episode. The color usage adds a very noir aspect to the stories and allows the directors to set tone and mood quickly.
The characters, while appearing the same as in the original series, have some slight changes in this new incarnation. Our Mystery Inc. team has seemingly varied in age over the years from Middle School to the mid-20s of the live action films. This series puts them squarely back in their teens, and all live with their parents still. That dynamic is further twisted tighter by throwing in two love interests -- Fred and Daphne's continued relationship and a budding romance between Velma and Shaggy. In both cases, the women are the agressor and the men are seemingly oblivious to their levels of interest. Fred's problems stem from his greater interest in traps and solving mysteries than acknowledging Daphne's love interest. Velma and Shaggy have a mutual interest in each other but Shaggy is having a hard time letting Scooby know that there's someone else in his life. This extra twist could have really interfered with the chemistry of the show, but instead, it's allowed for some refreshing respites from the mystery plots where the characters can breathe. And it makes the dangers more tense when it's a girlfriend or boyfriend that's in trouble.
The plots of the first season are interconnected -- another new development for the series. Previous series have acknowledged events from other series -- mainly the movies -- but this show takes a clue from series like The X-Files and Fringe and has a greater mystery that builds upon clues each episode in the self-contained mystery stories. The group receives clues from a Mister E. (get it?) that hints at a mysterious past in Crystal Cove, possibly involving a past Mystery Inc. Patrick Warburton voices a new character, Sheriff Stone, that not only acts as comic relief but he's the de facto Doubting Thomas that spurs Mystery Inc. on to investigate most of the mysteries.
The first episode, "Beware The Beast Below," suffers from typical "we must tell all the backstory at once" syndrome. So, the mystery involving a slimy underwater mutant really takes a backseat to setting up the budding love relationships, the parents of all the characters and eventually that there is a "Mister E." who hints that "the mystery has just begun."
The second episode, "The Creeping Creatures." is the best looking of the bunch. As mentioned above, the design of Gatorsburg, the swamp and the hotel in town are really brilliant. The backgrounds alone tell the story. Ultimately, the story of the Gator People isn't much of a mystery, it's easy to guess. But the episode spends as much time letting the characters interact with each other and the series feels like it is finally ramping up to something.
A great design for the Ghost Trucker is included in "Secret Of The Ghost Rig." And we meet Rung Ladderton, a great character that Daphne's parents are trying to set her up with instead of Fred. Trouble is that he and Fred seem to like each other almost more than they like Daphne. The mystery here is quite a bit better -- it involves the mysterious disappearance of crystal doorknobs -- and the clue from Mister E. is actually helpful in solving the mystery without completely ruining it for the viewer. I like how Daphne realizes that she loves Fred even if he doesn't realize it and that she'll be there for when we does.
"Revenge Of The Man Crab" starts with a fun nod to Beverly Hills 90210 (of which some of the non-mystery plots seem to be borrowed) with Brenda getting what we always hoped she would. It's unfortunate that this is the last episode on the release because it's here that the over reaching mystery really takes hold. Mister E. leaves a clue that ties the current mystery into the disappearance of four teenagers many years ago. Fred's reaction to Daphne's kidnapping borders on disturbing as he completely goes mental. But it's a nice companion to Daphne's realization in the previous episode. And the fact that both have realized how much they care for each other but not expressed it completely to the other should lead to some fun moments. The mystery is solved but unlike most episodes of previous series - there seems to be more questions raised than just capturing the Man Crab solves.
The four episode sampling is an interesting choice for Warner Bros. With the second season seemingly on permanent delay, it's not timed to coincide with a new season but even if it was, this only gets the ball rolling. The real meat of the season is still to come as we piece together more clues to the bigger mystery. It's a great start and peaks the interest but with so many shows being released in complete season form, I wonder if they can keep interest between releases. These meddling kids are up to a great adventure this time around.
Video: Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated Season One, Volume 1 DVD Review