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Velma's greatest sin is abandoning the skeptical message


Velma’s greatest sin is abandoning the skeptical message

Of all the show’s problems, losing Scooby-Doo’s main plot is the worst.

Scooby-Doo and the gang first debuted on September 13, 1969, as part of the Saturday morning cartoon lineup for CBS. The original series, Scooby-Doo Where Are You! (curiously not asked as a question) aired for two seasons before cancellation in 1970, but the characters have endured for over 50 years in various spin-offs.

Conceived as a cross between the I Love a Mystery serials of the early 1940s and the CBS cartoon The Archie Show, Scooby-Doo as a series has always followed a similar format — Scooby, Fred, Daphne, Velma, and Shaggy travel across the world in their van, the Mystery Machine, solving mysteries which almost always end with the monster or ghost revealed to be just someone in a costume exploiting human credulity and local legends for ill-gotten gains. Oh, and Scooby-Doo is a talking dog.

Although the show was never intended to encourage critical thinking or inspire generations of skeptics, it has done both. So, does the most recent incarnation of the series, HBO Max’s Velma, carry on that legacy?

Velma's greatest sin is abandoning the skeptical message

No, it doesn’t. To put it bluntly, Velma sh*ts on the series’ legacy more than a non-house trained Scrappy-Doo. Critics have been trashing the show for various reasons, but lets focus on the difference between how Scooby-Doo Where Are You! deals with mysteries, uses its characters to solve them, and inspires critical thinking and skepticism in viewers, and how Velma doesn’t. After all, accidentally doing something well is arguably better than trying to do something but doing it poorly.

In the original series, Fred and Velma are very much the brains of the operation. Fred is the capable leader with a penchant for engineering traps, and Velma is the one who more often than not puts all the pieces together and explains how they solved the mystery. Anyone can recognize a clue when they find it, but Velma is portrayed as the real detective. Scooby and Shaggy always end up being the bait, luring the crook into the trap. Unfortunately, Daphne doesn’t really do a whole lot except fall into traps or get caught by the monster, earning her the nickname “danger prone Daphne”.

Wherever they go, the Mystery Inc. gang are constantly stumbling into mysteries and, with the exception of scaredy-cats Scooby and Shaggy, they jump at the chance to help people and solve the mystery because it’s what they do. They make solving mysteries cool. They make wanting to help people cool.

With the exception of several movies (e.g. Scooby-Doo and the Ghoul School, Scooby-Doo and the Reluctant Werewolf, Scooby-Doo Meets the Boos Brothers, etc.) and the Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo TV show, the paranormal is always explained as superstition and chicanery. This is a big deal, because it would’ve been so much easier to write stories with real monsters. Instead, the ghost or ghoul is just a guy in a mask and the heroes are a bunch of “meddling kids and their dog.”

So what sets Velma apart from the rest? For one, it takes the established character dynamics and turns them on their heads. There is no Scooby-Doo in this Scooby-Doo spin-off series. That’s not unheard of, but it’s also not something fans wanted. Fred is a misogynist, spoiled rich kid who is quite literally helpless. Shaggy, er, “Norville” pretty much does nothing except pine for Velma the entire time. Velma is supposed to love mysteries, but honestly, the show rarely has her doing much of any solving. Instead, she spends her time being both self-centered and self-loathing, while simultaneously envious and resentful towards others.

Surprisingly, the one character who ends up being the most interesting and sympathetic, and who does more mystery solving than Velma, is Daphne. The show even takes the moniker of “danger prone Daphne” and turns it into something more positive, in the sense that Daphne is a risk-taker and adrenaline junkie.

Since Velma is supposed to be an origin story, we’ve got to talk about the central conflict which sets the story’s events into motion. Velma’s mother, Diya, was an author of mystery novels and shared that love with her daughter. After her mother mysteriously disappeared, Velma became plagued by guilt, and began experiencing panic attacks and hallucinations any time the subject of mysteries came up. The show pushes Velma to get back into solving mysteries by introducing a murder in the first episode, in which Velma is suspected as the culprit. The tension doesn’t last, though, because by the second episode no one considers her guilty and her attention shifts to solving the mystery of her mom’s disappearance.

Despite that premise, Velma isn’t really about mysteries. Most of the time the characters are insulting each other or behaving like sociopathic narcissists, like if Seinfeld were written badly. Sadly, any moments of creative brilliance are short-lived. There is an interesting story and compelling mystery in the show, but creators Mindy Kaling and Charlie Grandy don’t seem interested in telling it. Too much time is spent trying to offend and make witty meta-commentary, rather than actually advancing any plot.

It’s not really clear who the intended audience of Velma was. It certainly wasn’t written for kids, and was pitched as an “adult animation project”. This is sad in a way, because children are not only the ones who most need to learn how to think critically and apply skepticism, they’re the ones who are most able to. Adults tend to be set in their ways and bring many more biases and preconceptions to the table, making it harder to maintain an open mind and not theorize before one has data. Velma could’ve appealed to an older demographic with a darker tone, like The CW series Riverdale or Netflix’s Fear Street, but ultimately it would rather spend time trying to convince you that it’s “not like other shows” than actually offer anything worthwhile.

Velma math

The math is wrong, too.

Ultimately, Velma tries to be too many things to get any one of them right — it’s not funny enough to be an effective comedy, and it meanders too much to be an effective mystery. I seriously doubt anyone is going to be talking about it decades from now as having inspired them to solve mysteries or think scientifically, unless they try to solve the mystery of why this show is so terrible. If you want a more modern take on the Scooby-Doo franchise that keeps mysteries front and center, while playing with the dynamics between characters, check out Scooby Doo! Mystery Incorporated, or the criminally underrated Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!

Every February, to help celebrate Darwin Day, the Science section of AIPT cranks up the critical thinking for SKEPTICISM MONTH! Skepticism is an approach to evaluating claims that emphasizes evidence and applies the tools of science. All month we’ll be highlighting skepticism in pop culture, and skepticism *OF* pop culture. 

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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