Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Original Airdate: October 9th, 1976 on ABC

Out of all the entities in the intellectual property storehouse of Hanna-Barbera, the crime-solving Great Dane named Scooby-Doo has had the most staying power. There have been twelve different iterations of the animated series, including one that’s still on the air today, as well as countless feature-length animated movies, not to mention the live action movies with the hideous CGI dog. Seriously, Snoop Dogg turning into an actual dog in that music video looked more credible. There’s also the predictably large swath of merchandise and cash-in attempts, including actual Scooby Snack dog treats, a Scooby Doo-themed version of Clue, and for some reason a Scooby Doo stage play. Sadly, tonight’s case study demonstrates that a higher-profile Hanna-Barbera product doesn’t make for higher quality.

Strengths

  • Paying tribute to literary heritage. When I saw that this was going to center on the Headless Horseman, I felt confident that it was going to be a watered-down, half-assed public domain bastardization that would make Washington Irving spin like a whirligig. While Scooby is half-assed in all things, this was a surprisingly thoughtful adaptation of the classic story. The show makes an intriguing intertextual move by establishing that the Scooby-verse exists within the fictional context set up by “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The horseman’s story is traced not to Irving but instead to Ichabod Crane, the ancestor of one Beth Crane (Janet Waldo, The Jetsons), a friend of the Scooby Squad that only exists for the purposes of this episode and this episode only. Beth faithfully situates the Horseman’s origins within the Revolutionary War—as in the story, the Horseman is said to be a luckless Hessian decapitated by a stray cannonball, and this is almost certainly the only Hanna-Barbera program ever to discuss Hessians. Because there’s a glimmer of uniqueness and originality in this part of the storyline, Scooby viewers may be tempted to track down the source text. Of course, they might after doing that be tempted to never watch this show again, but either way, points for being bookish.
  • Sparingly amusing. Scooby is ostensibly a comedy, but the laughs are few and far between. Here are the three funny things that happen in this episode. Number one: We begin the action at a Halloween party hosted by Beth, who is dressed as Snagglepuss. Hooray for synergy! Number two: At one point, the characterically craven duo of Shaggy (Casey Kasem) and Scooby-Doo (Don Messick) faint due to fright. Scooby’s dimwitted country relation, Scooby-Dum (Daws Butler, The Jetsons), sees this state of affairs and also pretends to faint, appearing to think that this is what they’re all doing now. Ho ho ho. Number three: At various occasions, the dogs get their noses touched, bopped or poked, resulting in a comical honk sound effect. This concludes the list of funny moments in this episode of Scooby. You might be saying, “Wait, none of those were funny at all!” Well, now you can imagine what the rest of the episode was like.

Weaknesses

  • Scooby-Dum. I know some of you stopped paying attention the second I brought up this hick. Yes, that’s right—the good people at HB decided they needed to spice up the action by introducing another dog, even dumber and less articulate than the original dog. Clearly they didn’t learn from this mistake, as the execrable Scrappy-Doo was still three years away from being born into existence wet with the amniotic fluid of Satan’s bride. S. Doo is already hard enough to understand and his conversations with S. Dum prove nigh incomprehensible. Dum has little to offer besides hammy mugging and a bumpkin-ish approach to the unforgiving world of confidence men dressed up as movie monsters from the thirties. Wikipedia grimly notes continuity errors amounting to a “dubious lineage” for Dum, and I figured that these errors were born of a critical lack of interest on the part of the people who had written 40 episodes of this particular flavor of Scooby, but it turns out that there’s inconsistency even within this specific episode, with Dum being referred to as both Scooby’s brother and his cousin. I’m going to choose to interpret this as evidence that the Scooby line is rife with incest, which goes some way towards explaining why the Scoobies are critically stupid despite their sapience.
  • Flaccid “mystery.” Look, I love a good mystery. Even when I was a kid I loved a good mystery. Scooby acts like it’s going to present you with a mystery. They drive around in a goddamned Mystery Machine. What we get instead would make Agatha Christie vomit blood in an incendiary, gin-soaked rage. The minute we lay eyes on Elwood Crane (John Stephenson, The Flintstones) it’s obvious he’s the monster-impersonating douchebag we’re looking for, but we have to hang around for 15 minutes while the usual gang of idiots figures out that the seedy uncle who took the diamond necklace for “safekeeping” is actually the bad guy. They still don’t come to the natural conclusion even when the “Horseman” “steals” Elwood’s head. The really outrageous thing is that there’s only one other person the Horseman could possibly be, the Lurch-esque butler Tarlof (Alan Oppenheimer, He-Man and the Masters of the Universe.) Tarlof is obviously a fake-out, seeing as he’s creepy-looking as hell. He also didn’t take any fucking diamonds!
  • Unconvincing action sequences. The episode tries to go out with a bang as Doo, Shaggy and Elwood wrestle one another for control of a speeding biplane mid-air. The problem is that the show has been taking advantage of cartoon physics all along, so it’s not like gravity is a serious threat. In fact, Scooby at one point steps completely out of the plane and walks several feet out on the empty air in the grand tradition of Wile E. Coyote. Next, they apparently crash through the back wall of an airplane hangar without damaging the plane. Shaggy falls through a mysterious hole in the seat and grabs onto the landing gear. Finally, the plane abruptly and inexplicably disintegrates. The end result is something neither thrilling nor comprehensible.

Final Judgment: 3/10. There are probably better episodes of Scooby. I know there are worse episodes, thanks to the aforementioned hell-spawn. Headless Horseman aside, Scooby and the gang can’t escape the stench of hackish mediocrity.

NEXT TIME: Gritty live action superheroes, anyone? I review Gotham!

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Case Study 66: The Scooby-Doo Show, Episode 5–“The Headless Horseman of Halloween”

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Original Airdate: April 29th, 2006 on The WB

This special was made to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the staggeringly popular Pokemon franchise, which means that this year was the 20th anniversary of Pokemon and that I am therefore as old as the stars and the seas. If you don’t know what Pokemon is, I’m guessing there are no children with you underneath your rock, because Pikachu and company have been delighting kids across a smorgasbord of media platforms for two decades now. It all started with a handheld video game that’s gone on to enjoy six direct sequels. There’s also the TV show. Did you know you can watch 930 episodes of the TV show? It’s been running continuously since 1997 and Ash is still going through puberty. There are also 19 movies, and I’m talking feature films, not the “very special episode” crap we have the misfortune of examining tonight. The trading card game you might remember from elementary school? Still totally a thing. There’s enough tie-in merchandise to make a robust and healthy garbage island. And if you’ve been watching your hysterical and reactionary local news, you’ve probably heard about how a certain mobile game is leading us all to fiery doom at the hands of pedophiles and vandals. Most adults are probably exclusively familiar with the video game and haven’t watched the TV show since 5th grade. How has it held up? Well…

Strengths

  • Great concept. There’s a reason the Pokemon franchise is such a big hit. It’s intrinsically interesting to imagine a world crawling with hundreds of unique semi-intelligent life forms with magical fighting powers. Sure, here in the real world we just found out that there are four species of giraffe that we hadn’t realized existed, and that’s legitimately thrilling, but what if there was a giraffe that had a separate brain in its ass, complete with a mouth full of teeth ready to bite your damn hand off? And what if you could capture that giraffe and make it fight your enemies with searing blasts of psychic energy? Personally, I love it when fantasy is closely wedded to the real world, and while the world of Pokemon seems to have armies of clone nurses and a robust and nonsensical economy, the world inhabited by trainer Ash Ketchum (Kayzie Rogers) and his retinue of hangers-on is modern, technologically sophisticated and ostensibly realistic, allowing fantasies and projection to take root faster than a hungry Tangela.
  • Strong choice of medium. And really, in some ways, Pokemon makes a lot more sense on TV than in a video game. The fundamentally magical premise becomes hidebound by stats, type effectiveness, movesets and endless grinding when it takes the form of a game, but the creators of the show cheerfully fly in the face of established rules about type or how strong/useful any given move is when it makes for good spectacle. This might infuriate the turbonerds out there, but this kind of poetic license can go a long way in making a fight that would otherwise be a foregone conclusion fascinating.
  • Cute. They might keep you in your seat with flights of fancy about riding a flaming horse into the sunset, but chances are they lured you in with a button-eyed talking mouse, or a kitty, or a puppy, or a…balloon, I guess? Hell, these people even managed to make a literal pile of toxic sludge cute. Also, a bag of garbage. Those people at Nintendo know what they’re doing when it comes to luring you in with candy-coated adorability.
  • Sci-fi horror premise. Okay, now that we’ve gotten generalities out of the way, let’s stick those brass tacks into our eyes. At first it seems like we might be in for something cool: Ash and all his friends are lured to the compound of one Dr. Yung (Bill Timoney, Mission to Mars,) who has used only the most cutting-edge developments in pokemon mad science to create “mirage” pokemon, which he replicates instead of catching in the wild. They’re strong against things that would normally knock them out and eventually he harnesses the power to let them use any move they want. They’re super-powerful and they can’t be stopped. Professor Oak (Jimmy Zoppi) is quickly captured and everyone else is left to fend for themselves. The show does take on themes of science vs. nature with all the subtlety of Joe Eszterhas and Misty (Michele Knotz) nearly plummets to her death, but all of the cool pulpy things they could do with this premise quickly fall by the wayside as we descend into the worst episode of Pokemon I’ve had the displeasure of seeing, and it’s not like it was Masterpiece Theatre to begin with.

Weaknesses

  • Jarring change in voice actors. This special is most infamous for the fact that the production company somehow decided they weren’t making enough money on this hugely popular series and sacked all the principal voice actors. Which is a shame, because the original cast was very strong. Comedic stylings centered around Team Rocket’s high school drama club antics and Brock (Bill Rogers) being a pussy hound have always been weak sauce, but at least the original cast could sell it. The backlash against the voice acting was so intense that the dialogue was re-recorded for the DVD release and Kayzie Rogers was straight-up replaced, which makes sense, because while Ash was always voiced by a middle-aged woman impersonating a gravelly voiced preteen boy, Kayzie Rogers’ voice is slightly higher-pitched, which makes it seem like Ash has Benjamin Button disease. It probably didn’t help that Rogers is also the voice of Max, an eight-year-old.
  • Team Rocket. Speaking of Team Rocket, why the fuck are they even here? It’s great evidence of the show’s tendency to cling to its formula even when it doesn’t make any sense. Plenty of previous episodes that didn’t need a conflict with dastardly villains had Team Rocket inserted sideways on the theory that an antagonist is always essential, but there’s already a clear and obvious antagonist here: the mad scientist with the super-powerful, weaponized monsters. The Rockets ultimately end up just bearing witness to the proceedings while offering witlessly snide commentary and the occasional interjection from Wobbuffet. Don’t worry, Wobbuffet’s voice actor didn’t change. (It had always been Kayzie Rogers.)
  • Filling time. Here we have another case study in a 22-minute children’s program airing a “special” where proceedings are dragged out to an hour. With a plot this cliched, the last thing the writers need is more run-time to fill, but still we endure an interlude where Yung captures Ash’s Pikachu and tortures it in order to get information. Aghast, Professor Oak agrees to reveal the information peacefully. Why not just skip a step and torture Professor Oak? Oh, that’s too far? But it’s okay to torture animals in a cartoon for kids? I mean, they’re essentially cockfighting in the first place, so I guess we’ve already lost our innocence in that regard.
  • Predictable. Believe it or not, they go through this whole pretense where Dr. Yung has also been kidnapped by the nefarious Mirage Master, but it turns out he was REALLY DR. YUNG ALL ALONG! Of course he was. What would be the point of having two mirage experts, one of which only exists to wear a turtleneck badly and get captured? How else would he have been able to master the complicated mirage technology instantly? Why else would the compound have been equipped with mirage generating missiles, allowing the mirage pokemon to pursue our heroes outside of the compound? God, I can feel myself getting less cool with each word I write. But this whole charade also reveals a critical plot hole: after the dramatic revelation of the Mirage Master’s double identity, Oak blusters that it all makes perfect sense, given the fact that Yung was pushed out of the Pokemon Institute for unethical research practices. Oh, you didn’t think to mention that fun fact back when he invited you and a bunch of children to his mysterious lab facility?
  • Maudlin & hamfisted. The worst thing of all about this episode is that the thing that finally defeats Yung’s mirage pokemon is an intervention from floating cat fetus Mew, whose power is hastily explained as coming from the fact that he represents a merger between data and a “true soul.” You see, he didn’t meet Yung’s exacting requirements as a research subject and was left to dejectedly hang around the facility and suffer the occasional torrent of verbal abuse. Of course, the true-hearted Professor Oak recognized Mew’s inherent worth, and Ash nobly forced himself through a barrier of pure energy to save it from imprisonment, and the initially helpless and pathetic-seeming pokemon was really a big hero in the end. The exertion of fighting Yung’s powerful Mewtwo caused Mew to disintegrate, but we’ll “see him again someday.” None of this makes any goddamned sense at all, but it appeals to that same part of your brain that made you coo over Pikachu in the first place, assuming that cat fetuses are your thing.

Final Judgment: 1/10. Look, despite how it may seem, I don’t hate the Pokemon TV series. This was just an unusually bad episode, but it’s not really surprising that after ten years, everything starts to look a little threadbare, considering that the show was never high art to begin with. 

NEXT TIME: I was going to review The Bachelor, but I thought I’d go for something a bit more intellectually stimulating, so Scooby-Doo it is.

Case Study 65: Pokemon–“The Mastermind of Mirage Pokemon”

Case Study 64: Michiko & Hatchin, Episode 17–“Buckets of Blood! Opera that Stirs the Heart”

Original Airdate: February 11th, 2009 on Fuji TV

Hey, it’s been a long time since I’ve covered any anime on this blog. It’s not due to lack of interest—there’s tons of weird anime out there that would be perfect to immortalize alongside the likes of Manimal and Shnookums & Meat, but deep-cut anime is hard to find and is presumably of limited interest to an English-speaking audience. (Whereas every God-fearing man, woman and child is deeply invested in Manimal.) The good news is that every year the nice folks at Adult Swim dig up dubious truffles in the form of anime series that may or may not be suitable for children, including recent installments of the previously discussed Dragon Ball Z and Gundam franchises.

Strengths

  • Strong, compelling protagonists. Michiko (Monica Rial, Dragon Ball Z Kai) and Hatchin (Jad Saxton, Wolf Children) are a mother-daughter duo on the run from the law. Michiko has the street smart acumen of a hardened hustler combined with the tenacity, bravado, strength and sheer good luck of an action movie star. Minutes into the first episode, she escapes from prison and peppers a chopper with machine gun bullets before luring it into the path of a wind turbine. But the picaresque journey she embarks on over the course of 22 episodes is driven by sentimentality: after rescuing Hatchin from her luckless life in foster care, she’s determined to reunite with Hatchin’s father Hiroshi (Christopher Bevins, Dragon Ball Z: Bojack Unbound*) despite pesky rumors of his demise. She’d be a worthwhile heroine on her own, but when paired with the innocent and timid Hatchin, she’s dynamite. You could call this a coming-of-age story for Hatchin, but this usually implies a transition away from the innocent idylls of youth, and while Hatchin may be innocent, her youth was far from idyllic. Her foster family was in fact cartoonishly evil. Despite her hopeless situation, she was beginning to show signs of rebellion when Michiko literally crashed through the wall on her bad-ass motor scooter. (You can tell Michiko is cool because she makes a motor scooter look bad-ass.) By joining forces with Michiko, Hatchin is forced to reinvent herself all over again as Michiko’s sidekick. In fact, Hatchin isn’t even her real name—it’s a nickname Michiko gives her. Hatchin restrains Michiko to a certain extent, and Michiko draws Hatchin out. Together, they make an excellent pair, and protecting one another’s welfare consistently gives them a powerful motivation, especially in installments like this episode, where they’re temporarily separated. The upshot is that any given episode of this show builds on a very strong foundation.
  • Gender trouble at the Chinese opera. For no real reason other than to delight me, this episode hinges on one Nei Feng-Yi (John Burgmeier, Blue Gender), a Chinese opera star known for playing divas on the stage. (Chinese opera has a long tradition of cross-dressing.) Nei takes on the role of Good Samaritan when he intervenes on Michiko’s behalf after she runs afoul of the Heike Syndicate. Nei leaves Hatchin in the care of his son Bebel (Alexis Tipton, Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos.) Bebel wants to follow in Nei’s footsteps, which is the closest thing we get to an explanation for the fact that he dresses in girl’s clothing. He still identifies as male, and indignantly exposes himself to Hatchin when she thinks otherwise. Naturally, he’s preoccupied with the performance of femininity, and proceeds to beat Hatchin with a reed due to her mannish haircut and unladylike posture. So I guess I didn’t need to worry about whether this anime would be weird enough. I love how this show sits comfortably with the ambiguity and that no one is really bothered by Bebel, especially after Hatchin asserts herself in light of the reed-whipping. They could have chosen any type of character to rescue our heroines, and they chose to tell a deliciously queer story in that incidental space.
  • Thrilling action sequences. Of course, in the end Michiko ends up rescuing Nei. When Nei pleads for Michiko’s release with the Heike goon Edward (Chris Smith, Lego Batman: The Movie), Edward agrees to let Michiko go if she wins a game of chance. At first, they try a rock-paper-scissors deathmatch, but Michiko spoils that idea in a predictably violent fashion. The next idea is more insane by several degrees of magnitude: a game of chicken involving running as fast as you can on a steel beam welded to the roof of a building stretching out over the empty air. Nei bravely offers to do this in Michiko’s stead, and Edward agrees, but there’s a catch—Michiko is bound to him by rope as a counterweight. If Nei goes over the edge, they’ll both die. And he does go over the edge—but Michiko avoids going over by clinging to the girder with her assuredly rock-hard thighs. The rope snaps and Nei starts to fall—and Michiko catches the rope in her fucking teeth. The medium lends itself well to this kind of bravura. No stunt double has to put her life at risk and it costs just as much to animate as a sedate conversation in a quiet cafe. The great thing is that every episode has something equally outlandish, and it makes for exceptionally fun viewing.

*Sadly, this is not a Bojack Horseman cross-over.

Final Judgment: 8/10. You might be wondering how something with no weaknesses could have failed to achieve a perfect score. I usually watch a couple of episodes of any given show under review, and the thing is that Episode 16 was even better. I’d give that one a 10/10. So what’s missing? It’s really just that there was potential for more. There are no real thematics on this show and the stories are simplistic. This episode also spent a few minutes on a scene developing a larger story arc, and while that can pay off in dividends down the road, it can short-change an individual installment. Regardless, I wholeheartedly recommend Michiko.

NEXT TIME: I continue analyzing anime by taking on yet another super-franchise: Pokemon. Before you ask, this is not a several-weeks-too-late attempt to cash in on the Pokemon Go craze. I just do what the computer tells me, baby.

Case Study 64: Michiko & Hatchin, Episode 17–“Buckets of Blood! Opera that Stirs the Heart”