“I must go. I have a feeling that there are evil forces at large tonight.”
As you know, it’s September 1969, and our vampire soap opera is reaching the peak of its popularity. After school, the kids all hurry home to check in with Collinwood, and find out what the vampires and witches and mad scientists are up to. Dark Shadows owns Mondays through Fridays — but on Saturday mornings, where we least expected it, a new creature is born. It has five heads and twelve legs, and it will run forever.
Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! is an occult-tinged mystery-adventure cartoon sitcom about four hep teens and a talking Great Dane, who travel around the country in a van called the Mystery Machine. Each week, they visit one desolate tourist attraction after another — an abandoned circus, a deserted mansion, an old marina or a haunted hunting lodge — where they inevitably find a ghost, a witch, a Frankenstein, a phantom (which is a kind of ghost), a mummy, a zombie, a killer robot, or a snow ghost (which is also a kind of ghost).
The monsters are thrilling, but they aren’t real; the creature is always caught at the end of the episode and unmasked, revealing that they’re actually someone that the teens already know. This is a comforting, rational world, where there’s no such thing as a monster — there’s just your Uncle Stuart, or that nice archaeologist, or the curator of a local museum, and they’re dressing up as monsters because they’re committing a crime, and they want to murder you.
On Dark Shadows, of course, there are actual monsters, and the real mystery machine is the television, which is broadcasting directly at a defenseless audience of housewives and children with twenty-two minutes a day of black magic and werewolf attacks. For the last two and a half years, we’ve been asking the question, “How did they get away with this?” The answer, as far as I can figure, is that nobody actually cared. Everyone thought that Dark Shadows was perfectly acceptable children’s television; that’s why they made trading cards and View-Master reels and joke books.
But as summer wanes, that begins to change. The fall of 1969 is where we start asking the flip side of that question, namely: How did they stop getting away with it?
The story starts, as so many do, with The Herculoids. This was a Saturday morning cartoon produced by Hanna-Barbera in 1967, telling the story of a brave gang of space barbarians, who fought against invaders to keep their bleak, featureless planet free of culture and technology. Seriously, that’s what it was about.
The leader was a strong, good-looking white dude, obviously, and his comrades-in-arms included a space dragon, a rock ape, a rhino/triceratops thing that shot energy rocks out of its cannon-horn, and two wobbly goo-monsters called Gloop and Gleep. Every episode, an alien intruder would land on the planet Amzot and try to do something helpful, and the Herculoids would stomp into action, and beat the hell out of the aliens until they ran away.
So there was that, and then there was Space Ghost, and Dino Boy in the Lost Valley. There was Moby Dick, which was about a great white whale who befriended two teenagers and fought robots and shark men, and there was The Mighty Mightor, which was about a big caveman who would lift his club into the air, and turn into an even bigger caveman.
There was Birdman, a superhero with sun god powers, who would mostly fight evil scientists. There was Samson and Goliath, which was about a teenager and his dog who would turn into a well-muscled superhero and a lion, and fight evil scientists. There is apparently an endless supply of evil scientists. You know, I think the people making these shows must not have liked smart people, for some reason.
Somebody had to step up and put a stop to this, so a bunch of housewives from Newton, Massachusetts formed a group called Action for Children’s Television, and started drawing public attention to the fact that the people making Saturday morning cartoons apparently thought that there was such a thing as a cannon-horn. Unlike pretty much every other watchdog group that followed, Action for Children’s Television was not a horrific right-wing Christian group, advocating for the censorship of adult programming. It was just a group of smart women, who figured there must be something better than The Herculoids.
Amazingly, it worked. Action for Children’s Television got an assist from the US National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, a presidential study ordered in 1968 after the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. The Commission included a section on Mass Media in their summer 1969 report, saying that there wasn’t any way to measure or prove that violence on television contributes to real-life violence, which it doesn’t, but what’s so great about having evidence anyway? Evidence is for losers who don’t have their own National Commission.
So by fall 1969, all of those Hanna-Barbera action shows were off the air, replaced by silly fantasy-themed shows like The Perils of Penelope Pitstop, The Wacky Races, and Dastardly and Muttley in Their Flying Machines, which were all somehow part of the same show.
And then there was Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!, the breakout hit that started running in September 1969 and hasn’t stopped yet.
CBS was airing The Archie Show on Saturday mornings — an adaptation of the Archie comics, starring a group of eternally buoyant teenagers and their dog. On the show, the Archie friends were in a band, and once an episode, they’d play bubblegum pop songs that were then released as 45s. The Archies’ biggest hit, “Sugar, Sugar”, was the number-one single for 1969, finally breaking through the glass ceiling for animated-Americans.
So Fred Silverman, executive in charge of daytime programming at CBS, asked Hanna-Barbera to make a similar cartoon series, this time about a teen band who solved mysteries. The musical element was dropped during development, and the main characters became a gang of itinerant amateur crime-solvers who would work for food. Like all television detectives, they stumbled across criminals non-stop, teaching children that almost every grown-up they run across is a thief, a con artist or a snow ghost.
The leader of the team was a strong, good-looking white dude, obviously, who was named Fred, apparently at Silverman’s request. Redheaded Daphne was a non-stop peril monkey, always tumbling down trap doors, and discovering the villain’s secret lair by getting captured and tied up there. Velma was the smart girl with glasses, who did all the heavy lifting in the mystery-solving department.
But the comedy relief characters were the real stars of the show — Shaggy, a post-hippie layabout eternally scrounging for free food, and Scooby-Doo, a cowardly Great Dane who earned his keep by occasionally biting the bad guy and pulling off part of his costume.
Scooby, Shaggy, Fred, Daphne and Velma spend most of their time running from one place to another, and one thing that I really admire about the show is that they made sure each character had their own unique running posture, so you can tell them apart.
Every episode of Scooby-Doo, Where Are You! follows a formula. The kids are minding their own business — visiting a museum, driving through a swamp, digging for clams — when they suddenly run across some variety of menacing hoodoo — a zombie, let’s say, or a dead pirate.
The kids decide to investigate, splitting up to find clues. Daphne usually gets captured or hypnotized or whatever girls do when you leave them alone for five seconds. Fred says, “Come on, gang,” a lot. Shaggy and Scooby head in the direction of the pantry, and run smack into the monster. They all run around for a while, and then Velma finds a clue — luminous paint, or tubs of dry ice, or a big pair of novelty gardening shears.
They set a trap for the monster, and comedy hijinks ensue, leading to Scooby falling into the trap somehow. Accidentally, they manage to get the monster tied up, or stuck in a pickle barrel. Tearing off the disguise, they find that the phantom is actually an adult that they met earlier in the episode — the owner of the factory, or a rival archaeologist. The miscreant was dressing up as a monster in order to scare people away — either because he was searching for pirate treasure, or because he planned to buy up the land, and he wanted other bidders to lose interest. Or something like that. It’s usually an economics issue. Fred and Velma explain everything, and the villains are dragged off to jail. Then Scooby puts on transparent skis, or gets covered in ice cream, and the episode limps to a close.
And I have to say, it works. The formula starts wearing on you after a while, especially the inevitable unmasking scene, where everybody yells, “Mr. Carswell!” and you try to remember who the hell that is, but there’s enough variation in the settings and monsters to generate interesting surprises.
The characters are all friends, valuing each other’s strengths and accepting their limitations, which makes them likeable. And the voice cast is very good, especially Don Messick as Scooby-Doo. It’s an appealing funny-animal voice that mixes goofy slapstick clowning with some genuine emotions. I believe in Scooby-Doo, as a character. It’s hard not to.
So it’s not a show that I’d want to watch on purpose, but while I’ve been writing this post, I’ve watched bits from most of the twenty-five episodes, and apart from the straitjacket story construction, I can’t really find anything else to complain about. I wouldn’t be able to stand most of Hanna-Barbera’s output for more than thirty seconds at a time, but Scooby-Doo is a pretty good show.
After that success, Hanna-Barbera launched a depressing string of knock-off shows, with a group of travelling teens solving mysteries alongside a fantasy creature. The only watchable example was Josie and the Pussycats, which is basically the same as Scooby-Doo, except the kids are musicians, and they fight spies and mad scientists instead of monsters. The shows got more desperate from there — The Funky Phantoms (teen detectives accompanied by Revolutionary War-era ghosts), Speed Buggy (teen detectives who drive around in a sentient dune buggy), Goober and the Ghost Chasers (teen detectives with another talking dog), Jabberjaw (underwater teen rock group accompanied by a talking shark) and Captain Caveman and the Teen Angels (teen detectives with a thousand-year-old caveman). There was also The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, a breathtaking stereotypes-on-parade show which broke new ground in the field of unwatchable animation. Saturday morning in the 70s was mostly awful, and putting Scooby-Doo up against the other offerings, it’s obvious why this was the show with enduring appeal.
And damn, did it endure. They only made twenty-five episodes of the original series, but it was followed by an enormous string of spin-offs and variations. The next show, The New Scooby-Doo Movies, added guest stars to the mix, followed by The Scooby-Doo/Dynomutt Hour and Scooby’s All-Star Laff-A-Lympics.
In 1979, faced with declining ratings, they added Scooby’s tough little nephew Scrappy-Doo to the cast, which perked things up again. So then we had Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo, The Scooby-Doo/Scrappy-Doo/Puppy Hour, The New Scooby-Doo and Scrappy-Doo Show and The New Scooby-Doo Mysteries.
The gang finally got to tangle with real ghosts in The 13 Ghosts of Scooby-Doo, a 1985 series where a warlock played by Vincent Price sent Scooby, Shaggy, Daphne and Scrappy-Doo on a quest to capture the world’s 13 most dangerous spirits. And then there was Scooby’s Mystery Funhouse, A Pup Named Scooby-Doo, What’s New, Scooby-Doo?, Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue, and Scooby-Doo! Mystery Incorporated.
There have been Scooby-Doo shows in production more or less continuously for more than 45 years. In fact, there’s a brand-new adventure airing today — literally, the day that I’m writing this post, Cartoon Network is premiering a new episode for the latest incarnation, Be Cool, Scooby-Doo! In my opinion, there does not need to be this much Scooby-Doo in the world, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can do about it.
So the horrors born in the late 60s survive to this day, even if most of them are land speculators and jewel thieves, wearing funny masks. Space barbarian violence is a thing of the past, but tales of the occult are still considered appropriate programming for the young set.
In fact, this decades-spanning paranormal investigation was directly inspired by the efforts of Action for Children’s Television, and it’s now reaching millions of children around the world, and teaching them that it’s a good idea for kids to go wandering around on other people’s property, looking for monsters.
Meanwhile, ACT didn’t touch Dark Shadows at all; as far as I know, the group never mentioned it. ACT was focused on younger kids anyway, and they were more interested in fighting commercialism on Saturday morning than tackling the daily dose of demon worship that kids were enjoying on weekday afternoons.
But there is a threat to Dark Shadows in this story, because the very existence of a parents’ watchdog group that can directly impact television schedules means that there’s a cultural shift going on, which we’ll need to keep an eye on. We’ll pick this story up again in a couple months, with the rise of another group of do-gooders and busybodies.
So far, Dark Shadows has gotten away with its daily assault on civilized society, but this situation can’t last forever, and it’s all thanks to those meddling adults. Drat!
Tomorrow: Barnabas Collins Must Die.
Dark Shadows bloopers to watch out for:
At the start of Quentin’s scene with Petofi in act 1, something off-camera catches Quentin’s eye, and he gives a slight chuckle as he says his first line.
Petofi opens his mouth to speak between two of Quentin’s lines, starting with “I don’t know how much Barnabas trusts me.”
A mild anachronism: you can see a zipper on her sleeve when she knocks on the front door, but zippers weren’t invented until 1913. (Hat tip to Dark Shadows Wiki for noticing this.)
Kitty walks out of the drawing room into the foyer, and when she opens the door, we can see that the drawing room is absolutely pitch black — what was she doing in there?
In the woods, Kitty asks Barnabas, “Do you live at Collinwood?” He just stares at her, so she says, “I guess that is a strange question, considering I just came from that.”‘
Kathryn Leigh Scott is listed in the end credits as “Kathryn Lee Scott”.
Behind the Scenes:
Kitty Soames (Lady Hampshire) is the second character that Kathryn Leigh Scott has played in the 1897 storyline. Her first character, Rachel, was killed in June, and Scott took the summer off to go on an African safari with her photographer boyfriend. After their Africa trip, they went to Rome, until DS producer Dan Curtis sent her a telegram, telling her to come back next week, and play a new role.
Tomorrow: Barnabas Collins Must Die.
— Danny Horn