– In The Demon-Haunted World, “Science advocate Carl Sagan favorably compared the predominantly skeptic oriented formula to that of most television dealing with paranormal themes, and considered that an adult analogue to Scooby-Doo would be a great public service.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scooby-Doo) – Well, there you go. We thought we were dealing with just a dumb kids’ cartoon. Already we’ve discovered the myth behind the hound, now we have a well-respected educator of science remarking how important Scooby Doo is in promoting critical thinking.
– When I write criticism, I often do so in an investigative manner. When I write a question, very often, when I am writing that question, it is a real question to me, I am not writing it rhetorically. So I was actually truly surprised that Scooby Doo himself could be seen as revision of the old Coyote myth of the native Americans. Well, what does that mean? Clearly none of the producers consulted Joseph Campbell before inventing the show. But clearly one doesn’t need to be a Campbell or a Jung to recognize that themes re-appear in the arts and entertainments culture to culture at across time. The native Americans used the Coyote stories to both entertain and educate their young. Obviously such stories can still be used for entertainment, although their value as education in the world of today seems worth questioning….
– Could Carl Sagan be onto something here? Can the Scooby Doo show help children how to read the world in a more critical manner?
– The answer I think is yes, but with some reservations and qualifications. Until the 1980s, the plots of the stories were virtually ‘fill in the blank’ duplicates. Scooby and the gang arrive at a mysterious someplace – haunted house, haunted vacation lodge, haunted airport – meet three or four people who don’t seem to be getting along, then a monster shows up and chases them. Cue laughter.
– But although Scooby and Shaggy believe in the supernatural and seem terrified by it, Velma has the expresses something of the attitude of a scientist; Fred is not quite as curious, but decidedly empirically minded; and Daphne is, as all young ladies should be (as understood in the culture), cautious and suspicious, especially around men and other women. Consequently the gang – as a unit – does not react to the appearance of a monster as a phenomenon to treat with awe and unquestioning submission. After the initial chasing around, the gang looks for clues, find them, set a trap, and, catching the monster, reveal it to be a human in disguise – almost always one of the first three people they met upon arrival at the mysterious location.
– It must be admitted that the villain’s construction of and operation of the monster disguise often makes odd, improbable use of available technology, or of technology not really available at the time: the robots, puppets, and optical illusions deployed would not be capable of the flexibility and maneuverability they often seem to have.
– But, after all, they are the products of technology, and not of magic or the supernatural. Their explanations are entirely naturalistic. Although there are plenty of comedic violations of basic physics and biology of the kind we’ve been seeing in animated cartoons since they first hit screens in the 1890s, these are not integral to the stories. The stories themselves are detective mysteries, and as such are committed to rational explanation of empirical phenomena. Even the motives of the villains are usually down-to-earth in a blasé, common sense way – usually simple greed, envy, or revenge for some perceived slight. Although the villains’ intended victims are usually rightfully grateful to the ‘meddling kids’ of Scooby’s gang, they ought also to feel down right embarrassed to be initially taken in by technological slight-of-hand masquerading as magical hocus-pocus.
– As the series wore on (and occasionally wore out of ideas) over the years, supernatural elements were introduced into it, especially in the ’80s. But by then the show had become pure farce. It brought in real ghosts to the stories exactly because the producers knew the audience didn’t believe in ghosts anymore, thought they were silly, and laughed at the very idea of them. There’s more than a trace of cynicism in this manipulation of the skeptical attitude of the audience, but at least there was no back-tracking into any glorification of the supernatural. the supernatural is baloney, the show reminds its audience, and only worth interest as an object of ridicule.
– In the most recent, most innovative re-casting of the Scooby Do phenomenon, Mystery Incorporated, most of the individual stories remain in the classic mode, but with twists concerning the character development of the gang. We won’t get into that, but we will note the twist that series as a whole takes. The series is actually constructed around what is now known as a ‘story arc,’ a meta-narrative tying the individual stories together. And here’s where things get a little strange: The meta-narrative at last reveals what appears to be a supernatural phenomenon – the Evil Entity – motivating the series as a whole. Most reviewers seem to agree that this is borrowed from the Cthulu mythos originating in the writings of fantasy cult figure, H. P. Lovecraft. To be honest, I was never able to wade through Lovecraft’s dense and florid prose, so I don’t know this, but I do know that Lovecraft’s cult is fairly large for a writer unknown beyond the genre readership, and has always included many aspiring young fantasy writers.
– It should be noted that, although I think most readers at least initially read Lovecraft as a fantasy/horror writer, and none seems to deny purely fantasy elements to his texts, there does appear to be a kind of science fiction element to the Cthulu mythos; although the Old Ones appear to us as gods, or demonic forces, they are actually rather long lived aliens, possibly from another dimension or a parallel universe.
– And, as it so happens, it is revealed in the final scenes concluding the Mystery Incorporated series that the explanation of what the Scooby gang has experienced, and of its final, happy result, is to be found in the ‘alternative time-lines’ made possible thanks to the contemporary ‘multiverse’ theory! And who should reveal this, but no less a respected a figure of real-world science fiction than writer Harlan Ellison – yes, himself represented in cartoon form, with his own voice dubbed over it. ( Fortunately, he remarks, he himself is such a genius that he has been able to remember all the different time-lines his alternative selves have lived through in their respective universes This willing self-parody is apparently entirely in keeping with his public personality.)
– So, we seem to have salvaged the essential rationality of the Scooby Doo phenomenon. We began with a simple detective mystery, searching for empirical clues, and ended up in the realm of theoretical physics, searching for multiverses. But it’s the same rationality after all, is it not.
– I’m not so sure. The world understood by the general culture of the first series, Scooby Doo, Where Are You? depended on a strictly empirical scientific methodology. But the multiverse theories depend only on elegant mathematics, with some physicists – like Brian Greene and Leonard Susskind, or, in a different way, Max Tegmark – suggesting that this dependence is strong enough ground for incorporating such theories into our basic model of the universe. These suggestions are offered at an odd moment of history, when the popularity of the irrational has risen frighteningly – and in certain regions of the globe, with horrifying violence – and when one senses a general response of fatalistic indifference to the confusions of ‘information overload’ provided by our various media. In other words, just as the attack on the ‘hard sciences’ grows stronger, the ‘hard sciences’ may be going soft on us. If this is the case, those of us who depend on it to frame our world view might find ourselves left to our own devices.
– One can see the possible problems here in science fiction and fantasy entertainment everywhere: e.g., the superhero films, the Harry Potter series, the recent revisions to Doctor Who. Time and again, empirical explanation is replaced with timey-wimey, spacey-wacey ‘it just sort of happens because …’ – and the because no longer seems to matter. Left to our own devices, we non-scientists and non-philosophers may end up confabulating all kinds of irrational, or half-rational, or seemingly rational (but not) explanations – witness, for instance, the anti-vaccination campaigns. Or we will simply abandon explanation all together, and give ourselves over – to what? What replaces the explanations that give us a world picture, and infuse it with meaning?
– Alas – religions have the answer, and have had such for some time – submission to the authoritative text and its interpreters.
– Maybe, then, we need to start the Cult of Scooby Doo, and submit ourselves to the empiricism and reasoning of the Scooby gang. That wouldn’t keep the monsters away, but at least we would be secure in the knowledge that they would always be revealed as fallible human machines and illusions.